The Revolt of the Pendulum

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Authors: Clive James
on the grounds that those who had never believed in it could not
have been serious. It was as if Amis had come to find a reasonable position so boring that mania was more interesting. In his long-running friendship and verse-trading double-act with Robert
Conquest, the zealot was Kingers, not Conkers. Conquest, whose book The Great Terror probably did more than any other single publication from either side of the Iron Curtain to bring down
the Soviet Union, was unfailingly polite in controversy. Amis accused honest men of bad faith. This book does not record how thoroughly Amis managed to alienate Karl Miller – who had once
given Take a Girl Like You one of its most thoughtful notices – by calling him a Communist sympathiser. It might usefully have done so. Miller was only one among many admirers of Amis
who were forced to conclude that his public stance had become explicable only by pathology.
    Amis the erstwhile enchanter developed a strange capacity to alienate anyone, almost as if he wished to. The notorious incident when he managed to drive Julian Barnes and Pat Kavanagh from the
dinner table is recorded here. Pat Kavanagh, who had spent most of her life in protesting exile from apartheid in her home country, was not disposed to hear Amis’s late-festering opinions
about how the blacks were ruining South Africa. He even developed similar opinions about Jews, though he must have known that this was a form of intellectual suicide.
    Proof that he knew this was provided by Martin Amis’s story, told in his book Experience and duly rehearsed here, of how, after reading aloud from the passage in Primo Levi about
the deportees drying their babies’ nappies beside the train tracks, he turned around and found his father in tears. To tell this story was a decisive intervention, on the son’s part, in
the father’s legend: and was no doubt meant to be. The stakes were high. Without that moment, a saving grace might have been lost to history. The anecdote gives some much-needed evidence for
what must surely have been the truth: that Amis had turned against himself deliberately. A drunken man may speak with a brutality towards nuance that the same man sober wouldn’t put up with.
Amis’s plain aim was to attain that condition even between drinks. Since a civilised mentality consists entirely of nuance, for its possessor to attack his own subtlety is the sign of a war
within. What was the war within Kingsley Amis all about?
    With due allowance for the requirement that we should be fair to Jane – she never stole him, he made a free choice – it seems fair to guess that the troubled grandee came to
disapprove of his own conduct. The artist who invented Sir Roy Vandervane well understood how a figure of achievement could be propelled into stupidity by the anguish of passing time. But Amis, in
his second marriage, was no philanderer. There could have been several reasons for that. As any man can note by keeping an eye on the divorces in his generation, the second marriage has to work.
But Amis’s anxieties with Jane weren’t centred on the strain of being faithful. They were centred on the loss of desire. The fiction told the truth, and nowhere more conspicuously than
in Jake’s Thing , where the erstwhile cavalier ends up wearing a dinky little rubber ring to measure the flaccidity of the lance he had once followed into action.
    For Jake’s creator, the consequences of blaming himself for that indignity would have been drastic. He would have had to admit that he had come to such a pass all for the sake of a passing
fancy. The answer was to blame her, a message he wrapped up by blaming women in general. In the strict sense, this was a turn-up for the books. Attacking one of his own best qualities, he produced,
in the later novels from Stanley and the Women onwards, passages that made you wonder whether he was the same man who wrote the earlier ones. Surely the answer was that he wasn’t. In
matters of

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