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Part 3: Destabilising Comic Boundaries

Come(dies) of Ageism: Kingsley Amis’s Barmy, Old Devils

Vieux endiablés et déjantés ou la comédie du troisième âge chez Kingsley Amis
Georges Letissier


Kingsley Amis semble être un peu tombé dans l’oubli aujourd’hui, son nom évoque l’image un peu caricaturale d’un écrivain réactionnaire, réfractaire à toute innovation romanesque. Pourtant Amis sénior demeure encore à ce jour une figure majeure du comique anglais, entre réalisme caustique et satire sociale. Son roman The Old Devils est une des rares fictions de veine comique à s’être vu attribuée le Booker-McConnell Prize – devenu le Man Booker – et c’est également l’une de ses œuvres majeures. En reprenant le thème de la vieillesse The Old Devils (1986) retrouve le court roman Ending Up (1974) qui retraçait sur le mode tragi-comique les derniers jours d’un groupe de vieillards vivant en communauté, ou presque, dans une petite maison isolée. Cet article propose une relecture des deux romans, qui par ailleurs figurent dans les bibliographies des Ageing studies dans le monde anglo-saxon, à la lumière de l’étude d’Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In, On Comedy (2008) pour en faire ressortir d’autres potentialités de sens. Au lieu de s’en tenir à un message réformiste, à l’instar de la satire horatienne, ou encore à une invitation pour faire contre mauvaise fortune bon cœur, il est suggéré qu’Amis démontre l’increvable désir de durer de vieillards, excessifs et scandaleux, jusqu’au bout. Plutôt que d’agir comme un salutaire rappel qu’il est présomptueux de prétendre s’aventurer par-delà ce qui est humainement possible, la comédie du troisième âge chez Amis met en avant l’imprévisibilité du Réel. C’est l’irruption de cet aléatoire, souvent hilarant, qui renouvelle la figure du comicum senex.

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1Choosing to write on Kingsley Amis could be the first joke. After all, the man, or at least his public persona, has often been derided. Indeed, Amis senior is in many respects the typical illustration of the reactionary oldster:

  • 1 Matthew Walther, ‘“Return of the Kingsley” America gets introduced to the original Amis’ in The Ame (...)

Amis’s loyalty to the Crown was absolute. He even claimed to have had wet dreams about Queen Elizabeth II, all of which consisted of him throwing an eager hand upon Her Majesty’s royal bosom and her responding, “No, Kingsley, we mustn’t.” He called Margaret Thatcher “one of the best looking women I had ever met” and compared seeing her in person to “looking at a science-fiction illustration of the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2220.”1

  • 2 Quoted in John Banville’s introduction to The Old Devils, New York: New York Review Books, 2012, vi (...)

2To make things worse, selecting Amis for a volume devoted to laughter and comedy may be a risky joke as the man regularly took the flak for his lack of tolerance on nearly every contemporary issue. In 1967 he published in The Sunday Telegraph an essay titled ‘Why Lucky Jim Turned Right’, in which he ran down the so-called ‘Lefties’ for buying ‘unexamined the abortion-divorce-homosexuality-censorship-racialism-marijuana package.’2 His misogyny comes out blatantly in the coda of his novel Jake’s Thing, a fiction on male impotence, and a forerunner of the ‘ladlit’ subgenre, in which the eponymous character runs through all the stereotypes of female shortcomings, trotting out the crassest male chauvinistic clichés to account for his own personal incapacity. From a literary standpoint, Amis would be a pale copy of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, let alone P.G. Wodehouse. This being said, there are regular attempts to drag Amis from the pit of critical oblivion and this article may count as one.

3Over the last twenty years, some major critical works have contributed to spreading a more balanced view of Amis, by owning up to the diversity of his output, poised on the wafer-thin borderline between comic realism and moral satire. Paul Fussell in the Anti-Egoist diagnosed the ‘no-nonsense can-the bullshit tone’ to be found in many of Amis’s novels, Gavin Keulks contrasted Kingsley and Martin Amis’s fiction writing, seeing the use of ‘restrained Horatian’ (160) satire in the former and of postmodern Menippean satire in the latter and Richard Bradford in The Odd Couple explored the curious friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, the mimic jester and Tory boozer, with a limitless taste for adultery, on the one hand and the glum, misanthropic monkish librarian on the other. In itself, the sharp contrast between the two would be a fit illustration of the intensification of character which comedy often thrives upon, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy affording the most blatant paradigm of such ill-matched, albeit infectiously funny, pairing.

4Kingsley Amis probably ranks among the few writers to have been awarded the Booker-McConnell Prize (as it was known then) for a fiction that was advertised as a comedy. When The Old Devils received the Booker in 1986 it came as something of a surprise, because it was generally acknowledged then that Amis senior had been well past his best before The Old Devils came out and that the booze was beginning to take its toll on his health and to rob him of his wit and charm. However, there is a return of Kingsley today, probably at the same time as there is a return to more traditional forms of story-telling, away from the vagaries of audacious experimental writing, even if there is still some of that too, witness David Mitchell’s multiplotted Cloud Atlas, staging in one of its narrative strands a group of elderlies boisterously escaping from the nursing home that had become too cramped for their cravings.

5“In many ways, The Old Devils returned to the thematic topography of Kingley’s earlier book about aging, Ending up”, writes Keulks (212). Unsurprisingly, both novels feature prominently on the reading lists of Studies of Ageism, an all-encompassing field of research including disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, gerontology, law, psychology and so forth. The political correctness of the whole enterprise, and the implicit self-righteousness underpinning it, would no doubt have irked Amis senior, who liked his doddery old folks to be outrageous and over the top, seeing them more as senile delinquents making life hell to the younger ones, than as the silent, helpless victims of scapegoating and stereotyping. However, ageism may also be regarded as a form of empowerment as it sets the aged ones’ perspective at the centre of the focus of perception, displacing the more trendy cult of youth and performance. Ours is indeed the age which, according to Alenka Zupančič in The Odd One In, On Comedy, sees the triumph of bio-morality: ‘If the imperative of happiness is one of the key means of expanding and solidifying this ideological hegemony, one cannot avoid the question of whether promoting comedy is not part of the same process. Is comedy about cheerfulness, satisfaction, and “positive feelings”?’(7) In this tight relationship between comedy and ideology: ‘Comedy is a genre that strongly emphasizes our essential humanity […] with all our faults, imperfections, and weaknesses, and it helps us to deal affirmatively and joyfully with the human finitude.’ (47) But what if old age is presented as undignified, outrageous, rebellious and contentious, what if it fails to endorse affirmatively and joyfully the concept of human finitude? As happened for the word ‘queer’, the semantic of ageism can be turned on its head, starting as a byword for the stigma affecting the elderly it may subsequently turn into a banner flaunting pride in being over the hill, and not necessarily past it.

6The purpose of this paper is therefore to argue that Kingsley Amis both throws out of kilter and empowers the prototypical image of the comicum senex, without giving up on the bond between comedy and old age. He is probably by no means the only writer to do that, but he did it quite early, after all Ending up dates back to 1974. Now that Kingsley Amis’s humanistic moral message has been repeatedly reminded, hasn’t the time come to point to what might count as his best achievements in the realm of the comical? It is probably to be found in these passages where gerontological excesses cannot be channeled into any overarching bio-moral template, when it is not amenable to the tyranny of the feel-good factor. Amis could then be construed as affording an illustration of what Zupančič, quoting Alain Badiou on Beckett, calls: ‘l’increvable désir […] l’increvable désir refers to desire that will not die, or “snuff it”’ (217). The fundamental incongruence between the reality of desire—or rather drive—and the incontrovertible limitations caused by senescence would in this perspective energise the more efficient passages in Amis senior’s geriatric fictions. Comedy would thus stem from the cut and the short-circuit between this increvable désir and the all-absorbing determination of the Real, when mankind, to quote Shakespeare, is nearing the ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ stage (As You Like It, Act II, scene vii, 166). For want of laughing out loud, readers are likely to laugh up their sleeves, and possibly on the other side of their face too. This study will follow three successive steps, first a rapid overview of the comedic treatment of old age in literature, prior to the publication of Amis’s old age novels and also by taking on board the way in which these two novels renewed the theme, then a rapid survey of Alenka Zupančič’s The Odd One In. On Comedy and how relevant this reflection is when applied to Amis. Finally, in the last section, it will be argued that the English novelist outlines a new take on the link between old age and comedy, which may be summarised through the very words Slavoj Žižek uses in The Absolute Recoil when he analyses Zupančič’s work in the following terms: ‘the obscene persistence of life just going on, not even ready to follow its natural path and dissolve itself in death’, before wondering whether comedy is not ‘the supreme case of a downward negation of negation’ (340).

Old Age in Comedies and Kingsley Amis’s Comedies of Old Age

  • 3 See Cheryl A. Groeneveld, ‘Foreigners in their Own Country’: The Struldbruggs and the Changing Lang (...)

7As anyone familiar with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or at least its film adaptation, will know, the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics dedicated to comedy and laughter is irretrievably lost (Zupančič 3). Fortunately, Greek comedies have been passed on to us. In Aristophanes’ The Wasps, old age is called up through risible features. Before his rejuvenation Philocleon is plagued with the usual symptoms associated with senility: obsessional thinking, irregular sleep, paranoia, poor hygiene and a passion for hoarding. A form of essentialisation was entailed by the wearing of masks characteristic through their dissimilarity, with the left brow smooth and the right brow raised, so that the appropriate side could be turned to the audience according to the situation (Webster 122). With Plautus’ Roman comedy, the senex, from the senex iratus (the angry old man), to the senex credulus (the gullible old man) and the senex amator—the old man incurring his wife’s wrath for being enamoured of his son’s beloved—, senescence was the common denominator with each time a different comical inflection providing a whole array of stock characters. Greco-Roman antiquity thus introduced a whole set of caricatures, from the lecherous, dirty old man to the toothless, ugly old crone. These freakish creatures were much later taken up in the English Restoration comedy. Crabbed old age was indeed the butt of sarcasm and senility made for slapstick, with drunken fools, doddering imbeciles and elderly lechers cuckolded by their young wives. William Makepeace Thackeray captured something of the comic spirit at work in William Congreve’s plays when he exclaimed: ‘Look! how old age tries to meddle with merry sport! Beat him with his own crutch. The wrinkled old dotard’ (Thackeray 25). In a slightly different perspective the Struldbruggs in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels have long been seen as a satire on the heretical desire for immortality, coupled with a denunciation of the new fascination for ever-increasing longevity at the beginning the eighteenth century (Swift 200–206). The fact that in spite of all the clichés of old age present in Swift’s prose, there may be found a more complex message on aging is evidenced by the interest this passage has aroused in the field of critical gerontology.3 And to conclude this section, The Aged P in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations affords a typical gargoyle, or a narrative offshoot, providing comic relief in a predominantly gloomy novel. Instead of insisting on the sentimentalisation of old age, it is more interesting to see the Aged Parent as an illustration of ‘this short circuit that constitutes the peak of comedy’ (Zupančič 19). When Wemmick’s father prepares breakfast it is not so much his awkward gestures and his shaking movements that are exposed as the fact that he is himself turning into a buttered toast: ‘that excellent old gentleman was so intent upon it that he seemed to me in danger of melting his eyes . . . . The Aged prepared such a haystack of buttered toast, that I could scarcely see over it as it simmered on an iron stand hooked on to the top-bar’ (Dickens 224). The old man is simmering himself into a toast, as it were, and finishes up in such a greasy state that ‘he might have passed for some clean old chief of savage tribe, just oiled’ (Dickens 225). Some form of Absolute—here this transmogrification—is set in the mundane, the immanent, the material, and the oddity of it all is of course highly entertaining.

8Kingsley Amis’s comedy owes much to Fielding, Dickens and later Wodehouse, by emphasising bold and ironic good humour. Indeed, if life is a pretty absurd game and mankind characterised by its grotesqueries, absurdities and shams, laughter rather than tears is the better equipped surgeon. Like John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair, Paul Bailey’s At the Jerusalem, William Trevor’s The Old Boys and of course Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, both Ending up and The Old Devils represent communities of senior citizens. In the former, the community is more like a commune, because the five wrinklies, who had been more or less linked to one another through different networks of connections in the past, have now come to share the same house, Tupppeny-hapenny Cottage, a rickety dwelling place whose state of worsening disrepair is a fit correlative for the worsening conditions of its denizens. In the second novel, the community is made up of retired Welsh pensioners who do little else than drink heavily, the men in the back room of the Bible and Crown Pub, their spouses in the privacy of home by sending each other invitations to consume bottle after bottle of assorted wines. The elderly ladies speak about their marriages and sex whilst exchanging titbits of gossip. Much of the conversations revolve around slipping dentures, dietary restrictions, dwindling physical energies and no detail is spared about the time spent in the toilet, whether success is finally attained or deferred to the next visit. The bond between the two novels has of course been underscored: ‘Like those doomed denizens of the ramshackle cottage, these old devils are bedeviled by worries and fears of all kinds that deepen their uncertainty about life and increase their preoccupation with the past’, writes Dale Salwak for example (246). Another characteristic they share is the absence of a central hero narrator. Ending up, a novella, consists of forty vignettes, all connected together tightly like a film script or a radio play, with one event leading inexorably to another. The shifts in point of view and the rapid cutting from one scene to the next together with the sparseness of details contributes to the balletic and operatic model Amis wanted to achieve: ‘solo arias, duets, trios, choruses, as the characters separate and rejoin on their various short-range errands’ (Gardner 99). Similarly, The Old Devils dispenses with any central narrative agency by introducing many different characters and their stories diverging, interweaving and dovetailing into each other. The main diegetic thrust is afforded by the return to Wales of Alun Weaver, a writer and media figure, who made a reputation for himself on the coattails of a celebrated Welsh poet, named Brydan in the novel, and who is unmistakably based on Dylan Thomas. Rhiannon, his wife, was once the belle in the local community. Their return revives memories of youthful liaisons and indiscretions, a situation that is compounded when the egotistical Alun sets out to re-woo the three women he had affairs with in the old days. Needless to say, these two comedies are of a serious kind, even if they also comprise episodes which are over the top and infused with wry and vitriolic causticity. Of Ending up Jonathan Raban tersely remarked that it was ‘not so much about old age as about the problem of why people bother to get born at all’ (qtd. in McDermott, 176) and of The Old Devils the critic John McDermott bluntly commented that ‘though life doesn’t stop at 60 perhaps it should’ (221).

The Cracks in Human Finitude Affording Opportunities for Comedies

9Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Alenka Zupančič, a follower of Slavoj Žižek, set out to study comedy to tease out the philosophical content that this often disregarded, or underrated genre, may disclose. The guidelines of her essay have proved useful to formulate the following remarks. Zupančič starts from the refusal to limit comedy, or rather the comical, to the materialistic level exclusively, in a monological and non-dialectical way. Comedy cannot be confined to ‘the mud, the dirt, dense and coarse reality as our ultimate horizon (which we need to accept), as a condition of our life’ (47). According to the largely endorsed perspective Zupančič takes issue with, comedy is said to thrive on the mundane and on the potentially debasing and humiliating experiences of daily life; the paradigmatic example being the politician proudly walking towards the rostrum, slipping on a banana skin and falling flat on his face. Seen this way, comedy would both entertain and teach humility. The relevance to old age of such an approach is easy to extrapolate: all the comical incidents of daily life, the slapstick routine of spilled cups as a result of shaking, of stumbling on the doormat out of absent-mindedness or of inadvertently causing havoc due to an unfortunate gesture triggering a concatenation of knock-on effects, all these mishaps would serve as useful, albeit potentially hilarious, reminders that self-deprecation and self-derision are best suited to the last phase of life, when the expression ‘human finitude’ ceases to be a metaphysical concept to become a tangible prospect. Coming to terms with one’s faults, imperfections and weaknesses, putting a brave, and if possible amused or bemused, face on such minor, embarrassing incidents would be deemed appropriate given the circumstances. Laughing away the hitches and glitches partakes of the gradual self-effacement that is expected of old age: ‘it helps us [in our dotage] to deal affirmatively and joyfully with the burden of human finitude’ (47). Zupančič points out that a lot of critical philosophical work has been dedicated lately to undermining the metaphysics of infinity and transcendence. She identifies what she labels ‘metaphysics of finitude’ (48) as being possibly our contemporary great narrative. What she calls the ‘psychotheology of everyday life’ (48) has become our homespun philosophy, with finitude appearing as a consolation for, or explanation of, our little (or not so little) disappointments and misfortunes. Psychotheology would be ‘a new Master Signifier summoned to make sense of our (“acknowledged”) senseless existence’ (48). Admittedly, old age retirement, cut off as it is from the cycle of productive life, would be the privileged locus of this necessary recognition of one’s fallibility in a world offering no escape route. Comedy, which in this context appears as driven towards pathos, softens up the necessary process of reconciliation with inescapable human finitude. This is precisely this irenic, conciliatory approach to the comical, dictated by the necessity for resignation, which Zupančič objects to:

The prizing of comedy as a porte-parole of human finitude (and of everything that is supposed to be related to it: acceptance of our weaknesses, limitations, and imperfections; reconciliation with the absence of the transcendent and acknowledgment of the equation ‘a human is [only] a human’, ‘life is [only] life’) is conceptually highly problematic[…] If humans were ‘only human(s)’ (and life ‘only life’), if the human equation indeed added up so neatly and with no remainder, there would be no comedy. (49, original emphasis)

10Instead of being assimilated with the metaphysics of the finite, the true comical would, according to Zupančič, always be a ‘physics of the infinite’ (50). But this infinite is by no means a form of spiritualism or a transcendental other, it is steeped in the materialism of human life itself. It lies in the Real, with a capital R in the Lacanian acceptation, signifying that which escapes symbolisation, and pertains to the Aristotelian tyche, i.e. chance in its contingent, intractable course. So the idea that comedy is subservient to a heart-stirring humanism, by owning up to one’s weaknesses and flaws, is replaced by the assumption that it thrives on failed finitude. Not only are we not infinite but we are not even finite. There is a hole in finitude and it is from this chasm that the comical emerges. Instead of fostering a process of reconciliation with finitude, comedy would display the cracks in mundane realities and rather than constantly acting as a reminder that one cannot venture beyond the limits of what is humanly possible, it would suggest that the Real, in its sheer unpredictability, is always ‘that the impossible happens’ (51, original emphasis).

Kingsley Amis’s Bedeviled Devils

11To what extent are the above remarks pertinent to the bedeviled devils in their ‘whole hideous inverted childhood’, to quote Philip Larkin’s celebrated poem ‘The Old Fools’? The eponymous old devils of Amis’s novel carry out to the letter the departure from moderate, balanced reasonableness that is the hallmark of comedy. In his introduction to the 2012 re-edition of The Old Devils, John Banville remarks that ‘In this novel, drink, sex, and death dance a merry round’ (xi), and one of the old cronies elucidates the novel’s title in the following terms: ‘Forgotten the harmony, forgotten how the part went, but you’ve still got it, it’s still there. Very much the […] Ah, here we are, there you are, you old devils, you’ (128). Through their anomic boisterousness the retired pensioners embody a trivialised, modernised version of Dionysian libations in the Welsh suburbia of the early eighties. There is no room for Apollonian harmony and not the merest attempt to pay lip service to the pre-written script of old age. The blunt assertion of a vital present: ‘you’ve still got it, it’s still there’ is crucial to the comical because it precludes any whiff of nostalgia. The idea of desecration is implied through the pub’s name, the Bible and Crown, and the quotidian boozing sessions the old men indulge in flout the scriptures: ‘Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love and in steadfastness’ (Titus 2: 2). Likewise, the womenfolk by sipping Soave Superiore (DOC) in one-and-a-half liter bottles that get emptied at alarming speed, blatantly disregard the New Testament urging older women to ‘be in behavior as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine’ (Titus 2: 3). If The Old Devils describes a stroll down Memory Lane, it is an unruly one, commented on in no uncertain terms by the younger ones: ‘Men that age, you’d think they’d have learnt how to behave by this time’ (114), or through a reversal of the set formula: ‘crabbed youth has got to make allowances for the impetuous excesses of age’ (133). Oscar Wilde’s epigrammatic, aphoristic prose finds in Amis senior’s writing a grotesque deflation, when an elderly bloke goes through an epiphanic moment of philosophical inspiration: ‘from round about seventy, all those years of maturity or the prime of life or whatever you call it looked like an interval between two bouts of vomiting’ (131). From the puke of the mewling infant to the elderly spewing in his cups, the human is depicted in a kind of excess over itself, probably in more senses than one. Such Bakhtinian emphasis on the low functions have of course been analysed previously through their relationship with the comic. What should be underscored here is that the Rabelaisian streak pushes the representation of middle class senior citizens out of the frame of respectability in a most undignified way. There is none of the rebellious drive energising the carnivalesque in its iconoclastic stance. Amis’s elderlies can be barefacedly obnoxious and crassly reactionary, and not necessarily dismissed as the dregs of mankind for all these reasons.

12Lack of fit between two different, incompatible realities is a standard device of the comical. In Amis’s fictions of old age, it contributes to unhinging stable definitions of gerontology. The inclusion of heterogeneity in the immanence of a given situation makes for a liberating opening of horizons. The improbable joint articulation of two levels of reality is potentially comical and inebriating, especially in the ever shrinking context of aging. In Ending Up, two old men, Bernard Bastable, a former officer and Shorty, his one-time subaltern and past lover, enjoy playing school-boyish pranks, the former for instance by pouring warm urine over his drunkenly sleeping mate to make him believe his incontinence is worsening. What is also comical is the impossible sustained encounter between two excluding realities when Bastable mentally goes through the charade of military tactics and strategy in his perception of casual, daily conversations: ‘Bernard’s reply would have reached the rearmost file of a battalion in column, had one been arrayed before him; even Shorty was impressed’ (112).

13Character is of course the prominent form taken by the comical. Paradoxically, whereas comedy is mainly a dialogical genre relying on the quick-paced exchange of cues, the type of characters who are the most readily remembered are precisely those who are fundamentally monological. Through their long-winded obsessional speeches, they reveal the bee in their bonnet, or to quote Walter Benjamin their einziger Zug, or ‘single trait’ (Zupančič 66). Oddly, Amis, who learnt from Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse the importance of capturing character through dialogue, uses speech to mark the disjunction, or lack of connectivity, between the living spirit and the automatism of language. Instead of assuming that language is the means used by our inner thoughts and feelings to express themselves, Amis details the two-way operations between thoughts and their utterances and from their mutual exchanges or disruptions obtains comical effects. This process is exemplified through Marigold Pyke in Ending up. Marigold offers the perfect linguistic illustration of the fact that with age ‘the bits that were you/ Start speeding away from each other for ever’, as Philip Larkin put it in ‘The Old Fools.’ What started off as social affectation or flirtatious inflection in her elocution has now become fixated through the most irritating habit of rhyming words indiscriminately: ‘sweetle peetles’, ‘trackle pickle’, ‘drinkle-pinkle’, ‘bootle-pootles’, ‘tunkalunks’ for thanks and ‘she had once had a checkle peckle returned by her bank because it had been made out for five poundies’ (31). Such verbal tics, which could go on and on, almost independently of Marigold’s presence, as ‘they turned up out of nothing more than force of habit, not consciously intended by her’ (31) are a good example of the indestructability of comedy and of its increvable iterativeness.


  • 4 Letter to Dale Salwak written on April 13th, 1973 in The Letters of Kingsley Amis edited by Zachary (...)

14Ending a paper on Ending up and over-sixties devilish wrinklies might smack of decay, bare tree stumps and falling dead leaves. Both Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’ and Kingsley Amis’s Ending up and The Old Devils evince a real concern with old age and mortality. Amis’s distinctive mark may lie in his empowerment and voicing of his aged protagonists. This choice to espouse the outlook of aged people makes his fiction-writing relevant to the humanistic agenda of ageism: ‘It’s about five particular people who wouldn’t be behaving as they do if they weren’t old’,4 Amis wrote in a letter. Both novels hardly accommodate the bio-morality ethics, whose extensive exploitation Zupančič sees in comedies propounding a heart-stirring humanism pleading for an acceptance of our flaws and limitations through cathartic, therapeutic laughter. Amis senior who was often reported to stubbornly defend unsavoury ideas in his old age, also opened new paths for humorous, comical or acerbic representations of agedness. The endings of both The Old Devils and Ending up introduce the unpredictable tyche, as a last revenge on a set destiny whose pre-written script could only be thwarting and a source of immeasurable fictional frustration. The Old Devils mixes up different recipes for novel endings, incurring the risk of narrative déjà vu in the process. First, it cynically disposes of one of the main characters, Alun Weaver, who dies an accidental, undignified death by choking on his whisky and water and falling forward as a result of a stroke, and then it stages a wedding among the new generation in the best tradition of Shakespearean comedies. Such half-baked, multiple endings might at best be deemed to shun any one-track determinism. More interesting is the closure of Ending up, by far the more narratively constrained of the two novels, closed off as it is on all sides by the claustrophobic interior of Tupppeny-hapenny Cottage. By introducing the Aristotelian tyche, i.e. the unthought within thought, the unchosen within choice, the passive within agency (which entails that the action is to remain hence unremembered within memory), the novel short-circuits the possibility of denouement through a sudden diegetic cut. Bernard Bastable’s latest schoolboyish prank to victimise his fellow lodgers is ironically the cause of his death when he falls from the ladder he had scaled to cut the telephone wires into the cottage. Marigold takes a fearsome tumble down the stairway after forgetting to step over the dog’s tennis ball. Shorty, in half drunken stupor, mistakes a lethal potion for the medicine he was supposed to take. Another character returning from shopping, on seeing her co-lodgers dead or dying, expires on the spot, and the last remaining victim unable to walk due to paralysis, dies of starvation. One critic, James Gindin, commented on this total finality in the following terms:

painful farce; the comically restricted controls that would forestall death turn into its accidental agents. There is no appeal, rescue, transcendence or consolation that is entirely closed, both literally and metaphorically. Although a few of the voices share the comic malice, pain and dyspepsia of Evelyn Waugh, Amis’s perspective provides nothing outside, no eternal fall, no cultural meaning, no martyrdom, no transmission of anything to the next generation and no cultural doom. (Qtd. in Salwak 194)

15The supreme—and ultimate—case of a downward negation of negation!

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1 Matthew Walther, ‘“Return of the Kingsley” America gets introduced to the original Amis’ in The American Conservative, September 19, 2012. Retrieved on 09/10/2015. Web. For Amis’s laudatory comment on Margaret Thatcher see also Kingsley Amis, Memoirs, New York: Summit Books, 1990, 316.

2 Quoted in John Banville’s introduction to The Old Devils, New York: New York Review Books, 2012, viii.

3 See Cheryl A. Groeneveld, ‘Foreigners in their Own Country’: The Struldbruggs and the Changing Language of Aging in Swift’s World, unpublished dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst, May 2007.

4 Letter to Dale Salwak written on April 13th, 1973 in The Letters of Kingsley Amis edited by Zachary Leader, London: HarperCollins, 2000, 754.

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Georges Letissier, « Come(dies) of Ageism: Kingsley Amis’s Barmy, Old Devils »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 27 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Georges Letissier

Georges Letissier is professor of English Literature at Nantes University, France. He has published articles both in French and in English, in France and abroad (Aracne, Palgrave Macmillan, Rodopi, Routledge, Dickens Quarterly) on Victorian literature (C. Dickens, G. Eliot, W. Morris, C. Rossetti) and on contemporary British fiction (P. Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt, A. Gray, A. Hollinghurst, L.  Norfolk, I. McEwan, G. Swift, S. Waters, J. Winterson). He has published a monograph on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Éditions du Temps, 2005). He has edited a volume entitled Rewriting, Reprising: Plural Intertextualities (Cambridge Scholars, 2009) and co-edited with Michel Prum a book on Darwin’s legacy in European cultures (l’Harmattan 2010). He has worked extensively on Dickens and After Dickens recently whilst keeping a keen interest in the most recent developments in contemporary British fiction-writing. His interest in Ford Madox Ford as a hinge between late Victorianism and Modernism has been unflagging over the years and he has recently submitted a chapter on Dickens read by Ford: “Between the English nuvvle and the Novel of Aloofness: Charles Dickens’s Proto-(High) Modernism” to be published by Ashgate.

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