Sexism or Irony? | Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis
I discovered the writing of Martin Amis before that of his father; being a literary autodidact, one might suppose that this was the wrong way around. Like an essential familiarity with the American Beat Poets of the 1960’s, I should have been aware of the Angry Young Men of 1950’s Britain. I offer my age as a defence, and media exposure to the post-post-modernists (Amis the son, Haruki Marukami, Jonathan Lethem and company) meant that Martin Amis’ novel “London Fields” practically leaped off the shelves of my local bookstore and into my hand. Once I discovered that Martin came from illustrious literary stock, I found and devoured three Kingsley novels: “Lucky Jim”, “The Old Devils” and “Take a Girl Like You”, all of which satisfied my need for rhythm and refinement of language, crisply-constructed plot, characters who may not be likable but are somewhat relatable, and the added bonus of an alcohol-soaked dose of black humour. Throw in an era of which I have no personal experience and a country that is mine by birthright but still at times of a strange foreignness, and I decided that Kingsley was easily the equal of his son. I must here admit that I have read all of Amis the Younger’s books, but only the abovementioned Amis the Elder’s books until now.
The reason for this personal preface is to impart my state of mind when approaching a new novel by Kingsley Amis. New only to me; Stanley and the Women was released to the world in 1984, the year after I returned from a delightful year at primary school in Cambridge, England, cementing my desire to return to the United Kingdom in the misty future of adulthood. I wanted to like this novel; I was primed for 300 pages of witticisms and pithy observations from the midst of Thatcher’s England. The writing was as economical and carelessly brilliant as I had expected it to be, imparting the feeling of anecdotes related by an articulate friend over a martini or three. Early on in the novel, I even paused my reading to note a particularly evocative place description, not for the poetry of the language (in fact the sentence itself was unwieldy) but for the way in which one casual sentence could evoke all one needed to visualize the room through the narrator’s eyes.
“I found Nowell in a lounge where there would have been plenty of room for a couple of dozen commercial travellers to hang about for the bar to open.”
As a reader, I could picture the seedy loneliness and tacky décor of such a room, and as a writer, I admired the author for steering me into an opinion of a character (Nowell) who lived in a house with that sort of lounge. The remainder of the book is full of such descriptions, both of physical realms and of other characters, and I continued to appreciate Amis’ style and command throughout. As I said, I wanted to like this novel.
Imagine my distress when I began to feel a nagging discomfort about the female characters, of which there are many, and almost none of them sympathetic. After all, the very title declares that multiple women will feature in the life of the main character, Stanley, and a quick read of the book jacket informs the reader that the unexpected insanity of Stanley’s son will be contrasted with the possible insanity of the women who surround Stanley. One is prepared for capricious, neurotic and even potentially malicious women to populate this story. I welcome characters of all archetypes, male or female, and a story of only “good” people would be both cloying and boring. But every single female character in this novel was grating, grasping or generally devoid of empathy, with the exception of a hospital nun/nurse with a few lines and a former lover of Stanley’s who sleeps with him at the end, mostly out of pity. A particularly odious female psychiatrist is so manipulative and power-hungry that she discharges Stanley’s schizophrenic son from the hospital before he is ready for the demands of living at home, leading to a violent incident with Stanley’s second wife. And of course that wife is much more than the endearingly scatty hostess whom we meet at the very opening of the novel.
In contrast to the virtually irredeemable female characters, the males in the book mostly turn out to be far nicer than we anticipated from their initial introductions. The current husband of Nowell (Stanley’s first wife) begins as a boorish antagonist and ends as a friend, after admitting that Nowell has driven him to extremes of bad behaviour in order to cope with marriage to the impossibly self-centered and irrational Nowell. And Stanley’s socially awkward boss makes up for being irritating and insensitive by rewarding Stanley with a coveted and unexpected promotion. Even the insane son is benign, if unpredictable.
Sexism, while dated and old-fashioned, is not the same thing as misogyny, and I am not a flag-waving feminist; I do not need my fictional distractions to feature female empowerment. In any case, strong women are not always appealing in life or in novels, and I am certainly not determined to unearth evidence of sexism in dark corners or in Art. But the stark contrast between the mostly-likeable male characters and the mostly-distasteful female characters was noticeable. And the conclusion of the novel involves a male psychiatrist’s heavy-handed diatribe on the real madness of all women, as well as exposing the true rottenness of Stanley’s second wife.
As I read the final words, I wondered if Kingsley Amis was merely sexist and a product of his generation or an actual (horrors) misogynist. Then it occurred to me that there was one possibility I had stupidly forgotten, especially while reading an author lauded for dark comedy. This was the famous British irony, of which better minds than mine have written. In my earnest American way, I had nearly lumped poor Kingsley into the same category as V.S. Naipaul, a card-carrying misogynist. And since Amis the Elder is no longer around to defend himself from charges of sexism, I will simply have to give him the benefit of the doubt and read more of his works. Next time I’ll keep a lookout for irony.