The Old Pork SwordJanuary 2, 2007
Opera fans will find much to admire in the great heaving spectacle of Daily Kos going mad over the past couple of days, complete with fine costumes, elephants, and shrilling arias from divas both male and female. As all my favorite operas do, this one touched on the theme of adultery and betrayal. So last evening I was leafing through the December 14 issue of the London Review of Books, and what should I find but a most excellent article, a review of a biography of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader.
The reviewer, Stefan Collini, quotes a former editor of Amis’s:
To his friends he seemed gifted, abrasive, condignly abusive, enjoyable, engrossing. He was the glamorous beauty of his circle.
He and Hilly [his first wife] each had a lot of sex with other people (I mean a lot of sex: he was ‘a man who used to live for adultery’ during these years, according to his son’s uncensorious recollection. The stormy bohemianism of their relationship was finally put under intolerable strain when Amis started an affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard. Almost immediately, this affair threatened to be different from its innumerable predecessors because Kingsley fell passionately in love with Jane. Hilly finally walked out on him; he and Jane set up together, marrying in 1965.
This seems to have been a golden period in Amis’s life: he was in love, and with a fellow writer (they read their tally of words to each other over pre-dinner drinks). […] But Leader’s clear-eyed narrative leaves enough clues around for those disposed to look for the seeds of later decline. Amis expected people to look after him, especially if they were married to him. He held ‘wholly traditional notions of the female domestic sphere’, in Leader’s dry summary. Amis organized the drinking, of which there was a lot; Jane did everything else, of which there was a lot more, including paying closer attention to his children than Amis always remembered to do. His writing included more and more meretricious or cheaply ideological journalism…
Jane eventually walked out, of course. After many years of marriage she got fed up with him. Supervixens may appreciate the irony of Amis’s later years: unable to take care of himself, he moved in with his ex-wife, Hilly, and her husband, an impoverished peer. She looked after Amis and he paid her for it. She needed the money.
I love Amis’s books, and have defended him on many occasions against being a misogynist. In his novels, at least – he was a fine writer with a keen eye for human character, both male and female – he was evenhanded. He showed the flaws of men as well as women. But in his personal life, he did, alas, have a nasty blind spot towards women:
He really did seem to think of ‘females’, collectively, as a separate species, maddeningly attractive though a few among them might be. When he was young, their chief function was to be on the receiving end of ‘the old pork sword’; when he was older, especially after Jane had left him, he banged on about their general irrationality and vindictiveness (though at the same time confiding to his son that life without a woman was ‘only half a life’).
And then there is this:
There are too many reports of his ‘domineering’ social style: he was ‘determined to monopolise the conversation’; he could be ‘very dictatorial’; ‘he was full of fun but “if you took issue with him then you were in trouble”; ‘when Kingsley was arguing, he didn’t just despise your opinions, he despised you personally’; he will look for your weak spot and then he will press it’ and so on. The will to power had hardened into a kind of bullying.
Negativity more and more became his modal form. And this, too, can be a form taken by the will to power. Never venture onto terrain where you can’t dominate. If you can’t be the one in the spotlight, kick the fucking bulb out.
What a coincidence: I saw that scene in the opera! Well, except that the heroic tenor wasn’t “full of fun” – in fact, he wasn’t even a tenor, he was a sinister baritone.
How are you Supervixens doing out there?