Big Characters in Small Spaces

Kingsley Amis, Complete Stories, Penguin Classics, 2011, 528 pages, $49.95

Kingsley Amis was a keen mimic. One of his “party pieces”, he once told the Paris Review, was the voice of “FDR as heard by the British over shortwave radio in 1940”. He thought this talent was tied to the writing of fiction, and that a novelist was “a sort of mimic by definition”.

No doubt he was right. Amis mimicked many voices on the page: the voice of the academic bore (Professor Welch); the voice of the moneyed man with everything, trying to sound like a man who wouldn’t mind having nothing (Sir Roy Vandervane). His ear was his greatest gift: the one he worked with most at the writing table and the one readers delight at in his fiction. He heard the way people spoke and he put the rhythm of it in his prose.

At the midpoint of “A Twitch on the Thread”, for example, Daniel Davidson—ex-drunk, Londoner, Church of England priest—is talking to his twin brother, the American-bred Episcopal Church minister Leopold Marzoni. Separated as kids, they’ve just met again aged thirty-eight and find they’ve lived similar lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic:

“… when were you ordained, Leo? Of course you know the exact date.”
“Of course. It was March 22nd, 1985.”
“I was 4th April in the same year.”   
“Not the same day, at least,” said Leo …        
“Close enough. Nine, thirteen days.”

Nine, thirteen days. What’s that “Nine” for? Why not just write “Thirteen days”? It’s because Amis knew we don’t do it like that, whether out loud or in our heads. Unless you’re quick with numbers and months, you probably count the nine days to the end of March, then add the four days in April. Nine, thirteen days. Most people, I suspect, think and talk like that, but it takes a talented ear to pick it up and put it on the page.

The Complete Stories has tales about the military, futuristic stories about booze, mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi pieces, historical pieces, a radio play, and an epistolary story. There are also arresting emotional stories: “Moral Fibre”, “All the Blood Within Me”, and “Dear Illusion”. Amis thought of all these stories as “chips from a novelist’s work-bench”. Yet they rarely suffer from the short story writer’s primary handicap; namely, not having enough room to create round characters readers can care about. Amis could create a big character in a small space. He did it by packing speech with personality. He crafted characters quickly through their words.

“Toil and Trouble”, for example, is a story of just twenty-two pages. Nonetheless, Amis makes you care about the kidnapped literary agent Adrian Hollies. It’s because of what Hollies says. He talks to his captors with so much haughtiness that you can’t help liking the guy. After he’s been drugged, Hollies wakes up to find his body strapped into a chair with his wrists bound to the chair’s arms. His head is tightly clamped and his eyelids are stuck open with sticky tape.

One of his captors asks:

“How are you feeling?”
“No nausea or trouble with breathing?”
“I’ve never felt better in my life.”

The Complete Stories is witty, shrewd and deeply affecting. It is the work of a master mimic at play; a collection of many voices, each one speaking with the integrity of plain words. Amis knew the rhythm of ordinary speech. At the pub after Betty Duerden’s funeral—this from “All the Blood Within Me”—the new manager walks over, and, “without pushing himself forward”, talks briefly to Betty’s bereaved relatives and friends. The man, Amis wrote, spoke “the language of decent feeling”. Our best selves speak that language, when we let them. At his best, Kingsley Amis wrote with it. In the voices of the Complete Stories we can hear our own. 

David Barrett is an Australian journalist. He lives in London. 

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