THE GREEN MAN

June 14, 2014

amis

THE GREEN MAN
Kingsley Amis

One of the side effects of his early success for Mr Amis was that he went frequently to London to see publisher, agent, etc. Such trips in turn meant sex, and as much of it as he could get. In fact Mr Amis “simply, compulsively tried to seduce almost every woman he met.”

He also liked to drink. He commented: “Now and then I become conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time?” Heavy drinking took its toll on him; affected his judgment. But not his sexual performance, according to those in the know! “A few days into a weekend party with friends, he was compelled to be especially attentive to every woman at breakfast, as he had been drunk the night before and couldn’t remember which lady he’d shagged…”

On a trip to the USA he wrote in a letter home: “All very jolly here, settling in fine, with the smell of bourbon and King-size Chesterfields over all: cirrhosis and lung-cancer have moved into an altogether more proximate position relative to me.” And not only was the booze plentiful, the women were too; especially female students and faculty wives at Princeton where he was teaching creative writing. He wrote Philip Larkin that he was “boozing and fucking harder” than at any other time in his life.

So, with the above in mind, we’d be forgiven for seeing much of Mr Amis’ character in his creation of fifty-three-year-old Maurice Allington, proprietor of a haunted inn called The Green Man.

This business is booming. People come from far and wide to experience the culinary delights of Maurice’s establishment, and to hear his tales of the ghost – Dr Underhill. Because the Green Man, whatever else it might be, is a ghost story.

In an interview with Clive James, Amis claimed the novel was inspired by the question, “What happens when the man who sees ghosts is an alcoholic?” The answer as provided by Mr A, is the ghosts are hardly scary at all; far more horrifying is dear old Maurice, a neurotic drunk teetering on the edge of alcoholic collapse or nervous breakdown. His marriage (his second) is an abysmal failure; he’s unable to relate to his thirteen-year-old daughter, Amy who spends all her time in front of a TV screen. While he is prone (because of all the drink) to “jactitation” and “hypnagogic” hallucinations!

Could things get any worse?

Yes, they could. For despite all the above, Maurice is determined to arrange a threesome with his wife, Joyce and his new lover, Diana.

At the novel’s commencement Maurice seems hardly to care about the possibility of specters in his establishment. We, as readers, cannot tell if her believes in them or not. But this all changes, once Maurice’s father dies. Now, he becomes a believer, and searches for clues with increased determination – which at times seems to border on the pathological.

In an interview with Michael Barber, Amis suggested the following:

“The Green Man, for example, in its modest way, was a kind of experiment. I mean, can a ghost story be combined with a reasonably serious study of human relations, in this case the problem of selfishness? The alcoholism is part of that, but the central figure there, Allington, finds himself becoming more and more insecure because he doesn’t really take any notice of other people. And the result is that by undergoing these harrowing experiences he at last notices his young daughter, and talks to her in a way that he hasn’t done before. So at the price of losing his wife and making an utter fool of himself, he’s at last made contact with another person, so one feels in that sense hopeful about his future.”

In his twofold pursuit of the specter of Dr. Thomas Underhill and his three-in-a-bed orgy, Maurice is finally confronted by God. But not the God of the old testament – no; Amis’ God is a man “about twenty-eight years old, with a squarish, clean-shaven, humorous, not very trustworthy face, unabundant eyebrows and eyelashes, and good teeth.” Maurice, who’s a little the worse for tippling, offers God a drink. God is thankful of this, says in explanation: “I was going to warn you against making the mistake of supposing that I come from inside your mind.”

Ever the rationalist Maurice replies: “I suppose I couldn’t get into the passage because all molecular motion outside this room has stopped…”

And so their conversation continues with rational technical explanations for the mechanics of divine manifestation. Here, Amis’ version of God, acknowledges the reality of an afterlife, but what he can’t promise Maurice is that the afterlife itself is eternal. “The answer is that I don’t know,” he claims. “I’ll have to see. I mean that. Do you know, it’s about the only absolutely fascinating, first-class, full-sized problem I’ve never started to go into?”

Thus the appearance of God – a truly existential God – provides the true terror at the core of Amis’ vision. No matter what ghosts or spirits walk, nor what horrid conjurations lurk at the periphery of vision, the novel’s main concern is with the inevitability of death, and the impossibility of guarding reality against annihilation. If God exists, Amis argues, “even He might be destructible.”

There is a subtle seam of humour running throughout the novel, and some very keen observations on the human condition. The Green Man, an experiment in genre fiction by Mr Amis, easily transcends the genre, and is undoubtedly one of his best works of fiction.

pompeii

In war battles never go quite as expected; battle, ultimately, is a test where the most solid bodies can prove themselves ethereal and dissolve, where the clearest minds can become clouded, and where the most laudable initiatives result in unexpected and unmitigated catastrophe.

You armchair generals with your great hindsight express indignant surprise or shock; you try to find causes and reasons and even make excuses for this or that regrettable incident. Above all you love to summon before the court of “Historical Fact” the shades of the performers of those long ago acts, in close company with the spirits of their long turned-to-dust chroniclers; you then subsequently fight battles yourselves over the translation of their words, or torture their limited testimony to such an extent that it’ll meet the requirements of this or that theory which, of course, is deeply held by you, and as such is obviously the TRUTH…for now. For today.

How many of you, like me, have longed for a “Tardis” to enable a voyage back in time to witness the steady tramp of sandaled feet heading for some field of slaughter, or to walk beside one of Rome’s self-styled Gods on earth, those erratic tyrants, the Caesars? Or, again, to stand in solitude on a high blue afternoon, the air heavy with the scent of nearby cypresses, an observer of Spartacus’ gladiatorial and communistic army marching to its final defeat? Or observe tendrils of mist clinging to the waters of Lake Trasimene in the early morning – and indeed confirm the shores of the lake lay much further south than is the case today – and play witness to Flaminius’ arrogance as his forces climb from the mist to certain destruction?

Ummm. If only.

Lacking a “Tardis” I follow instead your discussions; your individual views are expressed, sometimes with great passion, always with erudition, although frequently they comprise of supposition dressed in the borrowed rags of “fact”. However that may be, ancient authorities are regularly summoned like pagan Gods to give testimony in support of this or that “fact” (assertion). And with interest I watch as each statement of “fact” (assertion) is then dissected, as if it were the intestines of some great beast wherein soothsayers may determine the true nature of reality. The fire and the sun, so to speak.

While we possess six surviving manuals on Roman tactics, for example, covering a vast time scale from Onasander (early first-century AD) through Vegetius (fourth/fifth-century) to Leo (Taktika) and Maurice (Strategikon – sixth century), as armchair generals you are undismayed by this sparsity of sources; it’s more than enough for you! These pearls, coupled with a handful of histories, will support whatever theory, eccentric or otherwise, is currently dear to your hearts. They will buoy you up on the harsh seas of historical controversy…!

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His sharp-toothed smiles tap at the hard shell
surrounding her soft timidity . . . At last,
it cracks and she melts, her eyes dissolving

in a confused blaze. His glitter, devouring
He edges closer on the sofa, but when he turns
to butt his cigarette, she disappears – completely!

He wanted to have her, but he has eaten her . . .
With the puzzled air of someone in a Thurber cartoon
he slips his shoes back on, and goes to make some coffee

He buys the whole beans – little, chocolate-coloured
teeth he enjoys grinding. Wakeful again, he peers down
into the cup: a large white fang hollowed out inside.

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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

Kafka