Kingsley Amis in virgin territory

Take a Girl Like YouAccording to the Wikipedia notes on Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis, the author takes great care to describe minutiae in much detail. Such meticulous description, we are told, gives rise to humour and brings ‘the world of the novel as close as possible to the physical world of the reader’.

Well possibly. I see the point – and it may work for some readers – but for me this approach delivers tedious and rather boring passages. I’m afraid I had to jump ship after some 70 pages (my absolute minimum litmus test). 

Amis tends to squeeze the pips out of a scene and then jump up and down on the pulp. The impression is of a writer rather over-pleased with his verbosity.

Of course, allowances have to be made for the passage of time. Amis was one the Angry Young Men on the British literary scene in the 1950s but he was 38 when this book was published in 1960 and times were changing. As Amis’ friend Philip Larkin remarked:

Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me) between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.

The coy and knowing way in which Amis deals with sex in Take a Girl Like You (and it is a novel largely about sex, though without much actual sex) is slightly exasperating to the modern reader.

Like many modern readers, I am not held by ‘will she, won’t she?’ passages (unless, of course, they done well by the likes of Austen). My reaction after a dozen or so pages of attempted seduction is: ‘For God’s sake just get on with it or play cards’.

The story concerns a comely (is one still allowed to say ‘comely’?) Northern lass of 20 and her determination to hang on to her virginity until her wedding night. Jenny Bunn has moved to lodgings in a London suburb to begin teaching at a local school. Her comeliness does not go unnoticed and soon the wolves – one in particular – are circling.

Patrick Standish is the sort of stock Leslie Phillips-type character familiar to anyone who has watched those formulaic British comedy films of the 1950s and 60s (‘Ding dong! I say!’ whenever a pretty girl hoves into view; lots of drooling, eye-rolling and pitiful chat-up lines – that kind of thing.)

Kingsley Amis

Pursuit of a desirable female by such a character was regarded as a kind of hunting game; one in which the ‘prey’ really wanted be caught but insisted on a bit of chasing around the Mulberry bush  before melting in the arms of a macho charmer.

If the depictions were cringe-worthy in those days they are positively laughable now, as well as being insulting to both sexes.

I’m not getting into revisionist territory here. I appreciate that this novel was of its time and perhaps even then offered up stereotypes for comic effect. 

Comedies of manners from previous eras, satirising contemporary social mores, ridiculing conventions and so on, can still be entertaining to the modern reader (Austen, Dickens, Spark for example). But tales of the tedious sexless sex games of the 1950s have not travelled well, as this novel demonstrates.

My previous experience of Amis’ work is limited and mixed. Lucky Jim, his best-seller of the early 1950s, I found irritating, unfunny and dull while his 1980s Booker prize-winning The Old Devils is a masterwork which improves on re-reading.

Amis is regarded as one of the best authors of the 20th century and comes highly recommended by many writers whose opinion I respect. So I’m not giving up on old Kingsley just yet. I have several more of his novels lined up as well as a hefty biography.

But in the case of Take a Girl Like You, I’ll leave it thanks.

About Edward Colley

A lifetime working with words and I'm still moved by them – or rather by what good writers can do with the slippery monkeys. A book can be a refuge, an escape, an adventure, a laugh ('I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.'), a heart-breaker (poor Tess!) ... I can't imagine life without a book (or two) on the go. My favourite read, by a mile, in the past 12 months: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. An epic masterpiece. Runner-up: The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. Hefty but not heavy.

Posted on February 22, 2019, in Book Reviews, British authors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Hi,
    I am not very fond of the author Amis but I simply love his narrative style. I have read Lucky Jim, You Can’t do Both, the Old Devils and the Green Man. Lucky Jim is one of my favourite books ever, the most ‘relatable’. It’s sad that to most people the humour and the writing comes across as strained. The rest of the ouevre that I have read, despite showing some of the qualities I loved about Amis’s narration, are largely unmemorable and the writing tends to drag on.

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  3. ‘For God’s sake just get on with it or play cards’ BEAUTIFUL! I tried Lucky Jim after seeing it compared to David Lodge’s Trading Places which I loved at 22. I found Jim boring and tough sledding and didn’t finish it. Glad I wasn’t the only one. I’ve avoided Old Devils due to that experience. Good to hear its worth the time.

  4. I’m glad to hear from someone else who finds Lucky Jim unfunny and dull. Now I’m curious about The Old Devils though. I thought Amis was just not for me but does he have another side that is worth the reading time?

  5. Kingsley Amis is not aging well. I’ve read some I liked but others seem impossible these days. Funnily enough, I just moved three Amis books higher on the the TBR stack

  6. And then there was his son, Martin, who wrote a book on similar lines set in the ’70s. Certainly much less coy about the sex but every bit as misogynistic and just as full of overwritten scenes. (The Pregnant Widow).

    • I’ll give that one a miss then (geddit?) Started to read a Martin Amis novel a few years ago (Time’s Arrow?, London Fields?) but gave up. The author seemed way too pleased with himself.

  7. How timely for me to come across this review Edward. I am involved in a project to read as much as I can of the important fiction of my life time. I call it My Big Fat Reading Project. I read Lucky Jim and the humor worked for me, but when I started Take A Girl Like You last year, during the height of the #MeToo thing, I decided I was done with Kingsley. Last week I read The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dudley. It is rather the female side of a similar concept. It was great. I posted a short review yesterday: http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-old-man-and-me.html
    I appreciate your thoughts here.

    • Hi. I’ve not heard of this author but it would be refreshing to read an early 60s tale from the POV of confident female.

  8. For an Australian country boy the sexual mores of the fifties extended well into the sixties, but as you say, both the sex games and the coy writing about them seem a bit laboured now.

    • Hi. You’re right – things didn’t start really swinging in the South Wales valleys until around 66! If the writing had been without its leering, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, tone I might have stayed the course.

  9. This book sounds extremely outdated, have never been a fan of Kingsley Amis myself.

    • Hi. Amis is consistently recommended by good writers so I thought I’d give him a trial run. But if the next one is anything like ‘Girl’, I may give up.

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