“Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate. . . . “
Kingsley Amis has been practicing the writer’s trade long enough to have produced a full shelf of books. Last year’s Stanley and the Women was not only his 17th novel but a signal that three decades have suddenly elapsed since the publication in 1954 of Lucky Jim. And yet it was a minor publishing scandal of the late 1985 season that there was some kind of attempt to prevent the publication of Stanley and the Women in this country—even after, that is, its successful appearance in Great Britain. It turns out that the attempt to “discourage” a U.S. publication of Stanley and the Women was the work of a handful of feminist editors in at least three of our most esteemed publishing houses, supported by their uxorious overlords.
When Stanley and the Women was published in England in the spring of 1984, the received word spread rapidly to both sides of the Atlantic that Amis had been simply beastly to the female of the species and was therefore not to be tolerated anywhere. But of course the attempt to delay, if not to prevent, the book’s appearance in this country was bound to fail. What still seems incredible is that any such censorial effort should have been attempted at all. This remains a shocking fact, moreover, which has clearly escaped the notice of those custodians of the perishing Republic who guard with their very lives the sacred rights of their own free expression—and rightly so. Unfortunately, it is a latitude which does not extend in equal justice to those who do not fit into the approved social and political patterns of the day.
The narrator of the offensive novel is one Stanley Duke, the 45-year-old advertising manager for a London daily newspaper, whose chief concession to hedonism is that he drives an Apfelsine FK3. By the end of the novel, he will have become the automotive writer—or car critic—for the same paper. The ways and means of how Stanley earns his living, however, have little enough to do with the story. He has had thrust upon him a rather untoward avocation which has mainly to do with women, wives past and present (one in each category), plus a severe family crisis involving the onset of madness in his only son, Steve. Susan is Stanley’s present wife, an assistant editor of a London literary weekly, who also reviews books. Literally emerging out of the darkness, Steve suddenly returns home one evening with no explanation as to why he was not in Spain. Steve’s morose behavior manifests itself almost at once in his having ripped asunder Susan’s review copy of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a novel she had judged good enough to keep and thus not to sell, with the accumulating review copies of other books, to the secondhand dealer.
So much, then, for Steve’s estimation of his father’s present spouse. He rather prefers his biological mummsy, the ineffable Nowell, and visits her next day at her second husband’s apartment. While there, he becomes violently aroused again and throws an ashtray into the telly. Nowell in turn goes into hysterics and calls Stanley to get his son the hell out of her apartment. Steve ends up in the still-crazier care of a female psychiatrist. Before this happens, however, Stanley had consulted another psychiatrist about Steve’s condition. As a doctor and friend, he left Stanley with one of those statements of hard-learned wisdom we seldom recognize when casually uttered in more or less normal circumstances. “The rewards for being sane,” he said, “may not be very many but knowing what’s funny is one of them.” With shuddering clarity one realizes at once that so few, if any, of the feminist reviews of Stanley and the Women had, for a moment, thought the book particularly funny.
As an imaginative tract against feminism, so-called, there isn’t much in Amis’ latest novel to get excited about. Stanley seems basically a decent sort of chap. He would never presume to play Professor Higgins to any pub’s Pickering, for example, and thus demand the impossible: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” The whole novel comes down to the rather more shocking question which is asked of Stanley by his friend the psychiatrist: “Would you say, would you assent to the proposition that all women are mad?” Stanley waffles, understandably, on that one: “Yes. No, not at all,” he says, “there are exceptions, naturally.”
So the best that the beleaguered Stanley can bring to the charge of madness in women, generally speaking, is that there may be exceptions. It turns out, in fact, that Susan has feigned a stabbing in the arm and accuses Steve of the assault. A medical report on the nature of the wound undermines the already fast-fading credibility of her story. The denouement to this almost pathetic aspect of the tale is that both principals, Stanley and Susan, clearly know the truth but pretend they do not. It is also clear that Susan’s bizarre behavior itself is sufficient matter, surely, for further psychiatric inquiry. Each prefers, however, to settle for the accommodation of a prolonged and tolerable state of mutual delusion.
But the more a new sense of awareness beckons Stanley on, the more uncomfortable he becomes with the controlled anguish of having to live—or indeed of having already lived—a life of deviously shared illusions with most of the women he has known. He now recalls the prevailing psychic pattern of his former wife, Nowell: “She makes the past up as she goes along. You know, like communists.” This may at first sound only mildly amusing, but when such a pattern itself daily informs the domestic reality of a home, then the result may be nothing less than harrowing—and that is precisely what it had become for Stanley.
The harrowing of Stanley Duke is further aggravated by the encounter with his son’s female psychiatrist, one Dr. Trish Collins, who, in the most literal sense possible, has driven Steve up a very real tree on the grounds of the institution where he is incarcerated. Nowell, the biological mummsy, is called upon literally to sweet-talk poor Steve down from the tree of his dilemma. There’s something madly Edenic about the scene, but any suggestion to that effect probably oughtn’t to go much further than simply to say so.
It is only in the last dozen or so pages of Stanley and the Women that its provocative aspect comes fully into view. Stanley’s psychiatrist friend refers to what he takes to be the compulsive capacity of women to—if you’ll pardon the demotic—screw up a man completely:
You can’t be new to feeling the edge of the most powerful weapon in their armory. You must have suffered before from the effect of their having noticed, at least the brighter ones among them have noticed, that men are different, men quite often wonder whether they’re doing the right thing and worry about it, men have been known to blame themselves for behaving badly, men not only feel they’ve made mistakes but on occasion will actually admit having done so, and say they’re sorry, and ask to be forgiven, and promise not to do it again, and mean it. Think of that! Mean it. All beyond female comprehension. Which incidentally is why they’re not novelists and must never be priests.
It is slightly odd that Kingsley Amis should allow one of his characters to contend that women as writers do not make proper novelists. This is obviously not the case, though the same overwrought character goes on to observe that though women are competing on equal terms with men in so many places, “they still finish behind men” and can’t even produce “a few decent (bleeping) jugglers.” He might just as well have cited, for that matter, master chess players, assorted engineers, and musical composers of great and original genius.
In any event, one has to tread carefully in this kind of territory. Men are no doubt as mad in the throes of their male aggressiveness as women are said to be in the circumlocutions of their peculiar logic. What one can fairly say about women, in comparison with men, is that the former have never initiated anything in the arts—and little enough in the sciences—that has had any significant or truly original value. Women in the arts tend to copy—or, more accurately, to feminize—what men have already done and which the latter, in most cases, have done infinitely better. It is only recently that the intuitive gifts of women have begun to produce works of some originality and freshness of view. It will probably remain true, however, that Shakespeare knew infinitely more about women than any Woman as Author has ever known about men.
And yet it was only a matter of time—as well as the steady erosion of male sensitivity brought on by the excesses of the women’s movement in its more paranoid aspects—that some men would start writing novels which attempt to disclose the inner workings of the female psyche itself, which, incidentally, is the worst and crudest way of stripping anyone naked. So it may be something other than a literary coincidence that in the same year, 1984, Kingsley Amis had published Stanley and the Women in Great Britain and that his opposite number in this country, John Updike, both of them over 50, had published The Witches of Eastwick here. Meanwhile, too, Henri de Montherlant’s devastating novel The Girls (1937) has just been reissued in this country. For what men have kept more or less to themselves, and this notably in the writing of fiction as well, until recently, is this: over 50, the average male is a hopeless dunce if he has not by then commenced to see through the various female manipulations which have kept him in thrall to women for want of their sexual favors. Anthropologists have observed that in some primitive societies the old men tend to get merry, as time goes on, while the old women become morose and withdrawn among themselves.
With the publication of these two current novels and the new edition of de Montherlant’s, something may be afoot. It is from such generally unrecognized disproportions that the law of compensation may now reassert itself in the particular matter of feminist excess today. Do we see in the making, indeed, a new literary genre that will become the subject matter of future criticism: the male animal no longer perceived as hero, or even as antihero, but as victim? Only then, perhaps, will true equality have been achieved between the sexes.
[Stanley and the Women, by Kingsley Amis; New York: Summit Books]