Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils, Booker Prize 1986

Standard

20141230_141328

Back in 1986, most of the literary world was surprised when Kingsley Amis won the Booker Prize. After all, this is a prize associated with young modern authors such as Kingsley’s son, Martin Amis. Kingsley Amis was associated with the new wave of British writers of the 1950s. How had Amis Snr won a prize more suited to Amis Jnr’s generation?

The Old Devils is a straight-forward tale of growing old disgracefully. A group of old friends; Malcolm, Peter and Charlie live in Wales, and they spend their retirement drinking in every pub they can find. However their routine is interrupted when a celebrated poet or ‘Professional Welshman’ called Alun Weaver comes back to the area with his wife Rhiannon, with whom one of them previously had a relationship.

In truth, the novel’s plot was plodding in parts, but there can be no doubt that The Old Devils is funny. The rants and conversations between the main characters are amusing and entirely relatable to the time it was written and their age. Personally, I found it hilarious about how much ale, bitter, wine, port and whisky they get through. One particular highlight was some of the characters being thrown out of one pub for ‘bad behaviour’.

What sort of statement is Amis trying to make with this novel? Are we really only as old as the people we are inside? Does retirement bring about a re-evaluation of our past? Or is there nothing better to do in our retirement that simply get sozzled and moan about the world? I think Amis is trying to say all of these things in The Old Devils. Through their numerous days spent in pubs, the main characters reflect and rethink all that has happened to them, or what they have done in the past, and they find reconciliation, forgiveness and second chances.

The reader gets a sense that this is a very personal novel for Amis. He was sixty-four when he wrote the novel. Like the characters in his novel, he enjoyed drinking, and some critics thought that his drinking had ‘robbed him of his wit and charm’. They also said that his best work, that standard being set by Lucky Jim, was well behind him. Well, this novel is a clear ‘Fuck you, I’ve still got it’ message to those critics.

Personally, I did find The Old Devils a bit of a stretch to read at times, but I did appreciate the themes and humour of the novel and as Amis has shown in this novel, spending most of your days in the pub with your friends sounds like great fun!

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, Booker Prize 1981

Standard

20140914_120518

The latest novel I have read has become a modern classic. It regularly makes the top 100 lists of the greatest novel of all times. It has also won a Booker prize twice; originally in 1981 and recent in 2008, when it won the Best of the Booker in order to celebrate the prize’s 40th Anniversary. So does Midnight’s Children deserve the honours it has gained?

Let’s start on the length of the novel. For saying I am to read all Man Booker Prize winners in 18 months, it took me a month alone to read this. It is split into three books, chronicling the life of the narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born on midnight on 15th August 1947; the day when India and Pakistan were born as well. He is also one of many ‘Midnight’s Children’ who were born in that hour and became endowed with magical powers. The first book covers the fantastical events which led to his birth; the second covers his childhood up to his late teens; and the third book covers his adult life. The length of the novel didn’t really put me off. The more I read, the more I was engrossed by it.

This was partly down to Salman Rushdie’s writing. Rushdie is more of a public figure now than a writer. Martin Amis famously said that after the execution order or ‘fatwa’ was placed on Rushdie by the Iranian government after the publication of The Satanic Verses, “He has vanished into the front page”. He’s been there ever since. But for those, including myself, who had never read his works until now, you actually discover why he is such a good writer in the first place. Midnight’s Children is a demonstration of Rushdie’s talent as a storyteller. Throughout the novel, Saleem tells numerous tales about all sorts of things; family, friends, famous events in India and Pakistan’s history, all of which are tied together by destiny. It is Rushdie’s storytelling in its simplest form which is the greatest strength of the novel.

Circumstance, and most importantly, destiny, are key themes in the novel. When Saleem looks back at his life, he sees that everything happened for a reason. Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather, had a unusually large nose which was runny a lot of time. When facing a column of British soldiers at Amritsar, Aadam sneezes just as the soldiers open fire into the crowd. Aadam survives the Amritsar Massacre, and ensures that Saleem will be eventually born. All events in Midnight’s Children are interconnected; he feels the weight of history on his shoulders and everything that happens to India after independence is mirrored in his own life. Saleem’s life is, as Prime Minister Nehru puts it, “a mirror of our own”.

Magic and other fantastical elements appear throughout the novel. Saleem develops telepathic abilities and is able to communicate with other people like him such as a witch called Parvati who can actually do magic; Soumitra, a boy who can travel through time; and Saleem’s rival Shiva, who possesses unusually large knees and whose fate is intertwined with Saleem’s. One of my favourite aspects of the novel is its sense of the extraordinary and that everything isn’t as it seems. The novel is part of the ‘magic realism’ genre in which magical and mythical elements are brought into a realistic historical context. Rushdie uses magic, mythology and destiny to make sense of the turmoiltious events which took place in India and Pakistan after independence.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning, does Midnight’s Children deserve to be a modern classic, I would say that it is a great novel and the critics are probably right that the novel will be celebrated for many years to come.