Thursday, March 08, 2018

`Provided That It Serves Another's Good'

Kingsley Amis sold his papers to the Huntington Library in 1984 and lived another eleven years. Included in the first shipment of manuscripts, delivered in 1987, was an untitled, undated poem that is probably also unfinished. Amis’ biographer, Zachary Leader, believes the poem dates from the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, when Amis was soon to turn sixty. It was first published in The Times Literary Supplement in May 2004:

“Things tell less and less:
The news impersonal
And from afar; no book
Worth wrenching off the shelf.
Liquor brings dizziness
And food discomfort; all
Music sounds thin and tired,
And what picture could earn a look?
The self drowses in the self
Beyond hope of a visitor.
Desire and those desired
Fade, and no matter:
Memories in decay
Annihilate the day.
There once was an answer:
Up at the stroke of seven,
A turn round the garden
(Breathing deep and slow),
Then work, never mind what,
How small, provided that
It serves another’s good
But once is long ago
And, tell me, how could
Such an answer be less than wrong,
Be right all along?
Vain echoes, desist”

An old man watches as life’s pleasures and purpose evaporate. “Vain echoes,” indeed – of Larkin, of course, and, less likely, Beckett in the final lines. The surprise for many readers begins in line fifteen and continues: “Then work, never mind what, / How small, provided that / It serves another’s good.” Amis detractors will find this laughable. The novelist carefully crafted his curmudgeonly image, but readers of Paul Fussell’s The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters (1994) know better. For Amis, serving another’s good didn’t mean public displays of virtue (“virtue signaling,” as the cliché has it). “Another’s good” means generosity of spirit; for a writer, the obligation to be a munificent host and entertain his readers. Few recent writers of fiction are less pretentious and more amusing than Amis at his best. Name a novel funnier than Lucky Jim. (There are a few. Go ahead.) Willful obscurity implies a minging contempt for readers.


Nige said...

Masters of Atlantis?

Baceseras said...

I'll play: The Mackerel Plaza.