My Weekend of Reading Kingsley Amis: The Staggeringly Dark Comedy, “Ending up”

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is one of my favorite academic satires. In academia, people seem to have lost their sense of humor these days, either from job insecurity or psychological insecurity, and perhaps Amis is not in fashion. The critic Patricia C. Spacks lambasted Lucky Jim as unfunny when she reread it for her book, On Rereading. Well, she is a professor emerita, and perhaps didn’t care for the caricatures.

Not being an academic, I have no problem with the ridicule of university life (which I loved, but still, it is funny). I always identify with a good anti-hero, and find the bumbling Jim Dixon endearing and goofy: I think of him as the adult counterpart of Holden Caulfield, only with much more common sense.

Jim teaches medieval history at a provincial university and despises academic scholarship, especially the article he is trying to write, “The economic influence of the developments in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485.” And so he alienates a lot of people (accidentally). But this all turns out much better than you would think!

I somehow didn’t get around to Amis’s other books until recently, except for the Booker Prize-winning novel, The Old Devils, which is a dark comedy about a group of old (and I mean very old) friends who are retired in Wales. But last week I decided to catch up with some of the Amis books on my shelf. Ending up is by far (so far) the most impressive. But let me interject that I did not understand where this was going for the first fifty pages or so.

I thought this was a charming Barbara Pym-ish comedy about a group of old people who decide to share a cheap house in the country. How practical, I thought, and how sweet. And it is true that there a sweetness about the conscientious, unlovable Adela, who spends much of her time running errands for housemates and organizing occasions like Christmas.

The other characters are decidedly less sweet. Her raging brother Bernard is a former drunk who has liver problems and a penchant for vicious practical jokes His former boyfriend, Shorty, with whom he hasn’t had sex in 30 or 40 years, is more or less a servant, and resents Adela and their self-absorbed housemate, Marigold, who spends most of her time writing letters. The most neglected is their bedridden friend George, a former history professor who had a stroke and nowhere else to go. With the exception of Marigold, who has children and grandchildren, the inhabitants of Tuppeny-hapenny Cottage are on their own.

Whether or not you like this kind of dark comedy, Amis is a superb writer. Every sentence is gorgeous, graceful, and buoyant to the point of bounciness. He really delves the depths of these not on-the-surface very complicated people. In the following passage that describes the very ordinary but heartbreaking life of Adela, who has never had a friend.

Her career in hospital catering, taken up after she had been told, without further explanation, that she was not the right type to become a nurse, had brought her into contact with thousands of people until her retirement in 1961. None of them had become her friend, in the sense that none had agreed to go to a theatre or a coffee-shop or a sale with her more than a couple of times, and so she had lived alone throughout her working life. Now, after Bernard had made his astonishing offer, that she could housekeep for him and Shorty, she was among people and, with all the difficulties this seemed inevitably to bring, happier than at any time since her childhood. Her only fear was of falling helplessly ill and having nobody to leave in charge…

Very sad… and but for the grace of God… This grim comedy is a masterpiece, with a shocking and sudden ending.

6 thoughts on “My Weekend of Reading Kingsley Amis: The Staggeringly Dark Comedy, “Ending up””

  1. “The critic Patricia C. Spacks lambasted Lucky Jim as unfunny”.
    Academics are like the rich – very different to you and me. Os some academics or some rich, at least. An academic I know regarded The Diary of a Nobody (one of my favourite comic books) as a tragedy.
    I reread Ending Up lately and found it grimmer – and funnier – than ever now that I am in the same age group.
    George’s presence isn’t quite as arbitrary as you make it look: he is Bernard’s former brother-in-law ()Bernard, a former army officer, married her to conceal his relationship with his batman, Shorty), and someone else rescued by Adela.

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    1. Yes, academics are “different,” to say the least (much as I love them!). “Ending up” is very funny, and very, very dark,horrifying, but realistic. Take away one block and all the others fall…

      Yes, and it seems to be why Bernard hates George–the in-law problem.

      This is the best Amis I’ve read, while Lucky Jim remains my favorite. The problems of a young quasi-academic are so much easier than those of the aged academic George. I feel bad for him, writing his heart out on his special typewriter, facing the fact that he can’t publish anymore. Really, what a group of sad characters. And yet Adela is the happiest she’s ever been! And that’s sad, too.

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  2. My heavens, Kat–you certainly HAVE been doing a Kingsley Amis immersion weekend! Amis is one of those writers whom I like but actually don’t read very much — I probably average a novel ever few decades. Like you, Lucky Jim is one of my very favorite books about academia (I also liked, to a much lesser extent, David Lodge’s Trading Places although I’m not sure how it would hold up after so many years). I return to Jim every decade or so and continue to find it hilarious; I literally can’t imagine a human-type person who didn’t find it at least amusing. I have several unread Amis novels sitting on my shelves, thanks to some very nice sales by NYRB Classics; one of them is Ending Up (I like black comedy, so I have high hopes for it). Hopefully I’ll fit them in the reading schedule at some point . . .

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    1. Those NYRB editions are VERY nice. Amis’s books are short and (usually) funny, so they make a nice weekend break. Thank God you find Lucky Jim funny. I thought I was losing my mind for a while there for a while.I will look for Trading Places.

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