Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Book of the Month: King's English (Kingsley Amis)

Kingsley Amis is one of my most favourite writers. One Fat Englishman was the first Kingsley Amis novel I read. I still remember the hearty chuckles I was unable to keep under control as I savoured the novel. I enjoyed the novel tremendously (unlike David Lodge). 

That was more than twenty years ago. Over the years I have read a lot of Sir Kingsley’s novels and, with few exceptions (such as The Alteration, one of the few instances when the great man strayed away from comedy), have enjoyed them all.

Kingsley Amis is quite simply the funniest writer in English (beating Tom Sharpe, another favourite comic writer I like, to the second position) I have read. In my list of all-time favourite writers Kingsley Amis is second only to V.S. Naipaul.

One of the—indeed the only—non-fiction book of Kingsley Amis I read years ago was The King’s English: A Guide to Modern English Usage. It was published in 1997, two years after he died.

A great pleasure for me of reading Kingsley Amis novels is the language. Amis had a way with words like no one else; his way of using phrases was unique; the style was droll and, even as I laughed my head out at the biting observations of Amis’s protagonists, I found myself marvelling at the consummate skill with which the author used language. It is a gift only a few are blessed with.

I was therefore keen to know the great man’s views about the language that was obviously so dear to him and over which he had such complete mastery.

I read The Kings English and enjoyed reading it thoroughly. I put it on my shelf, promising myself I would return to it again one day; but I never did. Till last Saturday. (As will be clear later, I have deliberately used the word ‘till’ instead of ‘until’.)

In last Saturday’s Guardian was published an article by Martin Amis, Kingsley’s son and a formidable writer of great repute himself, on King’s English, celebrating, in the process, his father’s lifelong interest in English language.

That made me, over the weekend, go back to my own paperback edition (incidentally the same one—1998—that Martin Amis reveals he has in his collection, adorned with encomium from several reviewers including David Lodge, Sebastian Faulks, and Joseph Connolly.) (I initially wrote ‘fulsome praise’ but hastily changed it to ‘encomium’ when, on page 82 of The King’s English, I came across the following comment on ‘fulsome’: This once useful word meant ‘disgustingly excessive, cloying’ as applied to compliments, apologies etc. . . . Undereducated persons, perhaps foggily supposing fulsome to be a posh form of full (from which it does partly descend) have in recent years taken to using it to mean ‘ample’ or possibly ‘cordial’. Not to be used henceforth by careful writers.)

In the Apologia Pro Vita Sua Academia Amis clarifies his position with characteristic candour:

‘My interest in words as parts of language preceded their appeal to me as units of literature of any sorts, and I was learning how to spell some individual words before I knew what they meant. Ever since, I have retained what I like to think of as a special feeling for language in spoken as well as written form. This has gone hand in hand with one of the less immediately appealing sides of my character, the didactic or put-‘em-right side. I would guess that for every acquaintance of mine who looks on me as some sort of authority on correct usage or pronunciation there is at least one who sees me as an officious neurotic who sets right venial blunders uninvited. Any vocal stickler for accuracy perpetually runs that sort of risk.’

The splendid raconteur then goes on to regale us, over the next 250 odd pages, on subjects as varied as Americanisms, hyper-urbanism, political words, disappearance of Latin, and difference between a delusion and an illusion.

The book is liberally strewn with delicious linguistic nuggets, frequently clothed in Amis’s combative humour. 

Here is what Amis has to say about the word ‘dilemma’:

This is a very precise word and was once a very useful word meaning ‘a position that leaves only a choice between two equally unwelcome possibilities’. , . the word was narrow and clear. Unfortunately it has ceased to be either and for many years has been resorted to by journalists and others on the look-out for for a posh-appearing synonym for ‘difficulty, quandary’. This perversion has made dilemma unsuitable for careful writers.

The book is replete with Sir Kingsley’s dictates to ‘careful writers’. Helpfully, he provides a definition of a ‘careful writer’.

This expression [careful writers], Amis writes, grew current in the permissive years when nobody dared say in so many words that such-and-such expression was illiterate or wrong, but at the same time people went on feeling that some usages were better than others. Rank barbarism could not, while the fashion lasted, be denounced as such, only mildly tut-tutted over as ‘avoided by careful writers’.

Lest you rush to the conclusion that Sir Kingsley was prissy, fussy, and priggish—in other words, a ‘wanker’ (as opposed to a ‘berk’—he provides the a page long elucidation on the difference between the berks and the wankers), let me assure you that he was anything but, as demonstrated in the following comment he makes on the word ‘fortuitous’:

Although Fowler was denouncing it in 1926. The misuse of fortuitous has only become noticeable in the last decade or so. The word originally meant nothing more than ‘owing to [pure] chance’, as in, say, ‘their meetingin the fish-shop was altogether fortuitous.’ Recently the word has come to mean something more like ‘fortunate, by a lucky chance’ . . . In fact fortuitous now supplies the evident need for a single word with that meeting. Such a need may not be very compelling, but the more recent usage is serviceable and needful enough to suggest that such newcomers should not be shot out of hands. For after all, there are plenty of near-enough synonyms for fortuitous in the old sense . . .

Here is another entry, this time about the word ‘till’:

. .  . The only point of this entry is to reassure anyone who needs it that till is a genuine English preposition and conjunction with its roots in Old English and Old Norse and is not a daringly informal shortening of stuffy old upper-class until and spelled ‘til.

In his Guardian article, Martin Amis writes:

All my adult life I have been searching for the right adjective to describe my father's peculiarly aggressive comic style. I recently settled on defamatory.

In the last twenty years of my love-affair with Kingsley Amis’s novels, I, too, have been searching for an adjective to describe Kingsley Amis’s style of humour. I had arrived at the adjective ‘curmudgeonly’. Martin Amis’s article informs that that was how his father had come to be ‘monotonously’ described towards the end of his life. I, of course, did not have any pejorative connotation when I thought of Kingsley Amis’s humour as ‘curmudgeonly’. However, after reading Amis Junior’s article, I looked up the meaning of the word curmudgeon, and this is what I discovered: an ill-tempered person full of resentment and stubborn notion. Then I looked up ‘grumpy’, and learned that it means surly or cranky. Next, I thought of looking up ‘grouchy’, but gave up, having realised that this would be unending. While I have no doubt that many of the protagonists of Kingsley Amis’s novels are curmudgeons and perennial grumps, his humour is more than just curmudgeonly ranting (as in many of the books of Jeremy Clarkson). I don’t however feel comfortable with Martin Amis’s choice either (defamatory). It is almost impossible to describe Kingsley Amis’s humour in one word.

The King’s English is a delight to read, from the beginning to end. It is self-assured, succinct, acerbic, belligerent, contentious and always thought-provoking. As Joseph Connolly wrote: ‘it is  . . . selective and representative and witty and (given the author how else could it be otherwise?) as witty and entertaining as hell . . . It is rather wonderful to be guided through real modern usage by its foremost practitioner.’

If you care for English language, read this book; it’s a treat.