SIR: Marilyn Butler is wrong about Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women (I say nothing about the rest of her review: LRB, 7 June). She claims that this novel is not, as advertised and widely received, a work of blackly misogynist import, but an ‘enlightened’, ‘decent’ and ‘compassionate’ critique of gender stereotyping and, in the portrayal of its central character and narrator, a ‘deconstruction of [Amis’s] own favourite macho persona’. A ‘first person’ novel may of course invite an ironic reading which reverses everything the narrator asserts, but there must be some signals tacitly encoded in the text (e.g. inconsistencies or absurdities in the narrator’s discourse) which indicate to the reader that the narrator is unreliable (Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a good example). ‘Amis maintains his distance from the petty chauvinist Stanley,’ Dr Butler asserts, ‘so that what Stanley says and what the book says are two different things.’ But her only evidence for this is of her own invention.
The ‘key episodes’, she says, ‘are Stanley’s two interviews with Dr Collings, which Amis on the whole lets Collings win’. It is impossible to demonstrate, in the space of a letter, that the reverse is the case, but let me make just a few points. The story concerns the mental breakdown of Stanley’s son, Steve. Collings is working on the hypothesis that Stanley resented the birth of Steve to his first wife, Nowell, had a culpably poor relationship with Steve in the latter’s childhood, and dissuaded his second wife, Susan, from having children. But she never succeeds in getting any hard evidence to this effect, nor is anything that Stanley says in these interviews ever shown to be false or self-deceiving. Collings, on the other hand, lies blatantly to Stanley’s friend Lindsey in the course of the first interview, which surely discredits her in the eyes of the reader.
Dr Butler makes no mention of Lindsey in her review, but she is an important character, the only woman with whom Stanley has real rapport. She takes an instant dislike to Trish Collings. If Stanley is, as Dr Butler claims, ‘deluded’, then so is Lindsey, but, on the contrary, she is presented as a shrewd judge of character. Early in the novel she tries to warn Stanley of his wife Susan’s instability. When Susan claims to have been stabbed by Steve (a very grave accusation, which Dr Butler omits to mention) it is Lindsey who confirms Stanley’s reluctantly entertained suspicion that Susan wounded herself to claim his attention, by telling him about Susan’s neurotic behaviour in the past.
It is quite false to assert that Stanley is ‘instantly ready to gang up – first with Nowell, afterwards with Susan – to have [Steve] admitted to hospital’. There is a long scene in which Stanley pleads with the psychiatrist Nash that Steve should be allowed to attend the hospital as an outpatient. Throughout, Stanley is portrayed as a troubled father trying to do his best for his son, and disposed to trust the ‘experts’ if he possibly can: ‘I told myself it had to be, had to make sense somehow, somewhere. The resemblance to TV must be a mistake, an illusion based on my ignorance, which had made me miss all sorts of subtle points and misunderstand phrases and expressions that were nearly or even exactly the same as bits of drivel but actually conveyed a precise scientific meaning to those in the know, and getting in touch with your own anger and finding out who you really were, etc, were technical terms referring to defiite, observable processes.’ This passage, which Dr Butler says betrays Stanley’s uptight resistance to Dr Collings’s ‘democratic’ professional style, is surely discrediting Collings’s discourse by making Stanley a reluctant witness to its clichés and imprecision.
It’s perfectly true, as Dr Butler observes, that Amis could have created a much broader caricature of a trendy psychiatrist than Trish Collings; by the same token he could have created a broad comic caricature of a raving feminist. The artfulness of the book resides precisely in this: that it conceals the full force of its misogynist message until the reader is so deeply involved in the story that s(he) cannot simply dismiss it. But Mr Amis seems to have reckoned without a reader who would respond by turning the message inside out.
Marilyn Butler writes: Lodge reads Amis’s novel as mimetic – an attempt to represent external reality as Amis thinks it is. I think it’s concerned with structures of thought, principally those of the narrator Stanley, and a structure of thought belongs to the person who thinks it. Amis’s use of a deeply irrational narrator is consistent with the general intellectual tone of the novel, which is one of scepticism. The effect would be marred if he went in for the crude authorial interventions – ‘signals’or ‘hard evidence’ – Lodge asks for, which would imply that there’s an objective or approved view of, say, women, madness, adolescence and Jews. Stanley’s narration is full of absurdity, of self-deception, of animus against his first wife and of ignorance about the previous life and feelings of Steve. And a case against him is made, but by characters he doesn’t like: women, of course, the doctor Collings and the first wife, Nowell. Stanley brushes off what they say, and so does a reader persuaded by him, like Lodge. Characters Stanley does like are shown behaving badly: Stanley doesn’t notice, and nor does the compliant reader (Lodge again). Lindsey, with whom Stanley has an on-off affair, is a case in point. She claims to be loyal to her old friend Susan, Stanley’s current wife, when she is talking to Collings – whom she suspects of having designs on Stanley. When she is talking to Stanley, Lindsey undermines and finally betrays Susan – in a deeply unsympathetic and (as always, in this novel) uncorroborated story which earns her Lodge’s unsuspicious description: ‘a shrewd judge of character’. But why does Lodge take her rapport with the bigot Stanley as sufficient proof of her shrewdness? My point was that the reader would have to choose to trust Stanley – Amis has not obliged him to. Incidentally, I applied the words ‘enlightened’ and ‘decent’, not to the novel’s views on gender, but to what it says about the treatment of mental illness.
SIR: I find it interesting and surprising that Craig Raine in his long and perceptive review (LRB, 17 May) of Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Prose, which I compiled and edited, rates her story, ‘The Farmer’s Children’, so highly: not merely as a good story but a great one, as great as Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Kipling’s ‘They’. Indeed he makes his meaning clearer by calling it ‘an implacable masterpiece’ and ‘one of the greatest short stories of the 20th century’. No one would have been more surprised at this than Elizabeth Bishop, who had such little regard for ‘The Farmer’s Children’ that she omitted it from her proposed table of contents. Of course she was the severest critic of her own work, poetry and prose. Mr Raine believes that her harsh words, ‘a very bad short story’, were intended for ‘The Baptism’ rather than ‘The Farmer’s Children’, yet the former is the first story she listed for the collection and the latter is not listed at all. Her most conventional story, it was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories of 1948, though not as the best story of that year, and it is her only story that is wholly non-autobiographical. In fact she pasted the news-clipping on which the story is based on the first page of her manuscript.
None of this necessarily prevents ‘The Farmer’s Children’ from being a masterpiece. Elizabeth omitted other fine pieces – ‘A Trip to Vigia’, ‘The USA School of Writing’ and ‘The Country Mouse’ – which I also took the responsibility of including in this collection. I hope Mr Raine is right. I can hear Elizabeth, with her consistent adherence to good manners, saying: ‘If he really thinks so, who am I to disagree?’
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
SIR: Blair Worden himself illustrates the need for what he calls the ‘lucrative’ and ‘fashionable’ study of women’s history (LRB, 7 June). His assertion that the activities of 17th-century women petitioners and peace marchers had ‘no self-consciously feminist impulse behind them’ is just the kind of commonplace historical ‘truth’ about women which invites careful investigation. Moreover, in one sentence (‘… the bookseller Abigail Baldwin, whose eventful life has been described by Eleanor Rostenberg’) he manages to misremember both women’s names (Ann Baldwin is the subject of an essay by Leona Rostenberg), suggesting perhaps that we do need historians who consider women and their history worthy of more than half their attention.
Blair Worden writes: Although Ms Baldwin sometimes used the name Ann (or Anne) in her activities as a bookseller, her Christian name was Abigail (née Mulford). That fact, which is documented in the notes by Michael Treadwell in the John Johnson collection in the Bodleian, was unknown to Ms Rostenberg, whose Christian name I should have got right.
SIR: In his review of Simone de Beauvoir’s Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre (LRB, 7 June) Douglas Johnson suggests that de Beauvoir (rather than Sartre?) ‘must be suspect to feminists’ because she refused to be critical of Melina or of Sartre’s other young women. On the contrary, de Beauvoir demonstrated again and again that she was more free of bad faith than the man who popularised the term. The perfect, the ‘sensitive’ man was and still is a utopian construct. Among less-than-perfect men, Simone de Beauvoir chose one of the most gifted, most difficult, most interesting. Her attitude to Sartre over the years may not have been free of ‘idolatry’ (Johnson), but then Sartre’s thinking and his public life bound thousands to him in the deepest admiration and affection. If, as it is reported, de Beauvoir did wish to lie down with the dying Sartre, that surely is testimony, not to her failure to judge him correctly, but only to the special nature of the moment, an end to a quite extraordinary relationship of half a century.
That Sartre was immature, even shabby, in his treatment of women, and arrogant and wrong-headed in his views on them, may or may not have been fully clear to de Beauvoir. One is tempted to read between the lines of her intimate accounts: but one should not ‘suspect’ her generosity. Within quite a short period sexual passion was displaced in their relationship by a different kind of symbiosis. It hardly seems surprising that she should have accepted his philosophical authority, or that he should have learnt about life from her, and from his other women. This reflects the real distribution of their extraordinary talents. De Beauvoir’s contribution as a writer was considerable: not only the bible of the early feminist movement, The Second Sex, not only brilliant novels, but also the link between Sartre’s abstract-individualist philosophy and social commitment – the ethics Sartre repeatedly promised but always failed to deliver.
SIR: Your stern reviewer of Paul Fussell’s Caste Marks (LRB, 17 May) is evidently trying to prevent the emergence of an X-cult on this side of the Atlantic. Too late! It already exists here in France where an X is a polytechnician to whom no one would dare deny the other X-qualifications enumerated. But problems of definition will still exist. Last week, bedbound, I found that the only way to offer a D-Day drink to the kind staff of this clinic and to stop the bubbles escaping between their arrivals at my bedside was to obtain (have you guessed?) an electro-plated ‘Champagne Recork’. Does the fact that I obtained it without the aid of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue automatically qualify me as an X, or must I follow the ‘conventional wisdom’ and regard myself as a middle whose ‘pathetic mixture of pretension and timidity’ led me to it? The whole future of the Eastern Atlantic X-cult recruitment campaign may hang on the answer to this question.
Clinique Pasteur, Granges les Valence, France
SIR: In her generous review of Jean MacGibbon’s memoir, I meant to marry him, Gabriele Annan (LRB, 7 June) quotes Philip Toynbee’s lewd send-up of the Horlicks slogan, ‘Masturbation, not night starvation,’ and adds (delightfully) that the Communist Party version was ‘Masturbation, not mass starvation.’ There never was such an official CP slogan. Only middle-class members in the Thirties could believe how respectable ‘the Party’ then was and as masturbation was unmentionable in the drawing-room, it was unmentionable on big Party marches.
SIR: Peter Parker (Letters, 17 May) questions my credibility. He asks me to support my assertion that there is no discrimination against Arab sheepfarmers in Israel and goes on from there to ask what I really know and believe about Israel. I did not quote chapter and verse in my first letter since that letter was already rather long. Now Mr Rosen (LRB, 16 February) wants to know if I can tell the difference between an Awassi and an English sheep. Well, since they insist … I was myself a sheepfarmer in Israel for eight years, had close relations with the Sheepraisers’ Association, and had frequent contact with Arabs as workers, traders and shepherds. Against this background I was alerted to the inherent absurdity of the claim that Arabs are discriminated against as regards immunisation of their sheep. It would be utterly ridiculous for the Israeli Government to immunise some sheep and not others. Even if we attribute only selfish motives to the Israelis, it would still make no sense to discriminate and thereby endanger all sheep in Israel. Incidentally, a senior member of the Sheepraisers’ Association is an Arab and he has been active in helping Arab sheep-farmers.
Two anecdotes illustrate my argument. A recent report tells of the Israeli Government, at its own expense, moving four thousand Arab-owned sheep from the Negev to the centre of the country to save them from drought. And on a personal note: we used to graze our sheep on public land near the local wadi. One day some Bedouin shepherds appeared and began grazing the same land. We were afraid of depleting our already limited grazing land still further, although the greatest fear of any livestock farmer, spread of disease, was uppermost in our minds. We politely asked them to move on. They, equally politely, refused. We asked the police if we could in law have them moved, on the grounds that we had prior grazing rights. The police replied that neither they nor we had any standing in the matter; and that was that – we made other arrangements until they left. These are hardly tales of discrimination, and they indicate the kind of problems which Israeli sheepfarmers, Jewish and Arab, have to deal with, and do deal with amicably and with good will.
However, it is clear that Mr Parker’s criticisms have a wider scope. He asks if I believe there are human rights violations in Israel. Of course there are! Nor do I need special sources to know that. All I have to do is read the Israeli daily press, which, if you are looking for criticism of Israel, will give as much as you want. What Mr Parker fails to realise is that there are also issues of proportionality and of context. Just because I commit occasional parking offences does not put me in the same criminal category as the Yorkshire Ripper. To put Israel in the same category as other countries which not only have far worse human rights records (in fact Israel’s compares favourably with that of most countries in the world) but are fundamentally totalitarian, despotic and often racist is, to put it mildly, the height of imbalance. This was my criticism of Professor Said: many people are prepared to see Israel as the incarnation of evil while ignoring or smiling indulgently at the worst kinds of brutality and discrimination in neighbouring states. Of course there are individuals, institutions and government bodies which display racism in Israel (name me one country where this doesn’t apply). There are, equally, many individuals, institutions and government bodies actively working for the welfare of all segments of the population and attempting to combat any violations of human rights. Nor is extraordinary research required to know this. Israel’s democracy, despite many flaws, allows all this to happen publicly. A determined press, parliamentary parties, voluntary organisations, an independent judiciary, a powerful and independent Histadrut – these permit vociferous expression of wide-ranging views and campaigns which allow for the negative to be publicly aired and for justice to be done. Only a fool would pretend that Israel is perfect: but only the blind cannot see that Israel is a democracy at all levels, and for all sections of the population.
SIR: John Bayley (LRB, 7 June) pauses in his review of Milan Kundera’s new novel to have a bit of a sneer at me, which is fine, but one thing puzzled me a bit. He says, of my piece about The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, that I ‘went on to bury it under all the chic epithets, sad, obscene, tender, wickedly funny, wonderfully wise, “a masterpiece full of angels, terror, ostriches and love". It was not as bad as that.’ When I looked up the piece, however – about one hundred words in the Sunday Times’s 1981 ‘Books of the Year’ feature – I found, as I had suspected, that not one of the five ‘chic epithets’ had been used in it. Not sad, not obscene, not tender, not wonderfully wise, not wickedly funny. Now it’s true that John Bayley did not place the offending quintet in quotation-marks, but would the Warton Professor of English at Oxford please tell us how it is possible to bury a book beneath words which one has not actually employed?
SIR: In his wonderful review of John Carvel’s Citizen Ken (LRB, 7 June), Neal Ascherson rightly remarks that the last ten years have brought press campaigns ‘against the personal and public lives of selected left-wing politicians of a viciousness scarcely seen in Britain since the Victorian period’. It was with some dismay, therefore, that I noticed on the same page of that very issue of LRB a letter from Donald Davie calling me a ‘Commissar’. And for what reason? Because I expressed a liking for Virgil and wondered if Charles Tomlinson’s Pooterish lectures on verse translation weren’t a shade remote from Britain in recession. Things must be in a bad way indeed when a harmless reviewer is vilified in this brutally populist manner.
University of Virginia
SIR: For a biography of the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali, I would very much appreciate hearing from anyone who may have letters, photographs and similar memorabilia or personal reminiscences he or she would be willing to share.
Halcyon, PO Box 395, Walpole, New Hampshire 03608
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.