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Sunday
May202012

That Uncertain Feeling by Kingsley Amis

First published in Great Britain in 1955

Is an employee ever promoted on his or her own merit, or is upward mobility always a function of friendship or politics? Kingsley Amis provides a sly, silly, and perceptive answer to that question in his second novel, That Uncertain Feeling.

John Lewis would like to be elevated to the position of sub-Librarian, but it is lust rather than ambition that leads him to pursue Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams, the village socialite, whose husband is on the committee that will make the selection. That Lewis is married with children causes him to feel some guilt, albeit only when he is in his wife's presence, particularly when she is telling him to have whatever fling he desires so long as he does not burden her with knowledge of his infidelity (a reaction he should know better than to believe). Lewis is much too ineffectual to have a successful affair, but his attempts to woo (and bed) Elizabeth provide ample fodder for the sort of domestic comedy at which Amis excelled.

Poking fun at all things Welsh was a Kingsley Amis specialty. The cast of That Uncertain Feeling includes the sort of eccentric Welsh characters that Amis created masterfully: an arrogant poet, a "nut-faced" clergyman, busybody neighbors, know-it-all committee members, and a wide variety of drunks. Amis also made a career of skewering the pretentious class -- those with a little more money who look down on those with a little less -- although the relatively well-to-do in That Uncertain Feeling are roasted over a low flame. None of the novel's characters are evil or truly unlikable. Even the badly behaving Lewis is endearing, all the more so by the novel's end, when he seems to have learned something from the consequences of his error-prone life.

I don't know if Amis was capable of writing an unfunny sentence. Employing modes of humor that range from dry wit to slapstick, Amis placed his hapless librarian into one awkward situation after another. Amis' ability to write comedy that is simultaneously low key and outrageous has rarely been matched. That Uncertain Feeling is filled with the sort of humor for which Brits are famous: self-effacing commentary; insults exchanged in unfailingly polite language; even a bit of gratuitous cross-dressing.

The ending has the feel of an epilogue -- everything that has gone before suddenly changes, as if Amis didn't know where else to go with the story and decided to abandon it -- but that's a minor complaint. There's probably a serious point buried amidst all the lunacy but I didn't strain myself to search for it. The sustained laughter is quite enough reason for modern readers to search out this 1955 novel.

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