BOOK (1969)

Rewind, book: 'The Green Man' by Kingsley Amis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 2:17pm

The Green Man

by Kingsley Amis

Jonathan Cape

Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, discussing God and religion with Kingsley Amis, asked the poet-novelist whether he was an atheist.

"Well, yes," the Englishman said, "but it's more that I hate him."

That paradox lies at the heart of The Green Man, on the face of it one of Amis' casual excursions into genre fiction, but fundamentally a dark and serious novel.

The Green Man is a ghost story, in which Amis' characteristic sardonic wit and unblinking insight into self-centred human nature are present in abundance, but his major theme here is death. "I honestly can't see why … everybody who's theoretically old enough to have understood what death means, doesn't spend all his time thinking about it," says the narrator, Maurice Allington, the landlord of a haunted country inn called The Green Man. "It's a pretty arresting thought, not being anything, not being anywhere, and yet the world still being here."

Allington's father dies in the first chapter, ostensibly of a stroke but more probably of fright at seeing a ghost called Thomas Underhill, who lived in The Green Man in the 17th century, and has seen weaknesses in Allington he can exploit.

Allington goes on to have a series of encounters with Underhill and other ghosts, but also with a young man purporting to be God in corporeal form.

He and the young man/God engage in a form of Socratic dialogue in the course of which Amis develops his idea of an essentially mischievous supreme being. "Can you imagine the temptation of altering all the physical laws, or working with something that isn't matter, or simply introducing new rules? Even minor things like cosmic collisions, or plonking a living dinosaur - just one - down in Piccadilly Circus?"

In the climax of the novel, Allington, an alcoholic philanderer, achieves some sort of redemption through confrontations with the murderous Underhill, and comes to terms with his mortality.

"Death was my only means of getting away for good from this body and all its pseudo-symptoms of disease and fear, from the constant awareness of this body, from this person, with his ruthlessness and sentimentality and ineffective, insincere, impracticable notions of behaving better … He [God] had said I would never be free of him as long as the world lasted, and I believed him, but when I died I would be free of Maurice Allington for longer than that."