Friday, July 20, 2007

A Review of Only Two Can Play/That Uncertain Feeling, By Kingsley Amis

That Uncertain Feeling, the hilarious novel by Kingsley Amis, now filmed as Only Two Can Play, starring Peter Sellers, Mai Zetterling, Virginia Maskell. A British Lion Production. A Four Square Book, The New English Library, Ltd., #229. (September, 1962, reprinting of the work published in August, 1955.)

The back of the paperback says, "When this novel was first published it was praised everywhere for its boldness, comedy and style." One of the reviewer quotes used reads, "I must warn readers that this book speaks with the shocking directness about the way of a man with a woman" (John Betjeman, Daily Telegraph). If this is true, I cannot speak to it as I am a woman. However, the book is about a man and told from his perspective (as well as was written by a man), so 'tis more than likely.

The plot is simple. John Lewis is a married assistant librarian in the Welsh town of Aberdarcy, and he and his wife (jean) of just past 5 years are in the dreaded rut, complete with young children and money issues. One morning a wealthy and attractive married woman, Liz, comes into the library. It soon becomes clear that Liz would like to check out more than some books. What complicates the plot, making it more than just the traditional fantasies of a married man (a la the Seven year Itch), is that Liz's husband, Vernon, is in a position to give John a promotion (and a much desired raise).

What fascinates is that John is a rather moral fellow. At first he only believes the attraction to Liz is that she is female fodder for a bit of fantasy and that in fact, she's not (nor would be) interested in him. While finding her attractive, he is also somewhat repelled -- he rather dislikes her position of privilege. (This also speaks of a common human reaction to insecurity -- to loath and disdain prior to being loathed or disdained -- and the reaction to such thoughts, such as to covet.)

But eventually Liz corners John, and he gives in to first one kiss. Then another meeting, and another kiss -- the sort of kiss which is, as Liz says, a "commitment" on his part to further activities...

John's moral reaction isn't exactly as expected -- nor cliched. Perhaps this is the "shocking directness" of a man regarding women that we've been warned about. Whatever; it makes for great reading. This is a passage which illuminates John's thoughts as well as the novel's original title of That Uncertain Feeling:
How, then, was I going to spend the next hour, or rather, adding Jean's usual surcharge, hour and a half? In defending myself, presumably, against a certain feeling. Such defence was never easy, because of its habit of confusing itself with the feeling. How to define this feeling? Depression? Not a bad shot. Boredom? Oh yes. A slight twinge, too, eh, of uneasiness and inert, generalised, lust? Yes, indeed. The centre of it might be called boredom, but not the same sort as the boredom which was fond of attacking me in slack periods in the Library. That was bemused, trance-like, even vaguely pleasurable, like the drowsiness it so often merged into; this, to-night, was restless. It had already stopped me from starting to read, it would shortly drive me to the window again as if I expected someone to call (though I didn't and no one would), it would, later on, make me want to go out to the pub, at the same time informing me that it wouldn't be worth it, that I shouldn't like it there and would at once start wanting to come home.

Yes, it was all very difficult. Curious, too, was the way something so efficient should be so hard to define. But, having for once tried to define it instead of letting it sneak up and jump on my back, I felt a little cheered.
John then turns to his hidden girly magazine.
It represented a full-figure girl wearing a curious yachting costume consisting mainly of a peaked cap, a pair of seaman's boots, and a small, inefficient-looking telescope. Apart from these, she wore two pieces of cloth with a nautical stripe, one covering a good deal of the lower half of her breasts, the other an almost irreducible minimum at the crotch. An expression of guarded joviality was on her face. This jolly skipper, I read in a panel near her right boot, is curvesome Marietta DuForgue, now vacationing at Las Palmas. The dimensions of this trim craft are 38" for'ard, 23" amidships, and 36" aft. What wouldn't you give for a chance of getting her to heave to. Shaking my head over these vulgarities, in particular the maladroit change of image from 'skipper' to 'craft', I went on looking at the photograph.
I didn't just include that section for the giggles. I think it clearly illustrates how John intellectually processes, even to say to himself, "this isn't good," but how he continues anyway. What we know isn't always what we do. And sometimes, we'll accept this lowering of our standards because we don't know what else to do with ourselves, our uncertain feelings. Despite certain knowledge of 'bad' we find ourselves not sure how to be 'good.' And sex, lust, emotions, they aren't solved or sated with our intellectual knowledge.

So our boy John struggles with his uncertain feeling. He has some ambiguity regarding adultery with Liz, but he is most uncomfortable with the idea of Liz fixing the job promotion. Not only is this sort of political, who-you-know game completely against his philosophy, one of the others up for the job is a coworker named Ieuan who in John's opinion, needs the additional pay even more than John. Eventually, though, John and Liz do it. (Not a very erotic bit and I should say that none of this book is really intended to be erotic.)

Immediately afterwards, John realizes that Liz could have been any woman really. And if that's anti-climactic, he's most upset about the job interview being fixed to favor him. He tells Liz to stop her plans, stop her husband, and chucks it all away to return home to Jean, literally and figuratively.

Jean's response as betrayed wife is very real and honest. (This impresses me because the book is touted as such a man's point of view.) Jean doesn't really care that John's screwed Liz because to her, the real pain and loss occurred when she realized that John wanted Liz more than he wanted her. The consummation of his lust is not the real issue.

However, Amis via Jean, carries the attitude and reaction to betrayal even further -- and I think even more realistically.

In the middle of their heated discussion of the situation, John's betrayal with Liz, Jean tells John that she doesn't want to hear about it. The details are unimportant, what's done is done, no need to say anything more -- but of the job? Well, Jean has a lot to say about that.
You couldn't just do it and forget about it, not you, you had to make a bloody fuss, so you told her what to do with the job she'd landed you. Don't talk to me about Ieuan, you don't care what happens to Ieuan, or his wife. You forgot you were married to me, though, that's what makes me so mad. If it had just been your job you were turning down, fair enough, you could do as you liked. But it wasn't just your job, it was my job as well, and the kids' too. But you didn't care about that, you'd got to make your stand and be bloody sensitive. Well, I hope you're satisfied.
She continues to tell John the usual, like he's sleeping alone. And when he tries to kiss her, she slugs him. But then Jean gets a second wind.
What you'd better do is to make up to Elizabeth again quick. Get her to take you away for the week-end or something. I don't care how you do it, but make sure the affair's on again. And then tell her you want that job after all, see? You didn't mean what you said, you acted hastily, something like that. You'll know what to say, I bet. But you get that job back, else I'll stop cooking for you --
Jean even lies and says she's had an affair (with a poet John cannot stand) when she has not.

John is devastated. To sleep alone a night, or many, is likely not anything unexpected let alone unwarranted. But when your wife says she'll stop being your wife in all ways... Well, there's real damage done.

John's hit bottom. Early that night, after Liz and he do it on the beach, not only did John end things with Liz but her husband told John in no uncertain terms to stay away. John's potential promotion isn't exactly something within his control -- and that means losing Jean.

In the end, John is offered the job but he declines and Ieuan gets it. John, Jean and the kids start over in the town where John grew-up. There, at a party, we find John being hit-on by another attractive, yet married, woman. She'd like to leave the party and have a hook-up asap. John hurriedly makes an excuse to the hostess and then quickly makes for the door.

Jean, who was nearby the hostess and so heard John's excuse and saw his departure, catches up with him outside. John tells her that he had to get away from that woman. They smile and walk off together.

Into the sunset? Perhaps. John seems a wiser man, and Jean clearly will keep a watchful eye.

The book is an interesting look at the deterioration of a marriage -- but not a cliched one. Jean's no over-bearing shrew, John's no moral-free playboy, and neither is the anti-Christ. While nothing in particular drives a wedge between them (of the sort that Hollywood would contrive to create a plot anyway), what makes this all work is the interior monologue and subtle actions of John Lewis.

His thoughts are not unrealistic; his actions not so flamboyant. He has morals, but sometimes his intellect makes things a bit too tidy sometimes. He's just a guy with that uncertain feeling, in a marriage with that uncertain feeling, and opportunity is thrust to meet his lust and what's a guy to do? His decisions are not well-made, but in reading how he arrived at those decisions you can see how too easily this can happen. Suddenly you find yourself in a cluster-fuck. That's pretty human. And the excellent part is that all the other characters, trapped inside the cluster or outside of it, are all realistically human too. Right down to the habitually cheating Liz, her seemingly distracted (or tolerant) husband, and the supporting characters such as Ieuan and the Lewis' downstairs neighbors.

Solid stuff. Solid vintage stuff.

One complication for me was the English -- not just the language (which does differ, you chaps -- for example, I didn't know what Jerries were), but much of the book deals with what I can only presume is the classic battle of the English versus the Welsh. While actual Welsh spelling isn't used (thank gawd), some of the terms and nearly all of the jabs about being Welsh or English were over my head. This does not render the novel worthless, but means one really has to pay more attention than I had assumed the paperback would require. It really is a good read.

Only Two Can Play VHS As noted, the work was turned into a film, Only Two Can Play, in 1962, apparently with the usual book-to-film changes, including a slightly different ending. It starred Peter Sellars as John Lewis, Virginia Maskell as Jean Lewis, Mai Zetterling as Liz (Elizabeth) Gruffydd-Williams, and Richard Attenborough as Vernon Gruffydd-Williams.

The BBC also made this a television series in 1985, staring Denis Lawson and Sheila Gish, under the original novel title, That Uncertain Feeling.

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