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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting failure. Or possibly not interesting, come to think of it.,, 5 May 2011
This review is from: The Alteration (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
Amis had the good fortune to become famous with his first novel, Lucky Jim, which was based loosely on immediately post-war Britain - Leicester University in fact - and written in a Wodehouse style. Amis lectured in Wales on Eng Lit; he seems to have been unimpressed by the average student. He also - I believe - wanted to be part of serious literature. He had the sense to realise that science was important, and hence tended to include bits of it, despite the fact that the British public school ethos was anti-science. I suspect this accounts for his interest in science fiction, but the sort without much science.

This book seems to have been prompted by an imitative impulse - influenced by Keith Roberts' 'Pavane', and Philip K. Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle', and perhaps '1984'. The 'alternative reality' novel. Amis did not attempt the trick of inserting a second 'alternative reality', the present-day world or some other, within his book.

The obvious 'alternative reality' is a different Second World War, of course because of the immense weight of propaganda attached. Dicks tried this. The First World War was arguably more important, but fewer people would be interested. Amis however picks on the Reformation, as did Roberts.

I think it's fair to say his treatment is entirely conventional. The conventions being: Catholicism is rather cunning and brutal, recognises no animal rights, doesn't like contraception as embodied in Pope such-and-such's Encyclical, emphasises sin, penitence and the soul; that sort of thing, including a vocabulary - Devotional, Hail Mary, Prie Dieu, Observator Romanus - the newspaper, references such as the handkerchief of St Veronica, etc. However, the seamy side of entrenched Catholicism - sales of indulgences, support for some genocides, for example - isn't in here. Another significant fact is the supposed Catholic dislike of science - notably, in Amis, electricity, though this aspect isn't very well developed. Amis' north America is simply a version of New England, which seems big to Europeans, but small compared to the actual USA as it is now. There's an anglo-Dutch feel to names, apart from Indians, who for some reason have Spanish or Portuguese names and live under an apartheid-like system. No blacks or of course black slave-trade. Their religion is Presbyterian, led by ArchPresbyters. The Turks are next door. Black Africans are ignored. European countries and regions when described are somewhat archaic - Almaigne, for example, and Muscovy. All of this is simply ascribed to 1976.

Note that church-state separation is assumed almost unconsciously. The Muslim and Jewish and other tribal-related systems are not distinguished by Amis.

Part of Amis's technique is to refer to names which the readers can be expected to recognise. The proper names includes stars of art and architecture. There's a flavour of reference books here: Wagner's Kreutz, fair enough. Michelangelo a suicide when his ideas are rejected, fair enough. I'm not sure Turner decorating the Sistine Chapel is entirely plausible. There are Italian architectural technical terms. England's principal cathedral (with a Wren dome) is in Coverley, which I think is Cowley, near Oxford. Shakespeare (he's not named, cautiously) was for some reason banned or deleted, but lives on in New England's Puritanical theatres.

There's a problem with popular culture; could there be an analogue of Music Hall stars, Chaplin, or the Beatles? Amis avoids this issue. However we do have Ayer (a friend of Amis) as Professor of Dogmatic Theology. And Himmler as a Cardinal, along with Beria (a Jewish Cardinal? From Moscovy??) both one assumes about 70. Foot and Redgrave are two officers responsible for checking on something like anti-Catholic thought crime. (I couldn't find any analogues to Churchill or Hitler or Stalin. Or for that matter to a novelist called Amis).

If the Reformation never happened, Rome would have a more-or-less continuous importance for 2000+ years - only I think Peking could compare. There are some good passages by Amis on this. Incidentally Amis has a Yorkshire Pope, who eats things like 'dropped scones, riddle bread, quince conserve, bloater-paste arundels' (surely griddle bread?) and drinks ale, though I'm bound to say I think Amis' main reason is to save the trouble of including chunks of Latin and descriptions of Italian manners and food. John XXIV isn't only interested in sin and redemption; he's concerned with population growth - 80 million predicted for Britain in 2000!

The background to the altered world is a tricky thing to write, since of course it would be largely taken for granted by people living at the time. Obviously Amis wouldn't include made-up manuals or technical stuff. There's a crafts feel which would warm William Morris's heart: real fires; silks, velvets, etc, in purples and scarlets; and for the lesser types corduroy and fustian etc in black, grey, and white. We also seem to have diesel engines, and also clockwork engines. If I've read Amis correctly, the journey to Rome is essentially by viaduct, something of course the Romans mastered. Though we have some tunnels too. The ingenious Americans have a thousand foot long airship (filled with helium). There's an account of one leaving from Salisbury Plain (against the prevailing wind?) We have a vehicle with a 'windguard' and 'swabbers'. There are photograms and some sort of telegram. This is done unobtrusively and quite well, but doesn't, to be honest, sound technically workable.

Amis looks at wealthy-ish people, Abbots and so on; there's no description really of poverty, although there are hints - the equivalent of railway stations swarm with purveyors of food and drink, balladiers and ballads, touts offering 'full range of services'. There's a rather odd passage of a Jewish taxi (or rather 'public') driver kidnapping Hubert with the intention of ransoming him, as had clearly been done before. Since all publics were driven by people with the equivalent of 'the knowledge' it seems implausible he would still be in business. But it's only a story...

... And the story is an adventure story. Hubert is ten. However he has a spectacular singing voice. It's also made clear he has an astounding grasp of the techniques of music and is capable of holding simultaneous melodies in his head and processing them from a singing viewpoint (or soundpoint?) It is decided he is to be operated upon. Most of the story is Hubert trying to work out what 'f**king' means (rhymes with 'ducking' - sorry, Amazon) and feels like, and the reaction of his parents, and his escape and capture. The word 'c*stration', and even 'castrati', I think is never used. Some people consider that music is related to sex (Bertrand Russell thought this) and Amis duly incorporates the view that Hubert might lose his skills.

I have to say it is not very plausible. Amis presents Britain as full of resentful, thoughtful opponents and sceptics, when surely most people would have accepted the stuff, just as they accept the BBC now. If castration were a fairly routine thing, why should anyone make a fuss? As an analogy, most societies have accepted the death penalty; would they agonise over someone thought to deserve it? And there's a very implausible medical twist (literally) near the end. Another tiresome feature is that of course Hubert had to be well below adolescence. Would a boy so young have the presence of mind to whack a Jewish kidnapper, pour brandy on a fire for a surprise ignition, grab keys and escape from ... well, it doesn't matter. I can't help wondering if Amis patterned Hubert on his son Martin; it seems unlikely!

At the very end there's a fifteen-years-later envoi - a concert by Hubert. We learn there has been a great war of Christendom versus the Turks, with I think Bulgaria as the original point of dispute. The Turks got to Brussels, then rather mysteriously retreated. Thirty million Christian deaths. There's a hint it was arranged with the Sultan-Calif despite the policy of detensione.

Who knows how many stars to give..?
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Location: Manchester, England

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