Over the past couple of years, as I have read a few of his novels, Kingsley Amis has become something of a favourite of mine. The first of his that I read was That Uncertain Feeling, which I believe to be superior to his rightly famed novel Lucky Jim that I read second. Following from that I read One Fat Englishman and I Like It Here. The two latter novels were rather slip-shod affairs that I didn't much enjoy, with unpleasant one-dimensional characters, poorly contrived attempts at humour and less plot than a Martin Amis novel. I am pleased then that The Alteration is a return to form, at least in the non-chronological order in which I'm reading his stories.
The story of The Alteration begins at the Requiem Mass of King Stephen the third, with the main protagonist, Hubert Anvil, a choir boy, singing in full voice. Immediately we are aware that this is not the world as we know it. The English Empire still reigns abroad with its viceroys, and the link between church and royalty seems even more pronounced than it is in reality. The king is said to enjoy mutually-respectful relations with the Papacy, so we can be fairly sure that the English Reformation hasn't occurred. Clearly we have entered an alternate history. It is explained in due course that Martin Luther, rather than rebelling against the Church, went to the Vatican to demand that he become Pope.
Two castrates from the Vatican in attendance of the Requiem Mass, Mirabilis and Viaventosa, believe Hubert's adolescent voice to be so perfect that they lobby the Abbot in charge of the boarding house in which Hubert resides to recommend that the boy be neutered so his voice will be preserved and can be put to the 'service of God.' The Abbot, though hungry for fame and status, is not necessarily evil. He questions the decision with Mirabilis, saying: "It's simply that not even the wisest of us is infallible. Suppose that in a few years Anvil's powers decline. There was such a case - at any rate, if it should so turn out, what do we say to ourselves then?" Mirabilis replies: "What you have just said, that none of us is infallible. Let me put your mind at peace, my lord. There are these, these declines you mention, but they're very rare, too rare to be allowed for, and your duty to music and to god is too great. No, whatever should happen, anybody who knows the full truth must see that you were right in your decision." In turn, the Abbot says "Thank you, dear Fritz, that's what I wanted to hear." We see here Amis channelling Steven Weinberg, who said that "for good people to do evil things, it takes religion." The Abbot, so close to allowing his conscience to override his desire for status, is brought closer to evil because of his duty to God, rather than further away.
Throughout this distopian novel, Amis expresses his view of religion. Corruption and unchecked totalitarianism lies at the heart of the Church, the full extent of which is only revealed in the final few pages. And so totalitarianism is at the heart of every religion. Foremost is the need to repress sexual desire and oppress women (it is no coincidence that most religions share a similar story of a virgin birth - aversion to both the normal workings of the female genitalia and female sexual desire). This in itself is sufficient to understand that all religions are man-made. Amis understands this. Father Lyall, the live-in family pastor, having already betrayed his charge of celibacy with Hubert's mother Margaret, seeks to discourage her by saying "The pleasure you take in sinning is an index of the gravity of the sin. The more irresistible the repetition of the offence, the more certainly we know that we are doing Satan's work."
In other words, you shall be punished for exercising love in the carnal sense, and the more you enjoy it, the more you must repent. This is almost the very definition of sexual repression and demonstrates neatly how religion uses guilt and threats of eternal punishment to control its subjects. This also helps to highlight the hypocrisy of this practice. Disgustingly, the vow of celibacy of these folk seems to have been breached with the children of the members of their own Church. Then, far from displaying immediate and unremitting revulsion of this practice, the religious hierarchy moved on the offending persons to new, unsuspecting communities to break their vows all over again and in the process destroy the lives of these poor kids. I heard Salman Rushdie once say something similar to the driving fear of fundamentalism is the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.
The followers of all religions tend to believe themselves to be superior to members of other religious organisations, and non-believers too. But they also trip over themselves trying to be modest about it -there but the grace of god go I, and I humbly serve the will of God - are classic examples of this. On the one hand, they offer themselves to complete subjection, and on the other they claim to personally know the will of the supposed creator of the universe and to be special enough that he suspends the laws of nature in their favour (presumably at the expense of someone else). It's very difficult to get an adult to believe such a thing: a modicum of life experience tends to render the mind suspicious to this kind of solipsism. Best then to teach them young before the developing brain reaches the ability for critical thought. Hubert is on the cusp of this natural developmental process, giving him enough wit to understand that not all of what people tell him is true, but not yet endowed with the ability to look back at his existing beliefs. For example, we are told that "Human beings had absolute God-given rights over dumb creates; it was part of the principle on which the world worked. Less extremely but no less strictly, it applied to divisions within mankind: Christians and Mahometans, clergy and laity, gentry and people, men and women, fathers and children."
This struggle against God and time is what the story revolves around and also what gives it energy. Will those who are meant to protect the young boy intervene against the wishes of the Church and save his balls, or will Hubert himself realise what is at stake and try to protest, and will it make any difference anyway?
Albert Camus half got it right when he noted in The Rebel that the very moment an individual rebels against God, the rebel realises that the power of God is intrinsically tied to the lengths to which the person submits. It is only once the rebel questions this power that the power is truly acknowledged. This is true of all totalitarian regimes, not just religions. It is for this reason that all totalitarian regimes inevitably fail - they cannot truly control the minds of the people they subject. A slave, aware of his shackles, does not love them. Given the resources for freedom (first of the mind, then of the body and spirit) a person of a sound mind will take the opportunity to liberate themselves. Amis represents such a notion in various ways in this book. Most notably, New England (which is obviously America) has cast off the oppressive Papal regime in favour of democratic rule. Also, several characters identify themselves as doubters, or as people rebelling against the Church. Therefore, we find this book at a juncture in the alternate history: the old rule of the Christendom still exists, but it is waning. This backdrop makes for a good read.
I think it is unfortunate that more people don't read Kingsley Amis. His lifetime's literary output was prodigious and varied in scope so there's the possibility of finding something to like. His 1986 Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils, from all accounts, is a superb book (as one would expect) though on Amazon it sits as the 168th most popular short-listed novel. Thus, it seems the knowledge of his skill as a writer (Lucky Jim excluded) is to be lost to the ages, destined to join the majority of authors that do not enjoy posterity. I contest that The Alteration is worthy of a read in the modern era, perhaps more so than Lucky Jim, which to me feels as though it has not worn its age well, with much of the humour lost to changed culture. The Alteration, in my opinion, wears its age better, perhaps because the fight against religious oppression still exists and is old as religion itself. It also helps that little tips of the hat to literary and historical figures and books can be understood, and the irony in their selections brings a smirk to my face. Come to think of it, the irony of this entire book produces a smirk.