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The Alteration [Paperback]

Kingsley Amis
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 20 2004

A comic masterpiece by one of Britain's best-loved writers.
Of all the choristers at the Cathedral Basilica of St George, he is the angel -- the one whose voice could only have been made in heaven. In every other respect Hubert is utterly ordinary: a nice, rather timid ten-year-old boy. The year is 1976, but by bold Amisian sleight-of-hand, the England of The Alteration has become a disconcerting, quasi-medieval land in the Age of Faith. And here a wickedly brilliant Swiftian satire takes shape. It's modest proposal? Well, it stands to reason that Hubert's glorious voice must be preserved at all costs. So castration is clearly the only answer.

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"Kingsley Amis's coruscating tour de force..." The Economist "Certain of his place up alongside P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell among the English comic masters of the twentieth century." Guardian "The disorientating world of The Alteration is the same but different, familiar yet strange" -- Laura Keynes Tablet

About the Author

KINGSLEY AMIS was born in south London in 1922 and was educated at the City of London School and St John's College, Oxford. After the publication of Lucky Jim in 1954, Kingsley Amis wrote over twenty novels, including The Alteration, winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, The Old Devils, winner of the Booker Prize in 1986, and The Biographer's Moustache, which was to be his last book. He also wrote on politics, education, language, films, television, restaurants and drink. Kingsley Amis was awarded the CBE in 1981 and received a knighthood in 1990. He died in October 1995.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars music, love, and strange times June 21 2004
Amis gives us a very strange 20th century: Since the fundamentalist Martin Luther was elected pope and the Church was reformed, all Europe (including Great Britain) remained Catholic. Science and the laws, hemmed by theological traditions, have not developed to a form we are used to nowadays.
The musical prodigy Hubert Anvil, aged ten, excels with his pure soprano voice and early compositions. So the pope wants to have him alterated to preserve this wonderful voice for his Sistine Chapel. Two emissaries, also alterated, shall test the boy. Here Amis is at his wittiest: Fredericus Mirabilis translated is the famous German tenor Fritz Wunderlich, and the other one, addressed only as Lupogradus, is in German "Wolfgang" (Amadeus Mozart, about sicty years old). Through alteration he lost all his abilitites as a composer, and predicts this sad fate to Hubert, too.
We find a lot of descriptions and disputes about the different kinds of love - carnal, spiritual, and infantile - none which is funny, sometimes cruel, and the boy is interested to hear much about the love he is still too young for, and the joys he will be missing.
When he tries to escape his fate with the help of the dissident American ambassador he falls ill and can only be saved by the removal of his testicles - alteration. Miracle, act of God? A very strange end of the book indeed.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An example of Kingsley Amis's range. Oct. 20 2001
Kingsley Amis is best known as a satirist -- Lucky Jim is one of the funniest books since World War II -- but he always had an interest in science fiction (according to his son Martin, one of his favorite movies was The Terminator), and this book presents an alternative history in which Britain remained a Catholic country, and Martin Luther was reconciled to the Church. Other changes including Bethoven writing 20 symphonies and Mozart dying even earlier than in real life. The main character is a boy (Hubert) about to lose his voice because of puberty; the "alteration" of the title is castration to preserve that voice. Amis presents a well-thought out altenrate version, and the adventures of Hubert to escape his alteration are both interesting and used to further explain this alternative history. Unfortunately, the book is out of print in the U.S.; I got my copy on a trip to Britain. Almost anything Kingsley Amis wrote is interesting, and it is our loss that more of his works are not available in the U.S.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An example of Kingsley Amis's range. Oct. 20 2001
By R. H OAKLEY - Published on
Kingsley Amis is best known as a satirist -- Lucky Jim is one of the funniest books since World War II -- but he always had an interest in science fiction (according to his son Martin, one of his favorite movies was The Terminator), and this book presents an alternative history in which Britain remained a Catholic country, and Martin Luther was reconciled to the Church. Other changes including Bethoven writing 20 symphonies and Mozart dying even earlier than in real life. The main character is a boy (Hubert) about to lose his voice because of puberty; the "alteration" of the title is castration to preserve that voice. Amis presents a well-thought out altenrate version, and the adventures of Hubert to escape his alteration are both interesting and used to further explain this alternative history. Unfortunately, the book is out of print in the U.S.; I got my copy on a trip to Britain. Almost anything Kingsley Amis wrote is interesting, and it is our loss that more of his works are not available in the U.S.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Alteration of History Oct. 12 2011
By J C E Hitchcock - Published on
Like Keith Roberts's "Pavane", "The Alteration" is an alternate history novel in which the Reformation was defeated and Europe in the second half of the twentieth century remains under the control of an all-controlling Roman Catholic Church. (Kingsley Amis makes a playful reference to Roberts's book, acknowledging that it served as his inspiration). As in Roberts's novel, the Church has not only imposed a quasi-totalitarian theocratic dictatorship but has also, being extremely suspicious of science in all its forms, acted as a brake on technological progress; there are, for example, no aircraft apart from airships. (Amis is not always consistent on this point, however; we learn that there are railway trains capable of travelling from London to Rome in just seven hours, via a Channel Bridge).

Roberts imagined what would have happened if Elizabeth I had been assassinated and the Spanish Armada had been victorious. Amis's point of divergence takes place several decades earlier. In his parallel universe Prince Arthur, the elder son of Henry VII, survived long enough to become King and to father a son by Catherine of Aragon. Upon Arthur's death his younger brother Henry the Abominable (our timeline's Henry VIII) usurped his nephew's crown, whereupon Pope Germanian I (our timeline's Martin Luther) announced a crusade to restore the rightful heir to the throne.

The word "alteration" in the title has a double meaning. On the one hand it refers to the way in which Amis himself has altered history, producing a world which has certain resemblances to our own, yet in many ways is very different. On the other hand it is, in his alternative England, a euphemism for castration, the fate with which the main character, Hubert Anvil, is threatened.

The story is set in the year 1976 (the year the novel was published). Hubert is a ten-year-old chorister at St George's Basilica, Coverley. (Coverley, also known as Cowley near Oxford, is the place where the Pope's forces defeated those of Henry the Abominable and has been made the ecclesiastical capital of England in place of Canterbury). Hubert has a particularly fine voice, and the Church hierarchy, including the Pope himself, have decided that he should be "altered" so that he may sing as a soprano in the choir of St Peter's, Rome, and in this quasi-totalitarian society, what the Pope wants, the Pope generally gets.

There is, however, one possible way out. In Robert's universe, the Catholic Church dominated the entire Christian world. In Amis's, Catholicism prevails throughout Europe, including Russia. (What happened to the Orthodox Church is never explained). Protestantism has, however, survived in one corner of the globe, the "Republic of New England", roughly speaking the Eastern seaboard of North America, which for four centuries has functioned as a sanctuary for religious dissidents. Hubert takes refuge in the New Englander embassy, where the liberal ambassador makes plans to assist his escape.

Despite the similarities between Amis's imagined world and Roberts's, the two books are very different in tone, "Pavane" being poetic and philosophical, at times almost mystical, whereas "The Alteration" is sharply satirical. Unlike Roberts, Amis ponders upon how famous individuals from history and from his own day might have fared in his altered world. We learn, for example, that Shakespeare narrowly avoided being burned at the stake and was exiled to New England. Heinrich Himmler and Lavrenty Beria both became Cardinals and high-ranking officers of the Holy Office, as the Inquisition is now known.

This last detail gives a clue to Amis's satirical intentions. Originally on the Left (he was briefly a member of the Communist Party), he later moved sharply to the Right, and by the seventies was one of the most politically conservative figures in the British literary establishment. He was also an atheist who distrusted organised religion. "The Alteration" is therefore a double satire aimed both at socialism and at Christianity, especially Catholicism. There is also an element of anti-Americanism in that the Republic of New England, which represents our timeline's USA, is a state founded on liberal ideals but which has nevertheless managed to enact some repressive laws. (Native Americans are subject to apartheid-style racial discrimination, and although the New Englanders are horrified by the idea of "altering" young boys we learn that they reserve castration as a judicial punishment for fornicators and homosexuals).

Whatever the failings of New Englander secular politics, however, Amis presents their Protestant clergy in a more positive light than their Catholic counterparts, who not only are corrupt and oppressive but also frequently lack any real belief in the religion they cynically use to justify their own power. A number of Church officials are named after left-wing thinkers or politicians. We learn, for example, that the leftist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is in this world a Jesuit. The head of the Holy Office in England is named Lord Stansgate (the title disclaimed by Tony Benn), and we meet two officers of that organisation named Foot (as in Michael) and Redgrave (as in the left-wing acting dynasty). The Pope, John XXIV, portrayed as murderously ruthless and Machiavellian beneath an outward show of avuncularity, is a Yorkshireman; some have seen him as a disguised portrait of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The implication is that, had it not been for the Reformation which broke its monopoly on European thought, Catholicism could have developed into a totalitarian system akin to the Communism which Amis (in common with a number of other former Communists) had come to regard as the greatest threat to liberty in the late twentieth century. The fate which threatens Hubert is symbolic of the doom which has befallen European civilisation, metaphorically castrated by a despotic Church. Although the story is set in an alternative world it has its implications for our own timeline; Amis has some sharp criticisms of Catholic doctrines such as priestly celibacy and the ban on contraception. Another theme raised by the book is the question of whether art, however technically accomplished it may be, has any value if it has been produced to the greater glory of a tyrannical regime.

The book's main weakness is that, whereas some of the minor characters, such as the Pope or Hubert's cynical schoolmate Decuman, are vividly drawn, the main character remains a mere cipher. Hubert never comes to life as an individual, and moreover always seems too mature for his supposed age, more like a teenager than a ten-year-old. Its main strength is the skill with which Amis conjures up his alternative world and uses it to comment satirically on our own. "The Alteration" contains much to interest even those who do not share Amis's political and theological positions.
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written, but not much fun Dec 6 2012
By wordsmith101 - Published on
Format:Mass Market Paperback|Verified Purchase
Kingsley Amis's clever alternative fiction novel, "The Alteration" is equal parts disturbing and engaging. The world of the novel is one in which the reformation never took place and in which the church and the state remained closely intertwined and corrupt. Amis's deft and creative imagining of such a world is offset by his signature dark satire and the overall pessimistic tone out of which the characters of the novel are unable and indeed ultimately unwilling to escape. The story centers around Hubert a pre-adolescent choir boy whose exquisite singing voice the church leaders intend to preserve through his "alteration," the euphemism used throughout the book for his impending castration. While I recognize the craft of the artist in creating this story, I did not enjoy the reading of it. However if you like dark distopia novels this would be a great book to add to your reading list.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Totalitarianism is religious; religion is totalitarian Jan. 5 2013
By Solly - Published on
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.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Alternative History June 29 2012
By Sir Furboy - Published on
This is a book self conciously in the vein of Philip Dick's classic "The Man in teh High Castle". Indeed, this book actually mention's Dick's work! But for all that it seems to be following a path set by another writer, this does not come across as a derivative work.

Hubert Anvil has a wonderful voice in a world in which Martin Luther became Pope and there was no protestant revolution. In this world, Britain is dominated by the Catholic Church, and the Pope is himself English. The church feels the gift of Hubert's voice should be preserved. Unsurprisingly Hubert comes to a different view on that issue.

The book is a clever Alternative History story (Counterfeit World's is the book's own term for this). In the book, our world is the Aletrnative History in a clever reflection of reality. The book itself tries to make some profound comment too, and teh extent to which this succeeds is a little tricky to judge. The actual scenario of Luther becoming pope in an unreformed church just seems too counter-factual for me! As did some of what the author made of all this. But with a willing suspension of disbelief, the tale hangs together well enough.

Personally I did not like the author's writing style though. It felt clipped and sometimes clunky - but in part this seems to point to the age of the work. I have not read much Kingsley Amis, and I don't find myself longing to read more.
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