ALTERATION, THE Paperback – 1978
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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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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.
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.