“I advise you to retire to one of those places in California where nobody knows anything or notices anything.”
Girl, 20, of the title isn’t actually 20–Sylvia, the latest in a long line of extra-marital affairs indulged in by middle-aged composer and conductor Sir Roy Vandervane, is a mere 17 and a great deal of trouble. Still no matter, what she lacks in years, she makes up for in ferocity. It would be false to say that Sylvia is Sir Roy’s latest conquest, as in this case, it seems that Sylvia is the conqueror and Sir Roy the eager booty. Anyway, the novel starts with our narrator, music critic Douglas Yandell finding himself dragged into the domestic tribulations of the Vandervanes. Douglas chronicles Sir Roy’s troubled home life with his delightfully neurotic wife, Kitty–a woman who usually tolerates Sir Roy’s clumsy affairs, but in this instance, he has simply gone too far. Kitty monitors her husband’s affairs by counting the pairs of underwear in his drawer, so when the number is depleted, she knows there’s another woman. This latest affair or “goes” as Kitty calls them, seems to be serious.
Kitty, herself a product of an “ancient go,” which resulted in Sir Roy’s divorce from his first wife, is very familiar with her husband’s MO. He seems to regard extra-marital affairs as his right, so he doesn’t bother to cover his tracks, and there’s also the argument that his refusal to hide these affairs is a provocation. Kitty summons Douglas to the Vandervane mansion, north of Hampstead, and demands his help–although Douglas’s first inclination is to support his own sex, “on ordinary male-trade-union grounds,” in these matters. After a few hours at the Vandervane home spent in the company of the family, particularly the obnoxious brat, Ashley, Douglas has only sympathy for Sir Roy’s desire to escape his domestic situation.
Kitty, at forty-six or seven, must feel, and could not understand why Roy, at nearly fifty-four (twenty years my senior to within a week), should have to grow sillier as he grew older, except that his growing wiser would have been unbelievable.
Sir Roy’s affairs have been indiscreet, numerous, and sometimes disastrous. Kitty says she doesn’t “mind him just having a go occasionally,” it’s his long disappearances she objects to. He’s considering taking a “tour of Brazil” no doubt with his latest paramour (whose identity remains a mystery) as part of the luggage. Kitty is adamant that her husband mustn’t “throw himself away on some filthy little barbarian of a teenager.”
“I don’t know anything at all about her, but they’re been running at about twenty to twenty-six over the last three years or so. Tending to go down. Getting younger at something like half the rate he gets older. When he’s seventy-three they’ll be ten.”
I checked the last bit mentally and found it to be correct, given the assumptions. It seemed to me extraordinary that anyone capable of making these in the first place, and then of following through to their ‘logical’ conclusion, should (as Kitty clearly did), see the final picture as nothing but tragic or repulsive.
“And when he’s eighty-three they’ll be five,” I said experimentally.
“Yes,” she agreed, glad that I had followed her reasoning.
That quote gives a taste of the sort of humour found in Girl, 20. Aging, sexuality, and infidelity all come in for a ribbing here, and when the book is funny, it’s very funny. Poor Douglas is recruited to discover the identity of the other woman as well as determine how serious the affair is, and according to Kitty then ”we can sort of make a plan.” Led on by his curiosity, Douglas becomes embroiled in the private lives of the Vandervanes. Douglas makes a good narrator for this tale–he’s used and abused by all sides–Sir Roy, Kitty and even other members of the Vandervane household. Although Douglas is ostensibly the wobbly moral centre of the novel, he has a peculiar ‘arrangement’ of his own–he ‘shares’ his girlfriend, Vivienne with the “other bloke,” who gets “every Tuesday and Friday.” So while Sir Roy is in a triangular relationship, being tugged back and forth between wife and mistress, our narrator, Douglas is juggled with another man, but then Douglas begins juggling another woman with Vivienne. Douglas occasionally tries to take the moral high road with Sir Roy, but it doesn’t work, and Douglas, who has a lurid attraction to Sir Roy’s grubbier exploits, doesn’t really have his heart in any firm moralizing.
Author Kingsley Amis stated that the book is about irresponsibility, and the monstrously irresponsible Sir Roy is the larger-than-life character who carries the novel. While he’s exactly the sort of person you wouldn’t want in your life–an egoist, supremely selfish, a champagne socialist with a penchant for pontificating, he’s fun to read about as he careens from one disaster to another. Everything seems to be falling apart, so we see Penny, Sir Roy’s daughter from his first marriage, experimenting with drugs even as her father experiments with a series of young women. Sir Roy feels that he’s come of age in the 60s and can take a leap just as much as any 20 year-old. He’s convinced that “the whole generation-gap idea’s just an invention of the media and the Yanks.” He’s out to prove he’s just as hip and swinging as … well … Sylvia. According to Sir Roy, he hasn’t been breaking the law “much,” and this is how he describes his torrid relationship with Sylvia:
Ageing shag tries to stimulate jaded appetite by recreating situation of days of firse discovery of sex plus whiff of illegality, corruption of youth, dirty ole man luring child into disused plate-layer’s hut and plying her with dandelion-and-burdock to induce her to remove knickers and slake his vile lusts
This is the swinging sixties, and the novel feels like it with the disintegration of traditional values, sexual experimentation, alternative lifestyles etc, and this novel is so 60s, at times it has an anachronistic feel. Everything that was so successful in Lucky Jim, isn’t quite as successful here. Lucky Jim, Amis’s first novel, gives us the backdrop of academia and a young don who tries to flatter his boring boss–even as he self-sabotages his attempts at sycophancy. In Girl, 20, we have a younger man who has no idea what married life is about, telling an older married man how to behave, and sometimes he even means it. Douglas and Roy’s misadventures are very funny, but the spaces between these social explosions are not so interesting, with the result that Girl, 20 published in 1971, is a much less even novel than Lucky Jim. Still this is classic Amis, and that means when it’s funny, it’s very funny. And a word of caution for foreign readers who wish to read this in English. Some of the dialogue is written to reflect upper class accents, so there are occasionally sentences such as:
“I’m really moce grateful to you two for doing this.”
“What a terribly nice fluht.”
I can see foreign readers scrambling for their English dictionaries….