Last year NYRB Classics began publishing new editions of Kingsley Amis’s books, starting with two of his most famous, Lucky Jim and The Old Devils. Today they are publishing two more of their planned ten-book project, venturing into Amis’s “genre” books with the horror novel The Green Man and the science fiction/alternate history novel The Alteration (1976). Aren’t the covers, by Eric Hanson, fantastic? This one is probably my favorite so far.
The novel takes place in 1976 and begins with ten-year-old Hubert Anvil singing Mozart’s Second Requiem at the funeral of King Stephen III of England. It’s the present day, but to us readers it feels like the late middle ages. Electricity and invention “were held in general disesteem” in the Europe (there are rumors that in New England there are people experimenting).
This is the world, as Amis imagines it, had Martin Luther not protested against the Catholic Church back in 1517. Indeed, in this history, Martin Luther was made Pope Germanian I (sadly, though in this world Mozart lived to give us more music, including a second Requiem Mass, Roman architecture is blocky and austere thanks to Pope Germanian I).
Amis’s world is filled with fun divergences from history. Far from being executed by Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Moore became Pope Hadrian VII. Shakespeare’s work is unknown except in some underground playhouses in America, but we do still have Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet. It appears there was no African slave trade, but Native Americans are still considered sub-human and enslaved.
Young Hubert Anvil, innocent, faithful, has a gift from God. Even the Pope’s emissaries to the funeral think he has the best singing voice in history (some dispute this, but how? no one has recordings). A gift from God; they take it upon themselves to protect that gift with a slight alteration: “Master Anvil, I hope you see it as our sacred duty to preserve this divine gift that has been entrusted to our stewardship.” Castrating boys to preserve their singing voice was common until the late 1800s. Did recordings have anything to do with the decline, I wonder? At any rate, in The Alteration the Church, especially in Rome, desires to preserve art unto itself, for the glory of God, so it says. But look at how uncomfortable the Abbot is here, trying to explain what they plan to Hubert’s father; as he starts, he barely makes sense and takes his time to get to the point; of course, by the end, he’s twisted it all into rationalization:
‘Now: there’s only one way whereby to bring it about that the gift we’ve mentioned shall be preserved. This is what it is. Surgery. An act of alteration. Simple, painless, and without danger. Then, afterwards, a glorious career in the service of music, of God and of God’s Holy Church. Any other course,’ said the Abbot, looking quite hard at Tobias, ‘would be a positive disservice thereto.’
The Church is going to get what it wants, make no mistake. They have hoops they need to jump through, like getting permission from Hubert’s father and his in-house priest, Father Lyall. This turns out to be more difficult than they’d hoped — Father Lyall looks for opportunities to thwart the Abbott — but this is a world where the Church holds all political and police power as well.
So in some ways, the book turns into an interesting discussion about what we sacrifice for art and about the conflict, sometimes, between art and genuine human intimacy. There are those, even in the Church, who think love and sex are much more important than preserving Hubert’s voice, but their dissent is easily pushed away:
“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?”
“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.”
Though I’ve focused on the adults above, the novel spends most of its time with young Hubert, the ten-year-old with a great capacity for nuance and sophistication. For me, it was one of the great weaknesses of the novel, this well-spoken young boy who could reason with the best of the clergy, who could feel the pull of sex and family, who could also feel some sense of security in being altered:
‘Fornication and adultery. I shall never commit those, and I shall never want to, and wanting to is another sin, isn’t it, Father?’
‘Yes, my child.’
Hubert is a bit too smart to come across as a ten-year-old boy, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it weren’t paired with Amis’s rather simplistic views of sex-is-everything (as I understand his views, any way). Amis certainly has a message here, but for my taste it is both a bit too blatant and stops a bit too soon.
But oh well. I still really enjoyed this book, for the ingenious altered world Amis created and for interesting context for his discussion. Plus, there’s a creepy coda to it all.