I really didn’t get on with Lucky Jim, the only Amis novel I’d read so far, but just couldn’t resist this piece of counterfactual fiction. What if Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur hadn’t died and Henry VIII had never inherited, never married Katharine of Aragon and never needed to divorce her? What if England had remained Catholic? What if Martin Luther, rather than hammering theses on doors at Wittenberg, had been listened to, respected, and allowed to exercise his desire for reform as Pope? And what if gifted boy singers were still invited to consider a discreet ‘alteration’ that would help them preserve their voices for the glory of God? Set in a 1976 that might have been, The Alteration is a tantalising, clever vision of what the world might have become.
Hubert Anvil is a ten-year-old choirboy at the Basilica of St George at Coverley, grandest and greatest of all European churches. His fame as a soprano has spread so far that two curious admirers have been drawn from Rome itself: Federicus Mirabilis and Lupigradus Viaventosa, one a former star singer, the other a respected teacher, who have been sent to give their opinions on this young boy’s potential. Hubert himself knows little of the manoeuvring going on in the background. His life at the choir school is full of hard work and hushed nighttime conversations with his friends in his dormitory, as they peruse forbidden novels (TR or CW, both genres which envisage how the world might have been changed by a single event turning out differently). Amis enjoys himself immensely here: one of the novels the boys read is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a book which itself rests on the idea of alternative histories.
And in fact Amis can’t resist packing the book full of subtle jokes: many familiar historical figures were born into his alternate universe, although their fates and works may be somewhat different to those of this world. For example, St George at Coverley has a window of St Helena by Gainsborough; a massive ceiling painting of The Holy Victory by Turner; and a mosaic by David Hockney. Himmler and Beria sit side by side at the opening concert, both elderly and distinguished members of the Holy Office. In this world, Mozart lived into middle age and produced his great Second Requiem, to which Amis playfully gives the number K.878 (the real Mozart died before completing his first Requiem, K.626). But Michelangelo died young, driven to suicide by the austere tendencies of Luther as Pope. America is a place of exile for heretics and schismatics, while England is governed by an archaic pre-industrial hierarchy, with the common people looking and sounding like something out of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Railways are for the rich, while electricity remains virtually unknown, except as a vile unnatural rumour arising from the experiments of exiled so-called ‘scientists’ in America.
The story of Hubert is the core of this novel, but most of the fun is to be had in exploring Amis’s world, so familiar and yet so different. The issues I had with his characterisation of women in Lucky Jim were completely avoided here, as there’s barely a woman in the piece apart from Hubert’s lonely, frustrated mother. It’s a tale of how one event – in this case the decision to ‘alter’ one small boy – acts as the impetus for a whole range of related events, spiralling out of control and rippling out to affect the lives and beliefs of those around Hubert. It’s a tale of the individual standing up against the state. But it is also, ultimately and very cleverly, a tale of divine will. Much to my surprise – not having had the best experience of Amis so far – I really enjoyed it.
Thought-provoking, irreverent to ‘real’ history, and yet also very earnest in its narrative voice, this is an extremely good novel – not quite historical fiction, not quite sci-fi, but something in-between. You can read it as just a story, or go deeper into the themes of duty, obligation, faith and free will that are packed into its chapters. Perhaps I’ve done Kingsley Amis an injustice in the past. What does everyone else think? Is he the snide misogynist of Lucky Jim or the most sophisticated, thoughtful writer we see here? And which books by him would you suggest I try next?