STANLEY AND THE WOMEN. By Kingsley Amis. Summit Books.256 pp. $14.95.
LIKE PROFESSOR HIGGINS, Stanley Duke asks why can't a woman be more like a man and finds the question not answered to his satisfaction. The narrator of Kingsley Amis' fifteenth novel is a rather agreeable fellow, but a born loser in the war between the sexes; twice married, he's been twice burned, and he probably could try over and over again for the rest of his life with no change in the results. He understands the essential point -- that men and women really are different -- but he doesn't understand women because he insists on reducing them to stereotypes, and hence is fated to a lifetime of bewilderment, resentment and vexation, with the occasional happy roll in the hay thrown in just to muddle matters further.
There can be no getting around it: Stanley is a misogynist. He likes the sexual gratification that women offer and admires their decorative features, and if they are witty as well as pretty he can even make do with their chitchat, but he really doesn't like them. He agrees with his friend Cliff Wainwright that women are "like the Russians -- if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs." This, of course, can be said of just about anybody of either sex, but let it pass; the point is that Stanley Duke believes it.
Does Kingsley Amis believe it too? Or, to put it another way: Is Stanley and the Women a novel about a misogynist, or is it a misogynistic novel? A number of people seem to believe the latter; feminist objections to the novel's depiction of women have been offered as the explanation for its rejection by a number of American publishers. Though it is easy to understand this reaction after reading the novel, it nonetheless seems to me a trifle exaggerated. The writer of fiction, after all, must be granted full license to create whatever characters and situations he wishes, however odious they may seem to some or all readers; the important question is not whether they are odious but whether they work as fiction, whether the novelist makes them legitimate, human and believable.
On this essential count Stanley and the Women must be given a mixed judgment. Stanley himself is a convincing character, an old-fashioned man of vehement opinions who finds himself "out of touch, high and dry, a survivor from a bygone era." His feelings about women are no less convincing as well, because his misogyny is tempered and complicated by a genuine need for the company and sympathy of women; the things he says and thinks about women may be reprehensible to many people, but they are things that many men have said and thought over the centuries, and the needs they disguise cannot be taken lightly.
BUT IF STANLEY is convincing, the women are not; this is the flaw from which the novel does not recover. With two minor exceptions -- an attendant at a mental hospital and the woman who cleans the Dukes' house -- there is not a genuinely sympathetic female character in the book. Stanley's first wife is a self-deluding airhead, his second a class-obsessive snob; the psychiatrist who attends his deranged son is a cauldron of lust and resentment, while the one woman who offers him a moment of genuine respite then turns around and deserts him when his need is greatest. With all of these people the difficulty seems to be not that they are bad or inconsiderate or selfish people, but that they are women.
By contrast the men are with only one exception good chaps, and even that exception the editor of the paper where Stanley is advertising manager -- is a decent enough fellow who just happens to be a bit on the weak side. As for the rest, take Bert Hutchinson as an example. He's the second husband of Nowell, Stanley's first wife, and a fine figure of a lout he certainly seems to be: he's a sot, a complainer, a loathsome side of beef. Or so at first it seems. But then he and Stanley get thrown together by accident at a party -- a very funny party, by the way, staged on a barge the rocking of which eventually reduces most of the guests to nausea -- and suddenly old Bert turns out to be as grand a man as any Professor Higgins ever met; when he reveals that Stanley's dislike of Nowell is matched by his own, the congeniality of the two is cinched.
Then there is Steve, Stanley's 19-year-old son by his first marriage. One night he mysteriously appears at the house in London where Stanley lives with Susan, wife two, and proceeds to behave in a manner that strongly suggests madness. Eventually he is put under psychiatric care, then stowed away in a mental hospital. His role in the novel is not merely to present Stanley with a severe case of parental guilt -- "I would always feel I had some hand, somehow, in bringing about his condition" -- but also to provide a sympathetic male with whom Stanley can bond against the women. When in a crisis Stanley tells Susan that for the moment Steve is more important than she is, she contrives an act designed to call attention to herself that is, well, just what you'd expect a woman to do, if you were Stanley.
In sum, whether wittingly or not Amis has stacked the deck against the women, reducing them to caricatures who reinforce the damning judgments made by Stanley and his chums. This is a pity, for much else in the novel is exceedingly well done. The writing is terrific: leisurely, ruminative, spiced with sharp dashes of wit and insight. The psychiatrist may be a caricature as a woman, but as a with-it shrink up on all the hot trends and the psychobabble imported from America, she is right on; so too is the representative of an underdeveloped nation with whom Stanley, in his professional capacity, conducts a series of entirely befuddling telephone calls. Read purely for the pleasure of it, all its cranky misogynism for the moment set aside, Stanley and the Women is the most entertaining Amis I've come across since Take a Girl Like You, and that was nearly a quarter-century ago. Trouble is, though, that in the end the cranky misogynism just can't be set aside.