This book is invariably described as a comedy. Well, there's no doubt that it's often very funny, but to me it read more as a philosophical novel about the nature of love; in particular, about the question of whether it is better, in romantic matters, to behave selfishly or unselfishly. As you will see in my review of Atlas Shrugged
, this is a subject I find very interesting. Kingsley Amis's position is in some ways not that far from Ayn Rand's, but it's far more nuanced. In particular, Amis is clear that he thinks selfishness is only a virtue in romantic contexts, not in general.
I liked the following passage. Jim, as usual not quite sober, has been asked by Christine, the girl of his dreams, if she should marry a man whom Dixon loathes.
'Are you in love with him?'
'I don't much care for that word,' she said, as if rebuking a foul-mouthed tradesman.
'Because I don't know what it means.'
He gave a quiet yell. 'Oh, don't say that; no, don't say that. It's a word you must often have come across in conversation and literature. Are you going to tell me it sends you flying to the dictionary every time? Of course you're not. I suppose you mean it's purely personal --- sorry, got to get the jargon right --- purely subjective.'
'Well it is, isn't it?'
'Yes, that's right. You talk as though it's the only thing that is. If you can tell me whether you like greengages or not, you can tell me whether you love Bertrand or not, if you want to tell me, that is.'
'You're still making it much too simple. All I can really say is that I'm pretty sure I was in love with Bertrand a little while ago, and now I'm rather less sure. That up-and-down business doesn't happen with greengages; that's the difference.'
'Not with greengages, agreed. But what about rhubarb, eh? What about rhubarb? Ever since my mother stopped forcing me to eat it, rhubarb and I have been conducting a relationship that can swing between love and hatred every time we meet.'
'That's all very well, Jim. The trouble with love is that it gets you in such a state you can't look at your own feelings dispassionately.'
'That would be a good thing if you could do it, then?'
'Why, of course.'
He gave another quiet yell, this time some distance above middle C. 'You've got a long way to go, if you don't mind me saying so, even though you are nice. By all means view your own feelings dispassionately, if you feel you ought to, but that's nothing to do with deciding whether (Christ) you're in love. Deciding that's no different from the greengages business. What is difficult, and this time you really do need this dispassionate rubbish, is deciding what to do about being in love if you are, whether you can stick the person you love enough to marry them, and so on.'
'Why, that's exactly what I've been saying, in different words.'
'Words change the thing, and anyway the whole procedure's different. People get themselves all steamed up about whether they're in love or not, and can't work it out, and their decisions go all to pot. It's happening every day. They ought to realise that the love part's perfectly easy; the hard part is the working out, not about love, but about what they're going to do. The difference is that they can get their brains going on that, instead of taking the sound of the word "love" as a signal for switching them off. They can get somewhere, instead of indulging in a sort of orgy of self-catechising about how you know you're in love, and what love is anyway, and all the rest of it. You don't ask yourself what greengages are, or how you know whether you like them or not, do you? Right?'