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IDEX LYON 2016

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30 ans de l'ENS de Lyon
From Aristophanes’s The Wasps to Plautus’s senex amator, old age has constituted an endless source of comedy and provided a whole array of stock characters. Graeco-Roman antiquity introduced caricatures, from the lecherous, dirty old man to the toothless, ugly old crone, who were much later taken up in the English Restoration comedy. The close link between fiction and drama, which is the hallmark of a writer like Charles Dickens, probably accounts for the spectacular presence of unforgettable wrinklies such as Mr F’ Aunt (Little Dorrit) or the Aged P (Great Expectations) in the realm of the novel; thespian characters may thus migrate from one genre to another, without losing anything of their stylised comicality in the process. However this comedic vision of a humanity “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” offers no alternative to a reductionist reification of old age. Due to obvious social and demographic factors, ageism has recently become a discipline in its own right and the term ageism not only refers to any discrimination against or stigmatisation of senior citizens but also reflects the changing dynamics of ageing and, among other things, the ways in which it may affect artistic representation. The aim of this paper is therefore to read two novels by Kingsley Amis, Ending up (1974) and the Booker Prize winner The Old Devils (1986), in hindsight, through the lens of ageism, by showing that comedy is achieved by granting agency to old age pensioners, which contributes to complicating and diversifying its treatment, by applying it to a sensitive question. If, indeed, ageism may be seen as a prejudice against our feared future self, then its comic exploitation precludes any exterior, vantage position. By allowing the age theme to come to the fore, both Ending up and The Old Devils could be ranked as black comedies, but actually their gamut is far wider, ranging from ironic comedy and sardonic gloom to lyric tenderness. If anything, both fictions substantiate Yeats’s devastating diagnosis of old age as “This absurdity…this caricature/Decrepit age that has been tied to me/As to a dog’s tail” (The Tower). Amis is not a novelist likely to yield to self-pity though, and the indignities of old age are evoked in a most hilarious way. Bickering, bitching, backstabbing along with a lot drinking (both outside in a pub called the Bible, and in the privacy of kitchens) are indulged in, day in day out. Incontinence (both physiological and verbal) is paralleled by impairment (both of fluids and words) as Amis draws uproarious effects from cackling vignettes, verbal tics and nominal aphasia. Ironically, by hoisting up bad faith, irritation and overall peevishness to the level of artistic representation Amis, more or less wittingly, draws a self-portrait of his public persona as a cantankerous old man, prone to adopt the most reactionary, intolerant and prejudiced positions on nearly every topic, after being once one of the angry young men. So, in the last resort, both Ending up and The Old Devils could be seen as sketching a parodic portrait of the artist as an old, testy codger, enjoying old age as a pose through the liberty it affords.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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