BOOKS MAY 21, 2007
The Life of Kingsley Amis
By Zachary Leader
(Pantheon Books, 996 pp., $39.95)
WHAT ESSENTIAL ingredients go to make up a satirist? In particular,what high-octane social gases are needed to fuel, and to spark, his (seldom, till the feminist revolution, her) process of internal combustion? Facit indignatio versum, snarled Juvenal, that poverty-stricken and passé gentleman place-seeker, two millennia ago: it is resentment that drives me to write. Cliché-ridden hackwriting, jumped-up rich lower-class arrivistes, pushy aggressive women, trendy homosexuals, pretentious bores, above all Greeks (Juvenal’s anti-Hellenic rant has all the qualities of later anti-Semitism): there is a timeless flavor about the list of his pet hates. Byron, a very different social animal, similarly pilloried fools, bores, bad literature, and blue stockings (who provoked, in Don Juan, one of his most ingenious rhymes: “But—Oh! Ye lords of ladies intellectual, / Inform us truly, have they no then-peck”d you all?”) Jonathan Swift, who had time for individuals but detested mankind, was the same: “Hated by fools, and fools to hate, / Be that my motto and my fate.”
Cruel wit, a delight in ridicule, a short-fuse temper, a bottomless well of bile: these are the satirist’s weapons, and they have not changed much down the ages. It also helps to have a grievance.Gilbert Highet, many decades ago in The Anatomy of Satire, was notthe only critic to have noted the number of satirists who “have been impelled by a rankling sense of personal inferiority, of social injustice, of exclusion from a privileged group.” Hunger stimulates resentment and puts an edge on the appetite.
The twentieth century’s supreme satirist in English fiction, it isnow generally agreed, was Evelyn Waugh, who with an unremittingly caustic eye dispatched the odder habits of Britain’s class-ridden society (not to mention American funeral practices) in light and witty Augustan prose. But in Waugh’s case an interesting and dangerous metamorphosis took place. The middle-class chronicler of upper-class follies himself fell hook, line, and sinker for the romance of English aristocratic Catholicism, with its great houses and recusant peer ages. While this actually sharpened Waugh’s attacks on left-wing trendies and the lower middle classes (especially the products of post-1945 political egalitarianism), it also released that streak of hagiolatric Pre-Raphaelite sentimentality—already detectable in A Handful of Dust—that was to turn so much of Brideshead Revisited into embarrassing mush. It is hard to tell at times whether Waugh is more enamored of God or the March main family, and his correspondence makes it all too clear that this was no case of the author assuming a fictional persona.Waugh dearly loved a lord; and for him a global hierarchy based on Rome had the additional cachet of trumping all merely national snobberies, not least those that might keep him out.
His anxieties, memorably crystallized in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, were well-grounded. The titled recipients of Waugh’s adoration did not reciprocate (“that vulgar little man in his awful check suits” was how one of them summed him up to me), and Waugh ended his days as a bloated, petulant blimp, playing thecountry-house squire, soaking up gin and chloral, arguing with Nancy Mitford about U and non-U, and writing testy letters to The Times about slumping standards in manners, morals, and education. J.B. Priestley, reviewing The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, argued that the evidently autobiographical crack-up it described was the direct result of Pinfold (that is, Waugh) living a lie by falsely assimilating himself to the class that he worshipped. That hit near the mark.
Waugh’s career, in fact, offered several salutary warnings to an aspiring satirical novelist. Stay on the outside looking in: otherwise you are all too liable to end up indistinguishable from what you started by satirizing. Watch out if you become fashionable and successful: nothing is more calculated to disarm your radicalism. If the diehards cannot beat you, they will adopt you. Above all, think twice about making your living as a writer. Wasting time and energy on hack journalism to pay the bills will be the least of your problems. Even best-sellers have to cope with a farmore serious deficiency: little or no experience of what, for the majority of the human race, is the chief business of life—a nine-to-five job, with all the demands, restrictions, threats, dangers, challenges, competitiveness, and unpredictable social relationships that come with it.
The instinct, too often, is to get out of the rat race as soon as possible (most often after a brief stint as some kind of teacher) in pursuit of that singularly elusive will-o’-the-wisp known as creative freedom. But those who spend all day in hard-working solitude at home, and then want to tie one (or several) on in good company at the end of it, tend not to be on quite the same wavelength as those who get their bellyful of company during working hours and welcome a return home for domestic peace and relaxation. Inevitably, the creative loners end up writing on what they know about; and what they know about, all too often, is limited to urban sexual adventurism (all those bored Updike housewives with husbands at the office), holidays abroad, and the shenanigans of other writers. Drink has always been a regular ingredient in the mix: the roll call of famous literary lushes is long enough to validate alcoholism as an endemic hazard of the profession. Waugh and Graham Greene also threw in the extra hot spice of religion: no accident, I think, that some of the most powerful scenes in The Power and the Glory take place in the Mexican province of Tabasco.
It might have been thought that Waugh’s career would have worked as an awful warning against over-close imitation; but the facts,unfortunately, tell a different story. One of Waugh’s best incidental critics was to prove a striking example of this, and not through any lack of insight. He defined Decline and Fall, brilliantly, as pessimistic romance presented as farce. He pinpointed the way in which, later in Waugh’s career, “what had been an enlivening bitterness sank to defiance and jeering.” He pilloried Brideshead Revisited (in a piece mischievously titled “How I Lived in a Very Big House and Found God”) for numerous and appalling symptoms of radical decline, including the corruption of judgment by snobbery. “Throughout life”—this when reviewing the biography of Waugh by Christopher Sykes—“[Waugh’s] rudeness in public was famous? but without this compulsion to say the unsayable he would never have come to be the writer he was.” (Takes one to know one.) He saw Waugh’s horror at the destruction of innocence, and diagnosed his Catholicism as a self-insightful alternative to suicide (or liquor, though Waugh in fact kept himself going with liquor too). He praised Waugh’s generosity and kindness to the unfortunate, his sense of honor. When he first burst upon the London literary scene, he was hailed—to the intense alarm ofthem both—as Waugh’s successor. This, ironically, proved true in too many ways for comfort. The critic’s name, of course, was Kingsley Amis.
KINGSLEY WILLIAM AMIS was born on April 16, 1922, in Norbury, a newish outer suburb south of London. When a rail line was putthrough in 1878, as Amis reports in his memoirs, “the stretch between Streatham and Croydon was too long so they planted astation in between.” Haphazard Metroland expansion did the rest. The name was picked from a neighboring country house. Until young Amis came along, Norbury’s nearest approach to literature was as the setting for one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Marinated in a genteel atmosphere of tennis clubs, bridge parties, and stucco-fronted semi-detached villas, it formed a natural breeding ground for upwardly aspirant lower-middle-class conservatism. Popular lending libraries abounded, encouraging a mild philistinism toward anything more literary than romances, whodunits, and the new Pooh books. Fake Tudor architecture, pseudo-Jacobean furniture, imitation Turkish rugs were all the rage. This was the world in which Amis grew up, a world where, as he later confessed, “I would as soon have expected to fall in with a Hottentot as with a writer,” and the pretentions of which he started demolishing at an astoundingly early age.
When the poet Philip Larkin, Amis’s closest friend, told an interviewer that he himself had begun writing “at puberty, like everyone else,” Amis commented, in surprise, “He left it until puberty? I’d been writing for years by puberty.” To his first biographer, Eric Jacobs, he admitted, revealingly, that “I wantedto be a writer before I knew what that was.” Zachary Leader, who quotes these words early on in his own monumentally thorough biography, sidesteps their clear implication. Among the six dominant themes he lists as crucial for understanding Amis as man and novelist, he stresses, first and foremost, “the formativeinfluence of Amis’s early upbringing.” There is a great deal of truth in that; but the fact remains that plenty of other only children grew up in lower-middle-class homes in Norbury between the wars without ending, for good or ill, as the wealthy and world-famous fictional voice of their generation. When every other factor has been counted in, what sets it all in motion is still the inexplicable creative spark that strikes seemingly at random, and in the ancient world was externalized as a visitation by the Muse.
Amis’s parents were typical of their background and period: anyone familiar with Charles and Carrie Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody will at once recognize their antecedents. His father, an export clerk with Colman’s Mustard Co., turned down an offer to be the firm’s representative in South America because his wife refused to go abroad: he was never offered a promotion again. Apart from some mild eccentricities (unfunny imitations, pretending to be a foreigner in pubs) inherited and sharpened up by his son, William Amis fitted in well. He played cricket and tennis well into middle age. Uncertain of his own social status, he believed that the lower orders (blacks included) should “know their place.” Both he and his wife, Peggy, thought of sex, even sex in marriage, as something dirty and not to be discussed in Kingsley’s presence; what their son got instead were the usual inane lectures about masturbation thinning the blood and leading to insanity. Kingsley’s difficult birth was made the excuse for no more children, and also for the cessation of marital relations altogether. When Peggy encouraged the seven-year-old boy to write, she did not know that she was encouraging a trend that would lead, ultimately, to vivid expositions of sexual dystopia. None of this (as I can testify from my own very similar Metroland childhood) was in the least exceptional.
The Good Fairy who endowed young Amis at birth with Juvenal’s “incurable disease of writing” (insanabile scribendi cacoethes), and with the talent and the determination to make a success of it, got considerable help from two related factors, both educational. The first was the existence of the great endowed British grammar schools. The second was the postwar expansion of Oxbridge, and the university system as a whole, initially to accommodate a flood of ex-service students offered Further Education and Training (FET) grants, but in due course to extend tertiary education to sections of the population that had hitherto hardly been touched by it. At the City of London School, Amis was taught by top-class scholars who today would settle for nothing less than a professorship. From one teacher in particular, the Reverend C.J. Ellingham, he learned the value of memorizing literature, later astonishing his son Martin by quoting, at random and often at length, from poets as varied as Shakespeare, Marvell, Pope, Byron, Kipling, Auden, “and of course Larkin.”
Zachary Leader tells us a good deal about Ellingham and his influence on Amis, mostly, I suspect, with the wholly laudable aim of countering the vague (and fallacious) popular belief that Amis’s alleged philistinism meant that he was also poorly read. Whatever his acerbic views about large numbers of writers from Chaucer toVirginia Woolf, these largely deriving from his strong and often strident anti-modernism, Amis’s detailed familiarity with the canon (not to mention offbeat areas such as science fiction) would put many a contemporary academic to shame. Ellingham also taught him that, as Leader says, “one can disagree with a poem’s ideas or politics and still admire it” (another decidedly unfashionable view today). For both Ellingham and his student, A.E. Housman was a classic case in point.
But the deepest impact that Ellingham had on Amis was through his brilliant and trenchant textbook, Essay Writing: Bad and Good, published in 1935, of which Amis wrote, after rereading it later in life, that he was struck by “just how much has stayed in my memory, and how much it has influenced me.” That influence penetrated everyaspect of his writing, and much of the thought behind it. Once alerted, one cannot read a page of Amis without sensing Ellingham’s guidelines and aphorisms in the background. On this, as on so many critical issues, Leader offers no direct judgment, preferring simply to lay out the evidence and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.
In particular (though he would have hated to hear himself so described), Ellingham was a splendid sniffer-out of bullshit. “If you are describing a sunset,” he wrote, “and feel that ‘the sunsetwas beautiful” is not enough, it is bluff to write ”the sunset wasamazingly beautiful.” You have not avoided the duty of describingthe sunset. You have only made your task harder, for now you mustshow that it was amazing as well as beautiful.” Any reader of Amis’s posthumous The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage will at once recognize the master’s touch. “If you decide to use slang,” Ellingham wrote, “never apologize for it with quotation marks. You cannot have it both ways.” And again: “Be scrupulously honest....You cannot vamp up enthusiasm for the ‘sublime masterpieces of English literature’ if you read or enjoy nothing but Edgar Wallace or Angela Brazil. If it is a crime to enjoy Edgar Wallace, which I deny, do not be a furtive criminal.” When, in 1965, Amis compiled The James Bond Dossier, he must have felt he had his old tutor’s full approval.
Thus, one by one, the elements that went to make up the phenomenon we know as Kingsley Amis, novelist, poet, and polemicist, were being set in place: the lower-middle-class mores that, with irrepressible humor, he satirized but could never entirely discard; the ambivalent obsession with sex; the only child’s tendency to see the world—in effect, other people—as not only hostile but violent, alien, and inexplicable (a tendency exacerbated by three years in the army, for him a Kafka-like structure of looking-glass logic); energy and determination to a quite extraordinary degree; and above all, a classics-based education, at school and Oxford, that gave him a powerful style and honed his critical intelligence.
So far the Good Fairy. What the Bad Fairy threw in to balance things included the egotism of a spoiled only child always inveighing against the egotism of others, especially women; an overmastering weakness for liquor and adultery; and, most crippling of all, a quite staggering and deliberate narrowness of experience and interests. Abroad—literature, languages, cultures—left Amis cold except as a source of sunshine and cheap booze. Architecture, most of the visual arts, science, nature, Russian ballet, the business world, T. S. Eliot and the modernist movement—all were ignored or derided. Vulgar provincial philistinism, sneered the elite. A new chapter in Britain’s perennial class war was about to begin.
THE IDEA FOR Lucky Jim was planted in Amis’s mind as early as October 1948, while he was still at Oxford. Larkin, degree in hand, had moved to a sub-librarian’s post at University College in Leicester, where Amis visited him. On Saturday morning they dropped in for coffee at the college common room. Amis looked around—a cold-eyed anthropologist among the natives—“and said to myself, ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something with this.’” He pinpointed the scene as “strange and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no one had got on to from outside.” The new world of provincial university life had found its fictional chronicler, though it would take more than six years, and several false starts and rejections, before Jim Dixon finally made his famous debut, in the publisher Victor Gollancz’s trademark pus-and-permanganate-colored dust jacket. The effort of this prolonged literary birth seems to have cleared a block in Amis’s psyche: from then on he turned out books steadily and methodically, as though on a conveyor belt.
But back in 1948 Amis was in a far from comfortable position. He had scraped a First in his finals, but apart from this, his prospects looked less than encouraging. He had very little money. His girlfriend since 1946, Hilary (“Hilly”) Bardwell, had gotten pregnant, and after first considering an abortion, they had a highly unromantic shotgun marriage, gloomed over by all four parents. Throughout his noisy undergraduate career Amis had made a point of targeting both the revered figures of English literature and the dons who taught them with childish, highly public, and often obscene anti-Establishment rant: Beowulf got zapped as an “anonymous, crass, purblind, infantile, featureless HEAP OF GANGRENED ELEPHANT’S SPUTUM”; the fellows of his college inprocession had “much less dignity than a procession of syphilitic, cancerous, necrophilic shit-bespattered lavatory attendants.” With lethal mimicry (“Shakespeare” emerged as something like “Theckthpyum”) he mocked the verbal affectations of the Goldsmith’s Professor of English, Lord David Cecil. Cecil was not amused, and subsequently ensured that Amis’s B.Litt. thesis failed.
Normally, an Oxbridge First would be a sure passport to a good job; but Amis’s applications were turned down with monotonous regularity (the word had obviously gone around about him) and he only got his University College of Swansea lectureship—offered as the result of a last-minute emergency—after all other more desirable posts had been filled. Pay was poor, he had a heavy teaching load, and soon after her first baby was born Hilly was pregnant again. The Amises were frequently broke. A heavily autobiographical first novel, The Legacy, never found a publisher. Then, over months of exchanges with Larkin, Amis began to work toward adapting to fiction the kind of down-to-earth realism that stamped their correspondence. A work initially titled Dixon and Christine, and embodying a maliciously accurate, barely disguised portrait of Larkin’s girlfriend Monica Jones, began slowly to evolve.
One of the best things in Leader’s vast biography is his subtle teasing out of this process: his assessment of what, and how much, the manuscript that became Lucky Jim owed to Larkin, his untangling of the two friends’ intricate and improbable collaboration. His careful verdict (with which I basically agree) would seem to be that while Amis benefited enormously from Larkin’s a stringent suggestions, the overall debt was not as great as Larkin—discouraged by Lucky Jim’s huge success from writing further fiction himself—ultimately came to believe. Leader dismisses the rumors that Larkin had virtually written Lucky Jim, boosted by his catty comment to Monica (“I refuse to believe that [Kingsley] can write abook on his own—or at least a good book”), and his claim to another girlfriend, Maeve Brennan, that Amis had “stolen” Lucky Jim from him, showing such comments to have been, at best, envious exaggerations. It is good to see that old canard finally laid to rest.
I have, for eminently personal reasons, a vivid recollection of the literary furor that greeted Lucky Jim’s publication in 1954. I was due to undergo my Ph.D. orals, and at Paddington station I stopped by the bookstall for reading matter to cheer me up on the train. The word had got out that Lucky Jim was, among other things, a hilarious riff on the scholarly world: just what I needed. But by the time I reached my destination I felt like canceling the whole thing, creeping away into a quiet corner, and cutting my throat. The universities were peopled with trendy malevolent halfwits. Most research was mind-numbingly platitudinous dreck. The real world was somewhere quite different, and reserved for disorganized young drunks who burned holes in the bed clothes, passed out when giving a public lecture, insulted everyone in sight, and still ended up with the best girl and a cushy London job. I managed to pass my orals, but—not, I think, entirely by accident—spent the next decade or so as a literary journalist rather than the professional academic I had dreamed of becoming.
More than half a century later, my social hindsight reinforced by Amis’s subsequent career and a mass of telling detail from Jacobs’s and Leader’s biographies, it is easy enough to put this landmark novel, and the effect it had on me, into perspective. The handsome young iconoclast photographed by Vogue was also, we now know, terrified of flying and of the dark, and liable all his life to panic attacks if left alone in a house or apartment overnight. What was taken at the time as a left-wing attack on the conservative British political and academic Establishment revealed itself in due course—when Amis changed tack and began targeting the radicals—as not even the classic swing from left to right brought about by success, but rather as an undifferentiated, mostly apolitical, and often aggressively sophomoric distaste for authority figures of any sort. Amis’s second wife, the elegant and talented novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, told Leader, shrewdly, that what really interested Amis wasn’t so much politics as the company of male political journalists (preferably in saloon bars). The rodomontade against the academic world was fueled as much by insecurity as by ambition: when he finally, in 1961, exchanged Swansea for Cambridge, Amis found the new cultural ambience so off-putting that after a couple of years he resigned his fellowship.
Shortly before Lucky Jim’s publication Amis wrote to Larkin: “What I want, cully, is a chance to decide, from personal experience, that a life of cocktail parties, cars, week-ending at rich houses, wine, night-clubs and jazz won’t bring happiness. I want to prove that money isn’t everything, to learn that pleasure cloys.” He soon go this chance, but the learning took a lifetime. Like some of the other so-called Angry Young Men—John Braine, John Osborne—with whom he came to be associated in the public mind, his attitude to money was that of every stereotypical nouveau riche: spend it by the handful on personal luxuries. As the cash and the contracts began to pour in, and a week after the birth of his daughter, he took Hilly out to dinner in Swansea and ordered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. (“Can you afford it, boy?” the Welsh waiter inquired amiably.) A good car and a television set quickly followed. Amis was so impatient that he spent royalties before he got them, seldom made proper allowances for taxation, and began a lifelong tradition of dunning agents and publishers for ever-greater advances to deal with his spiraling debts.
Meanwhile, the London literati, gobsmacked first by Lucky Jim and then a couple of years later by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, were nervously trying to make cultural sense of it all. Trendy, but a tad short on intellectual background, they hailed The Outsider as England’s cutting-edge answer to the French avant-garde, only to see it annihilated—to their acute embarrassment—by professional philosophers as an amateur scissors-and-paste ragbag culled from secondary sources.They labeled Jim Dixon, Jimmy Porter, and Joe Lampton (the antihero of Room at the Top) Angry Young Men, the spearhead of a social revolution, when in fact all three come across as ruthlessly on the make in the existing system, while Osborne’s Porter drips nostalgia for the Edwardian perks of a lost colonial empire. They also became identified with their authors: Dixon’s notorious crack about “filthy Mozart” became a standing reproach to Amis, who (as both biographers make clear) in fact cherished Mozart as his favorite composer.
But lower-middle-class British intellectuals were on the march all right— part of the huge postwar social upheaval that had begun in 1945 by delivering a landslide Labor victory at the polls—and thumbing their collective noses at the traditional shibboleths and polite niceties of (as they saw it) the toffee-nosed craps and wankers whose turf they were invading. What’s less often noted is how much of their own mores they brought with them. The Archie Bunkerish racist pub-chat about Jews, “nignogs,” and foreigners generally was something that Amis, Larkin, and the rest inherited from their parents and never got rid of, along with an ineradicable social unease, which neither cash nor honors could wholly kill, in the presence of nobs. Before going to Buckingham Palace to be dubbed a knight, Amis put himself on a beanless diet for a week, so scared was he of accidentally farting in the royal presence.
The unease also bred mean and retributive ingenuity. In old age Amis arranged for Hilly and her impecunious third husband, Lord Kilmarnock, to become, in effect, his paid housekeepers—a scheme enthusiastically promoted, for their own ends, by his children. He bought the house and met the bills; they looked after all his needs from the basement. As he said, with relish, it was like the plot of an Iris Murdoch novel. Julian Barnes, invited round to Amis’s ground-floor flat for supper, was astonished to see the meal brought in on a tray by Kilmarnock. “Not bad for a boy from Norbury, eh?” said Amis the moment Kilmarnock was out of the room. “Get your dinner from a peer of the realm.” The Norbury boy got to be a knight; the peer in turn became his unofficial butler (and was so referred to outside his hearing). In the end, royalties trumped everything except royalty itself: Amis was duly impressed by the queen. Jim Dixon would have farted.
IN THE LONG RUN, of course, what really matters is the quality of Amis’s work; and here, more than a decade after his death, it is abundantly clear that his great and undeniable talent suffered from three handicaps. First, he had the bad luck to form his ideas in the mid-twentieth century and never change them, so that the huge wave of social revolution that followed, embodying everything from feminism to postcolonialism and gay lib, left him stranded on the beach, a mere angry historical relic. In 1988, in Difficulties With Girls, he had a character mutter: “The bloody world’s moved on without consulting us.” He was right. Far from defining his age, he ended up as a characteristic product of it. Secondly, and a corollary of this, though he often attacked other novelists for borrowing characters and situations from real life rather than inventing them, critical research, in particular that by Richard Bradford in Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis, has demonstrated what not a few of us had guessed from the novels themselves—that his own fiction was heavily autobiographical. Finally, his obsessional drinking not only caused a sizable midlife crisis by leaving “his erotic program torn in two” (Louis MacNeice’s crisp summation), but, worse, encouraged quarrelsomeness and pompous punditry.
One odd result of all this is that it has become impossible to read Amis’s novels, especially the later ones, without a recurrent sense of uncomfortable embarrassment, the prickly awareness of social (and in particular gender-based) assumptions belonging not only to another era but another world. Chauvinism hardly begins to describe it. This may well be one reason why his fiction (Lucky Jim always excepted) has largely vanished from American bookstores. For the new presentist generation, it is hopelessly out-of-date.
The more we learn about his life, too, the closer fact and fiction become intertwined. There are clearly defined periods. From That Uncertain Feeling (1955) to One Fat Englishman (1963)—that is, from Swansea through Cambridge, with a Bacchanalian entr’acte in Princeton—each novel offers an anchoring bass line of marriage overwritten with the arpeggios of irresistible adultery, plus twinges of puritan guilt, pizzicato, which Amis assuaged by displacing all his own nastiest characteristics into his antiheroes, especially the appalling Roger Micheldene. As Dickens’s Mrs. Micawber said, “Experientia does it”: when it came to the battle of the sexes, Amis knew whereof he wrote. But in 1963 Hilly wrote on her philandering husband’s bare back, in lipstick, as he slept on a Yugoslav beach, “One fat Englishman I fuck anything,” and left him, taking the children with her.
This flummoxed Amis, who had carefully set up a creatively productive scenario (marriage plus ongoing infidelities) and saw no reason why it should change. Neither of them had perhaps bargained on the unprecedented impact of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Sex alone, as Amis’s Don Juanism had shown, lacked staying power; but Jane’s erotic charms had two formidable winners to back them up. She not only hit Amis’s romantic streak (hinted at in early poems such as “A Bookshop Idyll” and “A Song of Experience”), she was a much-praised fellow novelist. The combination was irresistible, and Amis, uniquely, fell head over heels in love with her. He had already resigned his Cambridge lectureship. Idyllic freedom beckoned. The marriage of true minds was to brook no impediments.
For a few years—during which, significantly, Amis’s friendship with Larkin went into remission—it worked. Both The Anti-Death League (1966) and I Want It Now (1968) contain powerful fictional versions of his involvement with Jane. The poem “Waking Beauty” sees Jane as the Sleeping Beauty to Kingsley’s post- Freudian Prince. They read and commented on each other’s work-in-progress. During this period Amis made a serious attempt at monogamy, which of course necessitated a fundamental rethinking of his well-tried plot line. It all sounds too good to last, and of course it didn’t. There were various reasons for this. The initial magic of passionate sex wore off. Amis, the spoiled only child, had been used to Hilly running the household full-time, and expected Jane to do the same on top of writing her own books. It took Jane eight years to teach her husband even how to use a washing machine, and he never learned to drive, so she was also the family chauffeur. He had solipsism and writing, she did the cooking and chores. Her fiction suffered. So did the marriage of true minds.
But the real secret enemy (well analyzed by Leader) was Amis’s interminable and ever-increasing intake of alcohol. This had worried Jane from the start of their marriage. By 1969, he was putting away at least a bottle of whiskey a day in addition to drinks with meals (he kept a keg of single malt in his study), and had begun to suffer mild hallucinations. All this duly went into the character of Maurice Allingham in The Green Man, and was too reminiscent of Waugh’s crack-up in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold for comfort. Increasingly from now on—something Amis never fully faced in his fiction—his heavy drinking played havoc with his sexual urge, till by about 1975, though not much over fifty, he seems to have become more or less permanently impotent.
Predictably, his marriage suffered; Jane persisted heroically for another decade, but left him in 1980, after he flatly refused to goon the wagon. (“Look, I’m Kingsley Amis, you see, and I can drink whenever I want,” he told her.) Just as predictably, he laid the blame for this contretemps not on his own lifestyle, but on women in general and Jane in particular. With screwing no longer a viable option, the latent streak of misogyny in his nature rose seethingto the surface, and his later fiction presents a disconcerting parade of harridans, psychotic freaks, and manipulative bitches.The zanier aspects of fashionable psychotherapy, in both Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women, evoked some of his most lethal satirical portraits. He became a red-faced, overweight, choleric clubman (the photos used by Leader are devastating, especially when set against those of his svelte and handsome youth). In his latter years he was spending more than one thousand pounds a month on drink alone. The undergraduate whose “Evelyn Waugh face” had been one of the funniest in his repertoire had ended up as a bad copy of the real thing, an uncomfortable reminder of Orwell’s comment that by fifty every man has the face he deserves.
What remains truly extraordinary, given all this, is the way he went on writing, and the standard he kept up till the very end. Patches of flat prose, repetitive situations—these are the worst charges that can be brought against his late novels. As Jane conceded, he was the most disciplined writer she had ever met. It’s as though life, for him, was the world he created when he sat down at his typewriter: nothing else really mattered. And that world was not only narrow and largely plotless, in the narrative sense, but also formulaic. The circumscribed domestic ambience of homes, pubs, and clubs; sex (and, latterly, its absence); marital and familial spats couched in minimalist staccato dialogue; the witty sniping at pretentiousness; the inspired metaphors and similes—it was as brilliant, and in its way as artificial, as the world of P.G. Wodehouse, for whose work (as one eternal schoolboy to another?) Amis always expressed the greatest admiration, and whom in ways he oddly resembled.
Where Wodehouse evoked a fantastic parody of pre-1914, Amis’s stock-in-trade remained, throughout his career, a pseudo-realistic version of the 1950s, with its heroes only occasionally taken to task after the 1960s for their outdated habits (such as the three-martini lunch or its equivalent, the habitual use off our-letter words in public discourse, the troglodytic assumptions about women). In both cases, the society created was total and self-sufficient. Amis on occasion reads as one imagines Wodehouse might have written after a crash course on sex, something singularly absent from his own fiction. And Amis’s images, scattered with prodigal abandon through his novels, are pure Wodehouse to the end: the “very serious-looking municipal block” in The Folks That Live on the Hill (1990) “made of a material resembling petrified porridge,” or the “girl of about thirty” in his last novel, The Biographer’s Moustache (1995)— written while Eric Jacobs was researching his biography, and containing one of his most lethal self-portraits—who “answered his ring apparently clad in an excerpt from the Bayeux Tapestry.” Even the famous drunk lecture in Lucky Jim owes something to Gussie Fink-Nottle’s prize-giving speech at Market Snodsbury grammar school in Right Ho, Jeeves.
“Importance isn’t important,” Amis once said, “only good writing is.” If he saw the improbable irony of his thus aligning himself with Oscar Wilde, he kept it to himself. Zachary Leader has done a truly wonderful job of assembling the multifarious and contradictory elements that went to make up this mischievous, self-destructive chameleon of a novelist: the aggressive energy, the obsession with craftsmanship, the refusal to distinguish between “high” and “low” culture except in degree of quality, the sense of the world outside as not only hostile but alien, the sardonic eye for self-important cliche, the sparklingly witty aphorisms. The cumulative effect is to make us actually fond of Amis, despite the considerable reasons why we shouldn’t be. Jacobs may give us more of his subject’s embarrassing outbursts, and Bradford remains unsurpassed at working out the subtle exploitation of real life in the novels; but Leader’s vast, insightful, and very well-written biographia literaria will long remain the benchmark by which all future studies of Amis will be judged.
Oddly, though, neither Leader nor any other critic pays serious attention to what was perhaps Amis’s most memorable feat: his ability, again and again, to hit the reader’s funny bone with precise, hilarious, and often outrageous observations. His spot-on talent for mimicry extended beyond funny faces to accents, speech patterns, and conversational gambits. He parroted feminine arguments to perfection. Even the wilder shores of love he could effortlessly reduce to a bad joke. Listen to Joyce Allingham’s reaction to her narrator-husband’s suggestion that they brighten up their sex life with a threesome:
“You’d, well, do her, for instance, and then she and I would work each other over for a bit, until you were ready again, and then you’d do me from behind, I don’t mean, you know, just from behind while she sort of did the front of me, and then she and I would goon together again and perhaps you could do the same thing again only the other way round, or else you and I could divide her up and take different bits of her, and then you and she could take different bits of me, and so on. Is that the kind of thing?”
Listening to Joyce’s outline is not altogether unlike having the plot of Romeo and Juliet summarized by a plasterer’s mate. In Stanley and the Women, one character (clearly speaking for his creator) remarks that “the rewards for being sane may not be very many but knowing what’s funny is one of them.” As a wry summation of Amis’s own attitude as a writer, that would be hard to beat.
Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics, the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph, and an occasional novelist, translator, and poet. This article appeared in the May 21, 2007 issue of the magazine.