This book runs to nearly a thousand pages, including 116 pages of notes (many of them substantial). Does its subject deserve this enormous biographical effort and corresponding demand on the reader’s time? Whether you immediately answer “Yes” or need to be convinced will depend very much on your age and nationality. For English readers and writers born in the 1930s (like myself) or a little before or after, Kingsley Amis was a key figure in postwar British culture, whose importance and influence cannot be measured simply by the intrinsic merit of his books. In America he has always had a small band of fans, mostly Anglophile academics, and his first novel, Lucky Jim, is regularly assigned in courses on modern British fiction, but the reading public never really embraced him with any warmth. Lucky Jim, a critically acclaimed best seller in the UK, sold only two thousand copies in the US in its first two years. According to Zachary Leader, it was not until Edmund Wilson reviewed Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, in The New Yorker in 1956, comparing him to Evelyn Waugh, that he began to be taken seriously in America, and even so, Leader observes, “Amis never sold well there.” Leader says nothing about translations and foreign sales of his work, but my impression is that Amis’s fiction, like warm English beer, is a taste that Continental Europe never acquired.
Why was this so? It was, I believe, because Amis’s distinctive and original attitudes toward literary tradition, toward class, and toward morals and manners were mediated in a style, a tone of voice, the expressiveness of which was fully appreciated only within his own English speech community. With his friend Philip Larkin, of whom the same might be said, Amis led a consciously insular movement in English writing in the 1950s, which was sometimes unhelpfully called “the Movement” and sometimes conflated with the more journalistic concept of the Angry Young Men. Amis publicly disowned these labels, but he was well aware of the new trend in English writing in the Fifties that they designated and his own crucial role in it.
In aesthetic terms it was anti-modernist—a very different matter from being postmodernist, in that it was formally conservative. Amis and his associates challenged the cultural prestige of high modernism (Joyce, Pound, Eliot, etc.) and deplored its continuing influence on English poetry and prose fiction. In their criticism and by example they opposed experimentalism, obscurity, exiguous plots, mythological allusion, exotic settings, and “fine writing.” They wrote about ordinary blokes (they themselves were mostly male) having ordinary experiences in ordinary places and occupations, like English provincial towns and redbrick universities. They gave voice to a new generation of lower-middle-class youth pushed up the social ladder by free secondary and tertiary education in postwar Britain, who felt to some extent alienated from their roots but also resented and resisted the assumptions and prejudices of the established professional class into which they had been promoted. Lucky Jim struck a nerve in this generation, a nerve of delighted recognition and vicarious wish-fulfillment, but what made it stand out was Amis’s prose style, which might be represented by Jim Dixon’s famous reflection on the title of his scholarly article, “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485”:
Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. “In considering this strangely neglected topic,” it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what?
Or by John Lewis, the hero of That Uncertain Feeling, returning from an amorous extramarital encounter:
Feeling a tremendous rakehell, and not liking myself much for it, and feeling rather a good chap for not liking myself much for it, and not liking myself at all for feeling rather a good chap, I got indoors, vigorously rubbing lipstick off my mouth with my handkerchief.
Essentially this is a style that puts truthfulness before elegance, especially “elegant variation,” but manages to achieve a kind of eloquence as well as humor with lexical and syntactical repetition that seems superficially clumsy. The aim is always to be honest, exact, and undeceived. It was a style that Amis had cultivated and honed in correspondence with Larkin long before either of them was published, and it helped a lot of other young British writers to find their own voices.
Amis’s place as leader and trendsetter did not last for much more than a decade. Society changed, literary fashion changed, and he changed. But he remained a significant figure in English letters, maintaining throughout his life a prolific output, not only of novels (twenty-five in all) but also numerous nonfiction books of various kinds, television screenplays, a vast amount of journalism, and a significant number of poems that have stood the test of time. He enjoyed his celebrity, and used his access to the media to comment on social and political issues of the day, as his views swung from left to right in the course of his life. That his son Martin achieved comparable fame and influence among his literary generation caused Amis père some irritation as well as pride, but helped to maintain his prominent position in English cultural life. His personal life was also full of interest, with fascinating links to his work, and is well documented. In short, Kingsley Amis fully deserves a biography on this scale, and in Zachary Leader the subject has found a worthy biographer.
Amis’s own Memoirs, published in 1991, though entertaining and occasionally revealing, was not an autobiography but a collection of discontinuous reminiscences, character sketches, and reflections that gave away little about the writer’s private and emotional life. It was also, according to several disgruntled people described in its pages, factually unreliable. Not long afterward Amis approved and to some extent assisted a biography of himself written by Eric Jacobs, a journalist and fellow habitué of the Garrick Club. Published in the spring of 1995, it revealed a rather different person from what one might have inferred from Amis’s bluff, blimpish, and entertaining public mask: someone who for most of his life had been subject to anxiety, panic attacks, and various phobias, who was unable to fly, drive, or travel on the Underground, and who was dependent on other people to manage the simplest tasks of life. It was an eye-opening book for those interested in the subject’s personal history, but underresearched and inadequate in its treatment of Amis the writer. When it was finished Jacobs obtained his agreement to record their conversations in the manner of a latter-day Boswell, with a view to eventual publication. There was also an informal understanding that Jacobs would in due course edit Amis’s letters.
By this time Amis was in poor health, and drinking heavily, as he had been for years. In the autumn of 1995 he had a serious fall and after a few weeks of illness and dementia, very distressing to his family, he died peacefully in his sleep on October 22. With extraordinary tactlessness, Jacobs proposed to rush into print with his observations of Amis’s last weeks of life, and approached some newspapers with the material. When Martin Amis protested, Jacobs immediately backed down, but he was not invited to the funeral, and the editorship of the letters was given to Zachary Leader, a friend of Martin’s. This was perhaps hard luck for Jacobs (who died in 2003), but fortunate for readers of Kingsley Amis.
Leader is an academic critic with a special interest in modern British writing. American by birth, he has lived most of his adult life in England. His monumental, meticulously annotated edition of Amis’s Letters, published in 2000, did full justice to the richness of the material—for Amis was one of the great letter-writers of the twentieth century, and certainly one of the funniest. His correspondence with Philip Larkin, whose Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite, was published in 1992, is a fascinating record of the formation of the literary ideas and practices that eventually flowered in the Movement. Simultaneously with the Amis Letters, Martin Amis published Experience, a complex memoir of an extraordinary concatenation of events in his life in 1995, including his father’s last illness and death, and containing many vivid anecdotes of their relationship from childhood onward.
Anyone who has read these books will inevitably find that the basic outline of Leader’s biography, and much of the detail in it, are familiar. But there is also a great deal of information that is new, recovered from unpublished manuscript material and from wide-ranging interviews with people who knew Amis. Many of these were hurt by him, in print or in life. There was an aggressive streak in his temperament, and he derived a devilish glee from flaunting rudeness and prejudice which tested his friends’ and family’s tolerance to the limit. “Few writers have written as perceptively about bad behavior as Amis or been as consistently accused of it,” Leader observes. He has achieved the feat—especially difficult for any “authorized” biographer—of being both empathetic with and critical of his subject. Reading this book one is at various points surprised, amused, fascinated, and shocked, but one closes it at the end with a satisfying sense of having got to know the whole man, and impressed by the ruthless honesty with which he explored and confronted the less amiable aspects of his own character in his imaginative writing.
As a narrative, it has a wavelike structure, and might have been called The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Kingsley Amis, the two crests of his literary career being the successes of Lucky Jim and The Old Devils (with which he won the Booker Prize in 1986).* In the trough between these two books there was much personal unhappiness, angst, acedia, and ill-health, from which he seemed to recover for a period before a final descent into dissolution and death, the fear of which had always haunted him, as it did Philip Larkin.
“Kingsley Amis” is a good name for a writer—both parts of it being unusual and instantly memorable. His given name probably derives from the popular Victorian novelist Charles Kingsley, but it is not likely that Amis’s parents had such a vocation in mind for their son when they named him after a cousin of his mother’s. Born in 1922, he was their only child—according to family rumor the birth was so traumatic that marital relations subsequently ceased. Mrs. Amis was certainly panicked by any allusion to sex in the home—Amis recalled a “fierce (and absurdly visible) shake of the head” at the mention in his presence when he was about fourteen of “somebody’s honeymoon or some such depravity.” The family was lower-middle class, its ethos a genteel secularized Protestantism. Mr. Amis was employed as a clerk with a firm in the City of London, and Mrs. Amis was a housewife. They occupied a series of modest houses in a nondescript suburb called Norbury on the southern rim of Greater London.
What saved Amis from a childhood of crippling dullness was the City of London School where his father enrolled him at the age of twelve and where he was supported after one year by a scholarship. This was by all accounts, including Amis’s, an admirable institution which modeled itself on public schools (in the English sense), but took its pupils from a wider social range and, being a day school, did not cut them off from normal life during term. In 1939, however, when the outbreak of war seemed inevitable, the school was evacuated to share the teaching facilities of Marlborough, a traditional boarding school, and so Amis came to experience the kind of educational ambience that he had previously known only vicariously from juvenile reading.
It was virtually an all-male environment, as was St. John’s College, Oxford, where he went in 1941 to begin reading English, and so was the army into which he was called up in 1942, interrupting his studies for the duration of the war. So from his late adolescence into early adulthood girls were scarce and seldom accessible sexual objects, and his closest personal relationships were with other young men, notably with Philip Larkin, who was already at St. John’s and also reading English when Amis went up to Oxford. Larkin had a similar social background to Amis’s, and they shared similar tastes in literature, jazz, and humor.
They immediately became fast friends. “It was love, unquestionably love on my father’s part,” Martin comments in Experience, after reading Amis’s early letters to Larkin, an intense feeling of affinity which the former both acknowledged and defused by referring to the latter occasionally as “dalling.” From an unpublished and uncompleted novel called Who Else Is Rank? which Amis wrote in collaboration with a fellow officer during his military service, and a short story by Philip Larkin called “The Seven,” it is clear that there was a homosexual element in the group to which they belonged at Oxford, and a camp style was adopted by some of its heterosexual members. This may partly explain the adult Amis’s determination to seize every possible opportunity for fornication, as if he needed to reassure himself about his own sexual identity. (In one of his letters to Elizabeth Jane Howard, with whom he fell in love in 1962 and subsequently married, he says: “thanks to you I have dismissed for ever any lingering doubts about my masculinity and all that.”)
Amis joined the Royal Signals in 1942, correctly calculating that this would be one of the safest branches of the military in a war because its activities are usually well to the rear of any fighting. Nevertheless his unit was posted to France only three weeks after D-Day, and followed the British forces across Europe until the end of the war, so he cannot have been entirely out of danger. When I reviewed the Letters in the Times Literary Supplement I speculated that perhaps Amis’s chronic anxiety and panic attacks had their origin in some concealed wartime trauma, but there is no evidence for this in Leader’s detailed account of his military service. Nor, in either his letters or published comments, does Amis seem to have had any sense of taking part in the climactic chapter of a historical epic. The stories he wrote about the army and the relevant chapters of Who Else Is Rank? focus on regimental life as a microcosm of British civil society, and the prospects of change in this realm in the future.
As an undergraduate at Oxford, like many of his contemporaries, including Iris Murdoch, Amis briefly joined the Communist Party. He described this action later as a form of rebellion against his father, though it was also a way of meeting liberated girls, one of whom relieved him of his virginity. He certainly soon tired of earnest discussions of dialectal materialism, and the effect of his military experience was to turn him away from dogmatic Marxism to a democratic socialism which would allow plenty of individual freedom. The young soldier corresponding to Amis in Who Else Is Rank? dreams of a postwar England “full of girls and drink and jazz and books and decent houses and decent jobs and being your own boss.”
Amis enjoyed at least the first four items on this list when he returned to Oxford to complete his degree course. Larkin, who was medically exempted from military service, had left and become an academic librarian, first in Belfast and then in Leicester. The two men would never again live in the same place, but this had the effect of provoking a rich correspondence between them, and a visit by Amis to Leicester University which allegedly gave him the idea for Lucky Jim. In Oxford he met an attractive art student called Hilary Bardwell and reported to Larkin his successful campaign to get her to “yield,” and its sequel. In late 1946, not long after he obtained a first-class degree and commenced a B.Litt course, Hilary became pregnant. Amis arranged for her to have an abortion—a criminal, sordid, and expensive business in those days—but canceled it at the last moment out of a creditable concern for Hilly’s health, and they married. Amis retold the story in a late novel, You Can’t Do Both (1994). They were poor, but on the whole happy, Amis’s main complaint about marriage being the new relatives he acquired, especially his father-in-law, whom he described to Larkin as “an extraordinary old man like a music-loving lavatory attendant,” and vowed to pillory in a book one day. Mr. Bardwell was the model for Professor Welch in Lucky Jim, but either failed or refused to recognize himself.
Lucky Jim, however, was still in the future. At this time Amis was working on a novel called The Legacy. Interestingly the main character was called “Kingsley Amis” (a postmodernist trick which Amis never employed again, though his son Martin would do so in Money) and according to Leader was Amis’s “first hero as shit.” Amis attributed his failure to find a publisher for the novel to its experimental character, and this may have contributed to the more reader-friendly style of his next fictional project. The B.Litt course entailed writing a substantial dissertation, and the topic Amis proposed, later drastically reduced in scope, was significant: a study of the “Decline of the Audience for Poetry 1850 to the Present Day,” aiming to show that when poets neglected a large public readership their poetry suffered in quality. A view of writing as communication, rather than self-expression or the exploration of form, would become a shared principle of the Movement poets, who included, besides Amis and Larkin, John Wain, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, and the young Thom Gunn.
In 1949, without having finished his thesis, but with a second child (Martin) on the way, Amis applied for teaching posts at several provincial universities and finally obtained one at University College Swansea, part of the federal University of Wales. Its English Department was not academically distinguished: no member of staff had published anything in the previous year, and with one exception none of them would ever publish a book. In this company Amis, with some published poetry and literary journalism to his name, was almost a star, and he kept his job even after his B.Litt thesis was rejected. He was popular with students though not always with his senior academic colleagues. It was in Swansea that Amis became a dedicated philanderer, and Hilly herself had occasional flings and one serious affair. It is likely that that her third child, Sally, born in 1954, was not Amis’s, though he never said or showed that this was the case. They became the center of a rather raffish social scene, generous and permissive party hosts, especially after the sensational success of Lucky Jim in 1954.
This novel went through several drafts over several years, guided by detailed comments from Philip Larkin, to whom it was dedicated. Larkin could not entirely conceal some jealousy of the literary celebrity it and its successors brought to Amis, and received the latter’s reports of his ever-accumulating sexual conquests with a mixture of wonderment and envy that he put into a characteristic poem, “Letter to a Friend About Girls,” which begins: “After comparing lives with you for years/I see how I’ve been losing….” Amis’s philandering, and Hilly’s less promiscuous infidelities, seem to have reached a kind of peak during the latter part of a year spent at Princeton in 1958–1959, where he gave the Gauss Seminars at the invitation of R.P. Blackmur (choosing science fiction as his topic on the shrewd assumption that his audience would not know much about it) and taught creative writing. It was, Leader comments, “the wildest period of their marriage.” Amis and Hilly had simultaneous affairs with their neighbors the McAndrews, and according to another Princeton friend, Mike Keeley, Amis made passes at every attractive woman he saw, regardless of their marital status: “it was compulsive.”
Amis’s own explanation, or excuse, was that for him sex was a way of exorcising the fear of death, and this theme can be discerned in his fourth novel, Take a Girl Like You (1960), describing the long campaign of the cynical and selfish hero to overcome the old-fashioned moral principles of the heroine, Jenny Bunn, and take her virginity. It was a carefully crafted novel of acute social observation, a kind of elegy for an era of sexual decorum and restraint that would soon be swept away by the Permissive Society and that Amis had already left far behind in private life.
He found Swansea intolerably provincial on their return from Princeton and seriously considered settling in America, but the offer of a fellowship at Peterhouse College Cambridge kept him in England. He was, however, never really comfortable in this post. It was a college appointment, on which the university English faculty was not consulted, and Amis was cold-shouldered by some of its members. F.R. Leavis famously remarked that Peterhouse had hired “a pornographer” (revealing complete ignorance of Amis’s fiction or pornography, or both). Peterhouse was hospitable but not much interested in literature as a subject (typically, an economic historian among the fellows couldn’t see what was funny about the title of Jim Dixon’s article in Lucky Jim). Also Amis’s tutoring duties were quite taxing.
In 1962 he met Robert Graves, the visiting Professor of Poetry at Oxford, whose work he had always admired, and this led to a visit to Graves in Deya that summer which was so enjoyable that Amis decided to resign his fellowship in 1963 and spend a year with the family in Majorca. It was a surprising decision for a writer who had famously attacked the literary cult of “abroad,” and Leader plausibly speculates that Amis had reached some kind of “dead end” in his life from which he was desperate to escape, like the hero-as-shit of the novel on which he was then working, One Fat Englishman (1963), a demonic self-portrait based on his experiences in America.
At this juncture he met the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, appropriately and fatefully at a literary festival seminar on sex in literature. She was posh, talented, and beautiful, in her second unhappy marriage. They began a passionate affair, perhaps his first real love affair, which eventually and not entirely intentionally brought about the end of both marriages. Hilly went to Majorca with the children and Amis moved in with Jane (as she was familiarly known) in London. In due course they occupied a rather grand house on the northern outskirts of London called Lemmons and looked after Amis’s two boys, while Hilly had custody of Sally.
For a while everything went swimmingly. Amis continued to turn out novels every two years or so, some of them clever exercises in genre fiction, like The Green Man (1969), a ghost story; The Riverside Villas Murder (1973), a period whodunit; and The Alteration (1976), an alternative-world tale. Over the same period, beginning in the 1960s, Amis renounced his early socialist leanings and—partly under the influence of his old friend the historian Robert Conquest (whose First Law was “everybody is reactionary on subjects they know about”) and partly out of a mischievous delight in bucking the cultural trend—became a notorious pundit of right-wing views, supporting the American war in Vietnam and opposing the expansion of university education with the slogan “More means Worse.” Meanwhile Jane bore the brunt of maintaining a country-house lifestyle without adequate funds, and got very little writing done herself. Fault lines developed in the marriage. Amis was drinking heavily, with damaging effects on his libido, which sex therapy failed to cure—an experience he explored with astonishing candor in Jake’s Thing (1978). Reading this book, Jane came to the conclusion that he not only didn’t love her anymore but didn’t much like her, and after a couple more years of increasingly acrimonious relations, she left him.
Amis’s physical health and morale declined steeply. Only the lifetime discipline of writing every morning between breakfast and the first drink at noon kept him going. Even so, it took him four years instead of his usual two to produce a new novel, and Stanley and the Women (1984) proved so bitterly (and craftily) misogynist that some women publishers in America did their best to suppress the book. To excessive drinking he added excessive eating, and grew obese. He had a fall and broke his leg. He desperately needed someone to look after him, and providentially Hilly, now married to an impecunious member of the House of Lords, Alastair Kilmarnock, was willing to take on the job in return for living rent-free with her husband in Amis’s house. Martin attributes to Hilly’s return his father’s recovery from the slough of despond into which Jane’s departure had pitched him, evidenced by the more balanced (though still quite dark) treatment of sexuality and gender in The Old Devils (1986) and Difficulties with Girls (1988).
With the award of the Booker Prize in 1986 and a knighthood in 1990, Sir Kingsley Amis was set up to become a grand old man of English letters, but his last years were not serene. He developed a “late style” which was almost as syntactically intricate as Henry James’s, but without the latter’s compensatory poetic eloquence or the wit of his own earlier novels; previously loyal readers began to desert him. Drink continued to damage his body and could not exorcise his inner demons. Not long before his death I read by chance an interview with him in a provincial newspaper in which he shocked the young woman journalist by his aggressive, alcohol-fueled responses to her innocent questions, snarling at one point: “There is no God and life is absurd.”
At his memorial service, Martin recalled his father’s encounter with the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who said, “You atheist?” and Kingsley replied, “Well, yes, but it’s more that I hate him.” In a 1987 essay entitled “Godforsaken” he declared that “human beings without faith are the poorer for it in every part of their lives.” Putting these disparate sentiments together we might deduce that Amis saw the world as a very dark place which was intolerable without transcendence, and yet denied its possibility. I wrote in an obituary of him that his skepticism was in its way as fundamental as Samuel Beckett’s, but cushioned and concealed by the conventions of the well-made novel. I stick to that comparison, much as it would have surprised and annoyed Kingsley Amis.
May 31, 2007