The Russian Girl
by Kingsley Amis
Viking, 296 pp., $22.95
Some years ago British television ran a documentary on the life and work of the novelist Kingsley Amis. We were afforded privileged views of Amis at his typewriter (a machine built c. 1957, I should say, high-set and smoothly curved, rather like the hood of a Rolls-Royce), drinking with his cronies in dark-brown pubs, and sitting comfortably in an armchair delivering judgments on the state of contemporary fiction, etc. The scene was predictable, and much too cozy. One brief passage, however, has stayed in my mind. On a return visit to Swansea in Wales, where he had worked for a time as a young man, Amis was filmed walking along the quiet suburban street where he had lived in those days. The street was empty save for an elderly lady with a shopping bag, who had stopped in vague amazement to watch the filming. As Amis was passing her by he gave her a rueful, humorous, and self-mocking glance, as if to say, Yes, missus, this is the kind of thing we writers have to subject ourselves to in order to make a crust. It was an endearing moment, in which one glimpsed the warm and funny man that Amis used to be before he decided, some time in the 1960s, to turn himself into a literary Colonel Blimp.
Amis was born in London in 1922, was educated at Oxford, and went on to lecture in English at University College, Swansea, and Peterhouse, Cambridge. His first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), a comedy set in a provincial university, was an immense success and made him a leading figure among that generation of postwar English writers dubbed (by journalists) the Angry Young Men: others were the novelists John Wain, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe, and the playwright John Osborne. As is the case with all such “movements,” this group was marked more by differences than similarities, but there was an identifiable, essential tone common to all of them. They were not so much angry as impatient with authority, with the drabness and hypocrisy of postwar Britain and its class system, and with what they saw as the stagnation into which English writing had fallen.
Looked back on now and compared with, say, the Beats in the US, the Angries seem tame: in their time and place, however, they were revolutionary. They were funny, irreverent, anarchic, and honest. They rejected Modernism, Bloomsbury, and the Jamesian novel, in favor of a gritty and, in the case of Amis, hilarious realism. As with a novelist of the previous generation, Evelyn Waugh, they regarded themselves less as artists than as craftsmen, taking their aesthetics, consciously or not, from thinkers such as Ruskin and William Morris. They were determined that their work should appeal to a wide audience, that it should be as comprehensible to the “man in the street” (or the woman in Swansea) as to academics and their fellow writers; that it should entertain, inform, criticize, and in general add to the gaiety of the …