The Life of Kingsley Amis
by Zachary Leader
Pantheon, 996 pp., $39.95
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 …