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Bad Behavior’ & Kingsley Amis

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.

  1. *

    See “Closing Time,” The New York Review, March 26, 1987.

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