Kingsley Amis

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When he died on October 22, 1995, Sir Kingsley Amis had been an important and highly visible fixture on the British literary scene for more than forty years. Although he had already published two volumes of poetry, it was his phenomenally successful novel, Lucky Jim (1954), that catapulted him to fame. Amis went on to write another two dozen novels (including the award-winning The Old Devils, 1986), several collections of short stories, and further volumes of verse. He published a quantity of journalism, much of it of high quality, and edited popular and influential collections of light verse and science fiction.

Amis also remained in the public eye thanks to his provocative views on politics, the arts, and society, many of which seemed to grow increasingly belligerent. One late novel, Stanley and the Women (1984), reportedly was rejected by many American publishers because of its aggressively unsympathetic portrayal of women.

Jacobs opens his biography with a kind of overture, an introduction entitled “Portrait of the Artist in Age,” that candidly—perhaps too candidly for some readers—describes Amis in his early seventies. The figure Jacobs portrays rises from his solitary bed, goes to the toilet, shaves, showers, and dresses—in what are now oversize clothes, as Amis has put on considerable weight in the last few years. A healthful and thus fairly unappetizing breakfast has been prepared by his former wife Hilary (“Hilly”), and while Amis forces down his food and reads the papers, Hilary’s current husband Alastair Boyd, Lord Kilmarnock, makes Amis’s bed. At last Amis approaches his study and his typewriter, where, despite his considerable anxieties about writing, he finishes his minimum of five hundred precisely chosen and usually very funny words.

There follows a taxi ride to a pub, club, or restaurant, where Amis can finally relax and—most important—talk with friends and drink. He eats moderately and without great enthusiasm, talks more and drinks more, then finally navigates the stairs for a taxi ride home, where he will nap, write more, drink more, watch television, and eat a dinner cooked by Hilary or by their daughter Sally, who lives nearby. Amis concludes his day with more television, more alcohol, and light reading. Although his current domestic arrangements allay a lifelong anxiety—sleeping alone in an otherwise empty house—he downs several pills to assure uninterrupted sleep. The rest of Jacobs’s biography describes the route Amis followed from his birth to this destination (a pretty much ultimate one, it turns out), with its bizarre domestic arrangements and its carefully balanced elements of domesticity, conviviality, and all-important solitude.

Kingsley Amis was born in Clapham, south London, on April 16, 1922, the only child of a lower-middle-class family in which he was both spoiled and regimented. He attended the City of London School and St. John’s College, Oxford, thanks to scholarships. It was at Oxford that he met Philip Larkin, later a noted poet and, until his death in 1985, a close friend and reliable sounding board for Amis’s evolving public and private views.

Amis served in the British Army as a signal master during World War II, returning to Oxford in 1945. He met Hilary Bardwell the following year and married her in 1948. The next year, he accepted a position as lecturer at the University College of Swansea, an arm of the University of Wales. He would remain a member of the academic world until 1963.

Jacobs admits that he and Amis disagreed on only one major point, the extent to which Amis incorporated himself and the people around him into his fiction. Jacobs opted for “more,” Amis for “less,” with the resulting biography approaching a reasonable and livable compromise. Jacobs thus finds much of Amis in his first and still most popular novel, Lucky Jim.

The protagonist of that novel, Jim Dixon, is a lower-middle- class lecturer in history at a provincial university, living in a boarding house and finding himself perennially short of the money he needs for alcohol and tobacco. His position at the university is precarious, and he must toady up to the cunning but notably witless head of the department, one Professor Welch. (According to Jacobs, this figure is modeled closely upon Amis’s new father-in- law.) To deal with boors and buffoons such as Welch, Jim resorts to a kind of coping mechanism hilariously familiar to those who knew Amis—face-making. Thus, Jim’s “Sex Life in Ancient Rome” face is one Amis used to share with friends, and the admittedly boring paper that the...

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Kingsley Amis: A Biography Kingsley Amis

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although written with Kingsley Amis’s full cooperation and published in Great Britain shortly before the novelist’s death in 1995, Eric Jacobs’s biography pulls no punches. His introduction portrays Amis in old age, vulnerable, heavyset and increasingly unsteady on his feet. Amis was beset by anxieties yet determined to continue the activities that kept his anxieties at bay: writing, meeting with friends, and drinking.

Jacobs traces Amis’s life in leisurely fashion from his lower middle class youth to his final years. Thanks to his writing he became famous and wealthy, and oddly enough shared a household with his first wife Hilary and her current husband for the last decade and a half of his life. He had grown increasingly outspoken on social and literary matters, and enjoyed his reputation as a curmudgeon.

It was Amis’s first novel, LUCKY JIM (1954), that catapulted him to fame. Although subsequent novels would not match LUCKY JIM in comic invention, Amis’s vision broadened and deepened as he matured as a writer. According to Jacobs, Amis’s fine supernatural novel THE GREEN MAN (1969) contains a self-portrait of Amis as an alcoholic, lecherous innkeeper whose selfishness destroys his marriage.

Amis’s own first marriage had ended because of his involvement with fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Amis and Howard were married in 1965, but eventually grew apart. Jacobs sees the novel STANLEY AND THE WOMEN (1984), which was widely attacked for its apparent misogyny, as mirroring Amis’s disenchantment with his second wife. He goes on to interpret the mellow tone of THE OLD DEVILS (1986) as an outgrowth of his renewed friendship with Hilary. The novel went on to win Britain’s highest literary award, the Booker Prize.

Admirers of Amis’s many books may regret that Jacobs has avoided writing a literary biography, but they are likely to appreciate his evenhanded treatment of their author.

Sources for Further Study

American Scholar. LXV, Autumn, 1996, p. 624.

Booklist. XCIV, May 15, 1998, p. 1588.

Boston Globe. June 21, 1998, p. C3.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 84.

National Review. L, September 14, 1998, p. 66.

New Statesman & Society. VIII, June 30, 1995, p. 37.

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. July 19- 25, 1998, p. 3.

Sewanee Review. CIV, Summer, 1996, p. 452.

Spectator. CCLIV, June 10, 1995, p. 36.

TLS: Times Literary Supplement. June 16, 1995, p. 26.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, August 23, 1998, p. 5.

World Literature Today. LXX, Spring, 1996, p. 413.