Amis, Kingsley (Vol. 2)
Amis, Kingsley 1922–
A British satirical novelist, author of Girl, 20, Amis is also a poet and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Kingsley Amis has written four funny novels: Lucky Jim (1954), That Uncertain Feeling (1955), I Like It Here (1958), and Take a Girl Like You (1960). Each of the novels is distinguished by a thick verbal texture that is essentially comic. The novels are full of word play and verbal jokes. Any chance observation is likely to bring forth a list of vaguely associated comic improbabilities. This verbal texture is often made up of lists of specific and contemporary references, strung together in a comic manner…. Amis also phonetically reproduces various forms of speech for comic effect. All Amis' heroes are mimics: Jim Dixon parodies the accent of Professor Welch, his phony and genteel professor, in Lucky Jim; Patrick Standish, in Take a Girl Like You, deliberately echoes the Hollywood version of the Southern Negro's accent. John Lewis, the hero of That Uncertain Feeling, also mimics accents and satirically characterizes other people by the words and phrases they use….
In Amis' contemporary fictional world, morality is simply material—conversational, controversial at times, but never the issue along which the novel is directed. The theme of the novels is ultimately adjustment, adjustment of the individual and his aims to the wider society in which he lives. The first two novels, by demonstrating that the adjustment is either in the realm of fantasy or altogether impossible, at least provide some commentary, some question, on the value of adjustment. But the two more recent novels neglect the commentary entirely; the individual must adjust to his world in order to make his way successfully through it. This attitude fits with the comic imagery, the interruption, the comic perspective in Amis' world. If man faces a world where experience is constantly fragmented and incongruous, where no single line of conduct is invulnerable from the ridicule of another point of view, his only possibility is to concentrate on his individual desires and make his way through the world as best he can. Amis' point of view is ultimately a comic acceptance of the contemporary world as it is, a recognition of multiple facts of experience without any commitment concerning the relative value of those facts….
The disappearance of farce from Amis' world is connected with the gradual disappearance of Amis' comic trade-mark: the bumbling, self-conscious hero who stumbles against the established social and cultural world, making fun of both the world and himself in the process. Each successive hero is more competent, less afraid of petty officials, more able to drive a car or seduce a woman, more in control of the world around him. And, as the hero bumbles less, the opportunities for farce and comic incident decrease….
Yet, despite this diminution of comic dimension, much of Amis' comic world remains remarkably consistent. Almost every novel contains at least one long conversation between the hero and a child, a conversation full of improbability and non sequitur…. More important, all the principal characters make faces. Jim Dixon keeps a battery of practiced faces ready for appropriate occasions: his Martian-invader face, his Eskimo face, his Edith Sitwell face, his lemon-sucking face, his sex-life-in-ancient-Rome face. John Lewis often copies faces from American films and he is proud of his ability to look calm and above-it-all or mature and distinguished or solid and responsible at any given moment….
Along with the faces, Amis' characters also deliberately play roles in a kind of comic masquerade. John Lewis parodies Elizabeth's manner and talks of his whole set of roles, ready at any given time. In Take a Girl Like You, Patrick exuberantly plays the role of an export-import man in order to impress his expensive woman in London….
In Amis' novels no individual is free from the incessant awareness of disparate and incongruous experience, as no experience itself is free from verbal interruption or contradiction. In order to try to simplify and manage the experience, man needs to establish roles, to invent disguises. The roles are more or less successful, depending upon how fully they can account for the multiple facts of experience, how well they can aid the character in getting what he wants. The value of the role is judged pragmatically. But the role, by its very nature, by the incongruity between role and whatever chaotic individual that role is designed to represent, cannot become an abstraction or a truth in itself. Roles must change; they must continually be knocked down and set up again.
James Gindin, "Kingsley Amis' Funny Novels," in his Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1962, pp. 34-50.
Kingsley Amis writes a clever, neat sort of verse whose major visible ambition, not to be taken in, is well expressed by the cheerful vulgarity of the title, A Case of Samples (the literal sense being that this book is only a selection from among the author's poems). It is as though he had decided that the world exists only as literature, that he and his readers are too wise to be fooled any longer by so much literature, and that, in consequence, the remaining job for poetry (aside from cleaning up after the Grand Ball of History) is to be more or less benevolently amused at itself and its former pretensions.
Howard Nemerov, in his Poetry and Fiction, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1963, p. 220.
When Kingsley Amis's first novel [Lucky Jim] appeared in 1954, several critics took it for a new sort of book—which illustrates the difficulty of telling a revolution from a counter-revolution while it is going on. From the distance of a decade later, Jim can be recognized as a literary throwback. Recognition is all the easier because, while many people and most fashions have changed during the last decade, Jim has stayed where he was. He has marked time in the sense that Jim Mark I has been followed by Jim Mark II and so on up to (the present score) Mark V. Among the dozens of imitators of Lucky Jim the most assiduous is Mr. Amis. At rewriting much the same novel under different titles and with different names for the characters he is beaten only by Miss Compton-Burnett—who, however, invented in the first place a prototype of much greater subtlety and potentiality for development. The only development in Mr. Amis's series of novels is that—in the words of one reviewer of the latest—'Kingsley Amis's heroes have got progressively more nasty.'…
We cannot tell whether Mr. Amis shares his heroes' morality: but his own practice makes it clear that he does share another of their conspicuous qualities. The Amis heroes are militant philistines. The 'policy' of Mark I is 'to read as little as possible of any given book.' Mark V, coming on a novel said to be in 'the tradition set going by Jane Austen and kept going by Henry James', responds by yawning and feeling 'as always, that what he could not do with was a good read.' The apex of philistinism comes in Lucky Jim itself, when Jim hears a tune by the composer whom either he or Mr. Amis (the passage is again in Mr. Amis's ambiguous reported speech) thinks of as 'filthy Mozart.'
This philistinism Mr. Amis endorses by writing as though to contradict the very principles of art. He himself has entered the genre of moral comedy practised by Jane Austen and Henry James in order, it seems, to trample it. It is as though the next best thing to destroying the great novels written in this genre was to contribute to it what are, in a positively destructive sense, anti-novels. For quick, cheap effects Mr. Amis sacrifices the novel's artistically logical form no less than the psychological consistency of his characters. His heroes' bloodymindedness is not permitted to flower into the gangrenously poetic beauty of a sick joke: it remains unimaginative bloodymindedness, easily convertible into the blubber-lipped sentimentality of the ending of Lucky Jim. Satire is sacrificed to petulance. If Mr. Amis does not consistently build up his heroes, still less does he accurately send up his foes. He merely splutters like Colonel Blimp—with whom he shares the distinguishing mark of social ignorance….
Mr. Amis's own vocabulary is borrowed basically from the banalities of the fiction read—and very likely written—under the hair-drier. His people get badly rattled, throw glances over their shoulders and give looks of pain and incomprehension. On this base he superimposes the fatty facetiousness—the polysyllables and archaisms—of an old-fashioned prep school master. Much of Lucky Jim can be readily translated into classroom idiom. 'Dixon had forgotten … that Welch … was "out for his blood." How would Welch manifest his pursuit of that entity?' (Translation: 'I am out, as they say, for your blood, Dixon Minor. And how do you suppose I will manifest my pursuit of that entity?') At the thought of subtlety Mr. Amis's prose seems to reach for its peashooter.
Brigid Brophy, "Lucky Jim" (1964), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 217-22.
[Kingsley] Amis is the kind of harmless rebel whose rebellion consists of pasting the green stamps in the book upside down.
J. Mitchell Morse, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1966, p. 511.
Amis has complicated his narrative [in The Anti-Death League] by grafting it on to a competent example of that fashionable genre, the spy story. I don't think the moral concerns mix very well with the thriller elements; as a novel of ideas, The Anti-Death League is interesting, but it is a feeble and unconvincing novel. Amis has surrendered a good deal of the fictional territory in which he is most at home and got very little in exchange. At the same time, his seriousness deserves respect, and so too does his determination to write a different book each time, and avoid self-imitation.
Bernard Bergonzi, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1966 by NYREV, Inc.), October 6, 1966.
Kingsley Amis has always seemed to me rather like a fireship blown on a zig-zag course between two opposing fleets. He panicked the rival commodores all the more because neither side could be certain where he was going and where he came from—whether, indeed, there was a consistent intelligence at the helm, or, if there was, whether the rudder was still responding to the wheel. He seemed to be flying all colours at once, which was the same as flying none. Here was a brilliant academic, lecturer in English at Swansea, later Fellow of Peterhouse, who applied a scholarly discipline to the study of jazz and science-fiction, and could be persuaded to expose himself on TV as a critical guide to pop music. Here was a poet, master of the deflating aside, the cunningly-timed anti-climax, the ironic thumb-nose sketch, who also wrote best-selling novels in which a generation of welfare-state intellectuals saw themselves both flattered and mocked.
He has always been an expert at showing us how we deceive ourselves in the very act of congratulating ourselves on not being deceived. In any controversy, he seemed to have been able to produce an extra arm from behind his back to floor an opponent—ever-ready to play the vulgarian to the pedant, the don to the journalist, the rebel to the authoritarian, the entertainer to the propagandist, the moralist to the press-lord. At least on paper, he has often emerged as something of a Johnsonian bully who wrote with a determination to put down the enemy of the moment by any means at hand. But his sparring partners have usually been the famous and the powerful—the classic idols, too long above reproach, from Keats to Jesus. The essence of his public attitude has been summed up in 'you can't take me in.' His motto was—'No Bullshit.' Since he became a household word in 1954 with Lucky Jim, we have grown used to watching him come up as the Peter de Vries of Fleet Street, the Randolph Churchill of the Common Room, with a left joke and right jab in most debates of the day.
Alan Brien, "Amis Goes Pop," in New Statesman, July 7, 1967.
A Look Round the Estate [poems] does not encourage any fancy critic's talk about 'development.' [Amis] is still amusing, skilful, posturing, soft-centered. When he starts off with a straight face, we know he is just limbering-up for a deflating climax; and when his first lines are all smiles and pubby bonhomie, we tense ourselves for that soggy final couplet in which the hairy philanderer will find a presence at his back 'as cold as ice.'
When Amis is not briskly yarning (and this is what he's best at) he likes going in for cracker-motto epigrams, especially about Love….
Ian Hamilton, in The Observer, November 12, 1967.
Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim is worth taking seriously. The humor of this novel, an unexpendable aspect of its art, resembles the humor in such novels as Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, for it is a deceptively harmless surface disguising some rather pessimistic comments that the author seems to feel his audience would not accept if presented in a bolder form. Jim Dixon's world is funny, but it is funny precisely because it reflects, as do the worlds of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, the condition which the existentialist philosophers call "the absurd." That is, in all three of these novels the disparity is so great between the protagonists' expectations and harsh reality, that the situation becomes humorous…. Close examination of the most striking comic moments in Lucky Jim reveals, indeed, that the humor of the novel is not an end in itself, but is intended by Amis as a vehicle for a somewhat pessimistic comment on the human condition.
Ted E. Boyle and Terence Brown, "The Serious Side of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, 1968, pp. 100-07.
Many of Mr. Amis's poems do show the contemporary desire not to be taken in by any ideal or experience, and it is sad to find a poet of his quality in New Approach Needed cocking a school-boy snook at the Crucifixion. But the best of his poems are both wittily serious and skilfully off-hand—and he does come down into the 'ditch.' Nothing to Fear, for example, expresses with controlled force the illusion of being able to take adultery lightly and without guilt…. His earlier poems, The Evans Country, express a Chaucerian relish of the human comedy whose characters so rarely understand the vast gap between what they preach and what they practise. The poet does not condemn or moralise, he presents; it is difficult not to enjoy his presentation.
Tom Blackburn, in Poetry Review, Spring, 1968.
It is painful to carp at a major writer [Amis] who has opted to don the mantle Ian Fleming's sad death left untended. But the greatest flaw in Amis' conception of [James] Bond is that he has attempted to transform the consummate spy-hero into something he was never meant to have been: a man with a job, albeit nastier than most, a man of feeling and conscience as most men would like to be—but after they have been, vicariously, the old James Bond. Fleming's Bond was a welcome high-wire act in masculine-feminine fantasy, a figure whose very profession put him beyond ordinary ethics and inhibitions, a craftsman in the clandestine (however satisfyingly inept) who through license and technology operated outside the dreams of Faust or the doubts of Hamlet. In humanizing Bond, in netting him back into the channel of real contemporary events, Amis somehow deprives him of the very ingredients that made his barely believable adventures so rewarding. I look forward to Amis' second Bond book; anyone who so skillfully took him apart (in The James Bond Dossier) deserves more than one chance at putting him back together.
S. K. Oberbeck, "The New James Bond: Calmer Music, Weaker Wine," in Book World (© The Washington Post), May 5, 1968.
The first thing that needs to be said about I Want It Now is that it is well-made fun. Mr. Amis has suffered a good deal from admirers who insist on seeing him as a cultural portent or a satirist or the voice of the Left or, now, of the Right. He once plaintively complained that Lucky Jim was intended to be a funny book, not a savage indictment of the Welfare State or of anything else; his protestations were brushed aside. He is an intelligent poet and critic, an effective journalist and a straightforward, honest writer of fiction which is both entertaining and firmly committed to traditional moral values. His characters feel concern, are aware of letting those who trust them down and fight their weaknesses in order to act a bit better towards their neighbours. Where he is unique is in representing the latest, possibly the last, development of the nonconformist conscience while accepting the world of bed and booze.
R. G. G. Price, in Punch (© Punch, London), October 16, 1968.
Amis is nearly as funny as early Waugh. Why can't we allow him, at his advanced comic-novelist's age, the emotional self-indulgence of late Waugh? The man longs for range: lyric stuff on the flute as well as squeaky gags on the piccolo—the whole span "between witty seriousness and demented knockabout," as he wrote of an earlier comic novelist, Thomas Love Peacock.
Perhaps a tender satirist, like a friendly watchdog, will always seem a public embarrassment, conditioned as we are to our expectations. Still, in this instance [in I Want It Now] we ought to overlook the final failure to bite. The barking is just so blue-ribbon.
Melvin Maddocks, "An Acid Romance by an Aging 'Angry'," in Life (courtesy Life Magazine; © 1969), March 14, 1969.
What makes "Take a Girl Like You" so good—and I would rank it with "A Handful of Dust" as one of the great serio-comic novels of the century—is its unrelenting intensity of observation, a word-by-word mosaic of perception that adds up to a sad, good-humored final say on the relations between men and women. Amis is especially good, like Orwell, on shabbiness and shabby gentility; on pretensions, particularly lower-middle-class ones; and on all kinds of cant and sham, for which he has an X-ray eye. But he is best and most original on the subject of sex, to which he brings the faultless eye and ear of a handsome man who has been there himself. His women possess real dimension of a kind not often seen since Fitzgerald (is it possible that only the writer who is himself attractive to women can portray them justly and affectionately, and that the others must idealize or denigrate, and in either case flatten, their female characters?); his "duds" and "smashers" of both sexes are not simply types but deep and realized personalities….
Clearly, something awful had happened to Kingsley Amis since 1960. Though this is a review of the books and not the man, it seems fair, and safe, to say that he was simply taken up: that he was made a part, perhaps involuntarily, of the mindless, circular, self-perpetuating London game called literature, with its serial TV interviews, intellectual gossip columns, and bitterly playful public controversies that never seem to end. Perhaps, like Auden's Yeats, he became his admirers….
"I Want It Now" … is a return to his earlier manner: the style and language move more freely and brightly than they have for a long time; the lengthy strings of perceptions and their funny qualifications—thesis, antithesis, anti-antithesis—roll out again with a crackle of real comic power; the story moves in time and space with Amis's old swagger and audacity. It is a readable story and a witty one, and it deserves to be read if only on the ground that we have only so many Kingsley Amises (one, to be exact) and that any Amis book is better than none. But here, too, there is something seriously wrong. "I Want It Now" is in a way a translation of "Take a Girl Like You" into a different social key. The pointedly everyday tale of suburban, middle-class seduction has been transmuted into a fantasy about the pursuit of a rich girl by one of the tolerated hangers-on of the rich….
This, then, is clearly the case of an important writer who has preserved his powers and perceptions—and his ability to write—into middle age but who has become dislocated from his base of knowledge and experience.
L. E. Sissman, "Kingsley Amis at Halfway House," in The New Yorker, April 26, 1969.
Mr. Amis has been criticised for never repeating a success; but his talent is uneasy and dissatisfied. His persona wavers between oafish don and high-earning smoothie, concerned citizen and new-style blimp, rigorous moralist and pub-crawling wencher, aggressive lowbrow and slightly defensive highbrow: his books could never have been repeats.
R. G. G. Price, in Punch (© Punch, London), October 22, 1969.
Kingsley Amis, whatever the crudeness of the figure he sometimes cuts in the correspondence columns, remains an effective writer…. I Want It Now more or less submerged the fact that beneath the surface coarseness there lurks a genuine sensibility as well as a robust sense of farce. At his best he has more narrative talent, sharpness of observation and sheer intelligence than most of his contemporaries. He overestimates certain pedestrian virtues and ignores certain vices, but since Lucky Jim he has been a consistently useful corrective against the more modish forms of pretentiousness.
The Green Man, in a lightish vein, shows him off at his near-best. As a ghost-story it is ingenious, convincingly documented but rather unhair-raising.
Alan Ross, "Lifting the Elbow," in London Magazine, January, 1970.
The Green Man is a good ghost story, but everything that Kingsley Amis does is pretty good. He has lately been doing what Shakespeare did—taking an accepted popular, or once popular, fictional form and filling it with his own brand of humor and intelligence. He has done a James Bond novel, a sort of adventure story called The Anti-Death League and—after a return to Establishment-hitting in I Want It Now—this almost excessively readable exercise in the macabre. The Anti-Death League and The Green Man have a point of philosophical content in common: they both posit the existence of a malign ultimate reality, against which there is little defense. If admirers of Lucky Jim are puzzled as to how Amis has, after that uproarious first novel, arrived at this position, perhaps they ought to read Lucky Jim again….
Amis knows how to chill us as much as he knows how to make us laugh. He knows other things too, and his novel is as crammed with good "numbers" as a rococo opera. There is some admirable 17th Century pastiche …, a piece of Advice to a Pimple, a wonderfully hateful portrait of the switched-on cleric, very satisfactory sex, that rare sense which can only be called wisdom. It's a kind of Senecan wisdom—Stoicism, if you like, the art of putting up with things when you can't fight them. It's part of the maturity of a very mature piece of writing.
Anthony Burgess, "A Racy, Earthy Ghost Story," in Life (courtesy Life Magazine; © 1970), August 28, 1970.
After a decade writing what he calls "the more or less straight novel," Kingsley Amis migrated a few years ago toward science fiction (The Anti-Death League) and the James Bond spy thriller (Colonel Sun), written under the pseudonym of Robert Markham. Now, in The Green Man, he has drifted into the ghost story. What is Amis up to?
Partly he is seeking a form where it is still necessary to practice the old, unfashionable rites of careful plotting, factual scene setting and crisp narrative. The Green Man, though, is like an Amis novel with ghosts. Its tensions are dissipated at crucial moments by cold dashes of caustic humor. Its focus is blurred by a few too many themes and incidents. But it remains pretty high-grade Amis….
[The novel] undoubtedly will make people mad. Nearly everything about Amis does. One sizable body of readers has never forgiven him for not devoting his career to rewriting other versions of Lucky Jim, an understandable complaint considering the skill and savage glee with which that book skewered bores, snobs and all the petty conspiracies of circumstance that can stand in the way of a fellow simply getting on with a job, a girl, a few drinks.
An even more sizable group of critics has never forgiven Amis for not actually being Lucky Jim, or at least for not staying in the cheerful anti-Establishment camp….
Amis compounds his provocations by being a highbrow-baiter. This is Amis as the thinking man's Philistine, going to perverse lengths to deflate cultural pretension. He admires science fiction, horror movies and jazz (but not modern jazz). He will take the position that Jane Austen had a defective moral sense and Keats an awkward poetic technique.
Christopher Porterfield, "Mr. Spleen," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), August 31, 1970, pp. 71-2.
In the … years since Lucky Jim appeared, a happy event, Kingsley Amis has enjoyed considerable commercial success but precious little artistic growth. Once perhaps the most promising of the young English anti-heroic novelists, he seems now disgruntled and jejune; though he is still ambitious, still attempting to make what is fashionably called "his statement," his work is little more than mildly diverting entertainment pasted over with embarrassingly obvious thematic trumpeting.
That is too bad. Amis has persistently shown himself to be a writer of genuine gifts and perceptions. The mordant social satire of his best work (Lucky Jim, Take a Girl Like You, One Fat Englishman) is neatly complemented by broad, and very funny, comedy. His dialogue is witty (too witty, possibly, too "British"), his descriptive touch observant and unobtrusive. His insights are sharp, quick flashes of unexpected, often delightful, revelation.
Yet that may be precisely the trouble. Though Amis tries to reach high, his work is consistently minor: small in scope, small most of all in emotion. He may be, of course, a one-book writer; there is evidence in all his work of mining the Lucky Jim vein well past the point of exhaustion. But the brittleness of his work has, I think, a deeper and more disturbing source: Amis simply does not like people very much.
The Green Man reveals Amis in all his aspects. Though ballyhooed as a new departure …, it is strictly old hat. That means it is frequently funny, tedious when the dialogue turns weighty, determinedly suave, a shade too nimble in plot—and in the end it somehow manages to leave one with a faintly sour taste….
[Since The Green Man's] relationship to Lucky Jim is, to borrow from Amis, "the same sort of thing at a lower level," one's evening may be more entertainingly and profitably spent. Read one Amis, alas, and you've read 'em all.
Jonathan Yardley, "After the One Book," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), September 19, 1970.
The author of "Lucky Jim" still carries the reputation: Comic Novelist. But the spirit of sport has soured on him. The blithest romp now deteriorates into a Witches' Sabbath. Everywhere he looks Amis cannot help seeing Yorick's skull—the haunt of old jokers….
The animal energies of youth—the lovely madness that keeps young men's comic novels on the boil—direct their mockery back at the author 20 years later. Beneath its mask of aging impudence "The Green Man" is a desperate book. Amis's ghosts and demons only seem to code his anguished question: After that too-too solid flesh dies, what is left?
A chilling fatalism permeates the novel, as though everything was predestined—jokes and all. It is as if Amisman lives in some sinister bondage, condemned to his pleasures even more than to his pains.
Melvin Maddocks, "Laugh Till He Cried" (excerpted from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1970 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), in The Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 1970.
One thing that [Amis's] sizeable oeuvre makes clear is that the comic spirit in Amis's work has become steadily less dominant since Jim Dixon made his carefree debut. Amis admirably refused to repeat his initial success (although … I Want It Now does look uncomfortably like an attempt to do just that) in a way which disconcerted readers who were eager for more of the same thing, and who were disinclined to pursue the interesting mixture of comedy and seriousness in Amis's subsequent fiction. There are also those who claim that Amis is not worth anyone's serious attention, that Lucky Jim is at worst a crude and childish farce, and at best no more than a faded relic of the taste of the early fifties. Nevertheless Lucky Jim remains, for me, a comic masterpiece, the funniest English first novel since Anthony Powell's Afternoon Men appeared in 1931, and a work that is surpassed only by the very best of Waugh and Powell. One would like to think that it will retain its appeal, just as their early books have, even when its sociological implications, of which so much was made in the fifties, have dwindled into a historical footnote….
Amis has shown himself to be assertively anti-modern, anti-experimental, anti-cosmopolitan, to at least the same degree as Snow or William Cooper; indeed his tastes are narrower, since he does not share Snow's admiration for Proust. Yet his way of writing fiction suggests that he has undergone, no matter how unwillingly, the influence of the Modern Movement, at least in his reliance on linguistic effect; style functions actively in Amis's comic writing, as it does in Powell's. John Gross has remarked on the way in which many of Amis's comic effects originate in his linguistic finesse rather than in the comedy of situation. Throughout his novels there is a steady preoccupation with language; we see it in characters such as Julian Ormerod in Take a Girl Like You or Harry Bannion in I Like it Here, compulsive and singular verbalisers, who are regarded by their creator with considerable affection….
Although Amis writes what can be regarded as a traditional, uncomplicated narrative, he differs from the Edwardians in his degree of concentration; there are no loose, low-pressure transitional passages of the kind that one finds in Wells or Bennett, and although Jim Dixon resembles their heroes, he also exhibits an exacerbated sensitivity akin to that of Stephen Dedalus….
In Take a Girl Like You Amis seems to have turned to Richardson rather than Fielding for his inspiration: its plot is remarkably close to Clarissa in outline, and offers much the same kind of interest in a long-deferred rape. Will Patrick Standish, an engaging, rakish grammar-school master of thirty succeed in laying the delectable Jenny Bunn, a virgin infant-school teacher, just down from the backward reaches of the North of England? In the end he succeeds, but not before a very long pursuit, and only when Jenny is drunk. Take a Girl Like You has many entertaining passages, but it is heavily padded, and it suffers from the incoherence at its centre….
There are a number of ways in which One Fat Englishman amplifies the preoccupations of the earlier novels. One of them is the natural oppugnancy between man and objects, and another, closely related, is the idea that the organisation of the universe is not random, but that man and things are in the grip of a malign but perversely intelligent force. In this respect Amis is at the opposite pole to Alain Robbe-Grillet, who posits man and objects as existing in icy mutual indifference, in a cool, neutral universe without plan or design….
The preoccupation with malign purpose is fully exploited in The Anti-Death League, which is Amis's blackest and most obsessed novel, with few pretensions to the comic. In this novel Jim Dixon's cheerful conviction that 'nice things are nicer than nasty ones' is replaced by a death's head and the traditional injunction memento mori. The world is irretrievably in the power of Bastards' H.Q., which is now starkly identified with God…. [In] The Anti-Death League Amis has written a more generalised kind of fiction, with more clearly symbolic implications, than in any of his earlier novels. There is still a trace of sardonic humour, and his ear remains alert to the placing details of individual speech; but Amis has here abandoned the incisive social mimicry, the memorable responses to the specificity of a person's appearance or the look of a room that have previously characterized his fiction…. The essential difficulty Amis faces in The Anti-Death League is that it is intensely concerned with the questions that lead to tragedy—death, cruelty, loss of every kind—while lacking the ontological supports—whether religious or humanistic—that can sustain the tragic view of life. And to this extent it is representative of contemporary attitudes.
Considered as an anti-theological novel of ideas, The Anti-Death League is provocative and intelligent, even though it may ultimately lack the courage of its philosophical convictions. It represents Amis's immersion in the nightmare that flickers at the edges of his earlier fiction. It is a brave book, for in writing it Amis surrendered a great deal of the novelistic territory in which he is most at home, and got very little in exchange; considered as a novel in the everyday sense, The Anti-Death League is feeble and unconvincing, and the supererogatory spy story jars against the novel's deeper preoccupations. Yet it is a work of impressive seriousness and marks a crucial point in Amis's development.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted from The Situation of the Novel by Bernard Bergonzi by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 161-74.
[Amis's] absorption with Fleming (see The James Bond Dossier), like his enthusiasm for science fiction (see New Maps of Hell), is difficult to reconcile with the stance he adopted in the 'fifties, both as a novelist and critic, as a defender of a traditional kind of literary realism, except as a lust for fabulation, repressed by his literary 'censor', seeking outlet in certain licensed areas where traditional literary values are not expected to obtain. His publication of a James Bond novel, Colonel Sun (1968), under the pen-name Robert Markham, is surely a case of the realistic novelist taking a holiday from realism, finding a way to enjoy the forbidden fruit of romance without fully committing himself to the enterprise. (It is, I hope, unnecessary to labour the point that the James Bond novels are essentially romances, and that their superficial realism of presentation—the descriptive set-pieces, the brand-name dropping, the ostentatious display of technical knowledge of various kinds—does not convert the romantic stereotypes into anything individually realized, but merely gives them a gloss of contemporary sophistication and facilitates the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.) In fact Colonel Sun is considerably more realistic than most of the Fleming novels (Amis's Bond, for instance, survives by virtue of his wits and good luck rather than the gadgetry which, like the magical weapons of medieval romance, preserves Fleming's hero) and also duller. This is not surprising since the whole enterprise, undertaken, apparently, in a spirit of pious imitation, required Amis to keep in check his natural talent for parody and deflating comic realism.
David Lodge, in his The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (reprinted from David Lodge: The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism; © David Lodge 1971; used by permission of Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1971, p. 20.
By establishing himself as the scourge of an establishment long overdue for a scourging, Kingsley Amis, in his early novels—preeminently in Lucky Jim—proved himself, fifteen or so years ago, the funniest and, in many ways, the most original and satirically important novelist writing in English. In the comically outraged voice of his angry young heroes—e.g., Jim Dixon of Lucky Jim and John Lewis of That Uncertain Feeling—Amis lampooned what C. P. Snow later labeled the "traditional culture," the "culture of the literary intellectuals," of the "gentleman's world"….
What was original, in large part, about the early Amis hero—the Lucky Jim type—was that he overturned a major convention of twentieth-century literature: the convention of the hero as "sensitive soul," the convention of the "alienated" young man of artistic or philosophical pretentions struggling pitifully and hopelessly against an insensitive, middle-class, materialistic world….
Amis, in his early satirical novels, overturns the convention by making of the "sensitive soul" a villain rather than a hero, by showing him up for what he so often is: a fraud; pompous, perverse, deceitful, arrogant, talentless, selfish, humorless, muddled and mean. In place of the "sensitive soul" as hero, Amis creates in his early novels a hero radically new to serious contemporary fiction: a middle-class hero who is also an intellectual, an intellectual who is unabashedly middlebrow. He is a hero who is decent, likeable and healthy; a self-deprecating hero whose chief virtues, as he expresses them, are: "politeness, friendly interest, ordinary concern and a good natured willingness to be imposed upon"; a hero possessed of a talent—shrewd and often wildly comical—for satire and mimicry, yet possessed at the same time of a scrupulous, an almost puritanical sense of moral responsibility. Respectful of marriage, disdainful of the upper classes' easy toleration of adultery, suspicious of all pretentiousness, of all heroic posturing, the Amis hero, to quote the critic, Martin Green, voices all that is best of the "lower middle class, of the non-gentlemanly" conscience….
Because I very much admire Amis' early novels, it has saddened me over the fifteen years or so since those novels appeared to witness the steady decline in the quality of Amis' work, a decline that began dramatically with Amis' fifth novel, One Fat Englishman, published in 1964, and that reaches, I hope, bottom in his newest novel: Girl, 20—a bad novel by any standard and Amis' worst book by far.
In part, the decline … can be attributed to Amis' obviously increasing indifference over the years to the simple art of telling a good story, of achieving verisimilitude. Amis has never been a careful writer; in fact, part of the charm of his early novels is that they fly in the face of the New Criticism, of Percy Lubbock-Henry James, Inc., by managing to be fine novels that are not "well-made." What was once a charm, however, has become a bore….
More than indifference to craft, more than sloppiness, however, what accounts for the drastic decline in the quality of Amis' satirical fiction is the attenuation and—in some cases—the disappearance from that fiction of the hero we've been discussing: the Lucky Jim type. Indeed, with the appearance of Amis' fourth novel, Take a Girl Like You, the Amis hero begins turning into the kind of anti-hero—e.g., blase, irresponsible, hedonistic—that Amis' first three novels attack; and, in One Fat Englishman, a sloppy and pointless farce, the transformation becomes complete.
Without the Lucky Jim type (or an adequate substitute, which substitute Amis has yet to find) Amis' satire—and this is certainly the case in Girl, 20—loses the moral seriousness and moral core that made his early comic satires so original and important. To be sure, in Girl, 20, Amis does satirically get at targets that need getting at, many of them relatively current versions of the targets he got at in his early novels…. But the satire of Girl, 20 comes off, at best, as half-hearted and trivial; and this is so largely because the protagonist of the novel—Douglas Yandell, a thirty-four year old music critic, is, in contrast to the Lucky Jim type, himself half-hearted and trivial—a protagonist who simply couldn't care less. The great distinction of the early Amis satire is that it offers us, in the Lucky Jim type, a clear alternative to what is being attacked. In Girl, 20, however, (as in other of Amis' later satires), it is difficult to see that in Yandell, cynical, promiscuous, world weary, vaguely corrupt, Amis is offering much that is preferable to what he is attacking. Further, and of more aesthetic importance, unlike the early Amis novel in which the objects of Amis' satire are of compelling interest because they are central to the moral development and destiny of the hero, central, that is to say, to the story—e.g., the intellectual fakes and boors seriously jeopardized (if always in a comic way) the career, the marriage, the moral well-being of the early Amis hero—in Girl, 20, the objects of Amis' satire are of only peripheral concern to Douglas Yandell, minor irritants rather than sources of the great comic rage that was the hallmark of the Lucky Jim type. Indeed, so loosely related to the protagonist are the objects of Amis' satire in Girl, 20 that they come off frequently as merely incidental to the story—as undigested details arbitrarily tossed in from Amis' notebook.
James P. Degnan, "Fiction Chronicle," in Hudson Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Summer, 1972, pp. 330-37.