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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