SOURCE: “A Misunderstood Misanthrope,” in Harper's Bazaar, Vol. 122, No. 3329, May, 1989, pp. 76-7.
[In the following review, Lida provides an overview of Amis's writings, considering whether the novelist's most recent work is dated.]
Early on in Kingsley Amis' new novel Difficulties with Girls, one character says to another, “The bloody world's moved on without consulting us.” Although he is considered the greatest British comic novelist of his generation, some critics suggest a parallel view: that no matter how brilliant a sentence Amis turns, how trenchant his observations or how deep his skewering of British society, his work is dated, his politics are hopelessly reactionary— he's simply missed the boat.
Has the world moved on without consulting Amis? This is an excellent time to consider the question. After the 1987 American publication of his Booker Prize-winning The Old Devils, a beautiful and sensitive comedy about aging, Summit is also bringing out two reissues of vintage Amis: One Fat Englishman and Girl, 20.
Amis' memorable first novel, Lucky Jim, was published in 1954, when he was 32. The eponymous protagonist is a penniless assistant lecturer in a provincial English university, who hates his pompous professor, is burdened with a hysterical girlfriend, and is less interested in advancing the cause of scholarship than in chasing other women and drinking himself comatose.
The book's portrait of a selfish and snide breed of academic caused many to brand Amis as one of the Angry Young Men, a rebellious set of English writers who blasted the British class structure.
Although he did little to correct this assumption—it was good for sales—it was nonetheless a misapprehension. Less a rebel than a social commentator, his major preoccupation is to pinpoint (and pinprick) the hypocrisy of the prevailing order and to shed light on its darkest corners. However, after nearly 20 novels and several collections of poetry and essays, he has proven to be fairly satisfied with the status quo—or at least uninterested in toppling it.
Amis was born in London 67 years ago to an export agent for Colman's Mustard. At present, he is “one fat Englishman” who, since divorcing his second wife in 1980, has lived with his first wife and her present husband in what he once described as an arrangement out of an Iris Murdoch novel. He claims to lead a sedentary life, stepping out for lunch occasionally, but spending most of his evenings at home reading, watching television or sipping his favorite whiskey. This last occupation is one he reportedly finds thoroughly engaging. His books are loaded with drink, and when asked what he was going to spend his Booker Prize money on, he replied, “Booze, of course.”
Not surprisingly, Amis has become notorious for taking stabs at any and everyone—ethnic groups, the aged or, particularly, women. His females are usually crazy, chronic complainers or downright witches, who are either frigid, sex-mad or both, depending on how manipulative they are. His men tend to fare better; while they may be selfish cads, they redeem themselves with charm and humor.
Among the more sensitive critics, such portrayals have given Amis the reputation of a racist, anti-Semite and sexist. There is an almost “Who's going to get it next?” sense of anticipation that precedes each novel.
Difficulties with Girls is about Patrick Standish, a 37-year-old editor at a publishing house, whose marriage to the beautiful and tender Jenny is threatened by his compulsion to philander. While Patrick may be selfish, Amis has made him more attentive, sympathetic and guilty over his indiscretions than his past heroes. Each...
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time he makes a sexist remark in Jenny's presence, he apologizes, and occasionally even shows her genuine empathy. Though Jenny is perhaps Amis' strongest, most sympathetic female character thus far, some may find her hopelessly out of date. “In her opinion,” Amis writes, “no wife could maintain a full-time job and expect to look after her husband properly.”
The two earlier novels are more standard Amis. Roger Micheldene in One Fat Englishman(1963) is a misanthropic British publisher who is visiting a northeastern U.S. college called Budweiser. He is interested in little but food, drink and willing women. His view of women: “You're all the same,” he says. Girl, 20 (1971) concerns Douglas Yandell, a stuffy, 34-year-old music critic, who is embroiled in the affair of conductor/composer Sir Roy Vandervane and an unspeakably obnoxious 17-year-old. Sir Roy, in his 60s, doesn't much care what other people—including his wife—think and is ready to suffer any consequence for the pleasure of seducing a young girl.
This, the most ambitious of the three books, attempts to portray what Amis perceives as the rubble left in the wake of the political and social permissiveness of the '60s. It is also a barometer for his deep-seated conservatism, which at times makes him sound like one of his own protagonists. “I'm anathema to the young,” he says. “I think it's because I point out so many unpalatable things. It's awkward to tell the truth.”
Charges of racism and sexism are more complex. Amis' patronizing views of homosexuals, blacks and the Irish are probably less slurs than jabs at the complacency of his class and generation. (They also satisfy his penchant for the quick, cheap joke.) Like many British novelists, Amis feels there is a larger story behind his comedies of manners. As for his sexism, he once admitted that “for years … any female contact that did not end in sex was a letdown.” Still, there is no doubt that besides good looks and sympathetic natures, the most well-rounded of his female characters hold a certain moral superiority over men.
Has the world moved on without consulting Amis? The answer is a qualified yes—the same way it has moved on without consulting P. G. Wodehouse, one of Amis' most brilliant forebears. It is impossible to read Wodehouse today without wincing at his political complacency; nevertheless, he is as enjoyable as ever. So is Amis. If the world has moved on, it is just a matter of time until it catches up with him again.
Kingsley Amis 1922-1995
(Full name Kingsley William Amis; also known as Robert Markham, William Tanner) English novelist, poet, short story writer, editor, nonfiction writer, biographer, scriptwriter, and journalist.
The following entry provides an overview of Amis's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 40, and 44.
With the publication of his first novel Lucky Jim (1954), Amis established himself as the voice of British middle-class intellectuals. In the novel, Amis chronicles the exploits of Jim Dixon, a lower-middle-class man who refuses to accept the idea of the inherent superiority of high culture. As a result of this novel, critics identified Amis as a member of the “Angry Young Men,” a British post-war working class literary movement. Throughout a prolific career spanning almost fifty years Amis continued to develop his voice, championing lowbrow culture such as the spy novel and adventure story, always writing in a straightforward and lucid style, and earning converts through his biting satirical humor. Although in later years he was criticized for dated and intolerant views, particularly in regard to women, he won the Booker Prize in 1986 for his novel The Old Devils. He continued working until his death in 1995.
Amis was born April 16, 1922, in London, England to William and Rosa. Amis's father William was a clerk at Colman's Mustard, earning the family a position among the lower middle class. Amis, an only child, characterized his childhood as bland and insular. At the age of eleven he had his first story published in the Newbury College school magazine; he later attended the City of London School on scholarship. As a result of his studies, Amis earned a scholarship to study at St. John's College, Oxford, where he befriended such talented writers as Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings. Amis's friendship with Larkin was close, lasting throughout their lives and careers. Amis joined the Royal Signal Corps in 1942 as a commissioned officer and served three years in France, Belgium, and Germany during World War II before returning to Oxford to complete his studies. Following his graduation in 1947, he married Hilary A. Bardwell and accepted a teaching position at the University College of Swansea in Wales, concentrating on his emerging talent as a poet. Along with his fellow writers, Larkin, Jennings, John Wain, and Robert Conquest, he began to garner critical attention, and soon the group was dubbed “The Movement,” though its participants denied any intention to create a literary subculture. With the publication of his novel Lucky Jim in 1954, a new label was applied to Amis and his cohorts: “Angry Young Men.” As his reputation grew, he received many literary awards and prizes, including a Booker Prize nomination in 1974 for Ending Up, and a Booker Prize in 1986 for The Old Devils. In addition, Amis earned praise as an essayist and reviewer. His personal life earned him national recognition as well; his bitter divorce from his second wife, author Elizabeth Howard, was highly publicized. Amis used these events as fodder for his later novels. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. He died on October 22, 1995, in London, from injuries sustained in a fall.
Amis wrote humourous but biting satire aimed at the pretensions of class society and the weakness of the individual. His heroes are typically cynical, condemnatory individuals who combine intelligence and wit with curiously lowbrow or middle-class values. Jim Dixon, the sardonic protagonist of Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim, is a junior lecturer at a provincial university who flouts the pseudointellectual demands of academia as a way of rejecting its affectation and hypocrisy. The characters of Amis's subsequent novels are similar to Jim Dixon in temperament but grow increasingly mean-spirited in their attitudes. The hero of That Uncertain Feeling (1955), a young Welsh librarian obsessed with the sexual opportunities of university life, is alternately kind, lecherous, and cruel. In Take a Girl Like You (1960), an attractive but insincere grammar school instructor seduces, then nearly sexually assaults, a newly-arrived preschool teacher. The title character of One Fat Englishman (1964), a bigoted Oxford snob, is left with no redeeming human values at the novel's end as he fails to realize the fundamental contradictions in his own nature.
Amis disavowed the use of polemic and experimented with a variety of forms and styles in his fiction of the mid-1960s and 1970s. The Anti-Death League (1966) is a dark, humorless novel in which he combines elements of the spy thriller, love story, and ideological novel. Colonel Sun (1968), a novel written under the pseudonym Robert Markham, features as its protagonist Ian Fleming's hero, James Bond. The Green Man (1969) is a comic ghost story in which a malevolent spirit awakens in a rundown pub, believing it has found an ally in the establishment's drunken and lecherous but essentially decent proprietor. Amis received the John W. Campbell Award for The Alteration (1976), an example of the “alternate worlds” subgenre of science fiction. Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980), another example of the “alternate worlds” novel, centers on a future England overrun by the Soviets, who abandoned Marxism in favor of the ancient system of czarist rule. In 1986 Amis was awarded the Booker Prize for The Old Devils, a novel that takes place in Wales, where Amis worked as a university lecturer during the 1950s and 1960s; satirical references throughout the novel convey his disapproval of modern, gentrified Wales. The novel deals with the aging process, a phenomenon Amis treated previously in his novel Ending Up (1974), although with a different tone and purpose. In addition, Amis is known and highly regarded for his poetry, primarily written early in his career, and for his work as an essayist, exploring a wide range of literary issues, but always advocating clear, lucid writing.
Amis earned critical praise first for his collections of poetry and then for his novel Lucky Jim. He continued to build upon this high regard throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Although Amis expanded upon the themes common in his early novels, he did not fair as well with the critics as his career progressed. These later books elicited sharply divided critical opinions due to their controversial or challenging conclusions. For example, although some critics condemned the novel's lack of engagement, V. S. Pritchett praised Jake's Thing (1978) as “a very funny book,” adding that “Mr. Amis is a master of laconic mimicry and of the vernacular drift.” Stanley and the Women (1984), though praised in England, was criticized elsewhere for its misogynist content, and Amis was unable for several years to find an American publisher. While Susan Fromberg Schaeffer called the novel “a misanthropic work in which Mr. Amis attacks everything in sight,” Marilyn Butler contended: “The messages conveyed by the packaging, that the book is stupid, old-fashioned, illiberal and likely to displease women, are nonsense, the very reverse of the novel's actual message.” In general, however, Amis's later works have been poorly received; though critics continue to praise the humor, many agree with James Gindin's assessment that they lack “the richness and force that derive from some form of commitment or commentary. The flatness of the pure and uncommitted comedy, its satisfaction with simple reflection, may often become repetitious and dull.” Other critics maintain that Amis's artistic intentions have been misunderstood; R. G. G. Price noted: “Amis has suffered a good deal from admirers who insist on seeing him as a cultural portent or a satirist of the voice of the Left or, now, of the Right. … 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.”
Reviewers agree that The Old Devils is Amis's least vitriolic and most humane novel. Amis mutes his customary sarcasm, they observe, showing tolerance for both his male and female characters and depicting the physical and emotional rigors of aging with compassion as well as humor. Some reviewers also comment that The Old Devils features Amis's most accomplished work from a technical standpoint, involving the reader in the story with his impressive prose, engaging dialogue, and startling paradoxes. Anthony Burgess declared in his review: “There is one old devil who is writing better than he ever did.” By the close of his career, critics had become more uniformly hostile, attacking Amis's books for their dated political and social viewpoints, especially his derogatory treatment of women. Donald Bruce took issue with Amis's criticism of Vladimir Nabokov's writing. Bruce charged that Amis's writing is “tortuous, periphrastic, laboured: verbosely inarticulate.” However, in retrospect, James Wolcott argues that critics were too harsh on Amis in his final years. George Watson summarizes that Amis was the voice of his generation stating, “(H)is novels spoke in our voice, and they looked like the first fiction that ever did.”
SOURCE: “Changing Social and Moral Attitudes,” in Kingsley Amis: In Life and Letters, edited by Dale Salwak, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 130-48.
[In the following essay, Gindin, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, considers the nature of comedy as well as the political and moral tone of Amis's work.]
The changes and inconsistencies in the social attitudes visible in Kingsley Amis's fiction over the past thirty-five years are not any better explained by his change from voting Labour to voting Tory than they initially were by the simplistic designation of ‘Angry Young Man’. Loyalty to one party or another masks the consistency within the changes in Amis's fiction, for his comedy has never promulgated an interpretation of experience that could follow a party doctrine or programme, never depended on a vision of what social experience should or might be. Rather, the sharp comic texture of Amis's prose and the operation of his satire depend on a clash, implicit or explicit, between a conventional illusion about what experience might be and the immediate sense of what it is. In his emphasis on what is, Amis writes a comedy of social accommodation. As, through his mimicry of varying voices and social details, his early protagonists learn or fail to learn to drive cars, lose virginity or order meals in restaurants in a world of rapidly expanding social possibility, the emphasis seems to fall on an opportunistic adjustment to experience. In the more recent fiction, in a world of physical decay and diminishing possibilities for most of his characters, Amis emphasises a necessary acceptance of things. In either case, however, the superficial focus is on accommodation to what the outer social world is rather than on any judgement about that world that can be translated or reduced to partisan political statement.
Much of Amis's early comedy depends on metaphors of a direct physical response to experience. Conflict is frequently dramatised as farce; iconoclasm is often a form of assault. Images of physical discomfort plague all Amis's characters. In I Like It Here (1958), a presumably elegant seaside resort in Portugal that could lay a very fair claim to being dubbed the Blackpool of the South but for its smallness and lack of amenities’ is distinguished only in the availability of cheap drink and constant infestations of insects. Amis then spends three very funny mock-heroic pages reporting the protagonist's futile struggles against fleas. Sexual communication is interrupted by wasp stings, mosquitos or the intrusions of undisciplined children. The foul tastes of food crowd all the early novels, as in the boarding house in Take a Girl Like You (1960), in which the haddock is reminiscent of the ‘lionhouse at the zoo’ and the beef tastes of ‘damp tea-towel’. Lest this be taken solely as a response to British food after nearly two decades of austerity, the messes of ‘foreign sauce and muck’ are even worse. Posed against the actual tastes and smells is the characters' hope that eating might provide sensuous pleasure as well as necessary sustenance, and the comedy is in sharply rendered images of the differences.
Mental experience is parodied in Amis's frequently elaborate structures of inappropriate logical analysis or classification. Love-making is also interrupted or prevented by pseudo-logical analyses of how to defend different parts of the anatomy or a manual of technique to demonstrate the protagonist's skills as seducer. In Take a Girl Like You, all forms of behaviour and relationship are codified into impossible axioms or classified by types of men (the valuable ones dead), or ways of smoking a cigarette: ‘not the almost-unbearable-enjoyment one nor the old-smoking-campaigner one, but the wise, thoughtful one, as if he was the only person in the whole world who understood exactly about cigarettes’. Even the varieties of pretentious nonsense he meets in America have to be classified by another of Amis's protagonists, Roger Micheldene in One Fat Englishman (1963), in order ‘to be sure about nonsense’. The human mental or rational activity, the elaborate classificatory chain, is funny because inappropriate and unconnected, a diversion from the experience itself. Like his physical comedy, Amis's comedy of logical analysis underlines the difficulty in his protagonists' accommodation to the worlds they want to impress.
Another form of comedy depends on the juxtaposition of references to social class, a metaphor from one widely different form of social organisation planked against another. Estoril is always reminiscent of Blackpool, and Amis widens this theme into a cogent account of the different—and, for the protagonist, frightening—uses of money in the different social and national worlds. Class divisions inhibit accommodation, not by virtue or necessity, but by the difficulties involved in foregoing the security of origins and immersing oneself in the newer world of increased possibility. The English writer in Portugal
fancied that he had a long history of lower-middle-class envy directed against the upper-middle-class traveller who handled foreign railway-officials with insolent ease, discussed the political situation with the taxi-driver in fluent argot, and landed up first go at exactly the right hotel, if indeed he wasn't staying with the contessa, all cigarette-holder and chaise-longue, who called him by a foreign version of his christian name.
When another traveller finds a taxi more efficiently than he does, the protagonist snarls, ‘Class traitor. … Imperialist lackey. Social chauvinist.’ Class assault can escalate to ethnic or racial insult in the comedy of one of Amis's most outrageous anti-heroes, Roger in One Fat Englishman, as his way of sorting out his new world. More tamely, even the superficially confident protagonists in Amis's later fiction (the bumbling incompetents of the early fiction gradually disappear, although the issues of competence and accommodation remain) sort others out by class, sometimes by religion or race, often by occupation or trade that carries a consistent social meaning, as Amis's protagonists are consistently lethal in referring to the impercipient anxieties of dentists and dentists' mistresses. Jake Richardson, in Jake's Thing (1978), in a new world that acknowledges, discusses and tries, often foolishly, to change sexual behaviour, recognises that, in terms of both class and sex, he confronts ‘Just another example of thinking that if you've named something you've explained it. Like … like permissive society.’
To some extent, over the decades of his fiction, Amis's protagonists acquire a mastery through their occupations and histories of accommodation that enables them to survive the more obvious and superficial pitfalls of the modern world. They can drive cars, order meals and generally get women into bed, tokens of manhood rather like shooting bears in other social worlds. Yet the texture of a comic vocabulary that centres on physicality, disembodied mind or pseudo-logical analysis, and a social organisation based on classifiable divisions, remains central to Amis's prose. The comedy, outrageous or not, varying considerably in tone and in specific social reference, protects the persona from the uncertainty or inadequacy he feels. Amis's comic vocabulary and metaphors do not propound concealed ideologies or truths that might suggest salvation or redemption. Rather, in his world of change or accident, Amis's comedy becomes a vehicle for demonstrating both the kinds of control his protagonists have or have not over their chaotic and inexplicable worlds and the author's own linguistic control, his versions of the widely juxtaposed differences between human illusion and human experience. At various levels, Amis's comedy underlines the capacities, dilemmas and ambiguities of attempts at control of the self in accommodation to changing social experience.
The chaotic parties and farcical scenes in Amis's early novels are supposed communal gatherings lurching wildly out of control, like the iconoclastic medieval lecture in Lucky Jim (1954) or the international variety show that begins as a religious celebration in I Like It Here. In both these instances, fear generates the protagonist's participation, in the latter novel the combination of ‘fear’ and ‘abroad … was what took him to perihelion’. In other early novels, the protagonist is more consistently aggressive and outrageous in assaulting others. The principal male in Take a Girl Like You, Patrick, for example, is a conscienceless womaniser who can operate well among the teachers and would-be artists of the small provincial city, but is ludicrously out of his depth in London or with the socially sophisticated. Aware of his different worlds, he often tries to summon ‘full control’. Yet his control can be brutal or deceptive, as when he finally seduces Jenny Bunn in his ambiguous triumph over her outmoded ‘Bible Class ideas’. Patrick expresses his need for control in the ridiculous cricket-elevens-of-enemies he draws up (combining names both within and outside the fiction), his manuals for seduction, his ludicrous plots to move others (like the one in which he sends his flatmate to watch a rained-out cricket match in London) and his shabby skill in turning logical argument to his own design. In a private moment, however, he recognises the fear on which all his language rests, as, apparently defeated, he ‘tried to control his breathing’ while imagining himself in ‘thick mud, just mud and the struggle to breathe, a gradual loss of consciousness followed by dreams of water and mud and the struggle to breathe, dreams superseded by identical dreams, a death prolonged for ever’. One need not be as immorally duplicitous as Patrick to manufacture socially ludicrous forms of control. In the same novel, the Guernsey tomato farmer's daughter who masquerades as a passionate and sexually liberated Parisian in the provincial city is finally exposed. She responds: ‘Playing a part's the only thing left these days, it shows you won't deal with society in the way it wants you to’.
The masks continue for Amis's protagonists. Roger Micheldene, in America, combines his language, his falsely reverential high culture, his deliberate aggression, and his lies, in an attempt to win the Danish/American symbol of beauty, Helene. He assumes his capacity to control others: ‘A man's sexual aim, he had often said to himself, is to convert a creature who is cool, dry, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature that is the opposite of these; to demonstrate to an animal that is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal.’ Helene is an animal, although not at Roger's prompting, and her own self-control is firmly established with her husband, an apparently dull and pedantic Danish/American linguist named Bang. Roger's language is persiflage. As his manipulations become more and more ludicrous, he becomes paranoid, assuming irrationally that others are plotting against him the more his own plots misfire. Similarly, in the later fiction, like Jake's Thing, the protagonist's elaborate schemes to control others are linked to his even more improbable convictions that others are deliberately and maliciously controlling him. Control, seen both positively and negatively, is a comic survival kit in an uncertain world.
In a number of the novels, the attitude toward experience as a series of comic survival kits perched uncertainly on the top of an abyss of nothingness or death is derived from reference to the Second World War. The war is seen implicitly as the war the English might well have lost, did not expect to win, had no ultimate reason or metaphysical justification for winning, but accidentally and fortunately won nevertheless. Amis's protagonists, like Amis himself, despite a generally concealed sensitivity to the pain and loss of others, managed, with nothing of the heroic proclamation or gesture, to survive. At several points in I Like It Here, Garnet Bowen, the protagonist, recalls the war: once to contrast the self-deluding tourists who romanticise the atmosphere of precipitous little streets in Italian towns with those, a decade earlier, who suffered there; once to connect the fear beneath his derision of Portugal to the one episode during the war in which he momentarily and physically feared darkness and death.
In 1962, Amis published a volume of short stories, My Enemy's Enemy, in which a number deal with the military at the end of the Second World War, although none is set in combat. The title story begins with a conventional contrast within the military between those who seem to care only for order and discipline (sometimes linked by others to Nazis), awarding prizes ‘for the smartest vehicle to the driver of an obsolete wireless truck immobilised for lack of spare parts’, and those who know and do their jobs well, who without show or inspections maintain their trucks and their communicating signals. Instead of relying on an easily simplified contrast, however, Amis deepens both sides, uses both metaphor and the plot to show that not all spit-and-polish officers are incipient Fascists, not all agile and sensible mechanics are as honest and straightforward as they seem.
Another long story called ‘I Spy Strangers’ deals directly with the politics of the 1945 election within the Army. The story begins with a mock Parliamentary debate between the military Labourites who might allow the victorious Russians to do whatever they want and the military Tories who would just as soon find an excuse, while still mobilised, to bomb Russia. The debate is never resolved. Rather, it is diffused into the more knowable and therefore, perhaps, socially controllable divisions of class between the Tory officer who fears a force ‘hostile to his accent and taste in clothes and modest directorship and ambitions for his sons and redbrick house at Purley with its back-garden tennis court’ and the Labour officer who would build a ‘decent’ Britain, abolish public schools, the House of Lords and perhaps the Royal Family. But, despite a point of view that recognises political equity and change in the majority of the Labour party (still, at the time in which the novel is set, doubtful that it represented a majority of the whole nation), Amis does not simply dismiss or render irrelevant institutional Toryism. He respects the institution complex and capacious enough to function unevenly within the modern world in spite of the folly of its superficial posture and the spurious pretence of its ideological moorings.
Amis's institutional military at the end of the Second World War is like the aristocratic fairy godfather who for all the negative reasons saves the anti-hero and awards the prize in Lucky Jim. The godfather explains, or, rather, doesn't: ‘It's not that you've got the qualifications. … You haven't got the disqualifications, though, and that's much rarer.’ Amis's characters in the early fiction act as if they experienced an unexpected and undeserved reprieve from pain and death by 1945, and they aren't at all sure what to do with it. They don't express gratitude, which would be false, but they don't express ideological certainty or pompous assurance of immutable virtue (the disqualifications) either. They haven't the language for the qualifications, and their words, their forms of control, fend off or assault the disqualifications.
The early Amis's deepest engagement with the themes of control and survival is visible in his 1966 novel set within the military, The Anti-Death League. The plot and characters involved in a staged military manoeuver at a peacetime Army base are framed, beginning and end, by traffic accidents that simply happen—a motorcycle courier delivering a secret message killed at the beginning, the parson's dog, unable to stand the music that is the object of the parson's principal devotion, slipping his collar to run into his death on the highway at the end. In both instances, the ministrations of parson, doctor and security man are irrelevant, establishing a world always conscious of the accidental finality of death. Within the novel, the only person killed (again by random accident) in the abortive military manoeuver is L. S. Caton, the rather slimy author and editor who writes in green ink and offers lectures in each of Amis's early novels, a gesture that seems appropriately to expunge from the fiction a worn comic device. Death also intrudes into the fiction centrally in the preparations for the dangerous manoeuver finally aborted and into the single love affair (as distinguished from the frequent and uninvolving sex), that between one officer, James, and Catherine.
A comic and literal anti-death league, which sends out missives suspected of undermining security, is only the ludicrous surface of the military, that institution presumably best equipped to deal with death. The various institutional voices provide a cacophony of irrelevance: the security officer who tries to follow his manual and apply reasonable thought, but usually ends in contradiction or paranoia; the doctor (a psychiatrist here, and the most immoral of Amis's characters) who meddles outrageously in what no one understands; the intelligence officer who can confront death and his own homosexuality only through drink; the parson who makes music as an alternative to attempting to assuage death through his religion in a world where ‘to believe at all deeply in the Christian God, in any sort of benevolent deity, is a disgrace to human decency and intelligence’.
In contrast to these voluble characters, James and Catherine express their lives simply, directly and repetitiously (leading to the possible conclusion that the novel is sentimental or that Amis has lost some of his linguistic energy and skill) until, when threatened with the possibility of Catherine's cancer, they just silently hold each other on their bed. The silent, the unknowability, is political and institutional as well as personal. James and Catherine's silence is less Amis's ineptitude than his deliberate and effective statement about inadequate, intractable human language. Death cannot be mediated, assuaged or explained in human terms, and no benevolent God exists in Amis's world.1 The human efforts become varying forms of persiflage, comic because they are outrageously impotent and irrelevant in confronting death. ‘Human decency and intelligence’, as well as human love, the transitory alternative to death, are in Amis's terms, best conveyed in a language approaching silence.
Moral choice in Amis's fiction is not inhibited by the fact that he finds no metaphysical or ideological warrant or derivation for it, nor does his Godless universe prevent Amis from offering moral contrasts between characters who are equivalently limited and unknowing as human beings. Rather, in the fiction, Amis uses the language of moral behaviour, calls some characters ‘humane’ or ‘decent’, and shows others as concerned only with self or the achievement of their own ends. The moral framework is social as well as individual, contingent on the recognition that the world contains many others besides the self. Accommodation to society is not in itself good or evil, and a virtue that involves the recognition of others is difficult to maintain in isolation. Amis's modern world is crowded, and his characters must learn to deal with traffic, voyages outside protective class or country, and changing codes of sexual behaviour. But the forms of dealing show a moral contrast between using change simply to feed or aggrandise the postures of self and understanding change in an active recognition of otherness.
Some of Amis's early heroes, those whose speech is likely to convey the most wildly outrageous social mimicry, like Patrick in Take a Girl Like You, Roger in One Fat Englishman or Dr Best, the psychiatrist in The Anti-Death League, are made morally inferior to the ‘decent’, to those who can love, or to those, like the parson or the homosexual in The Anti-Death League, whose language can scuttle their own positions. Still others, like Lucky Jim or Garnet Bowen in I Like It Here, are treated with more moral ambivalence. The elaborate persiflage of their language is the comic texture of self-protection, but Jim can appreciate other, simple, prizes in his growing sense of accommodation and Bowen can understand and value his wife as the woman who, unlike others who attract him, is incapable of blackmail, of using the secrets of others to advance the self. The language of Amis's positive morality, like that of James and Catherine in The Anti-Death League, is understated, deliberately simplified. The positive morality most often emerges through the mimicry and the elaboration of all the negative persiflage and self-justification. To develop a positive social language more extensively would, in terms of Amis's fiction, risk sounding pretentious, the inevitable sound of the glorification of self. In the absence of ideology or a language of truth, Amis expresses his morality largely through a comic language that exaggerates and explodes the pretentious into its reverse.
In regarding pretence as the sign of human and literary debility, and social accommodation as an axiom in human experience, Amis often consciously echoes values associated with eighteenth-century literary culture. He uses these values less in the context of neoclassicism or the ideas and assumptions of social order so important for some of the early twentieth-century modernists than in the assumptions and implications of the mock-heroic. In I Like It Here, Garnet Bowen visits Fielding's tomb in Lisbon and muses:
Perhaps it was worth dying in your forties if two hundred years later you were the only non-contemporary novelist who could be read with unaffected and whole-hearted interest, the only one who never had to be apologised for or excused on the grounds of changing taste. And how enviable to live in the world of his novels, where duty was plain, evil arose out of malevolence and a starving wayfarer could be invited indoors without hesitation and without fear. Did that make it a simplified world? Perhaps, but that hardly mattered beside the existence of a moral seriousness that could be made apparent without the aid of evangelical puffing and blowing.
Although conscious of the pose in sounding like the ‘English Men of Letters Series’ and being barely able to read the Latin on the tomb, Bowen recognises both the honest virtue of Fielding's mock heroic stance and the fear of the more complex and ideological world from which it emerges and against which it tries to establish human control. Amis's perspective throughout his early fiction echoes something of Fielding's man of commonsense and simple virtue, as well as of the rationalism of Pope's deliberate reduction of man to the simply human scale or of the legend of Dr Johnson's sticking to the rules and lighting matches under his fingernails so as not to go mad.
Amis's literary adversary is the posture of any emotional, ideological, sociological or provincial anti-rationalism, the assumption that eternal truth is achieved by projecting the social and emotional extensions of self. I Like It Here and the other early novels mock the social statements that deliberately castigate the rational and glorify the idiosyncratic or the self. Dylan Thomas's poetry, for example, in its provincial emotionalism, is a frequent target, never more so than in its posthumous transmutation into legend and excuse that becomes a metaphor for human folly and falseness in Amis's recent novel, The Old Devils (1987). At the same time that Amis is too knowledgeable and intelligent to transform a general and complex historical movement like Romanticism into his enemy, his perspective insists on an allegiance to the knowable and locatable, a frequent dismissal of some of the thematic corollaries or excesses of nineteenth-century Romanticism in fiction. He is likely not to credit the deeper significances of self-doubt, emotional and psychic turbulence, and either the perils or the triumphs of solitary introspection. He has little patience with human anguish, rebellion or self-pity. His early plots, too, follow his perspective; they are rational constructions that lampoon deviation, excessive complexity or eccentricity. They tend to reinforce the signals issued by his language. Take a Girl Like You, as plot, is centrally an ironically reversed version of Richardson's Pamela. Amis's rational plots frequently, in the early fiction, resolve mystery, either directly, as in The Riverside Villas Murder (1973), or metaphorically, in social and psychological terms in That Uncertain Feeling (1955). His rational structures are seldom open-ended, seldom vulnerable to the deeper doubts, perplexities and human anguish of the open-ended or unresolved.
Amis's literary perspective is not, however, limited to an endorsement of rational and protective eighteenth-century values, or to the consequent clarity and focus visible in his critical work like What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions. Nor are his post-eighteenth-century literary references limited to parody that mocks his characters, although the novels contain a great deal of that, as in One Fat Englishman's misappropriations of literary tradition from Chaucer through to Evelyn Waugh's book on Rossetti, or the description of an elegant whore as looking ‘like a brilliantly catty novelist and reviewer with a Ph.D. on Wittgenstein’ in Take a Girl Like You. The latter novel also uses T. S. Eliot, ‘And every attempt is a wholly new start … and a different kind of failure. … A raid on the inarticulate … with shabby equipment always deteriorating’, both to mock Patrick's opportunism and to introduce a complicated theme concerning the use of language in the modern world that takes its Eliot quite seriously. Amis's protagonists are invariably compendiously literary, even those in the war-based stories in My Enemy's Enemy whose citations, either as parody or serious theme, range from Chaucer to D. H. Lawrence.
The early novel most explicitly concerned with literature and literary criticism, I Like It Here (which includes, as a set piece, an ancillary parody of a late 1950s literary critical syllabus), does not repose in its veneration of Fielding's sensible accommodation and protection. Garnet Bowen is also in Portugal to discover whether an ageing novelist who has not published in years, and whose work may convey moral and psychological depths beyond those visible to Fielding, is or is not genuine. The difficult old novelist is named Stretcher, and Bowen finally decides that both he and his claim that he's ‘better than Fielding’ are genuine. The links to Henry James are more than just the suggestions of nomenclature, for Bowen, at the end, begins to modify his expectation that ‘great writers’ are ‘prancing phoneys’ in ‘the great-writer period … roughly between Roderick Hudson and about 1930, death of Lawrence and the next bunch just starting off—Greene, Waugh, Isherwood, Powell. Or perhaps 1939.’ Amis is not switching his historical terms or endorsing cosmic or aesthetic anguish; rather, in using the early, firmly moralistic Roderick Hudson and in connecting his Jamesian speculations to the morally inquisitive and protective voice of Strether, Amis is accepting and questioning a literary moral framework that might extend Fielding and develop forms of moral rationalism more appropriate to the confusing and chaotic modern world. Bowen cannot really assimilate or fully understand Stretcher, and he retreats to the limited England he came from, but he does at least realise that the later Jamesian voice, however muted, is not mysterious, and has the authentic sound of genuine achievement.
A version of the Jamesian extension of moral issues from those of Fielding, the growing realisation that moral judgement becomes more difficult as a developing sensibility continues to confront cultural change, echoes through Amis's fiction over the last decade. The outrageously selfish protagonists of Take a Girl Like You and One Fat Englishman often modify into less completely selfish successful men who illustrate the complacency of achieved social accommodation. The protagonists, for example, of both Jake's Thing and Stanley and the Women (1984) had adjusted themselves satisfactorily to their version of a changing world only to find that the world had changed again, leaving what they had thought of as their adjustments and moralities in doubt. An Oxford don approaching sixty who lives most of the week in London, Jake has carefully restricted himself to his work, his exact knowledge of bus routes and topography, and his sexual triumphs since the end of the Second World War. He has not bothered to vote since 1945, and he has never believed in causes or God. But he faces the loss of all sexual desire—either for his sympathetic second wife or for any of his other encounters, old or new. Told that his problem is not physical, he enters the new world of sexual and psychological therapy.
In some ways, he reacts like the earlier outrageous heroes, and Amis's capacity for assaultive social rhetoric is as sharp as ever. Knowing good food, Jake is lethal about the tasteless sludge served in Oxford colleges and Oxford restaurants with spurious foreign credentials. He blasts the language that refers to the group sexual session as a ‘workshop’, and excoriates new forms of scholarship that include the theory that Hamlet was really a woman in disguise. He becomes acutely uncomfortable in a world where, as he complains, the man in charge of his treatment ‘didn't know where Freud functioned, what had happened in 1848 or who James Bond was’. Jake expands, thinking the therapist had probably never heard of ‘the Titanic, haggis, T. S. Eliot, plutonium, Lent, Vancouver (city let alone island or chap), Herodotus, Sauternes, the Trooping of the Colour, the Times Literary Supplement, the battle of Gettysburg, Van Gogh, Sibelius, Ulysses’. Jake eventually learns that his loss of sex drive has a physical origin. But, in the process of discovery, he also violates his own standards in going to bed with an old flame, now married, to prove himself, in his handling of newer attractions, and in his spontaneous sexist outburst at a college meeting. Emotional explosions from within destroy the forms of self-control he thought he had attained. In addition, his second wife, who realises that he had only manipulated rather than shared what she had thought of as a relationship, leaves him for a feckless, formless, absorptive man for whom Jake has only contempt. Amis establishes a point of view that sees Jake as unable to maintain control because his moral recognition of others was insufficient. He had only a superficial moral language vulnerable to the next switch in preposterous fashion. Yet Jake himself is not entirely the outrageous pretender as he comes to question what he had thought were his own forms of accommodating morality.
Stanley and the Women erodes further and more deeply the confidence and complacency of the potentially outrageous accommodator who had thought himself in control of his world. In some ways, Stanley, a successful trade journalist specialising in motor cars, is the familiar iconoclastic anti-hero, although he, like Jake, is a vastly expanded and matured version of the early Amis anti-hero who could not accommodate and saved himself by retreat in That Uncertain Feeling. Stanley is given a rhetoric that, in the complex London world of 1982 which illustrates a resurgence of class feeling, subtly derogates Jews, parcels women into appropriate roles that acknowledge their professional skill and independence, and skillfully merges metaphors for food and clothing into an assault on conventional taste, like the dress his first wife wears ‘which looked to me as though it was made out of a well-known brand of dietary biscuit’. Stanley thinks his relationship with his second wife, a beautiful and successful editor, is arranged with sensible control, including the decision not to have children, and she is initially warm and supportive when his son from his first marriage suffers a nervous breakdown. But his control vanishes in a psychiatric world full of contradictory advice and the complexities of family treatments, where the boundaries of madness and sanity are questioned and Hamlet is read through the perspective of R. D. Laing.
In his pain, Stanley retreats to the lower-middle-class, South London world he came from: he relies for advice on doctors who share his origins. His second wife, Susan, in leaving him, mimics his mimicry, screaming in her ‘very poor imitation of perhaps a Hackney or Bow accent’ that he's a ‘lower-class turd’: ‘I don’t know how I've put up with you for so long, with your gross table-manners and your boozing and your bloody little car and your frightful mates and your whole ghastly south-of-the-river man's world.’ But the strains of experience that erode control bite much more deeply in the action of the novel. Apparently recovering, Stanley's son returns to live with him and breaks again, apparently lunging toward Susan with a knife when Stanley is away. Stanley cannot tell whether the attack was intended and Susan's superficial wound the fortunate issue of self-defence, or whether the attack was only a gesture and Susan's wound self-inflicted. Stanley, who thought he could be both a good father and an appropriate husband to a second wife, cannot manage the contradictions in loyalty and belief that the extreme situation demands. Older forms of comic control are irrelevant, for Stanley cannot know enough about the motives and inner imperatives of others, no matter how close to him, to sustain the rational control he thought he had mastered. The cacophony of contemporary voices about psychiatry, women, families, has no more certain knowledge. Some voices, like that of a calm Sister in a hospital are just kinder and more humane than others; Stanley comments ‘good and bad in every crowd … like Germans’. A sub-text in the novel suggests recall of the Second World War, the luck of survival in a frightening world of competing and antagonistic forms of intense pain. Stanley's second wife returns in a quickly staged gesture at the end of the novel, although the inner truth of the situation is still unknowable. Stanley accepts the patched-up conclusion, for, as one of the doctors has said, ‘after all one has to be married’, and his son is likely to recover. But his sense of pain and guilt, as well as his recognition of the limits of knowledge and rationality, are unassuaged in a world he had once thought he could deal with responsibly.
In a recent essay entitled ‘No, not Bloomsbury’ (the title comes from Lucky Jim), Malcolm Bradbury has developed an extensive parallel between the comic personae of Amis and Evelyn Waugh.2 The similarities include both authors' sharp, astringent language, their assaults on the pious and self-pitying, and their dyspeptic personae's comic iconoclasm about the contemporary world. Bradbury rightly sees that both are moralists whose comedy mocks human pretence, and that Amis, increasingly, like Waugh, writes about human loss and pain. But, despite the parallels in their language and rhetorical stances, the social and metaphysical implications of the two writers' fictions are more significantly different than Bradbury's parallel acknowledges. On the level of political dialogue, Bradbury sees them both as cantankerous, moralistic Tories, but he also quotes Amis's recent statement that he supports the Tories except on the issues of hanging, homosexuality and abortion. Although Waugh can no longer comment on current policies, it is doubtful that he would ever sanction such significant deviation from Tory policy, especially on the last issue. Differences between the two are visible in different moral positions on sexual fidelity, where Amis is often unmoved by the pain of betrayal that generates Waugh's anger and bitterness.
Even wider differences attach to Tory institutions, the Army and the Church. In Waugh's trilogy of the Second World War, Sword of Honour, the persona begins with confidence in the institution of the military in 1939 as the safeguard of national value and tradition. Through the first years of the war, he is bitterly disillusioned by the military's incompetence, violations of its own standards, and incorporation of the socially and selfishly opportunistic. He depicts an institution that betrays tradition and Toryism by compromise with the modern world. Amis, writing only after he had emerged from a military from which he had never expected any value, develops a perspective almost surprised to sanction an institution that, despite its inevitable strains and contradictions, functions in the contemporary world. The Toryism of the military's beliefs or values is, for Amis, less the point than its capacity for accommodation. The ostensible principles are contradictory anyhow, and Amis's military is valuable only in its opposition to other principles or ideologies that would scrap it in the name of a higher truth. Waugh's Church, although of course not part of British Toryism, itself enshrines ultimate value. In both his fiction and other comments, Waugh defined that moral value as a conscious refusal to accommodate to a changing social world (and, in fact, was deeply disappointed when the Vatican Council established accommodations he could not sanction). For Amis, Church as institution is irrelevant, not representing anything at all in the fiction, although individual members may or may not derive morality from their own contradictions and responses. Not only are Waugh and Amis sharply different in their attitudes toward institutions that presumably represent the Conservative, but they differ deeply on the comic extravagances of social accommodation itself. Tony Last reading Dickens to the natives in Brazil might be equally outrageous for both authors, but Waugh grants him a measure of the martyr's sympathy whereas Amis would scorn the tacit assumption of the martyr's complacency and virtue.
A further measure of the differences between the perspectives of Waugh and Amis is visible through a novel like Ending Up (1974), an Amis version of ultimate questions more skeletal than most of his novels. The society of the novel is five old people, dependent on each other, who live in an isolated country cottage. Their survival requires both accommodation to each other and a severe restriction of their own former interests because of the increasing debilities of age. The most articulate and active (also the nastiest and most selfish) is a former Army officer who no longer can sustain earlier interests in athletics, military tactics and strategy, history, India, ‘pioneers in aviation, chess, the life of the Duke of Wellington, the works of George Meredith’. He is confined to the necessity of long sessions in the lavatory, careful cleaning of himself and another resident who has had a stroke, routine reading of the newspaper, rationed smokes and drinks, and games like patience. All the others, too, carefully order life within the limits of unchangeable loss and physical decay, bad hearts, alcoholism and fading memory. The forms of control, the survival kits, invert in time: recognising others and trying to establish social connection turns to playing tricks on others, preying on their weaknesses; intelligence and scholarship become a series of long lists and names, the sign of trivial pedantry; attempts to maintain contact with outsiders result in repeated letters forgotten or the abyss of miscommunication when younger relatives of some of the characters come to visit; sustaining others leads to self-ingestion, to girth or drunkenness. Moral differences between the five characters exist, but they are trivial, nearly irrelevant, in the declining control, fiercely protected, over the death they all inevitably share.
The plot is carefully worked to the climax in which the former Army officer (whose doctors have given him a more immediate sentence of death he does not divulge), playing a trick on another character, stumbles to his accidental death. This, by a series of connections, relying on the interdependent restrictions and debilities of each, within hours leads to the death of all five. The novel is painful farce; the comically restricted controls that would forestall death turn into its accidental agents. There is no appeal, rescue, transcendence or consolation in fiction that is entirely closed, both literally and metaphorically. Although a few of the voices share the comic malice, pain and dyspepsia of those of Evelyn Waugh, Amis's perspective provides nothing outside, no eternal fall, no cultural meaning, no martyrdom, no transmission of anything to the next generation, and no echo of eternal doom. Ending Up is closer to the fictional perspective of Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale than to that of any of Waugh's novels.
The basic conditions of human experience in Ending Up, the finality of death and the inversions of human control designed to forestall it, are repeated in The Old Devils. The later novel, however, also contains a much richer social texture as well as a cogently and comically articulated moral stance. It is, perhaps, Amis's fullest and deepest achievement thus far, and his most complicated use of the varieties of human character. In a novel set in a Welsh town about ageing couples, all of whom have known each other for forty years, each of the males is introduced with an elaborate comic treatment of the physical debilities he faces as he starts the day. The characters are typed by psychic connections to their fears and forms of ageing: the anality of the introverted scholar/pedant/poet; the carefully nurtured emergence from coma for the once brilliant alcoholic to enable him to drink again; the struggle with corpulence and the pain of incipient heart attack for the former teacher who has achieved commercial success. All share the simpler comedy and slighter pain of tooth decay, although these inconveniences are not revealing—more a general statement of the condition of British teeth and Amis's lingering conventional animosity toward dentists. Each of the characters is also, in one way or another, dependent on his wife, who confronts her own forms of control in the world of endemic decay. The emphasis on wives, their hang-ups, soporifics, pains and accommodations, also brings the whole dimension of relationships into the novel. Although superficial forms of past control are still recalled in Amis's comic lists and manuals of anatomy for permissible seduction, the years have added all the complex assumptions and suspensions of control, the combinations of independence and dependence, that comprise relationship. The texture of detail is social as well as personal and psychological, for connection to and characterisation in terms of the changing society is part of what keeps the human being from the vacuity and isolation of death.
The plot of the novel follows the return to the community of Alun and Rhiannon after a forty-year absence. Alun, the most energetic and aggressive of the men, is the outrageous voice who, as writer and performer, has fashioned a career by representing the charming and dissident Welsh on the BBC; Rhiannon, the prize, is still the most attractive and sensitive of the women, although their marriage has been difficult. Amis is predictably lethal about the phoney re-creation of a distinctive Welsh past: all those ancient customs for which ‘research had failed to come up with a date earlier than 1920’ and those signs that ‘used to say Taxi and now said Taxi/Tacsi for the benefit of Welsh people who had never seen a letter X before’. Alun and Rhiannon have aged less than the others, seem to have been able to use their grander life as a substitute for the grimmer, more narrow forms of control life has demanded of the others. But Alun's youth is finally as spurious as his paraded Welsh identity. He claims he is determined to break away from the Dylan Thomas syndrome and write of Welsh experiences authentically. But he can't, his language is still the elaborate and empty panoply of the BBC. His literary failure becomes his moral failure as well when he casually abandons the alcoholic (who is dependent on others to get home in the dark), the one character both sensitive and brave enough to tell, however reluctantly, Alun the truth about his work. Knowing he's failed artistically and morally, that his life is basically false, Alun loses control entirely. His casual nastiness gets them all kicked out of their habitual pub just before a sudden heart attack makes him the only one to die.
Amis's moral perspective is, however, not only stated negatively, not only apparent through the false, outrageous accommodation that has no concern for others. Through all the various sexual encounters, past and present (and, in Amis, morality is never contingent on life-long sexual fidelity), the relationship between Peter, the corpulent former teacher who has become a commercial success, and Rhiannon is given a status and an unfeigned sense of mutual concern beyond accommodation not granted to any of the others. They had loved each other when Peter was a teacher, Rhiannon a student. When she became pregnant, Peter, frightened of losing his job, had insisted she have an abortion and go off to London with Alun. In the years since, as he accommodated to changing society, left teaching, and married a woman who demanded penance and no longer wants him, Peter carried the responsibilities and guilts of his whole world. His ingestion of guilt swelled to corpulence; he became dependent on pills of nitroglycerin to control the strains on an overloaded heart. He learned to understand others without judging them. The marriage of Peter's son and Rhiannon's daughter (and Peter and Rhiannon are depicted as the only adequate parents in the novel, concerned and close without being demanding or intrusive) in some way compensates for their own aborted child. They conclude the novel living together in something beyond the requirements of controlled and sensible accommodation. Peter is a superficially ludicrous version of James's Strether, learning late the possibilities of a finer, deeper morality, one that does not judge and takes the guilts and responsibilities into the self, in a world of more crowded social complexity than he had ever imagined. What he learns may not do him any good, at least not for long, and there is no consolation for death.
Abstracted, the morality almost sounds too simple, rather like Jamesian uses of ‘wonderful’. The language of morality can easily sound banal. James achieves his language by shrouding the difficult extensions of sensitivity and morality in ambivalence. Amis relies on an unpretentious vocabulary close to silence or banality, on what is most visible in its contrast to the language of persiflage. Positive language is close to intractable, the most difficult and vulnerable survival kit. Yet the force and social concern of a finer, understated morality emerges from The Old Devils shrouded in an anti-heroic corpulence and decay that control any implicitly pretentious statement. In his own terms, Amis has moved some of the distance from Fielding to the later James.
Amis himself has connected his depiction of God in The Anti-Death League with William Empson's characterisation of God as malignant in Milton's God. See Dale Salwak's interview with Amis in ‘An Interview with Kingsley Amis’, Contemporary Literature XVI (Spring 1975) pp. 15-16.
Malcolm Bradbury, ‘“No, Not Bloomsbury”, the Comic Fiction of Kingsley Amis’, in his No, Not Bloomsbury (London: André Deutsch, 1987) pp. 201-18.
Bright November (poetry) 1947
A Frame of Mind: Eighteen Poems (poetry) 1953
Kingsley Amis (poetry) 1954
Lucky Jim (novel) 1954
Poems (poetry) 1954
That Uncertain Feeling (novel) 1955
A Case of Samples: Poems, 1946-1956 (poetry) 1956
Take a Girl Like You (novel) 1960
The Evans Country (poetry) 1962
One Fat Englishman (novel) 1963
The Anti-Death League (novel) 1966
A Look Round the Estate: Poems 1967 (poetry) 1967
Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure (novel) 1968
I Want It Now (novel) 1968
The Green Man (novel) 1969
Girl, 20 (novel) 1971
Ending Up (novel) 1974
The Alteration (novel) 1976
Jake's Thing (novel) 1978
Collected Poems: 1944-1979 (poetry) 1980
Russian Hide-and-Seek (novel) 1980
Stanley and the Women (novel) 1984
The Old Devils (novel) 1986
The Crime of the Century (novel) 1987
Difficulties with Girls (novel) 1988
The Folks That Live on the Hill (novel) 1990
The Russian Girl (novel) 1994
You Can't Do Both (novel) 1994
The Biographer's Moustache (novel) 1995
SOURCE: “Discovering Kingsley Amis,” in The Literary Biography, 1986, pp. 80-5.
[In the following essay, Salwak, an academic, discusses his preparation for writing the biography: Kingsley Amis, Modern Novelist.]
My discovery of Kingsley Amis began in 1967, when as an undergraduate I read and reported on his first published novel, Lucky Jim, in the context of the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ movement of the 1950s. Some of the points I made then became part of my 1974 doctoral dissertation, ‘Kingsley Amis: Writer as Moralist.’ In 1975, Contemporary Literature published my first interview with Amis, and three years later G. K. Hall released my annotated bibliography of secondary writings on him. That book, I thought at the time, closed my work on the man. I would move on to other projects.
I did move on to other projects, but the subject wouldn't let me rest. A recurring edginess and anxiety visited me whenever I glanced at my Amis collection or read a new novel of his, not to mention the familiar ‘tapping on the shoulder’ that biographers often experience. In 1980, I re-visited Amis and his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, at their Hampstead home for a follow-up interview on the occasion of the publication of his fifteenth novel, Russian Hide-and-Seek. Its subject—a futuristic dream world turned nightmare—seemed at the time a far cry from the apparently contented domestic life that the Amises enjoyed. But in 1982 during another visit I was surprised to learn that after seventeen years of an often stormy marriage he and Jane had painfully separated, that Amis was now living with his first wife and her third husband in Kentish Town, and that for the first time in his professional career, he had abandoned a novel in progress. Listening to him talk, I found myself wondering whether Amis would ever write a good novel again, a question that he may well have been asking himself. His confidence was understandably at a low ebb.
Every novel Amis has written reflects in some way the particular life he was leading at the time. Usually, the book can be traced back to some key idea, to some intense emotional need, to what Leon Edel calls some ‘state of disequilibrium’ in his being, to what Catherine Bowen terms ‘some ghost within that struggles for release.’ It is not surprising, then, that two years after Jane had left, the idea for Stanley and the Women drifted into Amis's head. ‘One moment I knew nothing,’ he said; ‘the next I knew it would be about a man with a mad son who breaks up his marriage.’ On the subjects of madness and the battle between the sexes, Amis has had much to say in earlier novels, but never so provocatively as in this dark comedy. With the exception of Lucky Jim (and 27 years later, his Memoirs), nothing in Amis's career would provide such an unprecedented outpouring of intense reaction among readers as that novel. As one reviewer accurately predicted, Stanley and the Women would be ‘greatly relished and deeply resented.’ It took a full year of rejections before an American publisher would accept it. When Amis told me in 1985 that an English writer had approached him about writing a book on his life and work, I said with interest and alarm, ‘Well, there'll be two then—one by an American.’ I was committed.
Operating on the principle that if we dig far enough into a writer's fiction, we can find the real person behind the authorial voice, I spent the next three years on nothing but published sources: Amis's novels, poetry, essays, and interviews. Every word of an author's work inevitably says something about the kind of person he is. At the same time, it would be naive to assume a one-for-one likeness between himself and his characters, or between incidents and certain events in his life. I worked hard to avoid falling into that trap, and tried to allow for the author's imagination and invention and creation at every turn. As I closely read, re-read, and evaluated everything in as broad and open-minded a way as possible, Amis's work seemed to guide me, chronologically, through his life in letters. Slowly there emerged from my study recurring attitudes toward family, friends, work, marriage, society, and his role as a writer upon which I could structure my book.
But published sources are only a start. I had to learn a great deal more. I wanted to know the personal and intellectual contexts from which the novels grew; the process by which Amis arrived at major decisions about structure, about the invention and ordering of plot, about the creation of characters. And I wanted to say more about Amis's breadth and consummate artistry in any genre that he chose to use. It was time to turn to the archives. ‘If the biographer reads a writer's work carefully,’ confirms Leon Edel, ‘he is already in possession of a significant compass to that writer's archives, because he is made aware of the singular personality who is his subject.’
While writing my book on Kingsley Amis, I was fortunate to have (with the exception of the Bodleian Library's collection of letters to Philip Larkin) unrestricted access to his archival material. Jack Gohn's 1976 bibliography alerted me to the Humanities Research Center's collection of Amis's juvenilia, his rejected Oxford thesis, and the notebooks and typescripts covering his first five published novels. Queries in PMLA,The New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement helped me to locate letters held at Pennsylvania State, Syracuse, Princeton, and the University of Victoria. And two colleagues led me to the Huntington Library's acquisition which includes almost one hundred drafts of Amis's novels, as well as various stories, unpublished plays, essays, notebooks, radio and television scripts along with 250 letters. Together, these materials span the entire course of Amis's career from 1934, when he was twelve years old, to 1990, and tell us much about his education, his evolution as a writer, his methods of composition, his friendships and acquaintances, and his respective tenures at Swansea, Princeton, Cambridge and Vanderbilt.
I was also fortunate to gain the early confidence of my subject as well as many of his friends and acquaintances. Between 1973 and 1990 Amis and I met in London six times for interviews, each lasting up to four hours. To insure absolute accuracy, I taped our conversations, and on two occasions sent him a transcript for correction. I handled interviews of Amis's friends and acquaintances similarly, and if I could not see an individual in person, I interviewed him or her by telephone. Beyond that, they left me completely on my own.
There are great advantages when the subject is alive, and also a great disadvantage, which is the biographer's lack of complete freedom to say what he wants about the subject. Amis's viewpoint in the preface to his Memoirs is of special relevance here. ‘To publish an account of my own intimate, domestic, sexual experiences,’ he writes, ‘would hurt a number of people who have emotional claims on me, probably as much by my writing of good times as bad, and I have no desire to cause pain, or further pain, to them or myself.’ On very sensitive issues—his marriages, for example, or his three children—I therefore limited my material to what he or family members had said in print, or what Amis himself had told me on the record.
It has been said that the notebooks of an accomplished novelist offer ‘a peculiar kind of biographical fact.’ A rebellious adolescence, a controlling father, a disappointing love, two divorces, recurring melancholy, fears of the dark, of loneliness, of possible madness, of death, and numberless other facts of personal biography may be windows on the work of an author, but notebooks can stand closer to the work than does any event. ‘In the final version we have one book;’ Edward Wasiolek goes on, ‘in the notebooks we have the shadows of other books—his intentions, his trials, his mistakes, his uncertainties. The novel offers what he finally chose to say, but the notebooks offer us what he considered, and what he discarded.’
This process is clear in Amis's notebooks for his second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, which avoided the ‘second novel’ syndrome many writers experience. Here Amis tells the story of John Lewis, age 26, who works in the library of a small southern Welsh town, making barely enough to support his wife, Jean, and their two young children in a depressingly low-rent second-floor apartment. The sub-librarianship—a fairly well-paying job—is open, and he applies for the position. His chances are improved when he meets Elizabeth, whose husband, Vernon, is very rich, very influential, and, very fortunately for John, a member of the Town Council and the Libraries Committee.
Most of the novel concerns John's entry, with Elizabeth's help, into her quasi-aristocratic world, and the degrading effect this experience has on his character. Although Elizabeth tempts him away from the sanctity of his home, a combination of moral scruples and a fear of deeper involvement compels him to repent, to renounce the position, and to move with his family to the smaller colliery town of his childhood, away from the wicked, sophisticated set of Aberdarcy. Detachment is in the long run the best escape, and John resolves ‘to keep trying not to be immoral, and then to keep trying might turn into a habit.’
In Amis's notebook, dated September 1952 and June 1953, we find a virtual dialogue between the author and his novel: schematic plans of major portions of the book; ruminations about technical problems; queries, judgments, opinions; and especially, reflections on his responsibilities to the reader. The latter remains a constant preoccupation throughout Amis's canon, and then as now his awareness of his reader remains paramount. In this regard Amis quotes Rossetti:
Above all ideal personalities with which the poet must learn to identify himself, there is one supremely real which is the most imperative of all; namely, that of his reader. And the practical watchfulness needed for such assimilation is as much a gift and an instinct as is the creative grasp of alien character. It is a spiritual contact hardly conscious yet ever renewed, and which must be a part of the very act of production.
To this end Amis, in planning his novel, attends to the smallest details. His notes tell us that the opening scene must occur in a library ‘to avoid the cliché of starting the day with a man in bed.’ Jean Lewis must not come across as ‘too hopeless,’ for that would ‘degrade the book and alienate all sympathy’ for her husband. Elizabeth will be introduced immediately ‘to get the thread started, though [there is] no reason why the reader shouldn't be allowed to think at this stage that an illustration of [the hero's] propensities is all that is meant.’ Humor must be ‘kept at a minimum’ and employed in chapters fifteen and sixteen only if it will ‘increase the horror.’ The author must everywhere eschew malice toward his characters. ‘All the behaviour [will] be viewed as natural as possible.’ will be a moral line to the story (hence its working title, The Moral Man). Even in this early stage, the basic conflict of a man testing his moral fiber against temptations of the flesh is clearly evident and coherently summarized. It is a pattern that will be repeated in ensuing work: the core or center of the conflict sketched in freehand in the notebooks.
After I completed the majority of work with the primary sources, it was time to move out from the immediate, personal story to the periphery. Reviews and essays from both my collection and Amis's publishers' files helped me to draw on other possible readings and to look in detail at the way that the work, once it had left Amis's hands, had been received and interpreted. And consideration of the ever-changing sociocultural backdrop of the twentieth century helped me to understand better why Amis has become increasingly preoccupied with the darker side of life. But there comes a time when a biography has to be finished, even if its subject works on. I selected 1990 as my cut-off date—a pivotal year, to be sure, with Amis's ascension to knighthood in June, the publication of his twenty-second novel, The Folks That Live on the Hill, and the completion of his Memoirs—and in 1992 Harvester-Wheatsheaf published my study, Kingsley Amis, Modern Novelist. Then, I believe, I could say that this book closed my work on the man. It was time to move on to other projects.
The experience of writing this book has reminded me over and over again of the importance of patience. As James Phelan writes in Beyond the Tenure Track, ‘More important than how soon is how well.’ Seventeen years is a long time to wait. In my case, it was to my advantage to wait as long as possible. I never knew ahead what a new work by Amis would be like—that is one of the joys of living contemporaneously with an accomplished writer. Perhaps, too, with the passing years I myself became better equipped to undertake this study. During some of that time I was busy with other work, and that allowed a great deal of irrelevance in my material to fall away. I threw out more than I used. From published sources to the archives to secondary materials—that progression worked well for me, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to someone else.
Finally, it will not come as a surprise when I say that the researching and writing of this book was not at all as organized, as straightforward, or as well-planned as my remarks suggest. In 1972 Amis wrote in a letter that in general, critics ‘tend to overestimate the part played in a novelist's career by planning, forethought, purpose … while underestimating the role of chance, whim, laziness, excess of energy, boredom, desire to entertain oneself, wanting a change for change's sake.’ My experience has been that some of these words apply to the literary critic and biographer as well.
Springs, John. “Lucky Him.” The American Spectator 29, No. 1 (January 1996): 46-7.
Personal reflection on Kingsley Amis.
Additional coverage of Amis's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960;Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12 (rev. ed.), 150; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 28, 54; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 27, 100, 139; and Major 20th-Century Writers.
SOURCE: “Blast, We Forgot the Sisters Karamazov,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 12, 1994, pp. 3, 12.
[In the following review, Abrams, a novelist, praises The Russian Girl, claiming Amis writes a plausible yet brilliantly satirical novel which reflects the time period.]
Sir Kingsley Amis 21st novel [The Russian Girl], opens ominously: The London Institute for Slavonic Studies is under assault on two fronts. Women faculty members are boycotting staff meetings to protest the Old Guard, Old Boy ways of the institute. Meanwhile, ineluctable and complex social and economic trends dictate that soon none of the school's students will be required to be fluent in—or even vaguely familiar with—Slavic languages. Better to have read The Brothers Karamazov in translation than never to have read it at all, as one character remarks, seeking to win over a hidebound traditionalist to the inevitable dumbing down of the institute.
Not surprisingly, the recalcitrant stick-in-the-mud is Amis' hero, or what passes for one in the author's hilariously cruel universe. Having deftly assembled the forces of darkness, Amis promptly shoves Dr. Richard Vaisey down the gantlet of fate. After not all that many pages, the 46-year-old Russian literature expert is receiving a brutal psychological caning because his sense of honor and his hormones are in conflict.
Vaisey's midlife crisis stems from his multicultural adultery with Anna Danilova, a young Russian poet whose brother has been imprisoned for a vast financial fraud during the waning days of the Soviet state. Vaisey meets and falls for Anna when she comes to London to initiate a publicity drive to free her brother.
Two problems soon snare Vaisey. First, the brother is guilty of the swindle and, therefore, hardly the advertised prisoner of conscience. Second, while Vaisey loves Anna, he almost instinctively loathes her poetry. Here is his reaction on first picking up a volume of Anna's work: “Richard sat and looked at the still-inviolate Reflections in a Russian Mirror, feeling rather like a man with his head in a turned-on gas oven contemplating his first sniff.”
Despite trying to find a shred of virtue in Anna's verse, Vaisey quickly concludes that there is none and that the poems can only be described, albeit privately, in vile, usually scatological terms.
This is bad enough, but there's more—lots and lots of it. The biggest slice of more is Vaisey's wife, Cordelia, a wealthy woman with the charm and subtlety of a starving grizzly. Sneaking around on Cordelia, Vaisey quickly discovers, is about as easy as dodging said bear while hobbled in gravity boots. Indeed, sympathetic readers may find themselves praying for Vaisey to suffer a massive coronary or develop a really fast fatal disease as a release from the fangs of Cordelia.
No such luck for Vaisey, of course. Indeed, much of the novel's momentum and humor springs from an assortment of Richard's friends interrogating him on why he made such a marriage and then endured it for a decade. When they aren't pondering this riddle, Vaisey and company are likely to be savoring Cordelia's worst faults. Is it her braying speech—full of strangely placed consonants and accented like no language known on earth—that she wields like a mace to bully her friends? Or is it her absolute selfishness, which ought to be measured in megatons?
Cordelia's greatest expertise, clearly, is revenge, for both major and minor perceived slights. For instance, Cordelia is famous for her vindictive book loans: “Cordelia struck back on Pat's departure by forcing on her a book about Athens (Ganymede Press, 1937), not perhaps much of a reverse in itself but carrying with it the penalty of being several times rung up to report how she was getting on with it, the first time at half-past eleven that night or at first light the next morning, and after a couple of days being urgently and repeatedly asked for it back.”
Much less menacing is the exiled Russian writer Kotolynov, who declines to sign a petition for Anna's brother. Perhaps the most complicated of the book's characters, Kotolynov ultimately becomes a source of moral strength for Vaisey, whose rigid integrity regarding literary issues is his most prized characteristic.
But Vaisey learns that his academic high horse isn't much help when it comes to coping with the onslaught of nitty-gritty chaos at home and at work. To compensate, he begins drinking more than usual, not that it helps much. His boozy wanderings may remind Amis fans of the drunken innkeeper of The Green Man or other of the novelist's hapless characters who spend a good deal of time throwing up or looking for a bathroom, urgently.
Yet despite a certain familiarity, Amis, the old master, somehow orchestrates all these themes, and several more, into a wonderful new concert of plot and language that provokes both belly laughs and twinges of discomfort over the silly messes we humans make while blundering through life.
That's pretty much what the lovers Vaisey and Anna do, blunder on to the end, Cordelia notwithstanding. To say more would give away too much.
Critics have already raved about this book in England. That may be the only correct response. The Russian Girl is brilliant satire, all the better because it is so plausible, so true to this confounded age of splintering splinter groups and lost souls who can find no place for their allegiance.
SOURCE: A review of Lucky Jim, in Books Magazine, Vol. 8, July, 1994, p. 18.
[In the following review of Lucky Jim, Ritchie, a travel writer, states that Amis created a revolutionary novel for the time by focusing on an ordinary man.]
These days, owning up to an admiration for Kingsley Amis is a bit like saying you're rather keen on blood sports or that nice Michael Howard. Amis senior seems to be English literature's living embodiment of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, a curmudgeon who rails against the Arts Council, trendy lefties, one-armed bandits, poetry that doesn't rhyme, uppity women and all manner of symptoms of the decline and fall of a Britain that used to be great.
Still, though, but … taking a deep breath and covering my head with my hands, I am going to blurt out that Kingsley Amis is a great writer. Yes, I know he is a misogynist and reactionary and can make John Osborne look like a big softie. However, between winces and flinches, I'd like to point out that you don't have to agree with a writer to admire his writing. And that the book I'd like to recommend here is one that was written in his (mildly) left-wing days, a book in fact that once gave him the (mistaken) reputation for being something of a working-class hero.
Amis was 31 when Lucky Jim appeared in 1954. It was his first published novel, and, despite the fact that he has produced nigh-on 40 books since in a hugely distinguished and always controversial career, it remains his best-known work. In the 1950s it became a cause célèbre, attracting the spluttering wrath of writers like Somerset Maugham and inspiring pundits to label Amis an Angry Young Man, a radical and a rebel.
Reading the novel now, it is difficult to see what all that fuss was about. Lucky Jim is primarily a brilliant comic novel, a book whose aim is clearly not to inspire readers to man any barricades, but to force them to slap their thighs and shout with laughter. The narrative is superbly constructed. Not a scene or character trait is wasted. The dénouement, featuring the most tortuously slow bus journey in fiction (“Was the driver slumped in his seat, the victim of syncope, or had he suddenly got an idea for a poem?”), is a masterpiece of tension and farce.
So just why did this apparently innocuous, hilarious comedy create such a stir? Why was Jim Dixon vilified as “scum” by Maugham? Why did the novel give Amis the reputation of being an oik, and boor, a “Welfare Wodehouse”, a “fish-and-chip Waugh”?
The answer is that Lucky Jim was a radical book for its time. That radicalism has little to do with its form since the novel is an eminently traditional social comedy. However, it did represent a real literary departure in providing a hero who was not only normal and ordinary but had no patience for anything that smacked of the pretentiously cultured or sophisticated. That Jim famously scorned “filthy Mozart” and ate fried eggs with his fingers was just too much for many readers to take in the early Fifties, for this was a time when literary heroes were expected to suffer from refined despair or at the very least dine in clubs.
Amis knew what he was doing, of course. He knew what the literary Establishment wanted from their bright young writers and he knew just how to provoke them by supplying exactly the opposite. “I just enjoy annoying people,” he once said, and Lucky Jim certainly annoyed the upper-class literati of the time by mocking all they held dear and asserting that the ordinary—i.e., non-upper-class culture—they despised was worth enjoying and celebrating. It seems an obvious point to make now but the scandal that Lucky Jim caused proved that it was a daring point to make then.
And the legacy of cultural scorn and snobbery continues. Particularly in travel writing, for travel writers spurn “the masses” in their search for the exotic. It was in reaction to the precious, smug self-advertisement that often masquerades as travel writing that I decided to write Here We Go, a travel book about a place actually visited by millions of people (and therefore, of course, neglected by travel writers)—the Costa del Sol. The book is intended to celebrate the whole business of holidaymaking, for as Jim Dixon acutely observes, “nice things are nicer than nasty ones”. Not that the research didn't provide some nasty mementoes—I still shudder at the memory of one particular drug-crazed hangover in Torremolinos. However, that Spanish holiday of beers, discos and beaches, of long summer days and hazy karaoke nights is one that I cherish. I'm sure Jim Dixon would have enjoyed it too.
SOURCE: “Leader of the Hack Pack,” in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 151, No. 16, October 16, 1994, p. 28.
[In the following review of You Can't Do Both, Hensher, a novelist, criticizes Amis's writing, arguing that his novels are no longer funny and that this novel is badly written.]
If any one writer is to blame for the decline of the comic novel in England it is Kingsley Amis. Before the war, in the hands of writers like Gerhardie, Waugh and early Compton-Burnett, it was not inconceivable that the comic novel could be intellectually interesting, or be written with a bit of linguistic invention. What followed from Amis's novels were dismal comedies by Tom Sharpe or David Lodge about buying contraceptives.
Amis shut off large parts of his intelligence in favour of facetiousness, and the results have dated appallingly. Jake's Thing is a comedy about the folly of admitting women to Oxbridge men's colleges, of all the utterly dead subjects. Take a Girl Like You is a comedy about predatory men and virginal women in the permissive society, and took about a micro-second to descend to the intellectual level of the writers of situation comedies. You Can't Do Both is not exactly a funny book—at least, like A. S. Byatt's Frederica Potter reading Lucky Jim, I didn't notice any jokes—but its whimsical, jocular tone makes all the gestures.
If Amis's books are put next to the works of his contemporaries, the immediately apparent thing is that they are simply not funny any more. It isn't that they have no ideas, it might actually be said that the fault with a good deal of Amis's output is that it has too many ideas and not enough thought. I Want it Now seems as distant and exotic, and about as rib-tickling, as The Tale Of Genji. Michael Frayn's novels, on the other hand, or Auberon Waugh's don't give the impression that their authors stopped thinking seriously as they began to write; as a result, books like Towards the End Of The Morning or Waugh's Consider the Lilies are not only still dazzlingly intelligent, but dazzlingly funny. But it was Amis who got the imitators, perhaps because his sort of comedy was considerably easier to do.
Thirty years ago, Frayn was ridiculing Amis in The Tin Men with devastating effect. “‘Oh, God,’ groaned Patrick. ‘Back to square one. Do you think there's something wrong with a healthy dollop of good old British snogging between blokes and blokesses?’” But You Can't Do Both is still stuck in the same saloon-bar facetiousness, the same fusty embarrassment. “It's sort of funny in a way that you should be telling me you've got old Nancy into the pudding club at last … you see, I've recently put Elizabeth into the very same club.”
It's not good enough to say that these are Amis's characters talking, and not Amis; what his characters say corresponds too well with his own unwillingness to examine his characters' emotional state. Amis is not an unembarrassed chronicler of embarrassment; he takes his own shame to be not just universal, but exemplary.
You Can't Do Both is an unusually bad book, and bad in very ordinary ways: the ways which generally lead publishers to reject manuscripts. For an author of Amis's experience, it is often astoundingly inept: the chinking transitions, for instance. “Chapter Two: Robin Davies, second-year undergraduate at Oxford University, laid aside his copy of Vanderdecken. … Practically every physical detail has a strangely inert air—“Like Robin, both wore the navy-blue school cap and tie with a white shirt and black shoes; unlike him in his black jacket and grey trousers they were in grey flannel suits, this being the summer term.” Such details are either there as period colour or for no good reason: the objects a character surrounds himself with never tell you much about the character.
It is billed as an autobiographical novel, and, as so often with autobiographical fiction, an air of improbability hangs over the whole thing. Arguments are on the whole settled too decisively, and generally settled by the hero, putting his opponents down with a fluency which generally occurs in real life in the back of taxis on the way home.
Many of the cast are sketched too loosely, as if Amis feels that we ought to know their originals as well as he does from real life—in fact, we know them best from other fictions. The hero's father, for instance, is a kind of heavy Victorian father without the religion who undergoes a death-bed conversion to niceness. The hero's mother is a downtrodden doormat who has inner strength. After her husband's death she, too, starts to get the best of arguments.
You Can't Do Both is a worthy successor in every respect to I Like It Here,Take a Girl Like You, I Want it Now, and It Just Goes To Show—oh, all right, I made that last one up. It's being hailed on all sides as Amis's best novel since The Old Devils, but you might as well call it his best novel since Jake's Thing without paying it much more of a compliment. It is the work, in the end, of somebody with confidence in what he thinks he can do, and who is going to do it once more.
SOURCE: “Kingsley's Ransom,” in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 34, October 30, 1995, pp. 52-7.
[In the following review of The Biographer's Moustache, Wolcott argues that Amis has been too harshly criticized and provides an overview of his career.]
Late this summer, a literary crime was committed in London: if the victim had been a woman, it might have been called “granny bashing.” The elderly gentleman being ganged up on was Kingsley Amis, who, at seventy-three, had brought out his twenty-fourth novel, The Biographer's Moustache, to little acclaim. The majority opinion was that this book revealed sad evidence of diminished capacity. The Observer: “The Biographer's Moustache is reflex writing, full of Pavlovian pedantry.” The Sunday Times: “A stale, flat, savourless affair.” The Daily Mail: “Banal, boring and extremely silly.” Terribly dated, nearly everyone agreed. Amis, having been a poohbah on the public scene for decades, had become an overstuffed father figure, and father figures are made to be toppled. (After beating up on the father figure, the London press then smacked the son figure around, taking special glee in the failure of Martin Amis's much hyped The Information to be short-listed for the Booker Prize.)
If the reviews of Kingsley Amis's new novel reached a hostile decision (Pack it in, Pops), the interviews intended to promote it were even nastier. They literally added insult to injury. In August, Amis had one of the all-time bad months. His old friend the solicitor Stuart Thomas died; Amis spoke at the funeral service. At the time, he was a guest at the Swansea, Wales, home of his friends Michael and Virginia Rush, and in none too fine repair himself. When a Guardian interviewer, Joanna Coles, and her photographer arrived, Amis joked about a groin pull and grumbled about being dislodged from the sofa to have his picture taken in better light. You might think an interviewer would sympathize with the plight of a septuagenarian in obvious discomfort, but no, Amis was treated as if he were a prima donna holding up production. A more damning portrait was drawn by Glenys Roberts, for the Daily Telegraph, who likened Amis to “a cross between Winnie the Pooh and the misogynist American comedian W. C. Fields” and then complained that she was able to tweeze only a few quotes from him. That morning, Amis had taken a serious spill on the stairs, landing on his back, and as he waited on the sofa for the doctor, he sloughed off her questions. “It isn't often one goes from London to Swansea to meet a famous figurehead and encounters such a lack of civility for one's pains,” Roberts fumed. No, it probably isn't. Given that Amis was physically racked, and dispirited about the death of his friend, he would probably have been better off cancelling the interviews instead of staring out into space in long, Pinteresque silences. The reviews of his interviews proved more scathing than the reviews of his book. The Evening Standard took a stern line with the geriatric juvenile delinquent: “Journalists should not let him get away with it. … If it is not possible to come up with anything remotely new or interesting, newspapers should not print this stuff.”
Amis's oft-quoted line about bad reviews is that they ruin his breakfast but not his lunch. Yet such a battery of setbacks, public and private, may have been a serious blow even to an old curmudgeon with a thick crust. Amis had cracked a couple of vertebrae in his fall, and shortly afterward he suffered a stroke and ended up in the intensive-care unit of a London hospital. “I fear he may be on the way down,” one longtime friend says.
I had no knowledge of this when I read the hostile notices of The Biographer's Moustache. At the time, I merely found myself experiencing such cognitive dissonance that I ordered the book from England toot sweet. For many of the very sentences that reviewers had singled out as examples of slack execution, faltering powers, or rabid prejudice made me laugh. One critic was baffled by the line “A girl of about thirty answered his ring apparently clad in an excerpt from the Bayeux Tapestry.” Another was offended by the sentence “Wishing he had been drunk, Gordon got on a bus apparently reserved for winners and runners-up in some pan-European repulsiveness contest.” Another cited this supposed clunker: “Gordon got to his feet as Louise had done and grappled with her briefly in an amatory way, at the end of which she disengaged herself without hostility and telephoned for a minicab.” This deadpan diagram struck me as inspired—a perfect Etch-A-Sketch drawing of the activities of a pair of stick figures. Admittedly, I'm favorably predisposed. As someone who has read virtually everything Amis has written, including such little-known curiosities as his study of Rudyard Kipling, I always look forward to the latest Amis novel not as a separate and detachable art work but as an opportunity to spend time in his mental company.
For better or worse—mostly better—Amis loosened the collar of English prose. He loosened its tongue. Not that he did it alone: Anthony Powell mastered the art of taking a sentence the long way round; Ivy Compton-Burnett hung thick nettings of domestic discourse; Henry Green dropped petals in the unimpeded flow of his characters' consciousness. But it was Amis who invested writing with the largest volume of chat. Beginning in 1954, with Lucky Jim, he made a performance art of the right inflection, and not just in his fiction. The journalistic reviews collected in What Became of Jane Austen? and The Amis Collection have a slangy, matey tone that is a deliberate slap at both the grim spectre of F. R. Leavis, the forbidding Cambridge don who was said to have decried Amis as a “pornographer,” and the belletristic legacy of Bloomsbury, wherein books were discussed in terms of breeding and palate. Amis opinionized in an off-duty mode, his manner frank and relaxed. He would discuss Keats not as a doomed Romantic immortal but as a chap who sometimes got a little flowery. According to Harry Ritchie, a contributor to a 1991 Amis festschrift, Amis's reviewing has had a powerful influence on postwar English criticism. Now, he wrote, “the democratic wise-cracking of critics such as Clive James and John Carey, inspired by Amis's example, constitutes a new orthodoxy.”
Amis's deceptively casual approach was more than a tactical ploy, a way of sneaking in punches; it expressed his conviction that language loses its responsive energy and observant value when it becomes overjewelled and forcibly sublime. He deplored Nabokov's aestheticizing of the mother's car death in Lolita. After quoting the description of “a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair, and blood,” he remarked, “That's the boy, Humbert/Nabokov: alliterative to the last.” He made sport of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in a review smartly titled “How I Lived in a Very Big House and Found God,” deploring how Waugh's abject awe of religion and the aristocracy turned his once pristine prose into slosh. He even took Jane Austen to task for turning priggish in Mansfield Park. He saw literature not as a mountain range of Towering Masterpieces but as a series of individual involvements that engage us at eye level and can be divided into those books we fancy and those we don't. Or, as he wrote, “Importance isn't important. Only good writing is.”
And good writing can be found anywhere, in any genre. Amis was one of the first active practitioners (as opposed to pop-cult theorists) to see that the traditional literary novel has no monopoly on art. He monkeyed with the class system in literature, treating the categories of high-, low-, and middlebrow fiction as rough equals. Along with his serious comedies (Take a Girl Like You, Stanley and the Women, The Old Devils), he wrote an innovative mainstream treatise on science fiction (New Maps of Hell) and an uncondescending study of James Bond (The James Bond Dossier), and later tried his hand at his own post-Ian Fleming Bond novel (Colonel Sun). He has also plowed the horror graveyard (The Green Man), played “what if?” with history (Russian Hide-and-Seek, The Alteration), and dabbled in walking the detective beat (The Crime of the Century). Always an antimodernist, Amis rebelled against the role of the artist as deep-sea diver of the inner universe (Flaubert, Joyce, Woolf, Proust, Beckett: take your exemplary pick). He preferred to cast himself as a versatile pro running a modest amusement shop. His stance reflects not only a practical Everyman approach to writing but the distinctive English aversion to looking pretentious. But to Amis's detractors his pretension-avoidance was just a facet of his inherent philistinism and hostility to anything that smacked of cultural enhancement. (Translation: He thinks we're sissies!)
In his new book, Amis plays footsie with fact and fiction; The Biographer's Moustache was written parallel with the completion of the authorized biography of Amis by Eric Jacobs, which was published in England earlier this year. The biography, a dutiful, uninspired job, did turn up an interesting fact about Amis's childhood—that his mother, worried about his nourishment, spoon-fed Kingsley his meals until he was twelve or thirteen years old. “Then a new regime took over, though only slightly more adult,” Jacobs writes. “After some minutes toying with the food on his plate, Kingsley would say, ‘Mum, would you sort it out for me?’ Mum then divided what was left into two parts, the food that definitely must be eaten and the rest that Kingsley could leave if he wished.” This mollycoddling explains Amis's reliance on others for his routines, and his sense of himself as a little monarch. The critic Paul Fussell saw much of Amis in the sixties; he and his then wife, Betty, who is a food writer, knew what it was like to live under his rule. Betty Fussell recalls, “Kingsley's rituals. We all lived by them when we were with Kingsley—man, woman, and child—because we had to. They were the order of the day, as inviolable as military commands or church liturgies.” Even on holiday, people had to abide by Amis time. She writes, “Breakfast with the papers was punctually at 9 A.M., even if Kingsley had fallen dead drunk into bed at 4 A.M. after a liquid intake that reduced the rest of us to Jell-O for the next 24 hours.”
Kingsley's maintenance routine has continued despite changes of address. He shares a house in north London with his first wife, Hilly, and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock—an odd living arrangement, which Amis himself has admitted smacks of an Iris Murdoch novel. Hilly brings him dinner every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, his daughter Sally pinchhits. And what Amis's critics didn't seem to appreciate is that Jimmie Fane, the biographical subject in The Biographer's Moustache, is also something of a stuffed goose. Like his creator, Fane has a lot of bluff in his makeup. Paul Fussell, who has written a thorny valentine to Amis called The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters, told me that one of his chum's most admirable traits is that, “compared to Americans, he doesn't have an ounce of sincerity about him—everything he says is figurative.” Likewise Fane. Everything he does is for foggy effect.
In this portrait of the artist as aging matinée idol, Amis is mostly making fun of his own inflatable persona—puncturing his own gasbag. Fane is a toady to the rich, a meal sponger, a wine snob, and a word bore (“These days I'm told the creatures have the impertinence to call themselves gay, thereby rendering unusable, thereby destroying a fine old English word with its roots deep in the language”). He diverts himself by playing pranks on his hapless biographer, the aforementioned Gordon—one of those earnest nonentities who make useful foils in English fiction. Gordon's abuse at the hands of Fane and his brief, wrenching affair with Fane's wife, Joanna, serve as his sentimental education. Never again will he partake of aristocratic nooky. At the end, Gordon recognizes Jimmie Fane for the shit he is—a “massive and multifarious shit.” Nor does Fane's fiction pass inspection; the seemingly rich ambiguities of his early prose are laid bare by Gordon as “abject piss, well beyond any excuse of a comprehensive change of taste, simple passage of thirty years or more, etc.” It's as if Amis were imagining the worst that could be said about his own output—imagining himself consigned to limbo.
A number of reviewers complained about the lack of engine in the novel's narrative. Fair enough; yet story has never been Amis's strength. (The plot of Lucky Jim didn't roar down the railroad tracks.) Amis's non-genre novels have always been ambulatory exercises in mulling things over. Where so much of current literary fiction either aims for damnation, combing the alleys in search of sex demons and serial killers, or strives for affirmation, seeking the rainbow over the bridges of Madison County, The Biographer's Moustache muddles through the middle latitudes of normalcy, which are laced with random nuttiness. Amis's characters don't scan the world through photo-realist lenses, putting a price-tag on every item of furniture and fashion; they take things in a general lump.
But beneath their surface inertia is what Fussell calls Amis's “highly rapid ironic intelligence.” Amis's novels are always operating at two speeds simultaneously—a slower narrative speed and a faster judgmental clip. Behind their putty faces, Amis's characters formulate thoughts and store grievances; they mimic “all's well” even as their minds articulate like mad. The tension builds slowly and is discharged in a cloudburst of pique and frustration—like the exchange in Girl, 20 when the narrator asks a friend's young mistress what makes her such a “howling bitch,” and she replies in a snap:
I expect it's the same thing as makes you a top-heavy red-haired four-eyes who's never had anything to come up to being tossed off by the Captain of Boats and impotent and likes bloody symphonies and fugues and the first variation comes before the statement of the theme and give me a decent glass of British beer and dash it all Carruthers I don't know what young people are coming to these days and a scrounger and an old woman and a failure and a hanger-on and a prig and terrified and a shower and a brisk rub-down every morning and you can't throw yourself away on a little trollop like that Roy you must think of your wife Roy old boy old boy and I'll come along but I don't say I approve and bloody dead. Please delete the items in the above that do not apply. If any.
(For a misogynist, Amis often gives the women the choicest comebacks—if not the last word, then the knockout next-to-last word.)
The machinery of The Biographer's Moustache is sleepy, and the invective is more contained (though there is a passing reference to “his bloody lordship and his piss-artist elephant's-bum-faced four-eyed boiler of a wife”), but the book transports the reader along to a brilliant set piece in the ancestral home of a dotty duke—a sort of P. G. Wodehouse Blandings Castle novel in compact form. Here Jimmie introduces Gordon to sylvan haunts similar to those of his youth:
The view before them was certainly unusual in that, to the eye of a town-dweller at least, it contained nothing of the twentieth century, no power lines, no metal fences, no machinery, no advertisement. … Nevertheless the scene made no more than a puny appeal to Gordon personally. It was green, brown here and there but mostly green, motionless, silent, unpopulated and asking for the addition of a passage in curlicued italics about man's quest through the ages.
This country interlude saves The Biographer's Moustache. It reminds you that a novel is not a blueprint for better living or a spiritual guidebook but an organism, with its own breathing patterns. For all the talk of Amis's patented misanthropy, the book is almost suspiciously free of malice.
The Biographer's Moustache is agreeable minor Amis, somewhere below Lucky Jim and Stanley and the Women, and above I Want it Now and Difficulties with Girls. Given his age, drinking habits, and shaky health, it's a wonder Amis bothers banging out a book at all. It isn't as if he had anything additional to prove. If you pick up Lucky Jim today, you're impressed by how much it has retained its original fizz. Written over a period of seven years, during which Amis was peppered with encouragement and advice from the poet Philip Larkin (to whom the novel was dedicated), this academic comedy, published in 1954, about Jim Dixon, a young instructor at a podunk college, remains the classic test case: how does a bright mind cope with creeping boredom? Trying to pass as a capable young man, Dixon indulges in a full repertory of facial expressions (hearing his name called, he makes his “shot-in-the-back face”) and anti-cant exercises. (When he reads a paper that begins, “In considering this strangely neglected topic …,” he asks himself, “This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what?”) Lucky Jim also contains Amis's prototypical hangover scene: “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.”
In an era in which Bret Easton Ellis and Susanna Moore run a chop shop of body parts, Jim Dixon's escapades seem as innocent as Archie comics. But the success of Lucky Jim provoked a furor that (unlike the furor over Ellis's American Psycho) disclosed and defined a deep crack in the prevailing culture. Dixon may have been an incorrigible dear, but the social type he represented struck many as dastardly. Somerset Maugham, who admired the book, nevertheless washed his hands of its antihero, this “white-collar proletariat.” Dixon and his ilk are ill mannered layabouts, Maugham said, who frequent alehouses—“they are scum.” Amis was lumped with the Angry Young Men, who included John Wain, John Braine (Room at the Top), and, most famously, John Osborne (Look Back in Anger). In a perceptive essay, “Class War in British Literature,” Leslie A. Fielder declared that the Angry Young Men's mission was to overturn the tea table where the genteel spirits of Auden and Eliot presided. They had no patience for exquisite taste, for “the Sitwells and Russian ballet”; that world bore no relation to the ugly, red-nosed mass-culture world around them. Snorts of laughter were their weapons in this war. Of the Angries, only Amis demonstrated creative staying power. (Osborne, for example, became a fulminating fop, like some deranged version of Captain Peacock on “Are You Being Served?”) Amis had the stubbornness of the artist who learns how to ration his intake of experience and process it for later release. He paced himself to produce facsimiles of life in bite-size pieces.
After a spotty period in the early eighties, in 1986 Amis won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils, that jangly group portrait of lust and swollen livers among the Geritol set, and then, in 1990, he was knighted. With one eye on the exit, he published his Memoirs, which mixed anecdotes he had dined out on for years with a few revisionist put-downs. The Russian expert Robert Conquest, an old friend of Amis's and his collaborator on The Egyptologists, told me that he'd noticed an anecdote about himself in the manuscript of Amis's memoir which wasn't true; after he pointed this out, Amis substituted Philip Toynbee's name—“which I don't think was accurate, either.”
Amis has recently completed a new nonfiction book, and he was deep in the bag of yet another novel before his illness. Very few American writers continue to plug away past the point of glory, but Amis has been harnessed to his work habits. He would rise each morning for a small meal of yogurt and honey, put in three hours of work, break for lunch, then write for another hour in the afternoon. “That's four hours a day, every day, seven days a week,” he informed the Guardian. Yet this steady application is more than a sturdy example of neo-Victorian work ethic, akin to the production schedule Trollope kept. Morale is a fragile mechanism. The diligence of Amis's daily routine expresses a strong psychological drive to keep the motor running, as if Amis believed that if he came to a halt a greater power would seize possession: his life would be impounded. “The moment you stop writing, you're turning your face to the wall,” he told Joanna Coles, of the Guardian.
One of the most interesting revelations in the grudging interviews Amis gave was that he still dopes himself to sleep at night. “I pill myself up. Very relaxing, pills and Scotch. I sleep very well. It's partly drugged sleep, of course. But better drugged sleep than no sleep.” On being asked if he could sleep without his dosage, he replied, “I don't know, I'm not going to take the risk. I don't like lying in bed tossing and turning. I used to be scared of the dark.” (Readers of The Old Devils will recall the character Charlie, who suffered from this same fear.) By giving himself knockout drops at night, Amis is hastening sleep and blotting out intimations of mortality before they can muster an appearance. He chooses a small oblivion to ward off a bigger one. If his fiction sometimes reads like a groggy dream with the cobwebs still clinging, perhaps this is because it's the product of so much fermented anxiety. Like Hemingway near the end, Amis, in recent photographs, resembles a desolate hulk; his body has become a haunted house. “There is no personal God. There is no point to life,” he told Glenys Roberts, of the Telegraph, with “utter finality,” adding, “Though there is a point to art.” And what is the point? To give other people pleasure, he said, with what Roberts deemed “uncharacteristic generosity.”
In the current climate, beauty and pleasure are doomed to be obscured by character issues, which are in turn governed by attitudes toward race, class, sex, and politics. The posthumous reputation of Philip Larkin has been pitted by the publication of his letters and Andrew Motion's biography, which document his racist jingles, reactionary gibes, miserliness, damp palm for soft porn, and unwillingness to commit to the women in his life, all adding up to an image of a mama's boy in a dirty old man's raincoat—not the picture of a lyric poet you want to carry in your locket. Even Fussell, a staunch cultural conservative, says that he has become “disaffected with Larkin's character,” which he now finds “hateful.” Amis has always been more open about his cranks and antipathies than Secret Agent Larkin, so there'll be less shock at whatever indiscretions are later divulged, but not necessarily lighter reprimand. Inklings of the toxic leakage to come can be found in Jacobs's biography, a prize exhibit for future prosecution being a photograph of Amis on the beach which shows the words written in lipstick on his back by his wife Hilly, who was fed up with his philandering: “1 FAT ENGLISHMAN I FUCK ANYTHING.” The caption notes, “They split up shortly afterwards.” Amis went on to marry the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, with whom he had been having an affair. When that marriage dissolved, years later, the divorce was bitter and public. Robert Conquest recalls Howard's denouncing Amis in the press: “You'd pick up the paper one day and there'd be the headline ‘How Kingsley Ruined My Life.’ Then a few days later would be the headline ‘How Kingsley Ruined Our Holidays.’” The Jacobs biography also reprints the draft of an unfinished, unpublished poem Amis sent to Conquest, a Kiplingesque ditty that ends:
The usual sort of men Who hold the world together Manage to face their front In any sort of weather. With rueful grins and curses They push the world along; But women and queers and children Cry when things go wrong.
The paradox is that it's often easier to pardon true, frothing bigots, like Céline or Ezra Pound, because they seem so lashed by pathological furies; their sort of prejudice can be analyzed as the black ash of a charred heart. Next to them, Amis and Larkin merely sound cheeky. They're firing poison blow darts.
Yet compared with such hearties on this side of the Atlantic as Hemingway and Norman Mailer, Amis isn't so macho. The Amis man does not seek conquest of women and dominion over his shining field of endeavor; like his creator, the Amis man wants to settle into a comfortable rut. He is a longtime combatant in the sex wars, who no longer has the energy or the inclination to do more than kvetch about the minor irritations of his captive fate. (The last page of Stanley and the Women declared a domestic truce.) And a small rivulet of remorse trickles through the rut the Amis men travel from home to office to pub. It springs from Amis's personal history, from his persistent sorriness over the breakup of his marriage to Hilly. He snapped at the Guardian reporter who asked if he ever wondered whether things could have been otherwise: “Of course it could have been otherwise, but you don't think of that at the time, do you?”
No, you think of it later, and try to make amends. In the final line of The Old Devils, Malcolm sits down to write a poem to an old love—“The poem, his poem, was going to be the best tribute he could pay to the only woman who had ever cried for him.” Amis's biographer notes that the novel You Can't Do Both, the predecessor of The Biographer's Moustache, is an extended note of regret addressed to Hilly, and a subplot in The Biographer's Moustache involves restitution to a woman from the past. But it is more than guilt that sends Amis's heroes on these good-will missions. They're also expressing a fear attendant on death. The saddest fate in an Amis novel is to be alone, ailing, and unvisited. Amis men may resent being dependent on women, but they would miss having someone to talk to even more. Kingsley Amis has kept writing because he knows that death is when you reach the end of your words.
“The English Novel in the Twentieth Century: 11; Kingsley Amis Versus Vladimir Nabokov,” in Contemporary Review, Vol. 269, November, 1996, pp. 254-56.
[In the following essay, Bruce compares Amis's and Vladimir Nabokov's writing styles, praising Nabokov's evocative use of language, but criticizing what he considers to be Amis's incoherence and reliance on clichés.]
‘Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story,’ E. M. Forster describes himself in Aspects of the Novel as saying in ‘a drooping regretful voice’. He wishes that it could be something different from ‘this low atavistic form’. Kingsley Amis had in his critical writings no such misgivings. He regarded expression and style as qualities which merely forward the action. He deplores what he calls the ‘verbal shock tactics, dislocated syntax, unnatural epithets and other affectations of singularity’ which he deems to have originated in James Joyce's Ulysses. Amis, the erstwhile member of the Classical Sixth Form of the City of London School, watched over other writers' syntax attentively, and once reproached Anthony Powell for flouting Fowler's Modern English Usage in the last volume of The Music of Time.
He praises Muriel Spark's Territorial Rights, a characteristically grisly tale unalleviated by her usual humor, because ‘although set in Venice, it doesn't go on about Venice. … Going on about places is nearly always a self-indulgence’. So much for Thomas Mann's Tod in Venedig and Anthony Powell's Temporary Kings, which pre-eminently ‘go on’ about Venice! Kingsley Amis comes more and more to resemble E. M. Forster's golf-playing interlocutor, surely one of the appalling Wilcoxes of Howard's End, who answers the question, ‘What does a novel do?’ with the words, ‘Why, tell a story of course, and I've no use for it if it doesn't. … You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story.’ E. M. Forster remarks that he ‘detests and fears’ this man. Amis adds to his praise of Territorial Rights, that ‘there is no uplift or edification here.’
Now let us allow the texts to speak for themselves. Here is Vladimir Nabokov's description, tinctured with the predilections of his narrator Humbert, of Lolita at the swimming pool, to be followed by the comments of Kingsley Amis:
She adored brilliant water and was a remarkably smart diver. Comfortably robed, I would settle down in the rich post-meridian shade after my own demure dip, and there I would sit, with a dummy book or a bag of bonbons, or both, or nothing but my tingling gland, and watch her gambol, rubber-capped, bepearled, smoothly tanned, as glad as an ad, in her trim-fitted satin pants and shirred bra. Pubescent sweetheart! How smugly would I marvel that she was mine, mine, mine, and revise the recent matitudinal swoon to the moan of the mourning doves, and devise the late afternoon one, and slitting my sun-speared eyes, compare Lolita to whatever other nymphets parsimonious chance collected around her for my anthological delectation and judgment; and today, putting my hand on my ailing heart, I really do not think that any of them ever surpassed her in desirability.
Amis does not like foreigners, amongst whom he includes Welshmen, notably Dylan Thomas: ‘ranting, canting Thomas’, whose poetry is ‘all surface’ (an extraordinary taunt, in view of its multilayered and at times cryptic depths, difficult but always rewarding to penetrate), whose prose is ‘tainted with fancifulness’. In Amis's The Old Devils Dylan Thomas, under the pseudonym of Brydan, is the depraved model whom other writers must shun. Whilst commenting on the passage from Lolita, Amis in his What Became of Jane Austen? calls Nabokov ‘an émigré’ who writes (like Joseph Conrad, possibly the most vivid of the Edwardian novelists) in an ‘adoptive language’ alien to the ‘native speaker’:
No extract, however, could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question, French, Latin, ‘anent’, ‘perchance’, ‘would fain’, ‘for the nonce,’—here is style and no mistake. One will be told, of course, that this is the ‘whole point’, that this is the hero, Humbert Humbert, talking in his own person, not the author, and that what we are getting is ‘characterization’. All right; but it seems ill-advised to characterize logomania by making it talk 120,000 words at us, and a glance at Nabokov's last novel, Pnin, which is not written in the first person, establishes that this is Nabokov talking. … The development of this émigré's euphemism is a likely consequence of Nabokov's having had to abandon his natural idiom, as he puts it, his ‘untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue’. This, which enacts the problem with characteristic tricksy indirection, also implies its solution as the laborious confection of equivalent apparatuses in the adoptive language: the whole farrago of imagery, archaism, etc, which cannot strike even the most finely tuned foreign ear as it strikes that of the native English-speaker. The end product sadly invokes a Charles Atlas muscle-man of language as opposed to the healthy and useful adult.
What Amis objects to is that Nabokov writes ingenious and inventive prose not in the schoolboy sequence of subject, verb and predicate; an order for the most part ignored, as he could see for himself, by the Latin writers he studied in his Classical Sixth form. Biliously Amis scorned Dylan Thomas's enterprise as defined by Thomas himself: ‘I use everything and anything to make my poems work … old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paromasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device in language is there to be used if you will.’ A close and careful reading of the passage cited by Amis will reveal that almost every phrase used by Nabokov is imaginatively loaded.
It is time to set up a competition between the two writers' prowess in the use of English. The subject, which is the remembrance of the past, is a favourite with both authors.
In Nabokov's Ada, Ada and her mother Marina Durmanov are dining at a table by an open window with Demently (‘Demon’) Veen, Marina's former lover, and his son Van, Ada's present lover. The ‘ghost’ is Ada's childhood as a butterfly collector:
The tablecloth and the candle blaze attracted timorous or impetuous moths among which Ada, with a ghost pointing them out to her, could not help recognizing many old ‘flutterfriends’. Pale intruders, anxious only to spread out their delicate wings on some lustrous surface; ceiling- bumpers in guildman furs: thick-set rake-hells with bushy antennae; and party-crashing hawk-moths with red black-belted bellies, sailed or shot, silent or humming, into the dining room out of the black hot humid night.
It was a black hot humid night in mid-July, 1888, at Ardis in Ladore county, let us not forget, let us never forget, with a family of four seated around an oval dinner table, bright with flowers and crystal—not a scene in a play, as might have seemed—nay, must have seemed—to a spectator (with a camera or a program) placed in the velvet pit of the garden. Sixteen years had elapsed from the end of Marina's three-year affair with Demon. Intermission of various length had at the time only increased the tenderness and the torture. Her singularly coarsened features, her attire, that sequin-spangled dress, the glittering net over her strawberry-blond dyed hair, her red sunburnt chest and melodramatic make-up, with too much ochre and maroon in it, did not even vaguely remind the man, who had loved her more keenly than any other woman in his philanderings, of the dash, the glamour, the lyricism of Marina Durmanov's beauty. It aggrieved him—that complete collapse of the past, the dispersal of its itinerant court and music-makers, the logical impossibility to relate the dubious reality of the present to the unquestionable one of remembrance.
The opulence of Nabokov's recollection is hardly matched by the meagre statement Amis makes of the unremarkable pleasures of Patrick Standish's youth in Take a Girl Like You. So far as one can discern from the passage, Patrick, befuddled by drink, is trying to walk a straight line between his earlier carefree life and his adult responsibilities, particularly to Jenny Bunn, whom he has not precisely raped but at least taken by surprise:
They came out into brilliant early-evening sunlight that made Patrick groan inwardly. It set his memory spinning with model railways in the garden, sandcastles on the beach, rabbits on the common, lemonade at the corner shop, the band in the park, the cricket, the river. Sunday walks, picnics, blackberrying, mushrooming, Delius, Debussy, always with a girl there or in his mind, it seemed now to have made no difference which. And of course it would not have in those days, before he looked like getting started. What a girl made him think then had as little to do with her as what blackberrying and Delius made him think had to do with them. But that had changed as he grew up as he began to see living as the art of the possible, began to push the blackberrying- Delius background into the background and treat the mind and body of a girl as the destined, reasonable fore-ground. No more insolent, incapacitating bewilderment.
Well done. Then why was it that he had to go back to black-berrying-Delius before he could find a time when he had felt all right?—not happy or fulfilled or in tune with things or any of that junk, but simply all right able to sit down to work without yelling with hatred, able to enjoy the sun without worrying about making the emotional and reminiscential and cross-referential most of it, able to talk to a girl without being afraid of missing a chance. … And a good thing too, eh? Hell, who said he had to feel all right, anyway?
This is tortuous, periphrastic, laboured: verbosely inarticulate. An author describing drunkenness should at least be clear-headed himself. Amis wrote his prolonged gibe about Nabokov whilst completing Take a Girl Like You. He should have remembered his own words about the confusion of characterisation with the authorial identity. The incidents recalled are oversimple and tinged with Amis's personal taste for the mild and formless music of Debussy and Delius. Although the words used, apart from the preposterous ‘reminiscential’ and ‘cross-referential’, contain few syllables and certainly nothing figurative, and although Amis is liberal in clichés (‘groan inwardly’, ‘the art of the possible’, ‘adult situation’) the passage is, even in its context, almost incomprehensible. Nabokov's reminiscence, on the contrary, is utterly clear if read attentively. The émigré has easily outdone the self-appointed old English bulldog. I am a little sorry to write so adversely about Kingsley Amis, whose novels from Lucky Jim in 1954 to One Fat Englishman provided many good laughs, but from I Want it Now (1968) onwards, what a dismal incoherent, befuddled decline! He did revive with Trouble with Girls, a sequel to Take a Girl Like You, which was a kind of rejuvenation. It is hard to pass by his jeers at far better writers than himself.
SOURCE: “I Was Kingsley Amis,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, Winter, 1997, pp. 610-18.
[In the following essay, Watson, a longtime friend and colleague of Amis's, discusses their friendship, praising Amis as a novelist who expressed their generation's experiences.]
Or so I used to remind him, since I stood in for him in Swansea in 1958-9, taking his classes while he taught in Princeton for a year, on his first visit to the United States.
But that hardly matters. We were all Kingsley Amis, more or less, if born between two world wars, and there was a sense in which, as a great mimic, he was all of us. His novels spoke in our voice, and they looked like the first fiction that ever did. Now that he is dead, there is no pride in admitting that so consciously unflattering an author was our voice. In fact one often wished he was not. But there he was, from Lucky Jim (1954) onwards, the undeniable sound of the world we lived in, however much in our wilder yearnings we might have preferred to live in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead or in the Paris of Ernest Hemingway.
I first met him in 1961, when he was about to become a colleague in Cambridge, but felt that I knew him already. That was because of his Swansea students, who in my year among them had always seemed conscious of the difference. Lucky Jim had been out for four years by the time I got to south Wales, and Amis looked to his students like a confident young talent of radical views and with an alarming gift for satire. Some of his colleagues thought so too. “I keep pretty quiet about my madrigals,” I remember one of them saying, fond of her evenings with friends around her piano but apprehensive of what he might make of them, if he knew, in his next book. He had once appeared on a Swansea lecture-platform in a new suit, I was told, and when a student whistled in mock-admiration he made a full turn before his audience and said brightly “Like it?” He was not always credited by his colleagues with having read all the masterpieces, such as Dickens and Tolstoy, that he cuttingly damned or lightly dismissed, and his dedication to scholarship in general was suspect. His face was rubber in repose, and could suddenly turn into somebody else, while his gift for other voices was uncanny.
That shows in his novels which, like Evelyn Waugh's, offer the sort of dialogue where the tone and accent can only fall in one way and in one place, so that you are forced to hear the sentences as you read them. It was as if he had a tape recorder built into his brain. The gift is a mystery. It cannot just be a matter of context, though context helps, since a first sentence has none, and he could manage it even there. I remember a whole classroom in an American university laughing as I read out the opening of Lucky Jim, where the first six words are dialogue—“‘They made a silly mistake, though. …’” The reader instantly intuits the parched, pedantic voice of a middle-aged professor, and Amis even catches the trick of the absent-minded speaker who suddenly falls silent “as if some entirely different man, some impostor who couldn't copy his voice, had momentarily taken his place.” So speech is self-mimicry, and people imitate themselves as they talk, and may even have to stop talking when they forget how to do it. Amis was about thirty when he wrote that. It is an extraordinary revelation about how the world looked to him and about how it is. It is not only actors who forget their lines. We forget them in life.
Amis was famous before he was middle-aged, and myths had begun to encrust his life before I knew him. Like other new novelists of the 1950s he was often supposed by journalists and academic critics to have had notably humble origins, and I recall an American collection called The New University Wits (1963), edited by Harry T. Moore, that spoke of a new underclass of British authors invading ancient English universities as an effect of the Butler Education Act of 1944. Not very plausible, when you consider that fiction has hardly been a profession for gentlemen in any age, that Oxford and Cambridge have always been socially mixed and that Amis, in any case, was admitted to Oxford in 1941. His father was an office clerk who worked for Colman's Mustard, which is neither grand nor humble, and Kingsley's early life in south London as an only child is said to have been cosseted. In Stanley and the Women (1984), a novel that outraged feminist opinion and was briefly banned in the United States, the hero calls himself “lower middle class, not working class” which, he says, is a “very important distinction.” So it is. Like Iris Murdoch and John Wain, Amis owed nothing to the Butler Education Act and was of middle-class origin, easily superior in birth to many Victorian novelists like Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells. There was no British social revolution after 1945, in any case, in or out of higher education, merely an orderly expansion of opportunities due to an expanding economy as well as to legislative change. Amis, it is true, was antiestablishment all his life. But there are plenty of bourgeois precedents for that.
His attitude to scholarship was opportunistic and equivocal. His brief academic career, first at Swansea and then at Cambridge, ended when he was forty-one. But Lucky Jim, though scornful of false intellectualism, is not unbalanced as a view of college life. Amis was sometimes thought of as hostile to scholarship, and it is true that he did not do any after Oxford failed to accept his thesis. But I sometimes felt, as a Cambridge colleague, that he was over-reverent of what scholars did. I recall his consulting me then on what can only have been an unrealistically erudite study of literary utopias, mostly forgotten works of the nineteenth century, and cannot regret he did not do it. He had already written New Maps of Hell (1960), a lively account of modern science-fiction and its readership, based on his Princeton classes, and it was in the contemporary and near-contemporary that he always excelled. Historical origins were hardly his thing. The James Bond Dossier (1965), again, shows his critical strength, being written while Ian Fleming lived, as an admiring tribute, and ending with the news of his death: “He leaves no heirs.” That is like watching someone lay a wreath. Amis demanded to be entertained. He loved watching television, including lots of soap, and he always believed a book had to be as interesting as the best popular culture there is. No one, in his view, had a duty to be bored, and the dedication demanded of academic life left him in wondering awe.
Lucky Jim was a novel he came to think over-celebrated—“I've written other books, you know,” he would say. It is about the rival claims of two worlds, the academic and the big-city money-market, and the market wins. Like Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe, which appeared coincidentally at much the same time, it is often thought of as the start of the campus novel. In a way it is. But in attitude it belongs to an earlier age, like Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, before universities started to look exciting. They were something for a young man to try; but there was something monkish about wanting to stay in one, and real life is always happening somewhere else. Amis' interest in the academic was never more than tentative. “Yes, I could stand this,” I remember Philip Larkin reporting his saying as he sat in the senior common room of the University of Leicester, where Larkin taught soon after the war, sniffing the air and wondering if the life could be for him. He had married in 1949 and started a family; there could be no doubt about needing a job; and academe at least leaves you time to write. But why stay? Jim Dixon did not stay, in that over-successful novel, and Amis took the same road to London as Jim a decade later, in a case of nature imitating art. All he regretted about that past life, he used to say years later, was the occasional chance to talk about masterpieces. “There's something about that in Paradise Lost, isn't there?” he would say, suddenly imitating his own voice in the club, and then a friend's answering him: “Let's go in and have some lunch, shall we?”
Amis never wanted to be anything but a writer, and America, when he first visited it in 1958, impressed him not only as a land of milk and martinis but for its Writers on Campus. British universities seldom have them, and Amis never wanted to live anywhere but in England. I Like It Here, as he called one of his books, derisive as always of those who live abroad and not very comprehending of those who like going there. The dilemma was solved by the success of his books, which was just as well. Even in his Cambridge days, in 1961-3, he was a big spender, and by the 1960s he needed a lot of money, had it, and was not much interested in keeping it. From then on universities looked touchingly remote and endearingly boring, and he must often have wondered how he had ever put up with them. Cambridge, as he devastatingly remarked in an article called “No More Parades,” written for Encounter on his resignation in 1963, is “the least damaging place in England in which not to be found funny.” That makes it sound more like Evelyn Waugh's dim college in Decline and Fall than the gamey settings for power games and erotic adventures that figure in the novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.
A radical is not universally loved and does not want to be, and Amis was always a radical, even when he came to call himself a conservative. Disconcertingly so. Born in London in 1922, he was a teenager in the heady days of the Popular Front and a Communist freshman at Oxford in 1941, where he refused, however, to join the Socialist Club on the elevated grounds that he was a writer and an artist, and writers and artists do not join things. That sounds fearfully grand and impressively single-minded. Then he was called up, at the height of the war, which may have been his first douche of reality. I remember him telling how, on his first day in barracks, he looked around at the mass of soldiery, many of them plainly failing to qualify as bourgeois or proletarian, and thought to himself, as a young Marxist, “This doesn't apply.” The class war, like the Second Coming, did not happen. It is an incident that casts a long shadow across his life. Seeing how ideas apply or fail to apply was what he spent his creative life doing. After that, as a democratic socialist, he supported the Labor Party, as he explained in an article called “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right,” down to the late 1960s; and for the last quarter century of his life, which ended at seventy-three, he was a conservative and eventually a Thatcherite, resenting after 1990 the rejection of Margaret Thatcher by her own followers as prime minister and hating, as she does, British membership of the European Union.
As his article on turning right shows, however, Amis was always less interested in getting a judicious answer to a problem than in defining himself, through political debate, to himself and others. Debate was how you scored. When his son Martin Amis protested with mounting indignation against hunting whales and told how they were brutally harpooned and sliced up for cosmetics, Kingsley is said to have answered gently: “It sounds like rather a good way of using up whales.” That has nothing much to do with policy, a lot to do with how one generation puts another in its place. He was against the Left, above all, less for its policies than because he did not like the sort of people who claimed to believe in it; he was against John Major, in his last years, because he did not like the sort of people who in 1990 had supported him, just as he had once been a socialist because he had hated the sort of people who voted Conservative. Politics as such hardly interested him. He was Labor when I first knew him, but could never have answered the question why nationalization would favor the poor; just as in old age, after the Conservative Party had turned suddenly enthusiastic about a competitive free market, he could never have told you what was conservative about that. But then nor could anyone else.
His mind was rapid and engagingly simple, as the minds of great satirists often are. The Left is supposed to be caring, throughout the Western industrial world, and the Right competent; when you are young you want to be thought caring, and when you are old you want to be thought competent. Among the chattering classes, at least, politics is less about policies than about how you want the world to see you and how you want to see yourself.
Amis was the king of the chatterers. He lived for talk, his books are talk recorded in print—they commonly begin, as Lucky Jim did, with a remark in dialogue—and he learned the craft of fiction less by reading, one might suspect, than by talking and listening. You do not have to know much to be a novelist, I remember his saying, since the reader, if you put one technical detail in, will always assume you know the rest of them. Talk had to be fast, and you were not supposed to bore or be bored. His books may look malicious, not least his memoirs. But malice is more amusing than love, which he also valued, and it is more memorably epitomized by language. “If you can't say anything nice about anyone, sit by me” might have been his motto. No put-down was swifter than his, whether in conversation or in print, and by his last years he had won that covetable role in British society, the Licensed Curmudgeon. He was always good for a quote, and you felt privileged to be insulted by him.
Of religion he had none. To call him an atheist would be to exaggerate his interest in divine providence, since he could not really see why anyone should bother with the matter at all. I once discovered, to my surprise, that he had read the New Testament—perhaps rather recently—out of anthropological interest; but his mind remained secular to his dying day. He once wrote an essay “On Christ's Nature” in which he casually asked why God, if he wanted human beings to have religion, “did not simply give it to them, instead of arranging the world in one way and then sending someone along to explain that really the whole set-up was quite different.” I do not know what a theologian would say to that; he might feel, in Wittgenstein's famous phrase, that it was starting the argument too far back. But then reverence was not a sentiment to which Amis would ever admit.
Behind the confident, blimpish mask, glass in hand, lay a terror of the world, much as his friend Larkin's brisk manner masked a terror of death, and in conversation you sometimes sensed it as he spoke. His machismo was a front. He hated to be alone in a house or without a companion on a train, felt at ease only among cronies and always refused invitations to make speeches. I once came upon him in evening dress in Cambridge, and he explained that a student society had invited him to speak at their dinner party. He had written back “I do not speak,” as he always did, and they had rather decently asked him to come anyway. The ghosts that haunted him were no doubt various, but one of them, at least, has been immortalized in one of his best novels, The Green Man (1969), a tightly plotted ghost story based on a real experience. But then even Lucky Jim, that cheerful tale, has its quantum of fear—the fear of a callow young man of the social world in which he teaches as an untenured lecturer—and the comic surface of his fiction is subject to sudden cliff-falls of fright, unease and doubt. Though he learned a lot from P. G. Wodehouse, whom he read and reread, it is no sunny world like Wodehouse's that he offers. His most abiding fear, perhaps, was of embarrassment, and his books tell of quaking voices, hesitant gestures and damp handshakes. His heroes suffer embarrassment themselves and inflict it on others in pre-emptive strikes. Fiction and poems were often a way of hitting back at a cruel world.
So were his pleasures. Drinking started soon after midday, usually in a London club, by which hour his working day was largely done, and I recall him sitting enthroned in one such place—at least the chair, which seemed to be his by traditional right, looked larger and handsomer than the rest—a succession of whiskies in his hand and a flow of anecdotes on his lips, surrounded by a semicircle of acolytes, mostly journalists and political activists. By then he was the Great Cham of the New Right, a sort of late twentieth-century Dr. Johnson, but with an admixture of abundant and faultless mimicry. Johnson, one imagines, always spoke in his own voice. Amis did all the voices. When he was knighted in 1990 I asked him if it made any difference. “Useful if anybody tries anything on me,” he said, and suddenly turned into an importunate tradesman: “I have a bone to pick with you, Mr. Amis.” Then back to his own voice, duly magnified. “Sir Kingsley, if you don't mind.”
His talk was personal, merciless to his enemies, and he never denied that his fiction was too. “I have already written an account of myself,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “in twenty or more volumes, most of them called novels.” That is not to say he was Lucky Jim. I recall his dining in college shortly after he arrived in Cambridge in 1961, when my colleagues were abashed to find not a lumpish oaf who threw things and broke things but a well-suited figure interested in vintage wines and the musical compositions of lesser members of the Bach family. Though he had a sense of fun, he was never a roughneck; some of his tastes were fastidious and many of them, especially in the weekly column on restaurants he once wrote for a London journal, downright expensive. Fiction complemented life, and you wrote a novel, in his view, or any thing else, to score points. “That will make them sweat a bit,” he would say of his emotions as he wrote. Though fond of money, he was even fonder of winning an argument, and a recent biography by Eric Jacobs (1994) confirms in pitiless detail how close the novels are to life. Take a Girl Like You has to do with his first wife, Jake's Thing with his second, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, whom he married in 1965; and The Old Devils, with which he won the Booker Prize in his sixties, in 1986, is about growing old. Experience was there to be used. What else would it be for? “My second wife has walked out on me,” he remarked in the 1980s, in the Anglo-American voice he adopted when he used an American turn of phrase, “and I am now living with my first wife and her husband as a live-in pair.” When I asked him if he would dare to make a novel out of that, I had no idea he was already at it. It is called The Folks That Live on the Hill. Quick-witted as he was, even he must have missed chances as he talked, and a novel is an opportunity to say the things you ought to have said at the time, to make people sweat a bit, and even to do the things you wish you had done.
When Amis died in October 1995, several of the obituaries remarked that he did not care what other people thought.
It would be truer to say he never cared about anything else. Other minds fascinated him endlessly, and how they reveal and disguise themselves in speech and gesture and action. I never told him what I thought about his fiction, even when we were colleagues, except when I once wrote to him, rather ungraciously, to say that I had found something too gloomy. (He replied that next time he would write a ribtickler). So perhaps this is the moment, Amis-like, to say what I should have said and to do what I wish I had done. When I read his novels, as they appeared, they were the first I had ever known that were about the world I lived in. That made them a little worrying. As Brian Moore's mother is reported to have said about his fiction, I kept expecting me to come in. Reading Amis was not, and is not, an unalloyed pleasure, and he might not have minded to be told it. There was always something punitive about them.
He might have minded, however, to be told that he was a master of decorum, or rather of the shifting line between what is acceptable in social life and what is not. Good manners, in the conventional sense, interested him only as a cockshy, and when Harold Nicolson was rash enough to write a book called Good Behaviour (1955) Amis' review began menacingly: “I have been waiting for some time to get my hands on this one.” It was the front line in the battle of the generations that called him, and it held him fast in the long fictional tradition that stretches back, as he knew, for two centuries and more to the novels of his acknowledged master, who was Henry Fielding. Experimental fiction seemed to him to dodge the issue, he would say, because it was always about experiment in style and never in substance. As a critical point that looks unanswerable. Realistic novels, by contrast, are experiments in life itself, in the style and substance of living. They are about how people behave to one another, how they divulge or conceal their greed, carnality and hatred, how they love and seek to be loved, and how they hide (or fail to hide) their terror, embarrassment and boredom.
His novels, more specifically, like Harold Pinter's plays, are about city life. Both are London authors, born there and reared there, and their satire belongs forever to its streets and bars and clubs. Taking the piss, as the Cockney phrase is, lies at the heart of what they do. Like all big-city fun, the Cockney piss-take can mask grudging acceptance and even amiability. Love is seldom spoken of, in that world, though desire is, and the awkward problem of self-revelation is solved by elaborate self-mimicry and the mimicry of others. People speak not to say what they think but to conceal it, much as chess players struggle hard not to lose a pawn and are shrewd enough to surrender before they are beaten.
But that, after all, is life as it is lived, wherever educated beings talk to conceal themselves and to probe the defenses of others. No wonder we mimic, no wonder we are mimicked. Perhaps we are all Kingsley Amis.