Kingsley Amis Amis, Kingsley (Vol. 129) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

David Lida (review date May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Gindin (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dale Salwak (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Garry Abrams (review date 12 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harry Ritchie (review date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Philip Hensher (review date 16 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Wolcott (review date 30 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donald Bruce (essay date November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

“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...

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George Watson (essay date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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