Kingsley Amis

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Amis, Kingsley 1922–

A distinguished English novelist, short story writer, poet, editor, and essayist, Amis won critical acclaim in 1954 with the publication of his first novel, Lucky Jim. He is a skillful satirist whose subject, in his own words, is the "relations between people." Amis's interest in science fiction has been sustained throughout his career: he was coeditor of the Spectrum science fiction anthologies and was the author of the first English full-length critical survey of the genre in New Maps of Hell. He has also written under the pseudonym Robert Markham. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

W. Hutchings

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Disconcerting his readers has long been a speciality of Amis. Since Lucky Jim (1954) announced a talent for inventively comic writing, he has seldom been content to stay still. Even in that early novel, the memorable and splendid farce of the burnt bed-clothes and drunken lecture has to take its place alongside the developing relationship between Jim Dixon and the neurotic Margaret, where the writing is less assured and more tentative as the material is less scathing and more weighty. A disturbing co-existence of two distinct types of writing is often to be found in an Amis novel. In I Want It Now (1968), for example, satire of the trendy and corrupt world of chat-show television celebrities goes along with celebration of one such man's triumph over the predatory upper-class world. The character of Ronnie Appleyard is not strong enough to support writing which is now appropriately incisive and now rather pretentious.

Amis, however, is a game enough novelist to keep experimenting with ways of confounding the reader who hopes for a single focus. Accidental death and voluntary therapy for the male of the species loosely hold together the characters and theme of The Anti-Death League (1966). Maurice Allington, a whisky addict and ageing, but imaginative, lover, becomes involved in a ghost-story which oscillates between farce and seriousness; between the Reverend Tom Rodney Sonnenschein … and God (The Green Man, 1969). Most recently, a detailed analysis of the way of 'life' of a household of geriatrics is flauntingly and surprisingly ended with the almost simultaneous deaths of all the characters. This is narrated in six paragraphs: the sudden switch from intricate detail to authorial arrogance is extraordinary (Ending Up, 1974).

What, then, are we to make of Amis's insistence on such perversity?… [Jim] Dixon is the first of a line of Amis heroes who stand for common sense rather than anger; for the belief that life is there to be made happy now; for the notion that, as Bradlbury puts it, nice things are nicer than nasty things. Patrick Standish, for example, in Take a Girl Like You (1960) finally achieves his goal of destroying Jenny Bunn's provincial 'Bible-class ideas'. Such destruction, he says, was inevitable, and Jenny can only reply that, even so, it seems rather a pity: nostalgia isn't much of an opponent for easy-going morality. Ronnie Appleyard similarly gets his girl despite the machinations of snobbish and arrogant Mummy (not to mention the efforts of the American police); and they walk off, if not into the sunset, then into a life where they hope to help each other to be not as bad as they would be without each other. Again, the victory goes to common sense and easy-going morality. (pp. 71-2)

It could be claimed that Amis's presentation of a liberal morality within a novel form which alternates the farcical and the serious, refusing to be tied down to a single focus, sets him in one line of English novel-writing....

(This entire section contains 1852 words.)

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Henry Fielding may serve as an example: Tom Jones, like many of Amis's heroes, finally gets the girl in a triumph of good-heartedness over hypocrisy and meanness. But we are really in a different mode of writing with Amis: what has he to substitute for Fielding's exact relation to past values and literary norms in his use of picaresque and mock-epic? Amis's points of reference are uncompromisingly modern: hence the ghost story ofThe Green Man or (loosely) the science fiction of The Alteration….

[For Amis] the novel presents ways of making sense of a world both absurd and threatening. Death, which dominates much of his fiction (for example, The Anti-Death League, The Green Man and Ending Up), may be meaningless, but it cannot be viewed dispassionately. If death is horrible and God, should he exist, is either cruel or teasing, life has all the more to be lived for its present values. If we don't want it now, we'll never get it.

This is the nub of Amis's problem as a novelist. To like it now means to be superbly comic about the world's absurdity and to be serious about what makes the world worth living in; conversely, death has to be put in perspective as the end of a life worth living and has to be seen in all its meaningless horror. Hence the novels present a love of farce and satire and a belief in common-sense values; an insistence on life and a hatred of death. This may explain the presence of different kinds of writing within one book; but does not tell us how a satisfying work of art may be produced. (p. 73)

It is here that The Alteration represents a fascinating new step in Amis's career. If art is to have any value in such a world, then it must be part of the reason for wanting it now. The structure of the novel and its use of a musically talented main character bring a consciousness of the importance of art directly into its presentation of some problems of life. The alteration is not just what the [The Alteration] itself defines as 'Counterfeit World, a class of tale set more or less at the present date, but portraying the results of some momentous change in historical fact'. Hubert Anvil is a boy soprano at Coverley Abbey whose voice has achieved such renown that news has reached the unartistic but acquistive pope. Two ambassadors, themselves 'altered' to preserve their voices, are sent to check up, with the resultant decision to operate on Hubert and bring him to Rome. Much of the book amounts to a debate on the justice of this decision. The strongest forces against are represented by Hubert's mother, Margaret, and her newly-found lover, the family chaplain, Father Lyall. Hubert decides to try to escape, and is helped by the kindly ambassador of New England (a schismatic country), Cornelius van den Haag. Irony, though, strikes: as Hubert is about to be flown to safety, he is found to need immediate castration on medical grounds, and consequently ends up in Rome after all. Meanwhile, Father Lyall is visited by human, not providential, agency: his sin is bruatally punished by the Secular Arm. Tyranny and fate conspire, each in its own way, to thwart the impulse to live.

The need to experience the joy of life is at the centre of the novel. Hubert's situation forces him into an attempt to comprehend the consequences of adulthood and of his possible failure ever to experience adulthood in the sexual sense. In a novel of ironies, a fundamental one is that Hubert has to be altered before he has achieved maturity: he is to be denied experience before he can discover what it is. (pp. 73-4)

[A] problem over language occurs when Hubert asks his older brother, Anthony, to explain what sex is like. That this is impossible is the point: explanation is no substitute for experience. To express this, Amis's language oscillates between the bathetic and the conventionally vague…. Since description is impossible, any attempt is going to be uneasy; but I wonder if we can accecpt the idea that language is an unsatisfactory expression of experience when that idea is conveyed simply by unsatisfactory language.

This conversation quickly gets round to another important issue, one which is handled more certainly. Lovers, says Anthony, are 'closer to each other than they can ever be to God'. This idea is at the centre of the relationship between Margaret and Lyall. The affair begins when Lyall, having refused to give his permission for the alteration, comforts Margaret's grief at the prospect of the church getting its way. Thus the belief that Hubert should be allowed to grow to adulthood coincides with Margaret's discovery of love, and with her statement of the opposition between theological and human values: God, she says, will take care of their sin, but what Lyall thinks of her is also of importance. His reaction to her beauty acts as an expression of the value of human relations. (pp. 74-5)

The freedom to choose, necessary if man is to experience life for himself, is denied by the human agency which puts God's will into operation. Hubert points out to the Abbot of Coverley that a monk chooses of his own free will to be a monk, whereas his own celibacy is to be enforced. He silently adds the further point that a monk can break his vow as easily as he takes it…. The choice, then, is to accept one's limited freedom within an established pattern, or to follow the dangerous path of putting personal values before that pattern. Lyall and Hubert attempt to do the latter: Lyall is destroyed by the church, Hubert suffers the irony of chance.

The novel's conclusion is pretty sour, like that of The AntiDeath League, where a series of meaningless deaths is concluded by the accidental killing of a dog. At the time of this accident the owner of the dog, a keen amateur musician, is giving the first performance of a newly-discovered work. In The Alteration, music is brought fully into the central issue: it, after all, is an important area of human experience. The theme of choice is bound up with Hubert's musical talent. Not only is that talent the cause of the alteration, but it is open to development in two ways. Hubert's gift can be used, as the abbot expresses it, 'directly to the greater glory of God'. Ironically, such a view seems to depend on man's disruption of the natural course of events; but, to complicate the irony, nature then seems to step in to save man the bother. Furthermore, the view that one's duty to art is one's duty to God involves uncertainty: the abbot himself expresses concern that, in spite of the alteration, Hubert's powers may decline. They cannot know for certain, just as the love of God cannot be immediately tested by experience. (pp. 75-6)

Despite Amis's struggle with unsatisfactory language, and despite a niggling feeling that he still likes to do the simple things because they are simple for him, The Alteration is shaped into a nicely-judged analysis of the problems and values of human experience. The world of the novel is a counterfeit one, so that the analysis takes place within an artificially-imposed pattern. But, as the arrogant conclusion of Ending Up demonstrated, Amis seems to be moving towards the view that the necessarily artificial form of a novel (as of all art) should be used deliberately, rather than unsatisfactorily obscured. As a novel, The Alteration is itself a counterfeit world formed by the novelist. It begins with Hubert's voice rising above the choir and orchestra in Coverley; it ends with Hubert singing 'Che è migliore?' in Rome. This pattern demonstrates that the church has had its way, so that the two altered ambassadors can give final thanks to God. But the question of that final aria ('What is better?') breaks out of that pattern: art and life continue to exist in a suggestive, if uneasy, relationship. (pp. 76-7)

W. Hutchings, "Kingsley Amis's Counterfeit World," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press 1977), Summer, 1977, pp. 71-7.

Karl Miller

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The writing in [Jake's Thing] is determined throughout by Jake's manner of speaking, and it has all the virtuosity of Amis at his comic best, though there are those who will be offended by its strain of hostility and contempt. The prose is ultra-conversational, abusive, and yet allusive, too, and elegantly syntactic….

The description of [Jake's neighbor] Geoffrey has a … significance which relates to the underlying tensions of the present book. Here is a backward-looking chap forwardly using oaths which would not have been printed before the Second World War. The oaths used by the recent young, and the spirit of an age whose student activists mail him a plastic phallus, don't appeal to Jake, but the old oaths do. His swearing and womanizing form part of a liberation, in other words, but it has been overtaken by another that he can't abide…. The main question that emerges here, for a consideration of the book, is how far its attack on the new, 1970s permissiveness is also an attack on the freedoms which have made Jake what he is.

Mr Amis fastens reproaches on a character who will not always wear them, being, if you like, too likable, and some are reproaches which the novel tries to discredit. When Jake calls himself a male chauvinist, we might wonder whether this is another of its attacks on the kind of people who use that expression, which is one of the new oaths…. The novel could be read as that of a writer who is saying (later in life) that promiscuity is bad, after all, that male lust conceals indifference or dislike, and that desire and affection, desire and knowledge, are very different. But [Jake's wife's] argument that people's sex-drives keep them steady is important to the book, and it is not an argument that supports such a reading, since it implies that sex-drives can work with other sorts of drive, and that men and women have a good deal in common. Nor does Jake himself wholly support such a reading. So little has he resembled someone who is unable to feel affection for women, so easy is it to see him, at the same time, as a character in a licentious book, that only the politically motivated will be quite happy to treat his confession as a snub to the licentious behaviour in Mr Amis's earlier fiction, as the permissive society's mea culpa.

Karl Miller, "The Post-Sexual Revolution," in The Times Literary Supplement (© by Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 22, 1978, p. 1043.

Paul Levy

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[Jake's Thing] is anti the Women's Movement. It's anti-Women's Lib, anti-feminist and anti-female. I can see nothing whatever sinister about being anti all those things, providing one doesn't hide these sentiments by dressing them up in a tatty little plot about what we all know are the lunacies of the sillier disciples of Masters and Johnson. When the scene shifts from Harley Street consulting rooms and the sleazy North London 'workshop' to Comyns College, Oxford … the plot improves slightly, for co-education seems to be a topic better suited to Kingley Amis's barbed pen than is coitus. And the real comic tour de force of the book is the scene where Jake puts on academical dress and raises a glass of sherry in his hand in front of the windows of his college rooms: he is posing for his photograph to be taken by the foreign tourists who have been in hot pursuit of a genuine don. That rings a great deal truer than all that Amisian waffle about 'genital sensate focusing', which sounds anyway like it has come straight from a clinical guide, and would be quite funny enough on its own—funnier than when it's endowed by Amis with indignity.

There is, in Jake's Thing, something that is new though; a gritty, tough and difficult style of writing, that is sustained through the whole book. A refined stream-of-consciousness manner informs the whole of the narrative, and Amis has got it very nearly perfectly right, so that Jake's Army obscenities—the genuine contents of his thoughts—contrast comically with the conventionally polite words he actually utters. Technically very well done—I wish it had been more worth doing. (p. 8)

Paul Levy, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Paul Levy 1978; reprinted with permission), October, 1978.

Melvyn Bragg

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Jake is an Oxford don, approaching 60, which he finds almost impossible to believe and, equally incredibly, out of libido. His "thing" isn't up to it and his other "thing" is to be prepared to find out why. What he is left with is the thing itself which makes him live. The course of [Jake's Thing] follows Jake's quest….

Jake ends up with a view of women such as might have been held by Thor and might nowadays be most commonly expressed by a drunken Celtic supporter whose wife has left him because of his addiction to football. Jake's view of life—particularly of life in London today—is scarcely less despairing. His only real pleasure is in finding his expectations of dirt, decay, inefficiency, boringness and stupid behaviour by brain damaged citizens fulfilled. If this novel offers us a picture of our own times then what we see rising to the top of society is—according to the perception of Jake—scum.

Then there's the race issue which has to be faced up to in this novel. People are muttering about it and I'm sure that Amis intended that they should. Amis does not deny the feelings of prejudice which his protagonist might have. And he too as an author has his rights and can curse whomsoever he chooses to. Amis insists on variety, he insists on the differences in society. He also refuses to patronize or to deny what he observes are genuine feelings….

The very tight style of the book owes an enormous amount to the care and devotion with which Amis takes everyday sayings—cliches, turns of phrase, figures of speech—and presses them into the service of a resonant English prose…. He makes determined, even pedagogic efforts to distil and employ the language used in society today.

This is one of the things which gives the novel its excitement. Another is the general feeling … that somehow we have Lucky Jim one generation on. The book is indeed 25 years after Lucky Jim and in some ways Jake resembles him…. But Jake is a much less definite character than Jim. He will be much harder to make representative and that cannot displease Amis who has an acute sense of what a novel should be.

Amis has a talent for flicking minor characters into life with a couple of sentences. Here they are scattered generously through the book but I could have wished for even more and for more of those already invented. The strongest character—in her way stronger even than Jake although she has much less of the attention of the author—is Brenda, Jake's wife. We tend to believe in her more than we believe in Jake and that leads to an enriching of the novel in an area where you would have expected Amis to have been entirely unambiguous. For Jake—as you would expect—quite soon finds the whole sexual therapy business to be a total sham and says as much. Brenda, however, won't have this….

Jake's scorn is what one feels most after putting the book down. It is a cover for his despair. As he moves towards old age and death—and remember Amis's Anti-Death League—there is a reflective and impotent wondering at the existence he has. At the thing he has that makes him live.

This novel—widely and rightly given the highest acclaim—shows us that Mr Amis will not go gentle into that good night. For which, many thanks. (p. 564)

Melvyn Bragg, in Punch (© 1978 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), October 4, 1978.

Tom Paulin

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Traditionally John Bull is a bloody-minded, insular, beer-swilling, xenophobic philistine with a thick neck and a truculent manner. He hates wogs, he hates the young, and he wishes women would disappear as soon as it's over. This choleric figure has been lying low of late, and I'm sorry to report that he has dictated a novel to a battered amanuensis called Kingsley Amis. His novel [Jake's Thing] has half-a-dozen good jokes, a brilliant title, but it is often tedious and sometimes insolently stupid. (p. 52)

As Amis—or John Bull—charts [his] banal hell of rancid grievances and utterly average sensuality he has the cheek to suggest that undergraduates today are a poor lot who are vandalising the English language…. More of Amis's prose emphatically means worse. Take this sentence:

Jake stood at the window in thought, though not of any very purposeful description, for a couple of minutes.

This desecration of a once-noble language is evident throughout the novel. The sentences are often jammed with infinitives:

Jake took him on to dessert and gave him port; to help to seem to be giving rather than plying with he took a small glass himself.

No undergraduate in my experience has ever written as badly as this. Reading Amis's prose is like getting kicked in the stomach—I found myself virtually retching at its sheer awfulness. And what does he mean by "an O'Casey peasant"? Someone Irish, I suppose…. (pp. 52-3)

However, some of his targets are well-chosen: academic laziness, waterlogged Brussels sprouts, the more lunatic extremes of the Women's Movement, and a certain Oxford don who writes plays. But throughout there is a huge imaginative slackness and a heavy obviousness. And behind the brusquely average cynicism there is a tone of plaintive self-pity and puzzled misogyny. (p. 53)

Tom Paulin, in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1979.

V. S. Pritchett

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As a comic novelist Kingsley Amis still practices the revival of the robust masculine tradition of English farce with its special taste for the sententious that skids into the vernacular and the joke of the flat tire. Not for the dramatic flat, but for the rising paranoia of the slow puncture. He is the connoisseur, even the pedant, of the air going out and things running vulgarly down. One looks at the thing at first with the healthy impulse to give it a kick and then have a drink. The object may have started its life as a gleaming example of contemporary ersatz, but the rapid onset of repairs shows it to be on the way out just as it came in, and a deceiver of hopes. Then a doubt enters the owner's mind: is the flat "one of those things" or is it oneself? All comic writers are serious in their grudges….

Jake's Thing is a very funny book, less for its action or its talk than in its prose…. Mr. Amis is a master of laconic mimicry and of the vernacular drift. (p. 12)

Jake's Thing has its comic Oxford side, the panic-stricken dons conducting ingeniously dishonest arguments about letting women into Colleges. There is a thundering account of a lamentable hangover. Jake's kind of mind is amusing but doesn't allow others to have much of an inning, indeed for him there is something fatally wrong or ridiculous about everyone. The novel is really a comic diatribe and is less about sex than about paranoia. (pp. 12-13)

V. S. Pritchett, "Upmanship," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), May 17, 1979, pp. 12-13.


Amis, Kingsley (Vol. 129)


Amis, Kingsley (Vol. 2)