Other literary forms

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Kingsley Amis (AY-mihs) is best known as a novelist, but readers have turned often to his other writings for the insights they provide into the man and his fiction. Many of the themes that are explored in depth in his novels are expressed indirectly in the peripheral works. He published...

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Kingsley Amis (AY-mihs) is best known as a novelist, but readers have turned often to his other writings for the insights they provide into the man and his fiction. Many of the themes that are explored in depth in his novels are expressed indirectly in the peripheral works. He published several collections of short stories: My Enemy’s Enemy (1962), Collected Short Stories (1980), and Mr. Barrett’s Secret, and Other Stories (1993). Dear Illusion, a novella, was published in 1972 in a limited edition of five hundred copies. His collections of poetry include Bright November (1947), A Frame of Mind (1953), A Case of Samples: Poems, 1946-1956 (1956), The Evans Country (1962), A Look Round the Estate: Poems, 1957-1967 (1967), and Collected Poems: 1944-1979 (1979). Amis published his opinionated Memoirs in 1991. His criticism covers an extremely wide range; in addition to studies of figures as diverse as Jane Austen and Rudyard Kipling, he published one of the first significant critical books on science fiction, New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960), a work that did much to encourage academic study of the genre and to win recognition for many gifted writers. The James Bond Dossier (with Ian Fleming; 1965), several volumes of collected science fiction edited with Robert Conquest and titled Spectrum: A Science Fiction Anthology (1961-1965), and The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage (1997) offer further evidence of the extraordinary range of his work.

Achievements

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Almost from the beginning of his career, Kingsley Amis enjoyed the attention of numerous commentators. Because his works are filled with innovations, surprises, and variations in techniques and themes, it is not surprising that critics and reviewers alike found it difficult to make a definitive statement about his achievements. The range of his work is extraordinary: fiction, poetry, reviews, criticism, humor, science fiction, and biography. Of all his writings, however, his achievement depends most on his novels.

Amis’s early novels are considered by many critics to be “angry” novels of protest against the contemporary social, political, and economic scene in Britain. The themes include resentment of a rigid class stratification, rejection of formal institutional ties, discouragement with the economic insecurity and low status of those without money, loathing of pretentiousness in any form, and disenchantment with the past. Because many of Amis’s contemporaries, including John Wain, John Osborne, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe, seemed to express similar concerns, and because many came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, went to Oxford or Cambridge University, and taught for a time at a provincial university, journalists soon spoke of them as belonging to a literary movement.

The “Angry Young Men,” as their fictional heroes came to be called, were educated men who did not want to be gentlemen. Kenneth Allsop called them “a new, rootless, faithless, classless class” lacking in manners and morals; W. Somerset Maugham called them “mean, malicious and enviousscum” and warned that these men would some day rule England. Some critics even confused the characters with the writers themselves. Amis’s Jim Dixon (in Lucky Jim) was appalled by the tediousness and falseness of academic life; therefore, Dixon was interpreted as a symbol of anti-intellectualism. Dixon taught at a provincial university; therefore, he became a symbol of contempt for Cambridge and Oxford. Amis himself taught at a provincial university (Swansea); therefore, he and Dixon became one and the same in the minds of many critics. Like all literary generalizations, however, this one was soon inadequate. The most that can be said is that through Amis’s early heroes there seemed to sound clearly those notes of disillusionment that were to become dominant in much of the literature of the 1950’s.

Because it seems so artless, critics have also found Amis’s fiction difficult to discuss. His straightforward plotting, gift for characterization, and ability to tell a good story are resistant to the modern techniques of literary criticism. Because Amis’s work lacks the obscurity, complexity, and technical virtuosity of the fiction of James Joyce or William Faulkner, some critics have suggested that it is not to be valued as highly. In many of the reviews of his early work, Amis was described as essentially a comic novelist, an entertainer, or an amiable satirist not unlike P. G. Wodehouse, the Marx Brothers, or Henry Fielding. Furthermore, his interest in mysteries, ghost stories, James Bond thrillers, and science fiction confirmed for some critics the view that Amis was a writer lacking serious intent.

Looking beyond the social commentary and entertainment found in Amis’s work, other critics have found a distinct relationship between Amis’s novels and the “new sincerity” of the so-called Movement poets of the 1950’s and later. These poets (including Amis himself, Philip Larkin, John Wain, and D. J. Enright, all of whom also wrote fiction) saw their work as an alternative to the symbolic and allusive poetry of T. S. Eliot and his followers. In a movement away from allusion, obscurity, and excesses of style, the Movement poets encouraged precision, lucidity, and craftsmanship. They concentrated on honesty of thought and feeling to emphasize what A. L. Rowse calls a “businesslike intention to communicate with the reader.” Amis’s deceptively simple novels were written with the same criteria he imposed on his poetry; one cannot read Amis with a measure suitable only to Joyce or Faulkner. Rather, his intellectual and literary ancestors antedate the great modernist writers, and the resultant shape is that of a nineteenth century man of letters. Amis’s novels may be appreciated for their commonsense approach. He writes clearly. He avoids extremes or excessive stylistic experimentation. He is witty, satiric, and often didactic.

Amis’s novels after 1980 added a new phase to his career. One of the universal themes that most engaged Amis was that of relationships between men and women, both within and outside marriage. After 1980, he moved away from the broad scope of a society plagued by trouble to examine instead the troubles plaguing one of that society’s most fundamental institutions—relationships—and the conflicts, misunderstandings, and drastically different responses of men and women to the world. Most of his characters suffer blighted marriages. Often they seem intelligent but dazed, as if there were something they had lost but cannot quite remember. Something has indeed been lost, and loss is at the heart of all of Amis’s novels, so that he is, as novelist Malcolm Bradbury calls him, “one of our most disturbing contemporary novelists, an explorer of historical pain.” From the beginning of hiscanon, Amis focused on the absence of something significant in modern life: a basis, a framework, a structure for living, such as the old institutions like religion or marriage once provided. Having pushed that loss in societal terms to its absolute extreme in the previous novels, Amis subsequently studied it in personal terms, within the fundamental social unit. In The Old Devils, for example (for which he won the 1986 Booker Fiction Prize), his characters will not regain the old, secure sense of meaning that their lives once held, and Amis does not pretend that they will. What success they manage to attain is always partial. What, in the absence of an informing faith or an all-consuming family life, could provide purpose for living? More simply, How is one to be useful? This is the problem that haunts Amis’s characters, and it is a question, underlying all of his novels, that came to the forefront near the end of his life.

In looking back over Amis’s career, critics have found a consistent moral judgment quite visible beneath the social commentary, entertainment, and traditional techniques that Amis employs. Beginning in a world filled with verbal jokes, masquerades, and incidents, Amis’s view of life grew increasingly pessimistic until he arrived at a fearfully grim vision of a nightmare world filled with hostility, violence, sexual abuse, and self-destruction. Critics, therefore, view Amis most significantly as a moralist, concerned with the ethical life in difficult times. Amis’s response to such conditions was to use his great powers of observation and mimicry both to illuminate the changes in postwar British society and to suggest various ways of understanding and possibly coping with those changes. For all these reasons, one can assert that Amis achieved a major reputation in contemporary English fiction, and, as is so often the case, his is an achievement that does not depend on any single work. It is rather the totality of his work with which readers should reckon.

Discussion Topics

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As a boy, Kingsley Amis did much clowning. How does a knack for clowning help a writer?

Amis was one of the British writers of the post-World War II era called “angry young men.” Was he correct to reject that characterization, as he did?

What makes Lucky Jim an affirmation of the moral order?

What evidence do you see in favor of the suggestion that detective and horror stories can help a writer understand human nature?

Consider the following: Like Charles Dickens, Amis is seen as a novelist whose works over the years grew less humorous and more pessimistic.

How is one to be useful? Determine why an older writer, like Amis in his later years, should be concerned with this topic.

Bibliography

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Amis, Martin. Experience. New York: Talk/Miramax Books, 2000. Kingsley’s son, Martin Amis, a highly regarded novelist in his own right, discusses his relationship with his father and the crises in his father’s life.

Bell, Robert H., ed. Critical Essays on Kingsley Amis. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. Thirty-two new and reprinted essays analyze Amis’s work. Contributors include writers such as John Updike and V. S. Pritchett. Bell provides an introduction in which he discusses Amis’s major novels. Includes bibliography and index.

Bradbury, Malcolm. No, Not Bloomsbury. London: Deutsch, 1987. Devotes a chapter to Amis’s comic fiction through The Old Devils, charting Amis’s course from anger to bitterness. Discusses Amis’s moral seriousness, honesty, and humor. Includes chronology and index.

Bradford, Richard. Kingsley Amis. London: Arnold, 1989. Key study shows how Amis confounds customary distinctions between “popular” and “literary” fiction. Argues that it is time to readjust the criteria for judging literary worth. Includes secondary bibliography and index.

Bradford, Richard. Lucky Him: The Biography of Kingsley Amis. London: Peter Owen, 2001. Although Amis often denied that his fiction was based on his life, this important reassessment of the author demonstrates that his work contains many autobiographical elements.

Fussell, Paul. The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. An appreciation of Amis’s versatile talents and accomplishments by a personal friend.

Gardner, Philip. Kingsley Amis. Boston: Twayne, 1981. This first full-length study of Amis’s life and career treats his novels (through Jake’s Thing) and nonfiction, paying particular attention to the recurrence of certain themes and character types, to his modes of comedy, and to the relationship between his life and fiction. Supplemented by a chronology, notes, bibliographies, and index.

Jacobs, Eric. Kingsley Amis: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A readable, sometimes painfully candid biography written with Amis’s full cooperation. Includes photographs, notes, a primary bibliography, and an index. This American edition includes material that did not appear in the first (British) edition of 1995.

Laskowski, William. Kingsley Amis. New York: Twayne, 1998. Stresses Amis’s overall accomplishment as a man of letters. Divides his output into letters, genre fiction, and mainstream novels and devotes equal consideration to each category. Published soon after Amis’s death, this volume surpasses the coverage of Philip Gardner’s study cited above but does not replace it.

Leader, Zachary. The Life of Kingsley Amis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. Voluminous, engrossing biography pays equal attention to discussion and analysis of Amis’s literary output. Draws on unpublished works, correspondence, and interviews with many of Amis’s friends, relatives, fellow writers, students, and colleagues.

McDermott, John. Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1989. This first British book-length study of Amis’s work seeks to show that the novels are serious as well as funny, that they are distinctively English, and that they offer a wide range of approaches to significant aspects of human behavior. Includes substantial primary and secondary bibliographies and an index.

Moseley, Merritt. Understanding Kingsley Amis. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Short survey stresses Amis’s accomplishments as a professional man of letters, with special emphasis on his novels. Includes an annotated secondary bibliography and an index.

Salwak, Dale, ed. Kingsley Amis: In Life and Letters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Brings together the impressions, reminiscences, and judgments of twenty of Amis’s friends and readers. The essays cover Amis’s novels and poetry, his interest in science fiction, his tenures at various colleges and universities, his style, his changing social and moral attitudes, and his personality. Includes primary and secondary bibliographies, an index, and photographs.

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