The Life of Kingsley Amis
The first authorized biography of Kingsley Amis was written while he was still alive. Eric Jacobs, a former journalist, met with his subject for long, alcohol-fueled sessions from 1992 until the novelist’s short illness and death in 1995, when Kingsley Amis: A Biography appeared. Amis had read and annotated, sometimes very lightly, a draft; however, beyond the correction of factual errors, he made no attempt to influence content. Passages in Jacobs’s book deeply hurt Hilly, Amis’s first wife, and Alastair Boyd, seventh Baron Kilmarnock, her third husband. When, very shortly after Amis’s death, Jacobs attempted to publish diary entries recording his friend’s last bewildered days, the family reacted with incredulity and rage. It was made clear to Jacobs that the plum job of editing Amis’s letters would not be his.
Enter Zachary Leader, professor of English literature at Roehampton University in London and friend of Martin Amis, Kingsley’s son, by then a celebrated, or notorious, novelist in his own right. Four years’ work resulted in a widely praised edition of The Letters of Kingsley Amis (2000). Amis fils went on to offer Leader the job of writing a second, fuller, authorized biography of his father.
The result is a careful, even-handed, and widely researched 822 pages of text followed by 137 pages of notes and bibliography. Leader takes the reader through the stages of Amis’s alcohol-saturated, serially adulterous, combative, and extraordinarily productive life, from a suburban boyhood in southwest London, to Oxford University (before and after a stint in the Royal Corps of Signals during World War II), to a lectureship at the University College of Swansea, to the remarkable success of Lucky Jim (1954), still widely regarded as his best and most influential novel, to a fellowship at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University, and to Amis’s career as a full-time author who also became a right-wing public intellectual, lamenting what he saw as falling standards in education and supporting the American presence in Vietnam. The reader also learns about the two failed marriages and the unconventional arrangement that followed the breakup of the second: Hilly and Alastair Boyd went to live with Amis, who, among other phobias, was afraid of the dark and being alone at night. Amis financed this ménage à trois, which provided him with human companionship and essential support services for the last fourteen years of his life.
Leader identifies six themes as forming his biography, two of which are rooted in his subject’s beliefs about literature and the duty of the writer. First, Amis lamented the gulf between high and popular culture, and wrote works in the genres of the ghost story and the murder mystery. Under the pseudonym of Robert Markham, he produced a James Bond novel. Second, he saw writing as a profession requiring craftsmanship and discipline and was regularly at his typewriter in the morning despite the adulterous tryst or alcoholic intake of the day before. Leader also considers the influence of Amis’s childhood as lifelong, and he notes his subject’s extraordinary energy, quoting Martin’s description of his father as “a great engine of comedy.” The last two themes are Amis’s aggression, seen repeatedly in his life and books, and his constant interest in bad behavior in the form of selfishness and lack of consideration for others, again a constant preoccupation of the novels for solidly biographical reasons.
It is these last two themes that make The Life of Kingsley Amis so fascinating and horrifying a read. Leader has interviewed extensively, and some of Amis’s acquaintances, friends, and former colleagues acknowledge not merely that he was often “full of fun,” a favorite Amis phrase that Leader chooses as his closing words, but that he could be generous and kind as well. However, the man who wore down his first wife by multiple infidelities was well placed to create figures like the philanderer Patrick Standish of Take a Girl Like You (1960). In a nod to Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), author of Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748), a lengthy story of the eponymous heroine’s resistance to seduction and eventual rape,...
(The entire section is 1748 words.)