DRINKS BEFORE LUNCH WITH KINGSLEY AMIS
11:00 PM, Nov 5, 1995 • By ERIC FELTEN
It would have given Kingsley Amis no end of pleasure to learn that his New York Times obituary gave him credit for writing a number of novels that made it to the silver screen, most notably Lord Jim. "Laziness," Amis told me one bright September morning in Wales, "laziness has become the chief characteristic of journalism, displacing incompetence." And how; Lord Jim is, of course, by Joseph Conrad. Lucky Jim was the title Amis gave to his famous first novel, published in 1954.
Amis delivered his barb with a polish that betrayed practice. I wasn't the first journalist to visit him at the Swansea house of his friend Stuart Thomas, nor the first to sink into the amorphous couch against the wall while Amis commanded the center of the room in a straight-backed chair, the picture of diffidence. Nor, I think, was I the first he had taunted with intimations of sloth and stupidity. Amis carefully cultivated his reputation as a tough interview.
I had hesitated to meet Amis, for much the same reasons that Amis avoided acquaintance with Evelyn Waugh: "I realized that my admiration for his works might have been seriously dinted by whatever form of social drubbing I would inevitably have got from him had we ever met," Amis wrote in his Memoirs. The morning promised to fulfill that dread. For starters, thanks to British Rail, I showed up an hour late, a rudeness that Amis did not fail to comment upon. Then there was the slight grimace-was there a groan? -- when I pulled a tape-recorder from my bag. In the following hour he never quite lost a pained expression that left no doubt that my questions bored him.
I like to think now, four years later, that my tiresome presence was not solely responsible for Amis's discomfiture: He was gouty. "When I was young I thought the gout was funny," he told me later in the day, "but now that I have it, it isn't funny in the least." Whatever the cause of his displeasure, Amis finally put an end to the tortured interview. "So," he asked with an obligatory tipping of the wrist and the first hint of a smile I had seen from him, "are you a drinking man?"
"Sure," I lied.
Amis called a cab, and soon we were at the bar of the Swansea Yacht Club. Or perhaps more accurately, a bar called the Swansea Yacht Club. Aside from some photos on the walls of sepia men on sepia boats, and a few nautical flags on a yardarm outside, it wasn't clear what relationship the club had with yachting. The sunny corner table we settled into did have a lovely view of the small harbor -- yachts, or at least some boats, were visible. The view was soon to be obstructed by some horrible new fast-food shack, Amis said with a distaste he seemed to relish.
I knew I was in trouble when Amis started off with a double whiskey, especially since he didn't have to ask for it: "The usual, Mr. Amis?" I had the good sense at least not to attempt to match him drink for drink; I settled for a relatively benign pint of bitter. It's not that I don't drink; I just don't drink much. Certainly not enough to survive three double whiskeys before lunch.
The drinks did Amis no damage. In fact, they did him a world of good. The Scotch deserved much of the credit for Amis's improved attitude, but I imagine that his nascent good humor also had something to do with the banishment of tape recorder and notebook. The boring ritual of polite interrogation was over. Soon we were joined by his friend Thomas, and for most of the next couple of hours we happily regaled one another with the outrages of the Left.
Once it became apparent that my magazine expense account was picking up the tab for the festivities, we hobbled off to lunch at a trattoria called The Bee's Knees, where there were cocktails to be had, and wine with the fish.
The subject turned to jazz, and Amis turned serious. He wasn't content simply to hold the beboppets, hardboppers, postboppers, and worse up to scorn. There was none of the facile ridicule that had made the last hours so entertaining. The music he loved had been killed, and the eulogy he delivered was not glib. It wasn't just amelodic excess that destroyed jazz for Amis, it was something at the core of the music, something sad and ugly and visible even in the 1950s when Amis saw Miles Davis at a New York club; there was no joy.
After lunch, Amis and Thomas wouldn't let me take a cab back to the train station: They insisted on driving me there in Thomas's yellow Ford. On the way we passed the campus of Swansea University, where Amis taught literature and collected absurdities for Lucky Jim. It prompted him to start telling me about the new novel he had just begun writing. "The story is about a middle-aged professor of Russian literature and poetry who is stumbling into having an affair with a Russian girl who is a poet of sorts. To sleep with her he'll have to tell her that her horrible poetry -- it's so bad that it pains him -- is good," Amis said. "I think I know what he'll do," he added mischievously. I did my best to offer a knowing leer.
A few minutes later I was on my way back to London, my stomach worried by the rocking of the train.
It was a surprise, a few years later, to read The Russian Girl. There was the hapless professor, and there was the Russian poetaster. But the book did not devolve into the sort of exercise in misogyny that had marred many of Amis's later novels.
Nor was it merely the comic romp reviewers praised it for being. Professor Richard Vaisey was not corrupted by Anna Danilova, though in the end he does lie about her poems: "'In my judgment these poems of yours are of high quality, as high as any written in our time.'" He lies, not to get her into bed, but because he loves her, and can't bear to crush her hopes. With that love he not only wins her heart, but transforms her into an honest-to-God poet.
I don't know what happened between the ride in the yellow Ford and the publication of The Russian Girl. Perhaps the change was nothing more interesting than the old saw about characters in novels having lives of their own quite beyond the control of their authors. I doubt it. Maybe instead Amis realized that much of his work suffered, like Davis's oeuvre, from a loss of joy. One way or another, before his death at 73, he found that joy again.
Eric Felton is a writer and jazz musician in Washington, D.C.