DRINKS BEFORE LUNCH WITH KINGSLEY AMIS
11:00 PM, Nov 5, 1995 • By ERIC FELTEN
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.