The Magazine

Man of Letters

Kingsley Amis, the laureate in prose of postwar Britain.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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The Life of Kingsley Amis

by Zachary Leader

Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $39.95

In Kingsley Amis's comic masterpiece, Lucky Jim, the protagonist, the young college lecturer Jim Dixon, realizes in a rare moment of optimism how an unpleasant situation can be made tolerable: "The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad. The reason why Prometheus couldn't get away from his vulture was that he was keen on it, not the other way around."

Like almost everything Amis ever wrote, this observation was self-revealing. Right away we know we're dealing with someone with an ecstatic hatred of bores, pedants, and fools, who sees opposition as the only means of escape. Either you become a misanthrope lurking in the corner of the party, or you become the life of the damned thing by making fun of everybody else.

Zachary Leader's excellent new biography establishes that Amis took the second route, one not without its hazards. The funniest postwar British novelist--and fair candidate for funniest human being committed to the printed word--was a middle-class Byron who destroyed two marriages, then ate and drank himself into blimpishness. The main task of these thousand pages is to redeem Amis from his worst vices--misogyny leading the pack--by showing how they were transmuted into creative virtues. As Leader puts it, "Few writers have written as perceptively about bad behavior as Amis or been as consistently accused of it."

To look back on this outsize life is to witness enormous appetites fulfilled and, more impressively, popularized for mass consumption. If the merger of "high" and "low" culture ever had a grace period, it was while Amis was at the typewriter. He compared Ian Fleming to Homer and published the first critical study of the James Bond series, even clapping out a not-bad 007 adventure himself. The man who missed his day in court to help get the ban lifted on Lady Chatterley's Lover because he was busy bedding a gamine admirer also memorably panned Nabokov's salacious masterpiece: "Do not misunderstand me if I say that one of the troubles with Lolita is that, so far from being pornographic, it is not pornographic enough." Amis exalted science fiction into something worthy of serious consideration, and tried to do the same for page-turning genres like the ghost story and murder mystery, both of which he experimented in. He penned a highly consultable, indeed philosophical, chapbook on the varieties of alcoholic experience, for which he did the long, hard thinking.

Angry Young Man? Not quite. Amis was the founder of Men's Studies.

Born in 1922, Amis was blessed with a slightly absurd father, a mid-level careerist in the mustard industry, who had declining bourgeois class resentment to spare, and a fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan that had his only child reaching for the jazz albums in short order. "Daddy A" did, however, refine his son's comic instinct by instructing him in the art of mimicry. Philip Larkin, whom Amis befriended at Oxford, once registered his lifelong correspondent's ablest physical gift: Kingsley could "do" the local comrade, the Irish tenor, and the Russian radio announcer broadcasting from the Eastern Front, all right. But it was the legendary routine, only twice performed, involving "three subalterns, a Glaswegian driver and a jeep breaking down and refusing to start somewhere in Germany" that had the future author of "This Be the Verse" realizing he'd met his match.

Is it any wonder? Amis was one of the 20th century's most audible prose stylists--you could hear his voice booming off the page, even when his notorious "late" prosody became a forbidding metastasis of clauses. Writing was for him an extension of full-bodied impersonation. In the years of declining health, he even gave himself a heart murmur imitating a bunch of tramps coughing and wheezing at a bus shelter. It was value for EKG, according to those who beheld it.

As for the local comrade and subalterns in Germany: The jester knew whereof he mocked. Amis was a scholarship lad whose university education was offset, or interrupted, by two formative events. The first was his faddish but prolonged membership in the Communist party, the second was World War II, in which Amis served as a discipline-averse signals officer. Apparatchik meetings and the army were the ideal settings in which to declare boredom one's mortal enemy, as well as to sharpen an innate rebelliousness against authority, be it martial, literary, or pedagogic.