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.
As a university instructor--a job that twice took him to the United States, his "second home"--Amis located his rightward shift in the moment education standards began to flag in Britain, largely as a result of democratized enrollment. In later years, the joke was on anyone who thought the piss-talking eminence of the Garrick Club, or the bristling reactionary of the opinion page, was ever unselfconscious about the role he was playing--indeed, the role people came to expect him to play.
Leader is especially shrewd about distinguishing Amis's scabrous Tory routine from his convictions. Much like the qualities that aligned him with the "Movement" of postwar English poetry--defined as antisentimental, ironic, and skeptical--Kingsley's conservatism was an act of intellectual and emotional negation rather than positive assertion.
"I'm a Thatcherite, all right," he told Blake Morrison in 1984, "but I don't want what I and a lot of people vaguely feel to be turned into an ideology." Alongside his close friends, the Sovietologist Robert Conquest and the Hungarian-Russian dissident Tibor Szamuely, Amis became a sort of color commentator to their studied anticommunism. Ethnic jokes and "bloody lefty"-baiting abounded at the famed "fascist" lunches at Bertorelli's, but as Christopher Hitchens has noted of these raucous affairs, the minute real, "one-dimensional, humorless bigotry" was introduced, "they were bored by it."
In Amis's Memoirs, he recounts a night out with a truly embarrassing drunk, the Observer reviewer Philip Toynbee. When joined at the table by a mulatto girl, Toynbee asked what it was like "be[ing] a colored person in London these Days? You know, what's it like?" Amis's response was characteristic: "To say that I wanted to hit him, should have hit him, should have wanted to hit him would not be enough. Over all the intervening years I have not been able to think of anything more insulting, ignorant, inept, boring, bad-name-gathering, etc. he could have said in the circumstances." Amis knew when to be morally serious because this was at the exact moment when comedy failed.
"What's it feel like being mildly anti-Semitic? Describe it," Martin Amis once asked his father.
"Well. Very mild, as you say. If I'm watching the end of some new arts program I might notice the Jewish names in the credits and think, Ah, there's another one. Or: Oh I see. There's another one."
In Martin's memoir Experience, this set-piece is followed by a more poignant one. At a Sunday lunch, Martin described a haunting passage from Primo Levi's Holocaust chronicle If This Is a Man, only to swing around from the sideboard to find the old man covered in a Niagara of tears. Although it isn't hinted at by Leader, I would venture another explanation for Kingsley's prickliness about the tribe: It was deliberate with respect to Martin, who had taken for his adoptive literary father a novelist of a decidedly different kidney--Saul Bellow. In Stanley and the Women, the book that Stanley Duke's insane son pulls off the shelf and tears apart is Bellow's Herzog. Well, it was one way to have your cats-in-the-cradle moment.
Stanley and the Women led to Kingsley and the feminists. After his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, left him, Amis sought revenge on the deadlier of the species. In Jake's Thing, published in 1978, a sexually enervated Oxford don undergoes all sorts of mortifying libido-enhancement therapies and psychological workshops, then wonders if the struggle is even worth it. Women "don't mean what they say, they don't use language for discourse but for extending their personality, they take all disagreement as opposition, yes they do, even the brightest of them, and that's the end of the search for truth which is what the whole thing's supposed to be about."
Yet it is Jake, at novel's end, who's left with his flaccid member and stalled career, soaking up trash television on the couch while his newly svelte wife runs off with the next-door neighbor. Jake is Jim Dixon a quarter-century on and fresh out of luck. Leader admirably reminds us that, near his own end, Amis struck up a friendship with a radical feminist named Rosie Boycott (which sounds like the name Martin would give a radical feminist in his fiction). Even his sexism was not without its contradictions.
"What's the secret of your howling successes--" Kingsley asked Don Juan in his poem, "Dirty Story." "Your tongue never tardy with the punch sentence, / Your you-know-what in fabulous readiness?" As with Jake's Thing, the secret was a downer: You can be a Lothario and live free and easy, but in the end, posterity will look on you with "uneasy reverence" because it glimpses "behind your glories / Our own nasty defeats, nastier victories." Amis had both in spades. How lucky for us.
Michael Weiss is associate editor of Jewcy magazine.