Kingsley Amis: The monster of the Garrick

How did Kingsley Amis, in youth the pitiless debunker of pompous, self-regarding old men, manage to turn into such a spectacular example himself? D J Taylor tackles a 900-page biography to find out what went wrong for 20th-century Britain's most explosive literary talent
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The Independent Culture

Even 50 years ago, long before continental Structuralism and the death of the author, critics had begun to agitate themselves about the necessity to distinguish between the writer's life and the writer's art. What was important, purists argued, were the words that the writer left on the page. Biography was just a side-show to the main event - worse, even, in that it promised all kinds of surface irrelevancies that might distract the critic from the really serious business of the text, a sleek, estranging shield - to borrow Orwell's image of a condom - placed between the lover and his bride.

All this was fair enough, and a necessary riposte to the kind of biographical recapitulation that sometimes masqueraded as literary criticism towards the end of the Victorian age. Yet no one ever succeeded in proving that the writer's life was detachable from the writer's art. All they showed was that in certain highly artificial conditions - a practical criticism paper, say, served up in an exam with the identities removed - it was theoretically possible to detach them. After that, human curiosity took over. Simultaneously there marched into the arena a set of questions which no purity-of-the-text merchant has ever really managed to answer. What if the writer writes a series of books in which his or her own characteristics, prejudices and temperamental flaws march side by side with those of the characters? What if the writer - to go a stage further - does everything in his or her power to render life and work indistinguishable? And what if - to proceed to the furthest stage of all - that writer happens to be Kingsley Amis?

None of these enquiries can be altogether ignored in any account of The Life of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader's biography of one of the most influential and certainly one of the best publicised British novelists of the second half of the 20th century. Amis studies were on a roll even before their subject's death in the autumn of 1995, shortly after the publication of his final novel, The Biographer's Moustache. Professor Leader's gargantuan slab of a book, checking in at a merciless 996 pages, with notes, takes its place on a shelf already groaning beneath the weight of Eric Jacobs' Kingsley Amis: A Biography (1995), Leader's own Brobdingnagian selection of the letters (2000), Richard Bradford's highly astute critical biography Lucky Him (2001) and a whole lot more besides. As an "authorised" life - Amis junior's spiritual thumbprint lurks on almost every page - it is a case for the defence, which, to its credit, hardly ever declines into special pleading, if only because no amount of special pleading could ever rescue the subject from the brimstone-crammed pit into which he so resolutely dug himself.

Take, for example, one of Leader's funniest set pieces - funny, that is, if you didn't happen to be there - the dinner at the Garrick to which the novelist Julian Barnes and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, had invited Amis sometime in the mid 1980s. Amis, according to Barnes, arrived "spoiling for a fight". Having rubbished the wine, he spent "about an hour" complaining about the editorial staff at his publishers and his agent, before demanding of Barnes: "Well, I suppose you're writing a book?" Barnes had been this way before, and had no wish to repeat the experience. "It's all right Kingsley, I'll let you off," he politely demurred. His wife then patted Amis's knee in a friendly fashion, while remarking, "There, there, Kingsley, well done." She escaped to the loo, whereupon Amis complained, "By the way, none of this 'character' stuff" (ie, stop regarding me as a droll public spectacle that has to be appeased).

Kavanagh came back from the loo, to find the conversation progressing by uneasy stages to the topic of South Africa, then at the height of its apartheid-era clampdown, a country in which Kavanagh had spent the first 20 years of her life, but on whose soil Amis had never set foot. What was needed, our man enthused, was "to shoot as many blacks as possible". Kavanagh left for the loo again, this time in tears. "What's the matter with her?" Amis wondered. After this, as Barnes diffidently put it, "I didn't really want to go out to dinner with him again." The next day, Amis junior relayed his father's impression of the evening to Barnes: nothing about the argument, simply a complaint at the insufficient respect shown to a "senior novelist".

Racial harmony was only a minor casualty in the rumble that went on that night at the Garrick. Not the least of The Life of Kingsley Amis's achievements - and this is a well-written, well-intentioned book, let down only by its inordinate length - is the light it sheds on the literary profession's age-old curse and blight, the Satirist's Tragedy. As played out here, in nearly 1,000 pages of gory, infant-upsetting detail, it consists not only of growing old, or of taking up positions that your younger self would have shrieked over a quarter of a century before, but of turning incrementally into the thing you despised.

There is something practically Shakespearean about the way in which this pitiless debunker of pompous, self-regarding old men became one himself, a process that was as much visual as behavioural. As Leader's lavish photo-spreads confirm, late-period Amis - pop-eyed, wattled and damson-faced - bore an uncanny resemblance to his old sparring partner Evelyn Waugh. Reading the excerpts from for-God's-sake letters lamenting the editorial treatment doled out to "a writer of my generation", eavesdropping on the mid-morning gin-swiller whose defence was "Look, I'm Kingsley Amis, you see, and I can drink whenever I want," you wonder whether Waugh didn't have the last laugh.

It was the late Ian Hamilton, reviewing Amis's immensely self-serving - and horribly funny - Memoirs (1991), who noted the existence of what he called "a deeper enmity" in Amis's work: an antipathy, a gloom and a self-protecting fury that went acres beyond the usual writerly likes and dislikes. Eleven years after his death, he is firmly established in our local literary culture as one of the great monsters - boozy, quarrelsome, womanising and vengeful by turns - and yet, equally clearly, beneath the bluster and the regular detonations of temperament lay a fearful and rather solitary man, terrified - as was Larkin - of death, bereft of inner resources, not so much disbelieving in God as regarding him as a personal enemy. To put it another way, I believe Martin Amis - who could not? - when he maintains that he had an idyllic childhood, here among the serial adulteries and retreats to the paternal study, while acknowledging that these things are relative, that one child's idyll is another's hell-hole.

Another of Leader's tasks, consequently, though never stated in so many words, is to establish why and how the ambitious lower-bourgeois boy from Norbury fetched up as such an intermittently horrible human being. He is prepared to entertain simple explanations as much as complex ones, so a prime candidate is booze. I once spent an instructive half-hour with a woman who had been taught by Amis at the University of Swansea in the early 1950s and kept up with him thereafter, and her view was that a cheery disposition had been fatally wrecked by the daily bottle of spirits and the £1,000-a-month drinks habit that Amis was cheerlessly racking up during the 1980s.

Lady Violet Powell, who observed Amis on and off for the best part of 40 years, diagnosed what her novelist husband Anthony Powell would have marked down as a Question of Upbringing. Amis was an only child, she pointed out. Only children are generally spoilt: Amis was never able to free himself from the me-first shackles of infancy and teendom. Lady Violet, you feel, knew what she was talking about, even more so when one extrapolates from life to work.

Amis's key preoccupation as a writer - the key theme of much 1950s fiction, if it comes to that - is male selfishness, the absolute necessity for all those bright, ambitious grammar school boys purposefully at large in the post-war meritocracy to have their cake and eat it, to sleep with the girls for as long as they wanted, while stoutly resisting any representations from the girls as to where this sleeping together might ultimately lead.

In this respect the 1950s novel, as schematised by Amis, William Cooper (from whose Scenes From Provincial Life, Amis's Lucky Jim derived rather a lot) John Wain and co, differed markedly from the 1930s novel by Waugh, Powell, Isherwood and Henry Green that had preceded it. The average Thirties hero wasn't even sure if he liked women. Even if he did, the girls he pursued were generally much less available. Twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Second World War, a new kind of society had evolved, in which a new kind of fictional hero - the Amis Hero - was deedily at large. The theme of Take a Girl Like You (1960), as Amis acknowledged, is the question of whether nice girls should sleep with men. Unfortunately, as its unassuming heroine Jenny Bunn discovers, nice girls were no longer allowed to say no. The choices had all been made for them. Worse still, they had been made by men.

Another of Amis's novels - from the significant late 1960s period in which he began to feel much less at home in the world that had offered the material for his early tornado years - is titled I Want it Now. Amis certainly wanted it now. The wine, the women - in fact his two marriages, to Hilly Bardwell and Elizabeth Jane Howard were surprisingly long-lasting - the success. The political lurch rightwards, of which so many social historians now make symbolic use, was entirely foreseeable, merely an example of the antique process by which Her Majesty's Opposition fetches up in government and awards itself the privileges it has previously condemned.

At the same time, it would be a mistake, in all these discussions of What Went Wrong - and something did go wrong, irrevocably and quite early on - to ignore the several sides of Amis that turn out to be profoundly attractive. Compared to one or two of the moneyed, Ivory Tower brigade that had preceded him - the "shit in the shuttered chateau" of Larkin's poem - he was a model of creative industry. The letters to Larkin - well, the early ones - about jazz and girls are practically Joycean in their linguistic fireworks. Amis as critic, too, determined to snipe away at academic fashion and upper-brow disdain for the common man, is always worth reading - until, that is, the prejudice gets the better of him and the whole edifice collapses in ruins. Leader offers a telling couple of pages (434 to 435 for cherry-pickers) of Amis on modern American writing. This starts off with a perceptive 1959 review of Lolita. Thirty years later, in an undated essay printed in The Amis Collection, a series of pointed observations on a particular writer has become a kind of barmy generalising about American literature per se, the problem being, you see, that there is no such thing. All American writers offer, apparently, "is a vast number of books in English that in some way resemble what I shall have to call British literature and in other ways don't". Has Amis ever read Dreiser, or James T Farrell or Upton Sinclair or any of the prophets of the 20th-century machine age? No, his dislike of Nabokov, Bellow and the other transatlantic show-offs has simply blinded him to the reality of the books before him.

Once the lava flow of sex and bad manners has been drained away, Leader is understandably keen to establish Amis as one of the finest British novelists of his age. Huge efforts are expended on this pursuit, numberless shrewd points and identifications are made, and yet I wasn't in the least convinced of the god-like status that Leader claims for his man. Lucky Jim was a trail-blazing first novel and a decisive, yet horribly malign, influence on the spavined band of "comic" novelists that followed in its wake; You Can't do Both is a devastating piece of self-laceration; the poetry nearly always convinces in a resonant though minor key. What routinely sinks late-period Amis, though, is the style, which had turned impossibly dogged and syntactically thorny, with sentence after sentence routinely declining to yield up its intent. Clearly The Life of Kingsley Amis is intended to establish Amis as a spectacular ornament of the late-20th century fictional scene. What emerges from this compendium of fucks, fights and frenzied hard work, though, is merely a personality. It seems likely that the boy from Norbury will be remembered as a "dominant force in the writing of his age", as Leader puts it - that is, controversy-monger, symbolic monster and all-round presence - rather than the creative Titan that biographer (and son) so obviously, and forgivably, imagine him to be.

* To buy a copy of 'The Life of Kingsley Amis' by Zachary Leader (Cape £25) for £22.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897