Portrait of the artist as a young horse
KINGSLEY AMIS: A Biography by Eric Jacobs, Hodder & Stoughton pounds 17.99
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 25 June 1995
There can be few more futile areas of speculation for a biographer than encounters his or her subject might have had with people they never met. You don't need to be a biographer to play this game of imaginary conversations and the fact that Jacobs does it, and the insouciant tone he adopts, both demonstrate this book's closer relation to extended newspaper profile than biography.
From the introduction, pompously entitled "Portrait of the Artist in Age", Jacobs concentrates on the kind of surface detail that fascinates journalists - what Amis has for breakfast, who prepares it for him, even his daily struggle to evacuate his bowels: "The shit, for instance, once taken in Amis's stride, has become outstandingly important because success or failure in this department can colour the mood of the entire day."
The image unintentionally evoked here, of the youthful Amis bounding along the street leaving piles of steaming ordure in his wake, like a horse, is a typical example of Jacobs's careless prose. Unlike some horses I have known, however, Amis is apparently undeterred by confrontations with the bovine species. "Many sacred cows," Jacobs informs us a couple of pages later, "are unsacred to him."
There is something half-hearted about this attempt to present Amis in the guise of iconoclast rather than blimp, probably because his political opinions, while unremittingly right wing, are also boringly predictable. Pro-American, anti-Europe (with an anxious aversion to "abroad", excepting the US) and a devout worshipper at the shrine of Mrs Thatcher, his propensity to bang on about moral decline proved too much even for his heroine's one-time education secretary, Kenneth Baker. When Amis buttonholed Baker one day on the steps of the Garrick Club, he had "three points to make", one of them being that the expansion of higher education under the Tories had let in a lot of third-rate students - a prime example of his idee fixe that "more will mean worse". Baker's response, according to Jacobs, "was not quite what Amis had been hoping for. He shouted 'Taxi!', dived into a black cab and disappeared."
After ploughing through nearly 400 pages of this dreary book, one can only applaud Baker's quick thinking. The irony is that Amis's loathing of dull people and his strategy for avoiding them at the Garrick - not including them in the conversation, failing to buy them a drink and even, "in really bad cases", finding someone else to talk to at the bar - are chronicled without any recognition on Jacobs's part that his subject emerges as a prize club bore himself.
Indeed, the book offers speaking testimony of its author's own unusually high boredom threshold. For two and a half years Jacobs met Kingsley Amis "three or four times a week, in the Garrick club and the Queen's public house or at his home in Primrose Hill". They also visited together half a dozen places in which Amis had lived, excursions that involved a "good deal of eating and a great deal more drinking".
An impartial portrait was always unlikely to emerge from this nightmare schedule of sociability. Take, for example, Amis's reputation for entrenched misogyny. First Jacobs trots out the old chestnut that wanting to have sex with lots of women, an urge the younger Amis shared with the heroes of his early novels, is "evidence that they liked women after their fashion". Next he links the undeniably misogyny in the later novels to Amis's "disillusion about women as his relationship with Jane [his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard] slowly and painfully disintegrated".
In other words, Amis is no unthinking woman-hater but one forged by bitter personal experience. Yet, in a revealing passage towards the end of the book, Jacobs exposes an altogether nastier side of Amis's attitude to women: "By talking a lot they made themselves seem important and by overwhelming the conversation with chatter they concealed the poverty of what they had to say." This, says Jacobs, is "why the male-member Garrick Club was such a good place for him to spend time".
What this book most conspicuously lacks, however, is an attempt to estimate Amis's merits or importance as a writer. He is not obviously a novelist whose lasting literary reputation is assured, yet Jacobs offers no more sophisticated judgment than this one from the preface: "It will be enough indication of my own feelings about his writing if I say that one of my main motives for embarking on this biography was the realisation that Amis was the only writer whose latest novel I still customarily bought on publication at the full hardback price - the kind of critical appreciation Amis himself most values, and rightly so."
There is something determinedly middle brow about this stance: a suspicion of anything as highfalutin' as literary theory which Jacobs presents as one of the bonds between them. At times it is hard to tell whether he is paraphrasing something Amis has told him or putting his own interpretation on events; it seems likely, though, that his asides about fictional farting contests and bowel movements - "Amis avoided getting the shits for his entire six and a half weeks in Mexico" - come straight from the horse's mouth. A rare case of biographer and subject finding themselves united by faecal attraction?
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