The afterlife of Kingsley Amis
Does Kingsley Amis deserve the almost universal eulogy which greeted the news of his death this week? By Joan Smith
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.
Saturday 28 October 1995
"Sir Kingsley Amis, giant of literature, dies at 73", the Daily Mail announced unequivocally. The front page of the Guardian was more cautious, hailing Amis as a "comic master" and leaving it to the Times to reach for the top shelf of hyperbole: Amis was an "irascible genius", the "grand old man of English letters".
Melvyn Bragg said Amis had dominated literature for half a century. John Mortimer described him as "a genuine comic writer, probably the best after P G Wodehouse". Keith Waterhouse gave him "a very high place" in literary history. Malcolm Bradbury (who writes on Lucky Jim below) boldly declared Amis to be one of four great fiction writers in Britain in the late 20th century, the others being William Golding, Anthony Burgess and Doris Lessing.
What is surprising, given the hostile reviews for Amis's last novel, The Biographer's Moustache, which came out last August, is that critical voices were either absent or muted. This reticence can be explained, in part, as observance of the prohibition de mortuis nihil nisi bonum - a self-denying ordinance so potent that one novelist who was approached for her views, and who admits privately to being shocked by the weakness of the later novels, declined to say anything at all.
Several profiles and obituaries rehearsed Amis's trajectory from Angry Young Men of the left to the Thatcherite right. In a Fabian pamphlet published in 1957, he wrote that "any right-wing sentiment in the mouth of an intellectual (or anywhere else) is likely to annoy me"; his political programme at the time included abolition of the public schools, the aristocracy, the House of Lords, even the monarchy. These views were all abandoned in favour of opposition to the expansion of higher education on the grounds than "more will mean worse", a distrust of "abroad", and a tendency towards social climbing. But the admission in his obituaries that Amis had turned into a knee-jerk right-winger was tempered by the claim that he was deliberately playing to the gallery - that he was "doing his usual act of being a crusty and grumpy gentleman", as John Mortimer puts it.
One of the few people to break ranks on Amis was Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, whose response was a regretful acknowledgement of wasted potential: "I am afraid he will be remembered more for his hate than his love, and more as a bit of a monster than as a great writer. The personality of the angry old man came to overshadow the work of the angry young man and in the end totally eclipsed it".
Worsthorne's judgement clears the way for questions to be asked about Amis's standing as a novelist. Is it the case, as Malcolm Bradbury maintained in Monday's Daily Mail, that "like most great writers, even at his most outrageous or annoying, he has told us some of the essential truths of his time?" Or is his reputation - and that of his literary cohort, John Osborne - largely the result of a fortunate accident of timing?
Lucky Jim was published in 1954, two years before Look Back In Anger had its debut at the Royal Court. Both works have lower middle-class protagonists whose iconoclasm struck a chord in drab post-war Britain; both Jimmies seemed new and dangerous at a time when the old hierarchies of wealth and class were under attack with no coherent system of values to replace them.
Amis and Osborne were quickly bracketed together as Angry Young Men and their rage was assumed to be political. In retrospect, Amis's later espousal of the politics he used to despise suggests that his anger had internal and more occluded sources, which began to reveal themselves only as the light touch of Lucky Jim gave way to the irritability and posturing of the later novels.
One was his horror of death, acknowledged in his book The Anti-Death League; another was an obsessive and infantile rage against women which, far from being incidental, weighed down his characters and plots with visible prejudice and fatally limited his range. Amis's misogyny is admitted by some of his admirers (such as his biographer Eric Jacobs) and vehemently denied by others. "Imperceptive critics sometimes alleged that his novels reveal a dislike of women", the novelist Allan Massie complained in Monday's Daily Telegraph. John Bayley in the Times suggested that Amis was "always on the side of his delinquent males even when he pretended to be showing them up", leading him to conclude that Amis is "essentially a man's novelist". (Lynne Truss, reviewing The Folks That Live on the Hill, was so dismayed by Amis's attitude to women that she wrote of having a nightmare in which she was a female character in an Amis novel.)
That there is a gender divide on Amis's achievement suggests not so much that he is a bad novelist but that his ability to tell us "essential truths" is limited. The things he tried to avoid - women (which is why the Garrick Club suited him so well), being left alone at night, travelling alone by train or plane - suggest an infantile dependency he was never able to overcome; Amis's final interview with Glenys Roberts painted a shocking picture of an unhappy, defeated old man whose anger had finally given way to despair. "There is no personal God", he said. "There is no point to life."
What people will make of Amis in 100 years time is almost impossible to guess. He may, as this week's obituaries suggest, be regarded as a novelist of the first rank; it's equally possible that he will be remembered for Lucky Jim, a middlebrow romp which captured the fractured spirit of its times, and not much else. That debate has yet to take place and the rush to eulogise, remarkable so far for its near-unanimity, has merely postponed it.
'Lucky Jim' caught the mood of its time when it was first published in 1954, but was it more than a cultural phenomenon? Malcolm Bradbury argues that Amis's first novel has the status of a lasting classic
It's not always good to win great fame for a first book. There is, after all, an awful lot of living and writing to do after that, and early success often draws attention away from the strengths of later work. The simple fact remains that for all that he wrote some remarkable novels later on (and won the Booker Prize for one of them, The Old Devils), Kingsley Amis, so sadly lost to us this week, will always be remembered for his first one, Lucky Jim.
It came out in 1954. That was the year when, with grand confidence, the Observer ran a series of articles initiated by Harold Nicolson, announcing that the Novel Was Dead. This is always an unwise move. Literary history proves that nearly every such pronouncement is followed by a burst of the remarkable. That happened in 1954, which turned into an exceptional year for fiction. Iris Murdoch's Under the Net and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the first published novels of both of them, showed up in the same season.
What Nicolson probably meant was the Bloomsbury novel was dead. So it was. It was now the pre-war novel, the fiction of exhausted Modernism. What happened in 1954 was that the post-war novel was born; these three were flagship books of a new fictional generation. Not that they had much in common. Amis's book and Murdoch's both had what the reviewers called "new heroes", drop-outs from traditional culture making their picaresque way through the post-war world. But Amis was a commonsense comedian, Murdoch a romantic philosopher. Golding's fable summed up the surrounding sense of moral disillusion: in the world after the atomic bomb, the old Imperial rules of decent boyhood no longer applied.
What made Lucky Jim the international success it quickly became? Like many successes, it appeared at the right moment, on the cusp of a real cultural change. The Welfare State had arrived and become the British social condition. A new meritocracy was leaving the new free grammar schools, entering the expanding provincial universities, coming face to face with the remnants of a culture still soaked with Oxbridge and Bloomsbury values. Students were called "gentlemen", lectuters wore gowns. There was high- minded art-talk, still influenced by Clive Bell and Roger Fry. Provincial campuses set next to Woolworth's and Dolcis assumed the manners of All Souls.
The redbrick university was ideal setting for a tale of what was nothing less than a British social revolution. Angus Wilson had already satirized the "darting dodos," but where better catch them than on the provincial campus? "Lucky" Jim Dixon, the young lecturer in History, is the stranger at the High Table, happier with the bottle of beer and the blonde than with academic or artistic gatherings, easier with his own common sense voice than with professorial high-speak. Since this world is a caricature of itself he caricatures it, gently yet mercilessly, pulling comic faces and burning (by accident) his professor's bedsheets.
Professor Welch, Jim's main but not only adversary in the novel, answers his telephone "History speaking". Fifties readers knew that real history, the history of contemporary change, was with Jim. Asked to lecture on Merrie England, he can only get merrily drunk. Forced to inscribe the highest Leavisian thoughts, he gets up and does a gibbering ape imitation round the room. When he goes off to London at the end, he considers the magical options: "Bayswater, Knightsbridge, Notting Hill Gate, Pimlico, Belgrave Square, Wapping, Bloomsbury. No, not Bloomsbury." Or so it says in the American edition. The final reaction is made anodyne in the British one, reflecting someone's anxiety about the book's impact on current literary culture.
It was considerable. One irony of the book's success was that it was crowned with the Somerset Maugham Prize. Invited to comment, Maugham said: "They are mean, malicious, and envious... They are scum." His "they" was prescient; Lucky Jims were a social type, the book a cultural phenomenon. And, just like his son Martin a couple of decades on, Kingsley will be remembered for creating a distinctive Amisian language. When Jim finally expresses his mind, it's the new vernacular speaking.
Yet the fact the book has lasted shows it's far more than a cultural phenomenon. Lucky Jim is a classic comic novel - and not just because it's so funny. It follows some of the highest laws of comedy. Jim is "lucky" because he enjoys the good fortune of the comic hero. Though he's anarchy against order, he gets his reward and constitutes the new moral order at the end, winning the good job in London and the nicest female in the plot. It's a highly perfected literary novel, showing its debts: to Fielding's Tom Jones, to Evelyn Waugh, even to Wodehouse. But it's also a comic experiment - applying vision, satire, parody, and burlesque, in a realistic fashion, to a new phase of culture.
For the next several books, until the end of the Sixties, Amis applied this voice and vision to the detail of the fast-changing culture. After Look Back In Anger in 1956, this was called "Anger", though in Amis's case it's a bad name for it. Lucky Jim is both anarchic and benign. The real anger showed in the later novels, not against human institutions but the human condition: ageing and loneliness, lovelessness and death. The voice with its strong rolling idioms and comic upsets, went on, through better books and worse ones, comedies and near-tragedies. Lucky Jim is a book where a writer finds himself as a writer, and when an era finds a writer speaking in its language. That is why it's a lasting classic.
Here, Amis's hero, Jim Dixon, is staying with his boss, Professor Welch. He wakes up to find he has inadvertently burnt a hole in the bedclothes
DIXON was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
He reached out for and put on his glasses. At once he saw that something was wrong with the bedclothes immediately before his face. Endangering his chance of survival, he sat up a little, and what met his bursting eyes roused to a frenzy the timpanist in his head. A large irregular area of the back part of the sheet was missing; a smaller but still considerable area of the turned-back part of the blanket was missing; an area about the size of the palm of his hand in the main part of the top blanket was missing. Through the three holes, which, appropriately enough, had black borders, he could see a dark brown mark on the second blanket. He ran a finger round a bit of the hole in the sheet, and when he looked at his finger it bore a dark-grey stain. That meant ash; ash meant burning; burning must mean cigarettes. Had this cigarette burnt itself out on the blanket? If not, where was it now? Nowhere on the bed; nor in it. He leaned over the side, gritting his teeth; a sunken brown channel, ending in a fragment of discoloured paper, lay across a light patch in the pattern of a valuable- looking rug. This made him feel very unhappy, a feeling sensibly increased when he looked at the bedside table. This was marked by two black, charred grooves, greyish and shiny in parts, lying at right angles and stopping well short of the ashtray, which held a single used match. On the table were two unused matches; the remainder lay with the empty cigarette packet on the floor. The bakelite mug was nowhere to be seen.
Had he done all this himself? Or had a wayfarer, a burglar, camped out in his room? Or was he the victim of some Horla fond of tobacco? He thought that on the whole he must have done it himself, and wished he hadn't. Surely this would mean the loss of his job, especially if he failed to go to Mrs Welch and confess what he'd done, and he knew already that he wouldn't be able to do that. There was no excuse which didn't consist of the inexcusable: an incendiary was no more pardonable when revealed as a drunkard as well - so much of a drunkard, moreover, that obligations to hosts and fellow-guests and the counter-attraction of a chamber-concert were as nothing compared with the lure of the drink. The only hope was that Welch wouldn't notice what his wife would presumably tell him about the burning of the bedclothes. But Welch had been known to notice things, the attack on his pupil's book in that essay, for example. But that had really been an attack on Welch himself; he couldn't much care what happened to sheets and blankets which he wasn't actually using at the time. Dixon remembered thinking on an earlier occasion that to yaw drunkenly round the Common Room in Welch's presence screeching obscenities, punching out the window-panes, fouling the periodicals, would escape Welch's notice altogether, provided his own person remained inviolate. The memory in turn reminded him of a sentence in a book of Alfred Beesley's he'd once glanced at: "A stimulus cannot be receivcd by the mind unless it serves some need of the organism." He began laughing, an action he soon modified to a wince.
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