Ghostly sneers echo from Amis's library

Annotated books from the outspoken writer are up for sale, writes Marianne Macdonald
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The Independent Culture
It must be the literary sale of the year. Sir Kingsley Amis's library - more than 1,600 books, many covered with scribbles of criticism or praise - comes up for auction next month, together with his Tippex- stained typewriter, his leather desk and his battered red armchair.

The author of Lucky Jim and The Old Devils died aged 73 last October - triggering a war between his biographer, Eric Jacobs, and his equally famous son Martin over whether the diaries of his last months should be published - and leafing through the volumes is a ghostly task.

Much of his life seems to hang between their pages, either because the books are his own work, about his work, or contain his handwritten comments on the contents or forgotten letters from friends.

Pluck a volume out and his scrawled comments leap from the margin. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is a good example from a man notorious for his right-wing views and misogyny. "Piss off," he wrote beside a description of the refined Lady Marchmain.

"Well, what?" his ballpoint demands after Charles announces he knew what had drawn Sebastian to Morocco. Most of all, Amis was annoyed by Waugh's characters' indolence. "None of the family has enough, indeed anything to do," the pen notes, and: "At least Rex does something for a living." His verdict: "Twee Rich Upper Class Novelittish Queer."

Other writers come off badly too. "Balls", Amis wrote on the section of the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry devoted to Derek Mahon. And later: "A fucking fool." "Really?" he sneers when Mahon writes of birds which "sing with a noise like paper tearing".

But a volume of poems by his friend Philip Larkin shows that Amis was not always impossible to please. A typewritten page inside High Windows reads: "I can find only two faults with Philip Larkin's poetry: there isn't enough of it, and in about one poem in three there is what I would call a wilfully eccentric word ..."

Amis's enthusiasm for Ian Fleming's James Bond novels is also evident. The Spy Who Loved Me is covered with cryptic notes. "B[ond] smiles 13 times by p.165" says one. "B[ond]'s touch gives small shock 146-7".

An unpublished manuscript hidden in the pages of Jake's Thing, Amis's novel about an ageing Oxford don, gives an account of how it came to be written.

"I was thinking how boring and awful permissiveness & porn & women's lib [was] getting & also how comparatively old I was getting, when I met a girl & read a book. The girl, who was v. attractive, was a behavioural psychologist w. a doctorate of phil. in the treatment of sexual inadequacy ... "

The library contains a wide variety of works, from the Faber Book of Drink, Drinkers and Drinking (in which Amis features heavily) to Wild Flowers In Their Seasons and Alexander Foote's Handbook For Spies. There is Proust, but also the less elevated Dick Francis and Jeffrey Archer.

The collection rivals that owned by the late Graham Greene, bought for pounds 1m by an United States college last year but Sotheby's, which is selling Amis's library on 11 July on behalf of his estate, has estimated it will fetch much less: up to pounds 20,000. The oak desk, typewriter and battered armchair are a snip, meanwhile, at the expected sums of pounds 400, pounds 300, pounds 200 respectively.

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