Obituary: Sir Kingsley Amis
Monday 23 October 1995
Amis was a key figure in the history of British post-war fiction, but his originality was not always fully appreciated because it did not manifest itself in any obvious novelty of form. Indeed the literary new wave of the Fifties, in which Amis played a leading role (its poetic wing, to which he also contributed, was known as "The Movement"), was an aesthetically conservative force, consciously setting itself against modernist experimentation. A passage in a review Amis contributed to the Spectator in 1958 is representative in both its sentiments and the down-to-earth blokeishness of its manner:
The idea about experiment being the life-blood of the English novel is one that dies hard. "Experiment" in this context boils down pretty regularly to "obtruded oddity", whether in construction - multiple viewpoints and such - or in style. It is not felt that adventurousness in subject matter or attitude or tone really count.
This is a thinly disguised manifesto for Amis's own early fiction, but it is as obscuring as it is revealing. It is true that Lucky Jim (1954) and its successors dealt with what was then new or neglected social territory (for example, the provincial university) from unhackneyed perspectives (for example, the upwardly mobile young professional who is unimpressed by the values and lifestyle of the bourgeoisie). This is presumably what Amis meant by adventurousness of subject matter, attitude and tone. And it is also true that these novels were very traditional in form - the specific tradition to which they belonged being that of the English comic novel, in which satirical comedy of manners and robust farce are combined in an entertaining and easily assimilable story. Fielding, Dickens, Wodehouse and Waugh are some of Amis's obvious precursors. But it is also true that Amis's novels are triumphs of "style" - a way of using language that, if not obtrusively "odd", is highly original, and wonderfully expressive.
Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens [of scholarly articles] like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. "In considering this strangely neglected topic," it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what?
Lucky Jim (1954)
Feeling a tremendous rakehell, and not liking myself much for it, and feeling rather a good chap for not liking myself much for it, and not liking myself at all for feeling rather a good chap, I got indoors, vigorously rubbing lipstick off my mouth with my handkerchief.
That Uncertain Feeling (1955)
All that type of stuff, dying and so on, was a long way off, not such a long way off as it had once been, admitted, and no doubt the time when it wouldn't be such a long way off as all that wasn't such a long way off as all that, but still. Still what?
Take a Girl Like You (1960)
There is nothing quite like this in English fiction before Amis (though a good deal afterwards, for other writers were quick to learn his tricks). It is a kind of English equivalent to the prose of Samuel Beckett (though Amis would have spluttered derisively at the comparison). In each case, language, denied the luxury of metaphysical affirmation and romantic afflatus, coils back upon itself, mocking its own pretensions as well as the follies and foibles of human behaviour. Both writers use repetition and bathos to marvellous effect, eschewing "elegant variation" and "fine writing" except for purposes of parody. The effort is always to be scrupulously exact, honest and undeceived. It was of course carried to a bleaker, more challenging and subversive extreme by Beckett.
Amis's fundamental scepticism is actually quite dark and disturbing, but it is cushioned or concealed by the conventions of the well-made novel. Some critics have seen this as an evasion or betrayal of artistic integrity, a kind of refusal to be "serious". Amis himself would have taken his stand on the writer's responsibility to entertain as well as instruct. The career of Kingsley Amis crystalises, without resolving, a perennial debate about the contemporary English novel: whether, by remaining faithful to the native realistic tradition and refusing the legacy of modernism, it ensures its own authenticity or fails to be significant in a Hegelian "world-historical sense".
Kingsley Amis was born, ironically enough, in 1922, the year in which the great masterpiece of modernist fiction, James Joyce's Ulysses, was published. He was brought up in a dull outer suburb of south London called Norbury, the only child of respectable lower- middle-class parents, and won a scholarship to the City of London School, to which he commuted daily like his father, a clerk in a commercial office. From this school, of which he always spoke highly, Amis went up to Oxford in 1941, as an Exhibitioner of St John's College, to read English. Here he met Philip Larkin, and formed the basis of a lifelong friendship. The two young men had similar backgrounds, tastes, and sensibilities, and fertilised each other's imaginative development. In this chance conjunction lay the seeds of the literary revolution of the 1950s.
After only a year at Oxford, Amis was called up for military service and served in the Royal Signals in Normandy, Belgium and Germany from 1944 to 1945, an experience which left surprisingly little overt trace in his work apart from a few early short stories. After the Second World War he returned to Oxford, graduating with a First Class degree in 1947, and began research towards a BLitt which he never completed. In this period he kept in touch with Larkin, now a librarian at University College, Leicester, and met another young undergraduate who shared his admiration for Larkin's verse, John Wain. The nucleus of the Movement was beginning to form.
In 1947 Amis published his first "slim volume" of verse, Bright November, and later, along with Larkin and Wain, was one of the contributors to Robert Conquest's anthology New Lines (1956), which marked the arrival of the Movement on the English poetic scene, and its displacement of the late modernist mode epitomised by Dylan Thomas (memorably parodied in That Uncertain Feeling). Amis continued to write poetry, not very prolifically, throughout his life. In this department he was always somewhat overshadowed by Larkin, to whom he paid the homage of imitation, but he was an excellent exponent of light verse, especially of a satirical and ribald kind.
Amis married Hilary Bardwell in 1948, and the following year took up a post as lecturer in English Literature at the University College of Wales, Swansea. He settled down in that pleasant but deeply provincial seaside town to teach, write, and raise a family of three children, one of whom was called Martin. From this congenial but humdrum and materially somewhat pinched existence, Amis was catapulted to fame by the publication of Lucky Jim (dedicated to Larkin) in January 1954. It became a bestseller and a cult book - not surprisingly, for it was a sublimely funny novel which also put its finger very accurately on certain changes which had taken place in post-war British culture and society. Although Amis himself belonged to a small elite of pre-war scholarship boys, he articulated through his hero, Jim Dixon, the feelings of a much larger number of people in the next generation (my own) who were products of the 1944 Education Act and the Welfare State. Through the comedy of Jim's private fantasies and accidental breaches of social decorum, Amis gave us, as it were, permission not to be overawed by the social and cultural codes of the class to which we had been elevated by education. It was enormously liberating.
Measured on a simple laugh-out-loud scale, Lucky Jim was probably the funniest novel Amis wrote, and for some readers his career was therefore downhill all the way. But in spite of his talent for comedy, Amis was, in the words of Larkin's poem, always surprising in himself a hunger to be more serious, and in the novels that followed he combined amusing social satire with a thoughtful and sometimes uncomfortable investigation of the moral life, especially in the sexual sphere. Take A Girl Like You (1960) was a particularly interesting response to the first intimations of the Permissive Society.
Because of the antiestablishment stance of the early novels, Amis was identified with the Left, and in 1957 he declared his allegiance to the Labour Party in a Fabian pamphlet. Ten years later, however, he announced his conversion to Conservatism, in an essay entitled "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right". Henceforward he adopted a combatively right-wing stance on the political issues of the day - Vietnam, nuclear arms, the expansion of higher education and women's liberation.
There was always an element of deliberate provocation and self-parody in this stance, as in the case of Evelyn Waugh (whom Amis came to resemble more and more, in all kinds of ways, as he got older), but there is no reason to doubt the fundamental sincerity of his views. The young Amis's identification with the party of the Welfare State was always emotional rather than ideological, and Lucky Jim was a rebel rather than a revolutionary. As soon as left-wing attitudes became trendy, as they did in the late 1960s, Amis's innate scepticism was turned upon them and their proponents.
One does have the impression, however, that in an increasingly unsympathetic cultural climate Amis became less certain of his constituency, and of his own literary identity, than he had been in the heyday of the Movement. This may have been connected with change and upheaval in his private life. In 1961 he had moved from Swansea to Cambridge, to teach English as a Fellow of Peterhouse, but the notoriously factious English Faculty was not very welcoming. Dr Leavis was reported to have described his new colleague as "a pornographer", a failure in close reading if nothing else, for Amis's novels, though much concerned with sex, are notable for their reticence about the sexual act. He resigned his fellowship after three years to become a full-time writer. At about the same time his marriage broke up, and he married the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard.
In the late Sixties and Seventies he experimented a good deal with "genre" fiction: science fiction (The Anti-Death League, 1966, and The Alteration, 1976), the James Bond thriller (Colonel Sun, 1968), the classic detective story (The Riverside Villas Murder, l973) and the ghost story (The Green Man, 1969). These forms perhaps attracted him as ways of escaping the constraints of the realistic novel and the expectations of an audience who kept hoping he would repeat Lucky Jim. In some of them he addressed himself to weighty philosophic and religious themes, such as the nature of evil.
In spite of having had an essentially secular upbringing, Amis always took a lively, though pugnaciously sceptical, interest in Christian doctrine. An essay boldly entitled "On Christ's Nature" reveals an impressive familiarity with the New Testament, and a characteristic refusal to be awed. (A representative passage raises "the question why, if God wanted human beings to have religion, he did not simply give it to them, instead of arranging the world in one way and then sending someone along to explain that really the whole set-up was quite different").
Amis's best novel after Take A Girl Like You was arguably Ending Up (1974), a black comic tale of a group of retired people failing to cope with the afflictions of old age. "I suppose", says one of their young relatives to another in the course of a particularly joyless Christmas, "I suppose with luck we might get a couple of weeks between the last of them going and us being in their situation." The brilliantly titled Jake's Thing (1978) brought the same mordant scrutiny to bear on male impotence and sex therapy, often to wonderfully comic effect, though without the elegant economy of its predecessor. Both these novels were shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
There followed something of a lull in Amis's creativity. But in the late Eighties he enjoyed a kind of second spring, producing in quick succession Stanley and the Women (1984), The Old Devils (1986), Difficulties with Girls (1988) and The Folks that Live on the Hill (1990). The first of these achieved some notoriety as a misogynist tract, and it was rumoured that a feminist cabal in the New York publishing world significantly delayed its publication in America. Amis's distrust of the female psyche was evident, for those who had eyes to see, as early as Lucky Jim, in the characterisation of the hysterical and devious Margaret. Stanley and the Women caused particular offence perhaps because it is cunningly constructed to catch the unwary liberal reader in its narrative trap. In Difficulties with Girls, however, Amis made some amends with a sympathetic portrait of Jenny Bunn, the heroine of Take a Girl Like You, coping with marriage to the compulsively unfaithful Patrick Standish.
These late novels are notable for their intricate if uneventful narrative structures and frequent shifts of point of view, which require considerable powers of concentration and inference from the reader. The best of them was The Old Devils, for which Amis was deservedly awarded the Booker Prize in 1986. This is another fictional study of old age. The setting in Amis's old haunts in south Wales lends the book an affectionate, nostalgic glow which is deceptive; an appalling abyss of pain, despair and anxiety gradually opens up beneath the novel's comic surface. But Amis is in total command of his material and his unique narrative style. The reader knows he is in for a treat from the first few pages describing Malcolm's cautious negotiation of breakfast:
He had not bitten anything with his front teeth since losing a top middle crown on a slice of liver-sausage six years earlier, and the right-hand side of his mouth was a no-go area, what with the hole in the lower lot where stuff was always apt to stick and a funny piece of gum that seemed to have got detached from something and waved about whenever it got the chance.
Kingsley Amis's second marriage broke up in 1983 and in later life he happily shared a house in Hampstead with his first wife, Hillie, and her second husband, Lord Kilmarnock - a twist in his biography that might have come from one of his own late novels. He took pride in the literary success of his son Martin, who occupies much the same key position among the British novelists who came of age in the 1970s as Kingsley did among those of the 1950s - a dynastic succession unprecedented in the annals of English literature. In spite of the differences of tone and ideology that divide them, it is a fascinating critical exercise to track the stylistic gene that unites these two novelists.
It would be an understatement to say that Kingsley Amis enjoyed a drink. He was an opinionated connoisseur of wine, and an unsurpassed observer of bar-room speech and behaviour. In later life he was a habitue of the Garrick Club, in London. He was appointed CBE in 1981, was granted the freedom of the City of London in 1989, and knighted in 1990. In many ways he became a pillar of the Establishment that he had once tilted at. He did not care for foreign travel, and apart from a spell in Portugal to spend the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1955 (which he was awarded for Lucky Jim), and a couple of visiting professorships in America a few years later, "Abroad" made little impact on his life or work. The title of the book inspired by the visit to Portugal was I Like It Here, and "here" meant England. He exploited the English prejudice that foreigners speak funny to marvellous comic effect - witness the overseas students solemnly interrogating the hero of I Like It Here about Grim Gin, Ifflen Voff, Zumzit Mum, Shem Shoice, and that popular classic Sickies of Sickingdom by Edge-Crown.
In 1991 Amis published his Memoirs, consisting mainly of amusing, scandalous and sometimes cruel anecdotes about his literary contemporaries, many of whom were now dead, including Philip Larkin. The two men kept a wary distance from each other in later years, communicating mainly by letter, as if conscious they could never recover the easy intimacy of youthful friendship. "He was my best friend and I never saw enough of him or knew him as well as I wanted to," Amis wrote, rather sadly, in the Memoirs.
This year, Eric Jacobs published a biography, with Amis's collaboration. It revealed (as literary biographies tend to do) a closer correspondence between the life and the fiction than one might have supposed, especially as regards difficulties with women. It also revealed a surprisingly vulnerable person behind the bluff, blimpish public mask, and the poised, sardonic prose stylist: a rather timid man, fearful of flying, unable to drive a car or perform the simplest domestic tasks, needing a regular and repetitive daily routine to keep the black dog of depression at bay: work, club, pub, telly. Work was the most important of these resources. In spite of increasing physical debility, Amis kept writing up till the end of his life. You Can't Do Both (1994) was generally well received and is perhaps the most openly autobiographical of his novels. If The Biographer's Moustache, published earlier this year, was not the biographee's revenge that many reviewers had hoped for, it still had more than a touch of past mastery.
In That Uncertain Feeling the hero is accosted one evening in the street of a small Welsh town by two lascars, one of whom seems to ask him:
"Where is pain and bitter laugh?" This was just the question for me, but before I could smite my breast and cry, "In here, friend", the other little man had said: "My cousin say, we are new in these town and we wish to know where is piano and bit of life, please?"
That is one of my favourite quotations from Amis because it seems to epitomise his art. He did not dodge the pain of existence and his laughter was sometimes bitter, but he always retained the liberating, life- enhancing gift of comic surprise.
Kingsley Amis, writer: born London 16 April 1922; CBE 1981; Kt 1990; books include A Frame of Mind 1953, Lucky Jim 1954, That Uncertain Feeling 1955, A Case of Samples 1956, I Like it Here 1958, Take a Girl Like You 1960, New Maps of Hell 1960, My Enemy's Enemy 1962, One Fat Englishman 1963, The Egyptologists 1965, (with Robert Conquest) The James Bond Dossier 1965, The Anti-Death League 1966, The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007 1966, A Look Round the Estate 1967, Colonel Sun 1968, I Want it Now 1968, The Green Man 1969, What Became of Jane Austen? 1970, Girl, 20 1971, On Drink 1972, The Riverside Villas Murder 1973, Ending Up 1974, Rudyard Kipling and His World 1975, The Alteration 1976, Jake's Thing 1978, Collected Poems 1944-79 1979, Russian Hide-and-Seek 1980, Collected Short Stories 1980, Every Day Drinking 1983, How's Your Glass? 1984, Stanley and the Women 1984, The Old Devils 1986, (with J. Cochrane) Great British Songbook 1986, The Crime of the Century 1987, Difficulties with Girls 1988, The Folks that Live on the Hill 1990, We are All Guilty 1991, Memoirs 1991, The Russian Girl 1992, Mr Barrett's Secret and Other Stories 1993, You Can't Do Both 1994, The Biographer's Moustache 1995; married 1948 Hilary Bardwell (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1965), 1965 Elizabeth Jane Howard (marriage dissolved 1983); died London 22 October 1995.
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