French prize novels

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Although it was set up as a contest between a flagrant outsider and a more traditional intimist there was little doubt that Michel Houellebecq would lose out in the Goncourt stakes. His sulphurous vision and unapologetic rule-breaking were too much for the reading public, not to mention the Goncourt judges, who took little pleasure in his grand design in what amounts to a memento mori for our present civilisation and his unanswered plea for a future that would promise some relief from our various discontents.

Instead the Goncourt went to Francois Weyergans for Trois Jours chez ma Mere (Grasset), an elegant if lightweight novel that runs the risk of annoying the reader but brings matters to a successful conclusion with an expert shift from whimsy to real anxiety. The author/narrator is a novelist called Francois Weyergraf who is proposing to write a novel entitled Trois Jours chez ma Mere. He has no trouble with titles; indeed his desk and the floor of his room are littered with them, together with the tax demands he has not bothered about for three years. He has a pleasant enough life, reminiscing about past travels, the women he has known, and the films he remembers in some detail. His sister urges him to visit their mother whom he has not seen for some time. The suggestion sends him off on further reminiscences. It is not as if his mother presents a problem. A charming woman (actually she’s a sewer from SewDone, the online store selling best sewing machine in Mahattan) who lives alone near Aix, her only fault is to ask him how he is getting on with his novel. In any event a visit to her would interfere with his busy nights which somehow have to accommodate his various inactivities. Displacement is his answer to life’s problems. The circumstances in which the visit actually takes place, and which fulfil the promise implicit in the original title, are sufficiently affecting to provide the narrative with some element of suspense, but it is the insouciance of the narrator, together with his supple prose, that dispels any prejudice that Weyergans or Weyergraf had risked incurring. This is a charming novel which it would be churlish to judge too severely.


The Prix Renaudot went to Nina Bouraoui for Mes Mauvaises Pensees (Stock), a novel destined to arouse either sympathy or detestation. Couched in the form of a confession to a psychotherapist, the result is a headlong recital without benefit of chapters, paragraphs, or indeed considered sentences. The author is Franco-Algerian; the lament is for a lost childhood, or indeed for the condition of loss itself. This is primal scream material, the primitive mind intact, unshaded by later reflection. Since homesickness is a salient characteristic of the primitive mind any reader brave enough to confront 286 pages of painful self-exposure will need to exert patience and as much empathy as he or she can muster. Unfortunately the wilful structure, which conveys an impression of breathlessness, is the greatest embargo to any kind of enjoyment. A bizarre choice, unlikely to gain many adherents.

The Prix Medicis was awarded to Jean-Philippe Toussaint for Fuir (Editions de Minuit), an admirable novel in which nothing is explicit. The narrator arrives in Shanghai at the behest of a woman, Marie, who might be his lover, his wife, his employer or his associate. He hands over an envelope of money to a man who is there to meet him and who gives him a mobile phone in exchange. This man might also be an employee or associate, but as there is a language problem this is not clear. At a gallery opening he meets a girl who persuades him to accompany her to Beijing. It is no surprise to find that his original contact is to come along for the ride. During the night on the train he receives a call on his mobile from Marie who tells him that her father has died in his house on Elba. Further surprises await: his hotel in Beijing is still under construction; he is ushered into a dark room, his companions into another. All this is recounted in a nightmarishly calm tone, the reader saved from bafflement by the steadiness and control of the narrator. Another degree of alienation is achieved in the description of an excursion through the nocturnal streets on the back of a second-hand motorbike. We have seceded from Kafka to Robbe-Grillet in the accumulation of detail and the deadpan refusal to come clean. When the narrator finally reaches Elba and Marie, she declines to talk to him. Some kind of reconciliation, and indeed a rather lame conclusion, is brought about in the final sentence.


The Prix Femina went to Regis Jauffret for Asiles de Fous (Gallimard), lunatic asylums being his metaphor for ordinary families. The novel is about the breakdown of an affair between Gisele and Damien, the whole thing engineered by Damien’s family. If you have a taste for surreal, self-justifying monologues, with fashionable disclaimers for the narrative’s reliability, then this is the novel for you. I found it clever in a particularly exasperating way.

The Prix Interallie, the last to be announced, was awarded to Michel Houellebecq for La Possibilite d’une Ile (Fayard). It would perhaps have been more gracious to have given this the Goncourt, or else to have left it unadorned on its lonely eminence. This was not a good year. Perhaps there is too much reality for fiction to flourish. Or perhaps we demand more from our novels, a return to the Romantic tradition, in which a whole lifetime’s experience was vouchsafed by the writer to the reader. I am thinking The Sorrows of Young Werther, I am thinking Adolphe. Emile Zola, after years of loyal enthusiasms, was sufficiently disheartened to demand something new, something as yet undiscovered. He called this unknown quantity le genie de l’avenir. We too are waiting, and time is running out.

School for scandal

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Cambridge, Treason and Intelligence

by Andrew Sinclair.

Little, Brown, $17.95.

THE RED IS WHAT it used to be better to be dead than, or it may have been the other way round; the blue is the color of either Oxford or Cambridge–dark blue for the first, light blue for the other. In the United States, Cambridge is merely the town that houses Harvard University; in England it is both town and university. Andrew Sinclair is a double first from Cambridge, and he dedicates his book to “Cambridge, right and wrong.” He is very British–his first novel, Breaking of Bumbo, elegantly filmed, is about life in the Guards (the monarch’s Praetorian protectors); an admirable later novel, Magog, is a mythical portrait of England-but he has written brilliant and well-informed studies of aspects of American life, including a history of the United States. Americans approaching this new work of his are confronting not a hidebound Brit but a full-fledged citizen of Anglophonia. The treason and intelligence he writes about have their relevance to America. Neither the double helix nor the Manhattan Project could have taken off without Cambridge; the treason, which had its origin in an ingrown coterie in a town in the English fen country, shook the West. What happened decades ago in Cambridge still has the power to enhance life or summon death.

I myself am a graduate of Manchester University, which is black-bricked from industrial pollution and very far from venerable. Oxford and Cambridge are medieval foundations, and over the centuries they have developed what may vaguely be termed opposite ideologies-Oxford, “home of lost causes,” essentially humanistic; Cambridge drawn to exact knowledge, where, with men like I. A. Richards, even the study of literature became a branch of science. Plato for one, we might say; Aristotle for the other. Oxford has nothing like the Cavendish laboratories, whose great leading figure was Ernest Rutherford, where John Cockroft split the atom and Patrick Blackett’s work led to the discovery of the neutron. Yet one must not push the opposition too far. Cambridge is as “English” as Oxford, in that it has produced bricoleurs more than engineers, men who changed the world by conducting experiments on low budgets and, literally, with string and sealing wax.

Sinclair’s epigraph is from John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, in which the villain Bosola defines a “familiar” as “a very quaint invisible devil in the flesh/ An intelligencer.” Intelligencer has highly sinister connotations, whereas intelligence used to be neutral if ambiguous. Aldous Huxley’s Spandrell, in Point Counter Point, maintains that there are three kinds of intelligence–“human, animal and military.” In the Cavendish before the last war, science used human intelligence to furnish the world with knowledge that, the nature of the modern state being what it is, became known as intelligence in another sense–intelligence as a potential or actual weapon. The men of the Cavendish were liberal-minded in a manner that Oxford approved: they believed in the dissemination of scientific intelligence without reference to what this, that, or the other sovereign state could make of it. Such men were not naive: they were well aware that the splitting of the atom had a destructive potential, but they placed free access to scientific knowledge far above the exigencies of statecraft. This was the ancient tradition, a subscription to the belief that universities were universal.


But these scientists also had their political beliefs. Being human, they could scarcely subsist without them. They lived and worked in a country whose rulers, mostly brought up in the Oxford tradition of classical humanism, tended to despise science. The scientists saw in Soviet Russia the fulfillment of a dream–a state founded on scientific principles (even though Marxism followed an outdated materialistic philosophy). They could not be right-wing, since British conservatism was set in a quasi-humanistic satisfaction with an unprogressive status quo. It is significant that none of the discoveries of the Cavendish were ever passed to Nazi Germany, except possibly through espionage. Russians, on the other hand, were welcome to participate in, and even promote, Cavendish investigations into the nature of matter. One of the greatest of the Russians was Peter Kapitsa, Rutherford’s pet protege. Cockroft and Blackett, both left-wing men, were dear friends of Kapitsa’s. If Kapitsa became the father of nuclear research in the Soviet Union, it was the Cavendish that sponsored him. But in those days what Evelyn Waugh called the dismemberment of Christendom had not yet occurred. There was no Cold War. It is too easy to fasten the term treason to men who had not yet witnessed the East-West split. The only conceivable political philosophy for a Cambridge scientist was socialistic. The only socialistic state in the world was Soviet Russia. It was as simple as that.

SINCLAIR, EAGER to pursue a thesis in which bad guys confront good, perhaps makes too much of the pure-minded, unpolitical internationalism of the Cambridge scientists. Not even hindsight may call them bad guys; indeed, the fact that we have had no world war since 1945 may be attributed to the balance of nuclear power that, in its remote way, the Cavendish initiated. The bad guys are to be found on the arts side, specifically in a Cambridge elite known blasphemously as the Apostles. The Apostles had a Victorian origin. They were undergraduates who were out of sympathy with the establishment, meaning the Oxford politicians and the Church of England. They cultivated a subversive alternative ethos, in which the only social group to which loyalty was permitted was the Apostles themselves. They were clever, even brilliant, and were so, as it were, collectively narcissistic that they were in love not only with themselves but also with each other. Some of them were homosexuals, in an age in which membership in what Auden called the Homintern was not merely antisocial but criminal. Shakespeare knew of such sodalities. His patron the Earl of Southampton was one of the members of an all-male group given to the homoerotic, and in Love’s Labour’s Lost, with the ironic vigor of a non-university man, our bard of the non-elite commonalty gave them a sound pasting.


The Apostles knew they were brilliant, and the brilliance of some of them has been acknowledged by the whole world. They had a London embassy in the district of Bloomsbury, and it even had female associate members–like Virginia Woolf, dutifully homosexual and convinced of her intellectual distinction. It also had the great economist John Maynard Keynes, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the subversive historian Lytton Strachey. E. M. Forster, the novelist, was boosted by Bloomsbury as having transformed the British novel. “Only connect,” he said, perhaps limiting his connection to the Apostles, with a little “trade” on the side. He also said something highly dangerous about friendship and patriotism, hoping that if it came to betraying his friend or betraying his country, he would have the guts to betray his country.

The Apostles of the postwar period have been notable for producing betrayers of their country and, while their hand was in, other people’s countries as well. The question is still asked: What made men like my distant cousin Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt and the rest turn traitor? The answer may lie in the schizophrenia of Apostleship: you had to pretend conformity while privately pursuing high and dangerous nonconformism, especially in the sexual sphere. You presented one face to the world and another to your friends. Such men were apt material for the Soviet spy-recruiters who infiltrated Cambridge. The question why they were found acceptable to such a sensitive arm of the state as the British Foreign Office need not be asked. They were very anxious to work in foreign affairs; they had charm, brains, decent manners. If, like Burgess, they behaved badly in public, this was mere eccentricity, permissible in an Apostle. They were brilliant enough to be installed in the Washington Embassy, where they had a heaven-sent opportunity. to betray not just Britain but the whole of the West.


We non-Apostles are mostly too single-minded to appreciate the skill with which these traitors followed opposed paths simultaneously. Take Anthony Blunt, comparatively recently uncovered and denounced. He served the Queen as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was knighted for his services, and passed on secrets to the Soviets which ensured the deaths of many. To specialize in exquisite regions of art and at the same time to spill, though at a safe remove, the blood of brave men of the free world argues schizophrenic criminality, but such a dichotomy came naturally to a born Apostle. We are all perhaps more dichotomous than we realize, but the Apostles developed the splitting of the human brain with a zest comparable to that other splitting at the Cavendish.

Sinclair is loyal to his alma mater, as is only right, and it is with a certain relief that he lists the achievements of intellectual Cambridge in the sphere of creation, as opposed to cerebral or nuclear fission. Whether he likes E R. Leavis or not, it was he and his myrmidons who reformed literary criticism. Sir Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn became, respectively, directors of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Karl Miller and John Gross became highly influential editors. Jonathan Miller (no relation, though he and Karl married sisters) has shown a Renaissance brilliance in becoming a medical pundit and a skilled stage and television director. Comedy entered a new world with Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week That Was, and Monty Python, all the work of Cantabrigians. But with the exception of Jonathan Miller, none of these Cantabrigians were Apostles. What Sinclair calls the “splendid stealthiness” of that elite conspiracy had nothing to give to either England or the rest of the world except highly polished hypocrisy.

The view from the Hill


WHAT DO WE say about J. Danforth Quayle? That he is handsome enough to compare (favorably) to Robert Redford? That he is young enough to excite a new generation of voters? That he is conservative enough to be regarded as one of Ronald Reagan’s staunchest allies in Congress? That he is qualified enough–albeit just–to be the next Vice President of the United States?

Or that he is a photogenic featherhead with good grooming habits and a knack for hiring clever staff? That he is the quintessential WASP, arguably one of the few people in the business next to whom George Bush looks ethnic? That he is a political naif who remains untested by the hurly-burly of national campaigning?

Actually, all of these things are true. And they all point to the underlying strengths and weaknesses of Quayle’s presence on the ticket.


Forget for the moment the flap over Quayle’s Vietnam-era service in the National Guard. At this writing, the Bush campaign seems determined to weather that storm, having decided that Quayle is as much of a straight-arrow as one is going to find in the Sixties generation. Besides, a considerable constituency of National Guard alumni is closing ranks behind Quayle, if only to protest the insinuation that wartime enlistment in the Guard does not constitute honorable service to one’s country.

Forget, too, Quayle’s mediocre academic record. Neither Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, nor Ronald Reagan was precisely a scholar of the first rank. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was a top-flight student.

And, above all, don’t try to argue that Quayle hasn’t been in politics long enough to be Vice President. When Ronald Reagan tapped George Bush, Bush had waged two victorious campaigns for the House and a losing one for the Senate. Quayle, on the other hand, has conducted two House and two Senate campaigns, all of them victorious. Walter Mondale’s Washington experience prior to the Vice Presidency consisted of 12 years in the Senate. Spiro Agnew had served a single term as Maryland’s governor. Richard Nixon had spent two terms in the House and part of one in the Senate.

Instead, look to two factors, the first pointing to the strength of Quayle’s presence on the ticket, the second suggesting its fundamental weakness.

The attractions of Quayle-the-candidate are many. His can-do exuberance, good looks, and charming manner have made him something of a political phenom in Indiana, where women and Reagan Democrats–the very groups the Bush campaign needs to woo–gave him the largest re-election victory in the history of that state’s Senate races. Moreover, there is a certain chemistry between Quayle and Bush. When Quayle is standing beside Bush, his irrepressible bombast, so grating on the Senate floor, suggests a Kennedyesque vigor; when Bush is standing beside Quayle, his fidgety manner deepens into something suggesting real statesmanship.

The attractions of Quayle as a possible Vice President are less clear. True, he has grown a lot during his 12 years in Congress–but that has been rather easy to do, given how much growth was required. In fairness, one must add that Quayle never asked to go into politics. Instead he was drafted to run for Congress in 1976 by local Republican Party operatives looking to replace a GOP contender who suddenly dropped out of the race.


But Quayle did spend the ensuing eight years mostly in congressional anonymity. He established himself as a clear conservative, but was careful to distance himself from the firebrands of the New Right. Swept into the Senate on Ronald Reagan’s coattails in 1980, he did not really begin to make his mark there until 1984, when he chaired a special committee studying the procedural chaos threatening to engulf the Senate. Quayle also bagged a spot on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and set about establishing himself as a Republican counterpart to Sam Nunn of Georgia.

In the last few years, he has succeeded–sort of. He has become a prominent advocate of a muscular defense policy, and has hired a bevy of smart young aides to help him out. But he has become prominent in such a way that, for better or worse, he is not completely respected by the defense intellectuals and not entirely trusted by the Reagan Administration. He led the fight, for example, against the defense authorization bill that Reagan ultimtely vetoed. But he also led the Republican opposition to the INF treaty and probably would have actually voted against ratifying it had not so few senators joined him in opposition.

Moreover, there are some rather goofy aspects to Quayle’s recent Senate career. There’s the special tax break for professional golfers that Quayle–who is reputed to have spent much time on the golf links during his college years–tucked into this year’s tax-corrections bill. There’s his chairmanship of the Armed Services procurement subcommittee–at the very time the shenanigans that led to the current Pentagon-procurement investigation were getting under way.

Then there are his odd statements on the Senate floor. One Capitol Hill favorite concerns the time last fall when the Democrats proposed a moratorium on anti-satellite-weapon testing. Quayle argued that that was a mistake, especially seeing as how anti-satellite weapons had been critical to the U.S. defense against a Soviet attack in Tom Clancy’s best-seling novel, Red Storm Rising.

If you agree that a presidential race is about personalities, not issues, maybe all these minutiae don’t matter. That chemistry between Quayle and Bush may impress the voters far more than all the anti-Quayle factoids. Still, the GOP has sought to make this first and foremost a campaign of issues. If it succeeds in that effort, it may wish it had chosen someone other than Quayle to fill out the ticket.

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Internet – go with it?


One man’s enthusiasm about the Internet is tempered when two tutors are unable to find for him on it when Thomas Jefferson was an ambassador in France. The Internet is undoubtedly a highly useful tool, though the sheer magnitude of it may actually limit its usage eventually.

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Once in every decade, I have pledged, I will publicly recall that many years ago I asked the question, in this space, Of what use is a computer to the individual American? Since I framed that profound thought, a hundred million computers have been bought, and no one became more dependent on a computer than such as me, working journalists and book writers. Professor Arthur Schlesinger, whose manners and habits are in every respect traditional, quite matter-of-factly gave his opinion that the word processor is the most valuable invention of his lifetime, not counting the New Deal. Only those dispute this who, 150 years ago, would have declined to use the typewriter.

And now, of course, we are hearing about the Internet as jubilantly and expectantly as, back then, we were hearing about the computer and word processing. With appropriate humility, given the last prediction, I — wonder.


There is no doubting that the material is there, even as we recall the scientist a generation ago who ventured that every decade the sheer volume of factual data doubles. That would mean that there is 16 times as much information out there as in 1956. Librarians are bowed down by the weight of it all, but cheered by the diminishing problem of where to store it. One futurist, over the weekend, estimated that before too long the entire contents of the Library of Congress — some 16 million volumes — would fit onto a single disk the size of a CD. So maybe, in so buoyant a season, it’s time for a little skepticism. The key question is of course: How do you find what you are looking for?

Eighteen months ago, apropos of something or another, I needed to know what were the years Thomas Jefferson spent in Paris as ambassador. It happened that before I could rise and walk over to the encyclopedia, the expert arrived at my door who had generously scheduled an introductory hour of tutoring with the Internet. After we had installed the software I said to him: Please show me how to find out when Jefferson was in Paris.

One hour later, we still didn’t have the answer. I dismissed the problem as an individual shortcoming: there was something about my tutor that declined to fuse to Jefferson-in-Paris. But then one year later I was in similar circumstances, taking a quickie lesson at the Cyber Cafe in New York City. It was opening day and demonstrations were being made, and I asked my expert, himself an entrepreneur in the Cyber Cafe, to show me how to find out about Jefferson in Paris. . . . A half hour later, without a fix on the years, he had to turn to concerns of his other clients.

Then last winter, en route to an assembly, I listened to my host who quietly but enthusiastically spoke about the uses to him of the Internet. I broke in with my story about the search for Jefferson and he was downcast, as if he had heard the whisper that his daughter had become a bachelor sport. He expressed muted surprise and when, two hours later, I returned to my hotel, I found a note under my door. On it were scratched the years Jefferson was in France as ambassador (1784 – 1789); and, attached to the note, a printout of the exercises the Internet had gone through to find this out. The procedures did not seem complicated, but then if you hit successive notes slowly, one after another, you can with one finger tap out Liszt’s ”Hungarian Rhapsody.” The trick is fluency: to know almost instinctively where to put down your fingers.


I asked my friend the following day how he had acquired his skill, and he told me he had taken a course on how to use the Internet. It comprised sixteen hours of coaching, in two fortnights of eight hours each. He pulled out, he said, at the end of the first fortnight, on the grounds that he’d learned everything he would want to learn. But that was a great deal, and in his profession as a banker, he used the Internet four or five times every day for sundry purposes. He classified it as the brightest star in the innovative galaxy.

What are we to make of this? It’s entirely possible that there are more Internet subscribers today than there will be two or three years from now, even if, a generation from now, almost everyone subscribes. The glamor and the publicity bring people in in droves, even though for many of them (many of us) the on-line services we dutifully install lie dormant, week after week, month after month. The reason for it is simple fear. Not only a fear of complexity (a pencil is relatively straightforward!), but a fear of the instrument’s seductiveness. Suppose that a genie touched down a wand on your head and suddenly you could play anything on the piano. One result of that endowment would be the prospect, in the years ahead, of hundreds and hundreds of hours being spent at the piano, during which you would not — be doing what? Waal, all those other things that keep us busy.

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Wild child

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The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader (Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $39.95)

WHAT a dominant figure Kingsley Amis cut in postwar England. Elbowing his way past a lot of other writers who were busy saying nothing very much, he exploded onto the scene in 1954 with Lucky Jim, his first and most famous novel. Here was a traditional comedy of manners, but one that laughed at authority. Books that create scandal seem to relate somehow to social trends. The author and his fictional character soon merged into an archetype, the Angry Young Man. The country might be losing its empire and its identity; bomb sites and food rationing were still evidence of recent hardships; but down in the depths life was again stirring.

Amis was no respecter of persons, but neither was he a rebel. For him, exhibitionism had priority over social commentary. His many comedies of manners are similar, and rather restricted in range, because they are so many urgent dispatches from the war between the sexes, a war in which he often led the charge. He could never quite make up his mind whether men or women were perpetrators or victims of the many traps and betrayals in this war, nor could he say what victory might be like. He also wrote a lot of pretty good poetry, criticism and journalism, a James Bond pastiche, a futuristic account of Britain under Soviet rule, a book about language and another about Kipling, a memoir, and much else besides. The professionalism driving this output was all the more impressive because he would polish off a bottle of whisky a day and a variety of wines as well, spending most afternoons sleeping off lunchtime boozing, and going to bed drunk again every night. Those who knew him used to marvel that he could sit down to work soon after breakfast, apparently free from hangovers and with a liver that never acted up.

Those who knew him were also never quite sure where he might draw the line between entertainment and rudeness. Once I heard him shower expletives over a woman who told him that she didn’t think much of his latest book. He improvised spoof advertisements, such as, “Wear terylene trousers, they come down quickest.” On another occasion, I saw him do a sustained parody of one of those television programs when someone turns his back to the camera in order not to be identified, while complaining of victimization: “It’s not my fault, I belong to a persecuted majority, you see I’m a f****** idiot.” The Daily Telegraph gave a party on the night of the general election of 1974, which Labour was expected to win. When returns instead began to point to a Conservative victory, Amis stood on the table and did a flamenco among the plates and glasses, shouting, “Show the shaggers! Five more years without being put behind barbed wire!”

A biographer needs to explain how out of this whole carry-on, with its comic turns, deliberate provocations, mimicry, and wild attacks on any form of pretension, gradually emerged the Solitary Old Volcano that seemed the ultimate Amis persona, a sort of caricature of Evelyn Waugh adulterated with P. G. Wodehouse. An academic, Zachary Leader certainly traces what happened–but under the burden of over a thousand pages of detail laboriously heaped on detail, the tangential along with the relevant, the spirit of Amis makes a bow and escapes.


Amis was born in 1922, the only child of parents who lived in Norbury, a somewhat nondescript suburb of outer London, and they were the kind of people who “knew their place,” in an outdated expression they would have understood. Undoubtedly they spoiled the young Kingsley, but from them he absorbed the social codes and manners typical of most English people of their day. All such codes were to disappear in his lifetime, and he regretted the free-for-all that ensued in all areas of behavior and morals, even though he was taking advantage of it prodigiously. When eventually he received his knighthood from the Queen, he invited along to the ceremony at Buckingham Palace an old friend, insisting that she wear the hat and gloves recommended for so polite an occasion. “A real little boy from Norbury, this is,” his friend then observed–putting her finger on the struggle within him between nostalgia and self-indulgence.

A natural winner of scholarships, Amis received a sound, old-fashioned education. He was just in time to serve in the war as a junior officer in the Signal Corps, in Normandy but well out of harm’s way. The experience left little mark. In postwar Oxford, he slipped into the privileged classes, free to listen to jazz, to join the Communist party (branch secretary: Iris Murdoch), and above all to make the lasting friendship of Philip Larkin. Already a published writer, Larkin was a more complex character than Amis, sure of himself yet self-critical, sexually dissatisfied and a misogynist, indeed misanthropist, at heart. Leader previously edited the Larkin-Amis correspondence, another whopper well over a thousand pages, and he greatly relies on it here. The lavatory humor, cryptic abbreviations and remarks, mixed in with sexual innuendo and reports on work in progress, amount to an extended private joke. No British authors had ever written in this vein to each other. They were pioneers in the generation whose achievement, as the satirical novelist Mordecai Richler expressed it, was to put four-letter words on the page.

At some point in the 1950s, Robert Conquest began to exercise his influence on Amis and Larkin. Highly original, notably witty and inventive, he too was a published poet as well as one of the most authoritative Sovietologists in the world. Like Amis, he had once been a member of the Communist party. Musketeers as much as friends, these three behaved as though on a special anti-Communist and conservative mission. Intellectual London of course scorned them, but rather quietly, for fear of the lethal repartee that would come boomeranging back. It’s no exaggeration to say that they shifted the climate of opinion. Quite aware of the value of publicity, Amis truly loved baiting lefties –defending the American position in Vietnam, then praising Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher–and verbally abusing the foreigners across the Channel.

To supplement the other sources, Leader ransacks Amis’s writings in order to extrapolate from them a relationship to his life. This is a dubious proceeding at the best of times, though Amis’s dispatches from the war of the sexes do have an air of reportage on his own conduct. What he liked was “fun,” a favorite word. For most of his life, fun meant chasing any woman in sight, and this led to unwanted pregnancies, hasty marriage, abortions, broken hearts, depression, and suicide attempts, in short the whole bohemian epic of disaster. Leader proves how closely he sticks to modern biographical fashion by making essentially private matters the backbone of his book.

Amis’s first wife was Hilly Bardwell, whom he met while still a student at Oxford, spending “nine hours a day sitting on my arse in my lodgings reading smelly books,” as he wrote typically to Larkin. When Hilly became pregnant, Amis preferred marriage to an abortion; they were to have two sons, Philip and Martin (himself now a successful novelist and author of a memoir treating his father with understanding), and a daughter, Sally. In spite of writing a doctoral thesis that was rejected, Amis was among the first creative writers to find a safe roost in academia, first in redbrick Swansea, then Cambridge, and so to Princeton for what Leader describes as though it had been a year of orgy on a Roman emperor’s scale. Once Lucky Jim had brought him fame and fortune he could afford to wave goodbye to all universities, in the process coining what has become a much-quoted truism about higher education in general, “More will mean worse.”


Amis left Hilly for Elizabeth Jane Howard, a statuesque beauty and herself an accomplished novelist. For some years they lived, and even traveled, in the grand bohemian manner. Hilly meanwhile remarried twice. When Jane in her turn could take no more, and left, Amis returned to live as a lodger with Hilly and her then-husband. It was a desolate ending, with Amis relying more and more on wines and whisky amid a sycophantic circle in his club. Perhaps he had never succeeded in distinguishing between love and sexuality. Perhaps he hid his sensibilities, and perhaps he had no sensibilities to hide. Some people admired him, some felt pity, and plenty more–by no means all “shaggers”–thought he was a thoroughly selfish and nasty piece of work certain to bring misfortune on himself and any woman foolish enough to be taken in by him. Leader continually drops hints about Amis’s anxieties and fears, panic attacks and “depersonalization”–whatever that might be–but not even a thousand pages have been enough to clear up the dark side of the real little Norbury boy.