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.