He had been branded 'scum' and a 'pornographer', but the old devil was just a master of deception, finds Andrew Biswell
Throughout his long literary career, Kingsley Amis (1922-95) managed to divide readers more sharply than almost any other 20th-century British novelist. From the publication of his first novel, Lucky Jim , in 1954, he quickly established a reputation as a provocateur and enfant terrible. More important, his early work seemed to give a voice to a generation whose civilian careers had been interrupted by the Second World War and who had emerged from the armed forces with a passionate resentment of military discipline and other kinds of authority. The young Amis was dismissed as "scum" by W. Somerset Maugham and branded a "pornographer" by F. R. Leavis at Cambridge University. The journalist D. J. Taylor wrote him off in 1989 as "an intellectual posing as a philistine". Yet his novels clearly resonated with mid-century readers, who warmed to the humour, honesty, plain-speakingness and left-leaningness of his writing. He even found an unlikely champion in Dame Edith Sitwell, who read his "most remarkable, most distinguished first novel" with "enthusiastic admiration".
Born in Norbury in South London (an area rather than a place, he said), Amis was educated at the City of London School, Marlborough College, to which he was evacuated in 1939, and at St John's College, Oxford. At Oxford he was a contemporary of the poet Philip Larkin, of whom he later said: "He was my best friend and I never saw enough of him or knew him as well as I wanted to." The two writers corresponded with each other almost weekly until Larkin's death in 1984, and their letters (which are blokeish, boorish and gleefully obscene) chronicle one of the most intimate literary friendships of the past century.
Early on, Amis and Larkin, along with other writers such as Donald Davie, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings and Thom Gunn, were said to be part of "The Movement", a loose group of mostly academic poets and novelists who were, according to the literary editor of The Spectator, "bored by the despair of the Forties, anti-phoney, anti-wet, sceptical, robust, ironic". Amis himself wrote in the introduction to a Movement anthology that "nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities". This bold statement from Amis was a deliberate reaction against W. H. Auden, who had been one of his early poetic models. He was also keen to reject the New Apocalyptic spirit of his acquaintance Dylan Thomas, a "bloody awful" poet who was usually (as Amis put it with cha racteristic severity) "frothing at the mouth with piss".
Zachary Leader's comprehensive biography follows his excellent scholarly edition of Amis's letters, which was published in 2000. Beyond his sensitive apprehension of the work, which is informed by extensive archival research, Leader demonstrates a commendably judicious and even-handed perspective on the life. He is alert to Amis's appalling prejudices as well as to the difficulties of tone that are a crucial feature of the writing, with the result that this book succeeds in getting much closer to the man than any of the previous biographies.
Amis himself collaborated with the late Eric Jacobs on a rather disappointing authorised biography, published in 1995, which drew heavily on personal interviews and the curiously evasive volume of anecdotal Memoirs that he produced in 1991. Jacobs, who was a retired journalist and a fellow member of the Garrick Club, was so close to his subject that his book lacks the right degree of professional distance. Amis, for his part, seems to have regarded Jacobs as an amiable fool, as he suggests in his semi-confessional novel, The Biographer's Moustache (1995). A second attempt at mapping the connections between his life and fiction was made in 2001 by Richard Bradford, a professor at Ulster University whose soberly critical book, Lucky Him , lacked much of the liveliness and energy of Amis's own writing. Martin Amis has also written revealingly about his father's latter years in another memoir, Experience, which Leader deploys to very good effect in his serious-minded and generously expansive version of the story.
Leader, a professor of English at Roehampton University, is well equipped to guide us through the complications of Amis's opinions on the politics of higher education. When he lectured in English at University College Swansea (a "pit of ignorance and incapacity") from 1949 until 1961, on a derisory salary of Pounds 300 a year, he identified the college's principal, Sir John Fulton, as "one of the men who was really serious about destroying the universities and turning them into vocational training centres". Amis argued that it was always possible to raise the numbers if you lowered the standard, and he resented having to spend time instructing the people he called "the thicks". In A Short Educational Dictionary , he defined "Student" as "A person under 35 supported by the State at or near a seat of learning while following his or her inclinations at it, near it or at any distance from it".
Later on, especially after he had swung to the political Right and resigned his fellowship at Peterhouse in Cambridge (after just two years) in 1963, his hostility towards the expansion of British universities became more pronounced. He predicted in 1960 that "more will mean worse", and six years later he reiterated this sentiment in a letter to the editor of The Times:
"To state the position today would require alteration of my slogan to something like 'More is turning out to mean worse even faster than might have been thought'." Leader points out that Amis's disappointment was partly grounded in a sense of regret that Latin and Greek, which he had once considered studying at degree level, were no longer being taught in state schools. Although he identified himself as a supporter of Margaret Thatcher (partly as a bomb-proof way of annoying his Lefty enemies), he reserved the right to deplore her Government's educational policies.
Yet what Amis always refused to consider was the possibility that bright people who had traditionally been excluded from university might benefit from higher education, or that there might be something to be said for giving them the opportunity to try it. The anti-egalitarianism of his arguments is often difficult to agree with, and there are many occasions when he overstates his case to such an extent that sceptical readers may be forgiven for wondering how far even Amis himself believed it. To judge from Leader's chapters on Amis as a university teacher (he also held visiting creative writing fellowships at Princeton University and elsewhere), he seems to have been precisely the kind of maverick that the university system of our own time is designed to prevent - and perhaps our institutions are impoverished by the absence of such awkward characters.
Leader's hardest task, which he accomplishes with considerable success, is to establish the distances and discontinuities between Amis as mercurial author and the grotesque protagonists of his fictions. Many less perceptive commentators have argued that the real Amis is to be found in his novels, but Leader is keen to reconsider this simplistic equation. In One Fat Englishman (1963), for example, Amis devises a clever allegory of the seven deadly sins through the figure of Roger Micheldene, a snobbish and violent English publisher who visits Budweiser University in the US: "Roger considered himself qualified in gluttony, sloth and lust but distinguished in anger." The enraged anti-Americanism of the central character clearly has little to do with Amis, who wrote affectionately about the time he had spent there. It is a novel about prejudice that demands that we examine our own prejudices, including our distaste for Roger himself. (As Christopher Ricks wrote in a review for the New Statesman , "it is a feat of virtuosity to have written a book that ought to induce so much unease at the idea of pronouncing on its moral judgments".) This offers a representative instance of the slipperiness and difficulty of Amis's writing. Leader, who is always attentive to such questions, illuminates the novel when he writes that "Roger's dead end is no mere matter of snobbery. He is in despair, a condition implicit in his excesses but also explicitly diagnosed."
Amis's two marriages, to Hilly Bardwell (1948-65) and the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (1965-83), are very well documented. Both unions were characterised by heavy drinking and persistent philandering on Amis's part.
As early as 1959, Bardwell told Larkin that "the fucking bastard bloody well deserves to be shot". Howard writes in her memoir, Slipstream (2002), of the fear, dislike and anger that characterised the final period of her marriage to Amis, but we cannot doubt the earlier warmth that led them to write sections of each others' novels. His second marriage was wrecked by Macallan single malt whisky. Leader does his best to be neutral about this, but the image of Amis crawling up the stairs on all fours every night gives a clear sense of what Howard was asked to put up with before she left him.
Leader has also uncovered a late platonic friendship with the journalist and newspaper editor Rosie Boycott that helped Amis to overcome the antipathy towards women that he had articulated in novels such as Jake's Thing (1978) and Stanley and the Women (1984).
Beyond revealing the details of Amis's private life, Leader has discovered a useful abundance of previously unpublished novels, poems, letters and diaries. His synthesis of this material is compelling, and the biography has an impressive narrative drive that arises from the care and intelligence with which the witnesses and documents are presented.
There was a part of Amis that wanted very badly not to be liked by what he saw as the wrong sort of people, such as bores, feminists, Lefties, anti-war protesters and apologists for modernist poetry. Leader, to his credit, sees through a good deal of the bluster and posturing. This admirable biography enriches and renews our understanding of an important writer who left at least half a dozen outstanding novels that deserve to survive. As a writer, Amis was a master of self-caricature and deception, but Leader has brought us as close to the man as we are likely to get.
Andrew Biswell is principal lecturer in English and creative writing, Manchester Metropolitan University.
The Life of Kingsley Amis
Author - Zachary Leader
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 996
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 224 062 1