With friends like Kingsley

The Letters of Kingsley Amis - Experience
August 18, 2000

Kingsley Amis had a prodigious capacity for disliking things. From Lucky Jim onwards, his novels put on trial a diversity of characters whose behaviour or attitude to life Amis found wanting. Only alcohol and occasional rare females escape censure - and the woman had to be the sort who offers to pay her own taxi fare, as does Christine in Lucky Jim , not one who sponges drinks and stubbornly persists in wearing unsexy clothes, like the despised Margaret in the same book.

In his Memoirs (1991), Amis moved to having a go at real people. One cannot read them and remain unaware of an air of casual nastiness, as Amis sifts his recollections to find at least one unkind word to say about everyone. As Amis himself wrote: "I try to make it a rule, when reviewing a book by a known friend, to slip in one adverse remark." It was a compulsion that sometimes mystified his friends and that Amis was never very convincing in passing off as a tribute owing to truth and honesty.

In Amis's Letters , any concessions to tact and decency are dispensed with,and it makes for some extremely funny and entertaining reading. Other writers, dead or alive, are prime targets. While some are perfunctorily dismissed ("Do you know who I hate? I hate T. S. Eliot. That's who I hate"), others draw a more sustained burst of invective: "I know now that Keats was a boring, conceited, self-pitying, self-indulgent silly little fool... as well as an incompetent, uninteresting, affected, non-visualising, Royal-Academy-picture, salacious, mouthing poet." Goethe was a "barmy, dabbling squarehead", Beowulf an "anonymous, crass, purblind,infantile, featureless HEAP OF GANGRENED ELEPHANT'S SPUTUM", and of a fellow poet's latest offering, Amis comments: "Believe me, this book is a rarity. I mean, you don't often... pick up a book that's four-star, alpha-plus, specially selected, cordon-blue ****e ALL THE WAY THROUGH, do you?" The incessant abuse at times recalls an articulate and foul-mouthed adolescent rubbishing everything other people value, but serious points steadily emerge. In 1950 Amis wrote to Philip Larkin (to whom all his letters ended with the word "bum"): "I feel the time for originality has gone by; what we want to do is to purge English (poetry) of offences against metre, decent humility, meaning (ie stop verbal music bum and inchoate image bum), and the eternal law that you are only entitled to speak for your(self). Above all, let there be no self-indulgence." Lyricism, he felt, was "the even spreading of urine over untruths", and by 1955 he had developed a formula for his own prose whose down-to-earth, common-man's tone cannot be rejected as a mere pose: "first you want to get hold of something you want to say, and then you sort of fudge up a plot or a story of some kind, and then you put in bits of things you've seen and heard round the place, and then you try and make it all sound sort of interesting or witty or funny or striking or unusual in some way".

Amis set about embodying these notions in his novels. Rejecting so much often left little to put in, but philistinism was a charge that could never stick. Amis had an awesomely wide-ranging knowledge of English literature, much by heart; he just did not like much of it. Through his letters, he worked towards an aesthetic of no aesthetic, sharing with Larkin a revulsion at the incomprehensibilities of modernism, and adding innumerable hate objects of his own. "Don't you like my bottomless wells of venom?" he asks Larkin in one letter. "Like" may be too strong, but as a riposte to the pseuds and frauds who find the literary world uniquely attractive ("craps" and "shags", Larkin and Amis would say) they have a distinct appeal.

On occasion, the poison finds an undeserving target or comes out as sourness, as after a trip to the circus ("I confirmed my impression that there are few things more boring, or more revolting, or more unpleasantI than a circus clown") or anticipating the birth of his first child ("I can't see why people have babies, at all; would you agree to take into your house a noisy, ugly, helpless, bad-tempered imbecile who was going to steal more of your money every year and who was giving you NOTHING IN RETURN?"); but with so much venom to hand a little was bound to go astray.

Someone Amis unreservedly liked was Larkin, who casts a long shadow over the Letters and was the recipient of those quoted above. Here truly was a meeting of minds, as well as a coalescence of dislikes, which elicited outpourings that read almost like love letters: "there isn't anybody whose way of talking will interest me and make me laugh as much as yours doesI There is nobody esle but you who contributes as much as I contribute to the total of interest, and who HATES the thigns I HATE as much as I HATE them" (misspellings were an important and often creative feature of the Amis epistolary style).

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Amis and Larkin exchanged gossip, literary judgements, advice and encouragement about their writings, sent bulletins of their hilarious co-authored lesbian romance set in a girls' boarding school (this was before Channel 5, when people had to make their own entertainment) and generally conveyed as few have done the vitality of a relationship conducted through letters. Above all, they persuade that literature matters and that one can be passionate about it without being pretentious.

Fifty years of letters open up many perspectives. The evolution of Amis's politics can be read, as in many lives, from left to right. A member of the Communist Party in his youth, he retained anti-American feelings throughout the Korean war ("Anyone over here now who is not pro-Chink wants his arse filled with celluloid and a match applied to the arse-hairs"), but the combined effects of Hungary and the barbed charms of Margaret Thatcher left Amis a rabid anti-Communist, a position he described in letters to long-term friend Robert Conquest.

Amis's love life also has a grim fascination. Women were always on a losing wicket, and by 1981 he is writing wearily about second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard: "Jane mentions (giving up drink) as her first condition for coming back to me, the second being presumably that I saw off my head and serve it up to her with a little hollandaise sauce." Amis spent the rest of his life living chastely with his first wife, Hilly, and her husband.

The letters to Larkin are the core of the book, and after a retreat in the 1960s and 1970s, his return to prominence in the years before his death in 1985 is as welcome to Amis as to the reader of the Letters . As Amis wrote in his Memoirs : "He was the most enlivening companion I have ever known and the best letter-writer; to the end a glimpse of the Hull postmark brought that familiar tingle of excitement and optimism, like a reminder of youth."

A reminder of youth closer to home was Amis's son, Martin, and one well-documented dislike of Kingsley's was Martin's books. In his defence, Martin has adduced his dad's distaste for "euphonious prose", but a more satisfactory explanation is in Kingsley's 1959 review of Nabokov's Lolita :

"style, a personal style, a distinguished style, usually turns out in practice to mean a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and dictionI no extract could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliterationI" Kingsley did not like style, in other words, and the primacy of style over content that characterises Martin's books from London Fields onwards would not have impressed him, one suspects.

Martin, on the other hand, is happy to describe himself as a "prose stylist" and in his autobiography, Experience , provides ample evidence of what he means. Just as one of his novels begins "I am a police", Experience contains an abundance of odd usages, starting with the first chapter title, "My Missing", where a noun is at least one thing that is missing. Synonymic repetition is another (Martin) Amis hallmark, as when he ruminates after his dad has taken a fall: "There were the slow and majestic subsidences... And there were other types of trips, tumbles and purlers." One can faintly hear the Roget he has swallowed swirling around uncomfortably as it refuses to go down.

Although presumably a record of what Amis Jr wants us to know of his first 50 years, Experience presents a less-than-flattering portrait. As the world knows, Martin Amis has dental problems, but more serious is an inability to stop talking about his teeth. It is a nasty complaint, and judging from the too many pages devoted to sessions with his New York dentist, is in an advanced stage. There is only one cure: savage editing.

Grievance about his treatment in the press is another preoccupation: "Iall those months of crucifixion in the press. 'Why always you?' I was asked. I'm tired of saying that I don't understand it." If only Amis could be Posh Spice for a day he would surely get his own problems in perspective.

Whereas his father disdained whatever smacked of the literary, Martin Amis comments continuously on what writers are like and what it feels like to be one, constructs a highly wrought artifice of words around the most trivial incidents and finds various literary prototypes for himself - Osric ( Hamlet ), Kinch ( Ulysses ), Pnin (from Nabokov's Pnin ) - and for others when he wishes to attack them (Eric Jacobs, Kingsley's biographer, is Kinbote from Nabokov's Pale Fire ; journalists are Thersites in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida , "deformed and scurrilous"). Those who cannot write are roundly derided: Amis contrasts at one point the poetry written by his cousin with an incoherent, misspelt note by Fred West, who murdered her, as if a bad prose style should have been up there on the charge sheet.

Reading Experience , one is struck by a mismatch between events and what Amis has made of them: the dental fixation, his conviction that journalists are persecuting him, the unintentional bad taste of his writing about his cousin, the high rhetorical style that, as in his fiction, cannot mask a dearth of things to write about: all these suggest a worrying reality gap. Perhaps the book really shows that it is not experience that matters - but what you do with it.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer and critic.

The Letters of Kingsley Amis

Author - Kingsley Amis
Editor - Zachary Leader
ISBN - 0 00 257095 5
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £24.99
Pages - 608

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