Review of The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader, first published on the Prospect magazine website, February 2007
In January 1954, with the publication of Lucky Jim, literary success finally began to happen to Kingsley Amis. He was 31 years old, with a wife and three children and a job as a lecturer in Swansea that paid around £8,000 a year in today’s money, and had already begun a career of lifelong adultery that can only be described as prodigious. He was, he felt, eminently ready for success: as he put it in a letter to Philip Larkin, “What I want, cully, is a chance to decide, from personal experience, that a life of cocktail parties, cars, week-ending at rich houses, wine, night-clubs and jazz won’t bring happiness. I want to prove that money isn’t everything, to learn that pleasure cloys.” He would, Zachary Leader notes, get his chance.
Leader’s new biography is the only life of Amis that does anything like justice to his colossal drives, perversity and talent. It is also a monument of textual scholarship: having edited Amis’s letters back in 2000, Leader gives us Amis’s own voice on almost every page, as well as an impeccably detailed provenance for each remark, anecdote and statistic. It begins, methodically and unexcitingly enough, with Amis’s unexciting and methodical parents in Norbury, a corner of London so morosely suburban that the young Amis used to think of Streatham as glamorous. With Amis’s arrival at St John’s College, Oxford, however, the great engine of his comedy begins to kick into gear, and doesn’t fully release readers until the funeral bells toll some 800 pages later. It is impossible to read this biography without acknowledging that Amis was a hugely able writer, and a master both of measured satire and wild invective (this to Larkin, on his own father-in-law—”I shall swing for the old cockchafer unless I put him in a book, recognisably, so that he will feel hurt and bewildered at being so hated.”) It is equally obvious that he was, at times, an utter bastard, a stridently ignorant political commentator, a loving husband and father, and a nervous wreck. Somewhere in the middle of all this comes the art.
To a degree that even Larkin found strange, Amis cared about audiences and the opinions other people held. He may have delighted in causing offence, but one thing Leader’s account makes clear is that throughout his life Amis was obsessed with good writing’s guardianship of a certain kind of common ground: a region of sanity in which the chaff of ego and affectation could be sorted from the wheat of rationality and compassion, by force if necessary. Writing to Larkin in 1956, Amis commented of Iris Murdoch’s new novel The Flight from the Enchanter, “[It] all seems very unreal to me. I can’t believe that the chaps in it are real or doing things that real people do, if you take my meaning… any moment I expect to come across one of them singing the only song he knows, or turning out to have been a dwarf all along.” Murdoch, here, is failing in her duties as an artist because she is failing in her duties as a chronicler of the human. She is to be laughed at rather than with, perhaps the most central distinction in Amis’s critical lexicon, which means she has failed to convince her audience that her novel is designed primarily to amuse them rather than its author. As one of Amis’s characters comments in Stanley and the Women, “The rewards for being sane may not be very many, but knowing what’s funny is one of them. And that’s an end of the matter.” One of the only things worse than being laughed at is not being able to laugh at anything; and the only thing worse than this is to be ignored.
Being ignored was, in literary terms, what Amis spent the first 30 years of his life doing, and he did not intend to repeat the experience; yet his fear of isolation was as much pathological as aesthetic. In Experience, Martin Amis details, in addition to Kingsley’s horror of being alone, a selection from his “lavish array of phobias: aerophobia (he flew once, as a child: a five-shilling ‘flip’ at the seaside. That did it), acrophobia (when he took his children to the top floor of the Empire State, in 1959, it was only our presence, he said, that stopped him from screaming), and nyctophobia, or fear of the night.” To be alone was to be paralysed by the toiling depths of the self—while to share a joke was to acknowledge a frailty in common and, perhaps, to become more honest and less ruled by inarticulate fear. In the best sense, Kingsley Amis’s is serious comedy, because it treats comedy as a mode able to address the most serious questions of human existence without deploying the self-consciously “high” discourse of elite literature. Amis’s 1969 novel The Green Man is, for instance, a Larkinesque triumph of morbid wit, as well as a serious investigation of a universe in which God appears not so much absent as actively unpleasant. And both he and Larkin despised what they saw as the “swindle” of deliberately difficult art.
Hyperawareness of his frailties never made Amis less likely to indulge them: drink was a more convenient exit from the troubled self than conversation, while fidelity was at best an intermittent feature of both his marriages. But Kingsley Amis, man of letters, remained a formidable creature: deeply read in the western canon, intellectually rigorous, and urgent in his insistence that literature should be for everybody. One of Larkin’s greatest youthful idols was DH Lawrence and, although Amis was more wary, there remains something Laurentian about the suffering, loving, lusting human animal at the heart of his greatest fictions. Here, in the opaque inner self, is that place where the individual becomes universal: the reality upon which art might shed its revealing light. Yet here is also the place where the human most readily betrays itself, both with its perversity and its mutability. It was a paradox Amis wrestled with throughout his life. A poet as well as a novelist and critic, he captured it well in one of his early poems, “Masters,” which ponders the way in which to be fully, sympathetically human is to surrender hopes of isolated “mastery,” and instead to confess the more uncertain needs that motivate such hope—”By yielding mastery the will is freed, / For it is by surrender that we live, / And we are taken if we wish to give, / Are needed if we need.”
At one point, Leader quotes Robert Conquest on the subject of limericks, the joint production of which occupied many a scurrilous hour of his and Amis’s leisure: these are “truly art for its own sake, taking up time which might otherwise have gone into the ‘next novel.’ But [they] may also be thought of as the expression of that superfluity of energy on which a main body of work must subsist.” This superabundant comic energy is central to any understanding of Amis. Often, the laughter his work provokes is an assent given unconsciously, even unwillingly: a recognition of rightness, and of a common ground, where none might have been thought to exist. Who are we, to be so amused by a lecher whose violent political incorrectness was equalled in his later years only by his reactionary provocations of the trendy left? We are, of course, his audience—those whose attention he hoped to win by being funnier than anyone else, but whose respect he hoped to earn by being right. Looking back over the life and work depicted in Zachary Leader’s exemplary account, I found more both to agree with and to enjoy than I might have done in the lives of two dozen authors who lived better and drank less.