What Kingsley Can Teach Martin

The father wrote fiction as the son still does, with brilliance and "facile bravura," but Martin Amis misunderstood his hereditary gifts when he turned from playful comedy to "the great issues of our time"



WRITING to Robert Conquest in 1984, Philip Larkin slyly mentioned "my projected series 'Talentless Sons of Famous Fathers' -- Waugh, Amis, Fuller, Toynbee -- can you think of any more?" This was malicious, but not quite serious -- or not in the case of "Amis." Kingsley Amis was Larkin's oldest friend. Both born in 1922, they met at Oxford in 1941, and their friendship ended only when Amis stood in a Yorkshire church in 1985 to deliver a beautiful short elegy for Larkin, whom he would outlive by a little less than ten years.

Never married himself, and never a flagrant philanderer (though his life with women was complicated and by no means chaste), Larkin watched his friend's hectic amorous career from afar. In 1948, after early adventures, Kingsley had married his young and pregnant girlfriend, Hilary Bardwell. Following the birth of a son that year, they had another son in 1949, and a daughter later. The second son was Martin Amis, who followed his father to become a famous novelist, if of a very different kind.

Although Kingsley Amis didn't get on with his son's books, father and son were deeply fond of each other, and Kingsley took a rueful pride in Martin's success. Larkin had his own problems with the younger writer: when Martin published Money, in 1984, Larkin wrote to him, making it "inoffensively clear that he disliked the postmodernist liberties I took with the reader, and that he found the prose too dense and worked-at." And yet he knew very well that Martin Amis could be called many things, but not talentless.

With all the literary and political differences between father and son, what is most striking about their literary careers is the way they paralleled each other. Martin got going younger. Kingsley was thirty-one when Lucky Jim (1954), his first novel, was published, Martin a mere twenty-four when he published The Rachel Papers (1973). Lucky Jim was a runaway best seller and a book that defined a generation. That wasn't quite true of Martin's early books, but he had enough precocious reward. Whereas Kingsley spent two decades in academic life, at Oxford, Swansea, and Cambridge, and was forty before writing allowed him to quit salaried teaching, Martin was already taking a year abroad as a tax exile in 1979, after only three books (Kingsley sourly commenting, "Little shit. 29, he is. Little shit").

Today Martin is a celebrated writer in America. Kingsley once was too, as a critic and a novelist. He spent 1958-1959 teaching at Princeton (sailing out in the Queen Elizabeth and back in the Liberté: his acute fear of flying was one of the reasons he almost never crossed the Atlantic again). But his reputation in America had been in decline for years before the usual slump in stock that follows an author's death. He had difficulty getting American publishers for his later novels, partly because of his self-created image by then as a crusty old kvetch, partly because of the books' supposed misogyny and political incorrectness, though to be fair, most of them weren't very good. Even so, eleven of his books are in print in American editions at present. His collected letters, recently published in England, will be brought out in an American edition next spring.

Kingsley deserves a revival, or at least his best books do, and his letters are worth reading by anyone at all interested in English writing and society in the half century after the war. He published some crapulous and cantankerous memoirs in 1992, and three years later what Martin calls a "curiously repetitive" biography by Eric Jacobs appeared. We now have much the best biographical books on Kingsley: the Letters, complemented by Experience. Martin's elliptical memoir is a very odd mixture, but easily the most memorable and moving thing in it is his portrait of his father, and with neither book have I needed to follow Jim Dixon, the young academic hero (or anti-academic anti-hero) of Lucky Jim, "whose policy it was to read as little as possible of any given book."

Far more of Kingsley's letters -- smart, bawdy, wry, funny, schoolboyish -- were written to Larkin than to anyone else; along with those to Kingsley in Larkin's Letters (1992), they form a touching if often sad portrait of a friendship, and also of an episode in English history. Kingsley and Larkin were unusually articulate representatives of a group that had been to university in the 1940s, lower-middle-class grammar school boys as against the upper-middle-class public school boys who had set the tone for Eng. lit. in the preceding decades. They were in conscious reaction against the agitprop, high thinking, and plain living of the 1930s, though even more against the camp and snobbery and aestheticism of the 1920s, the "Brideshead generation." Kingsley was obviously influenced by Evelyn Waugh's comic novels (as Martin has been: there is an oblique acknowledgment in Money), but hated Brideshead Revisited, with its purple prose, "full of things you hope are good, but know are bad."

In the years after Lucky Jim, Kingsley was labeled an "angry young man," and his novels were discussed in terms of class as much as of style. This labeling undoubtedly helped his career for a while, but he could also judge his own work wisely. In 1956 he replied to a correspondent who had written about his novels,

Your interpretation of them as primarily comedies is most refreshing to me. I certainly intended them to be that a long way before they were anything else. My second aim was to get a few things said that I felt strongly about -- things about life and people in general, not all this sociological hoo-ha.

The sociological hoo-ha was exaggerated even at the time. What young Kingsley disliked wasn't the old school tie and clubland buffers (in the mid-fifties, and long before he became an almost parodic buffer himself, he formed a friendship with an older novelist, the Etonian Anthony Powell, and his wife, Lady Violet) so much as pretentiousness and poetical flummery. His demolition jobs in these letters are often very funny and effective (if a trifle vulgar, one adds schoolmarmishly: see his obscene parody of Thomas Hardy's poem "Afterwards"). And yet there was a danger lurking in this knockabout mockery of fine writing. Dixon, the breezy, beery chancer who has become an academic for want of anything better rather than from any love of scholarship, is all too much of a self-portrait. Kingsley's shtick may have been part act, but it was also reality; under that bluff philistine exterior lurked a bluff philistine interior.

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