By Zachary LeaderPantheon
In his 1991 Memoirs, Kingsley Amis stated roundly: “I have already written an account of myself in twenty or more volumes, most of them called novels.” He partly qualified this by adding:
Novels they fully are, too, and those who know both them and me will also know that they are firmly unautobiographical, but at the same time every word of them inevitably says something about the kind of person I am.
If this seems like having it both ways— while blocking the boring interviewer who inquires how much a certain character is drawn from life—it is also the ideal opportunity for a serious literary biographer. In this astonishingly fine and serious book, which by no means skips the elements of scandal and salacity, Zachary Leader has struck a near-ideal balance between the life and the work, and has traced the filiations between the two without any strain or pretension.
There is a biography within the biography here, and it brings into high relief the figure of Hilary Bardwell, the bewitchingly lovely woman who was Amis’s first wife, the mother of two of his children (as well as the mother of another whom he never disowned), the source of his infinite regret and self-reproach, and, at the end, his mother-surrogate. Among her numberless charms is a complete absence of guile, combined with an absolutely penetrating acuity that often reveals more than she quite realizes. Here she is, on the glamorous and sexy and brilliant young man she met at Oxford (where the mind reels at the thought of his induction into the Communist Party by Iris Murdoch). He was invariably interesting and amusing but he would make
endless complaints about what seemed to me harmless things like apparently ordinary, nice people coming through the swing-door at Elliston’s restaurant. He’d start muttering, “Look at those fools, look at that idiot of a man”, and so on. If doors got stuck, or he was held up by some elderly person getting off a bus, or the wind blew his hair all over the place, he would snarl and grimace in the most irritating fashion.
I barked with laughter when I read this, because I remember Amis once converting a loud belch into a brilliant sort of trumpeting sound, and then explaining to me that it was wrong to waste a perfectly good noise. The same was true (as all readers of Lucky Jim will remember) of any scowl or frown that might come his way: These were opportunities of which the absolute maximum should be made. As for the chance encounter with a bloody fool or a raging bore, well, Amis knew meat and drink when he saw it.
A man who is terrified of boredom, was overindulged by parents who got on his nerves, is easily irritated, and can moreover transmute a lowly fart into a piercing trombone imitation is possessed of the lineaments of literary and comic genius, but he may conceivably be hard to live with. The feelings of the tolerant and decent Hilary were extremely injured when her husband took her shambling old pedant of a father and made him into Lucky Jim’s insufferable Ned Welch, whose smallest gesture drives Jim Dixon into a frenzy of tedium-induced rage. But, recovering as she later did from many worse abuses, she never ceased to appreciate that you couldn’t really have the one Kingsley without the other.
Any dolt can see the connection between the mother-smothered Amis and the later unstoppable tit-man who was also a slave to Bacchic overindulgence. (Patrick in Difficulties With Girls has a reverie about the ideal female: “wise, compassionate, silent and with enormous breasts”: If this young lady had lived in a single bedroom upstairs from a pub, Amis might have questioned his own stout disbelief in God.) But the need for anarchic release was always qualified by an impressive discipline—evidenced in a no-less-impressive output that barely flagged until the end—and by a prolonged wrestle with the demons. Both elements are present in a letter to Philip Larkin just after the sudden celebrity and fortune that attended Lucky Jim: “I feel in a sense that ‘they can’t stop me now’, except when I take up my new novel and feel how easy it will be for me to stop myself.”
This instinct for hubris and nemesis perhaps partly underlay the numerous dreads and phobias that black-dogged Amis throughout his life. In an especially interesting section on the time Amis spent teaching at Princeton (acquiring a Warren Beatty–like reputation among faculty wives), Leader makes one realize how very close Amis came to making the move permanent, and to becoming an American. He didn’t write even once to Larkin, his most insular friend and most faithful correspondent. But then one of the reasons for his own later relapse into insularity was his unvanquishable fear of getting on an airplane. As to his other terrors, and the means of combating them, here is his other great epistolary partner, Robert Conquest, writing to Larkin in 1960:
Your points on K are interesting. Note also his new line that screwing is a way of forgetting about dying. Negative thinking there, eh? And allowing ten fucks a week at twenty minutes each, it leaves an awful lot of time for seeing the skull beneath the skin, lifeless creatures underground, etc.
Actually, that “new line” is one of the oldest in the human book, but almost a decade later, Amis’s novel The Green Man would demonstrate with unsettling insight the failure of sex to ward off intimations of mortality and post-mortality. Indeed, one might say that the diminishing returns of the avid sexual life are a leitmotif in the entire oeuvre.