By Zachary LeaderPantheon
The larger and longer arc—of the declension from Angry Young Man to clubman and gouty curmudgeon—is the one that many critics confidently expected Leader to follow. In this rather dull expectation, they will find themselves somewhat disappointed. Amis never considered himself part of the John Osborne Look Back in Anger phenomenon, any more than he believed himself to be a member (along with Conquest, Larkin, and John Wain) of what one critic rather unimaginatively termed “The Movement.” He was very much his own man. In order to annoy people, he may sometimes have quoted Conquest’s “First Law,” which states, “Generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about.” But on the great subject that he himself did know about—English literature and language—he was far from being an axiomatic conservative. Though he might have served as the beau ideal of Henry James’s injunction to be one of those on whom nothing was lost (those noises!), he never missed a chance to ridicule James himself, and other establishment figures as well. He must have been delighted when the austere academic gatekeeper F. R. Leavis dismissed him as “a pornographer.”
Amis had a bracing attitude toward popular culture, writing about science fiction, for example, “As a recently retired university teacher I can’t help being slightly drawn to any form of writing that reaches no part of its audience through compulsion.” The great drawback of sci-fi is the dearth of sex from which it compels itself to suffer (I realized when reading Leader’s book that this is why I have never bothered with the genre), but Amis, not content with writing scholarly treatments of the subject, produced a historical/futurological novel, The Alteration, which Philip K. Dick himself rightly praised as possibly the best “alternate world” fiction of the lot. I might add that the subject of sex in this work is introduced in the most radical and subversive way, though without the smallest hint of the pornographic.
Contra Leavis, it goes without saying that Amis never described any sexual encounter without the greatest subtlety, tenderness, and (this isn’t easy; try it if you don’t believe me) wit. It should also go without saying that none of his fictions betrays any vulgarity or prejudice, against any supposed “minority.” If one of his characters expressed such views—the eponymous hero of Stanley and the Women being the most notorious case in point—Amis was always honest enough to say that he was capable of drawing on feelings of his own that he found less than admirable. The absolutely necessary novel here is Girl, 20, in which the character of whom Amis most disapproves politically is also made irresistibly charming, and in which—this is a really brilliant knight’s move—the activity on which Amis himself had expended the most time (adultery) is shown by the actions of this very charmer as destructive to all parties.
But the closing years were gruesome, in a way that almost certainly derived from the antithesis between his two chief desires (women and drink: “You can’t do both,” as Amis phrased it in another connection), and Leader doesn’t flinch from saying so. It wasn’t just dreadful to see the old boy drifting into his “Shoot Mandela” twilight of curmudgeonhood. It was dreadful to see him abandon all effort to be witty—the very man who in plotting Ending Up had masterfully noted 45 different ways of “being annoying.” The usual way of defining a reactionary pose that becomes a reactionary drone is to say that the face has grown to fit the mask. Amis himself prefigured this idea in a poem titled “Coming of Age,” where the central figure “played his part so well / that he started living it … / His trick of camouflage no longer a trick.” Noticing an Amis booze bill that was heroic by any standards, I thought of the tally for the “intolerable deal of sack” in Henry IV and scribbled “Falstaff” in the margin. As if to help my thought along, there was Amis, not many pages later, comparing himself to the old knight. Profane and surfeit-swelled he certainly was, the majestic trumpetings becoming louder but less amusing, as of a dying pachyderm, while he became more of a fool and less of a jester.
However, no “Imperialist Racist Fascist” sexist could have hoped to evoke the genuine admiration and mourning of two of Britain’s strongest literary feminist voices, Janet Montefiore and Rosie Boycott. Nor—though this is perhaps slightly more arguable—could anyone who was entirely selfish have been forgiven by so many family members and ex-lovers who could have complained of being wronged. Just as the image of the expiring elephant suggests a massive pathos, so it became apparent that Amis, very far from being a misanthrope, was lonely and frightened and more in need of other people than he liked or dared to admit.
It is sad to find that his muse of alcohol—the gift of Bacchus—was what got him in the end, but there are several novels, beginning with One Fat Englishman, in which he quite clear-sightedly sees this coming, and one might in valediction remember what Winston Churchill said about brandy, which was that in life’s eternal wager, he had gotten more out of it than it had taken out of him. Indeed, you couldn’t have one Kingsley without the other, and Zachary Leader’s wonderful book shows us both of them, as it illustrates the rival processes of composition and decomposition.