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Books 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"

by Geoffrey Wheatcroft


THE LETTERS OF KINGSLEY AMIS

edited by Zachary Leader.
HarperCollins,
1,028 pages,
£24.99.

EXPERIENCE

by Martin Amis.
Talk Miramax Books,
406 pages,
$23.95.


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.

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From the archives:

"A Thriller With Something on Its Mind," by Frank Kermode (February 1998)
It tends to get lost in discussions of his teeth, but Martin Amis is teetering on the edge of profundity.

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.

AFTER a farcical episode too complex and also too boring to summarize here, the editing of the Letters was removed from Eric Jacobs and entrusted to Zachary Leader, an American critic living in England and a friend of Martin Amis's. His edition is a remarkable work of scholarly industry, but he could have added some more explanatory detail. Thus when Kingsley writes from Princeton about "that old idiot Dwight Macdonald," who was giving a seminar there, the resentful phrase deserves elucidation it doesn't get. A couple of years before, Macdonald had written with his usual acuity about the success of Lucky Jim, "a very funny book but one whose spectacular reviews and sales can be explained only by the youth of both author and hero." He was not impressed by "the facile bravura of Kingsley Amis," and he saw that Amis and his chums were in "rebellion not only against bourgeois culture (this has been, after all, de rigueur since the 'nineties) but against culture in general."

That was not only perceptive but also prophetic. As the years go by, the letters display Kingsley declining into querulous, dyspeptic dislike of any serious contemporary literature at all. Some of his shafts at highbrow affectation were well aimed, but his contempt for Martin's literary heroes, Nabokov and Bellow, was pure blindness. He became a science-fiction fan, rarely a good sign; by the 1960s he was, quite absurdly, acclaiming Ian Fleming as a great writer; and by the end of his life just about the only living novelist he could bear to read was Dick Francis.

As Martin puts it, Kingsley's life described an arc, rising and falling; in fact there were at least three arcs, literary, sexual, and political. Martin's judgment of his father's work is spot-on. After the early splash with Lucky Jim, Kingsley's books got better and better, until a peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he published The Green Man; Girl, 20 (my favorite); and Ending Up. Then they got worse, a steady decline, interrupted wonderfully by The Old Devils (1986), which won the Booker Prize.

His sexual arc took Kingsley from amorous soldier to young husband whose style was never cramped by marriage and fatherhood. As Martin admiringly says, Kingsley was "a promiscuous man in the days when it took a lot of energy to be a promiscuous man." Professor Leader warns us primly that "much of what he writes about women will be deplored." What Kingsley wrote to Larkin and then to Conquest, whom he met in 1952 and who became another close friend, was a catalogue of adultery in exhausting and heartless detail, some of it farce lower than his own novels. In Swansea he met the frisky young wife of a rugby fan, who gave Kingsley the schedule of the local club: "H," for home game, meant her husband would be watching the match and she could entertain her swain for an afternoon in bed (Kingsley put it more bluntly).

Although Kingsley may have been an extreme case, the letters describe an important moment in social and sexual history -- and a contrast that hasn't been given enough attention. Our generation, Boomers born in the decade after World War II, tended to marry later, after enjoying a certain amount of romantic diversion first. His generation, born in the decade after World War I, tended to marry very young -- and then set about illustrating Belloc's lines "The Husbands and the Wives / Of this select society / Lead independent lives / Of infinite variety."

In the circumstances, with energetic infidelity on both sides, it is remarkable that Kingsley's marriage to Hilly survived for more than ten years. In 1956 she very nearly left him for the political journalist Henry Fairlie, still remembered for his shooting-star career in Fleet Street before he fled to America ahead of his creditors. Kingsley handled this rather well. He wrote reflectively to Larkin,

Having one's wife fucked is one thing; having her taken away from you, plus your children, is another, I find. And old Henry, though a most charming lad, is a rather emotional and unreliable one, really, and not quite the kind of chap one wants to see in loco parentis to one's kids.

Having successfully dealt with that challenge, Kingsley was in turn swept off his feet, in 1962, when he met the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (at a conference on "Sex and Literature" -- "one of God's dud jokes," Martin says). He left home for her, married her after his divorce, and spent passionate years with her before things went wrong. Love turned to loathing, as Kingsley drank more and more and gave up on sex, or it gave up on him. This is described in almost more detail than one wants in letters to Larkin, and it produced Kingsley's sorry later novels Jake's Thing (1978; generally thin, despite a few marvelous passages) and Stanley and the Women (1984).

As to Kingsley's political declension, it was all too familiar. In the 1940s he was a member of the Communist Party (the very first letter in this collection is addressed to a backsliding Party member). In the 1950s he was a bumptious leftist writing pamphlets on "socialism and the intellectuals." In the 1960s he began moving to the right. By the 1970s he was a committed Cold Warrior and neo-con (a term that never quite caught on in England, though we certainly had what it described), and in the 1980s he was a passionate admirer of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, not to say a burbling bigot. Yet again I am reminded of Robert Frost's saying he was so glad he hadn't been a revolutionist when young, because it meant he didn't have to become a reactionary when old.

Attempts to gloss over this later phase are unconvincing. At Kingsley's memorial service, four years ago, an address was given by Christopher Hitchens, whom Kingsley was fond of but who might not have been his first choice as panegyrist, and whose attempt at posthumous political correction would have aroused its subject's derision: "In spite of his supposed efforts to the contrary, he couldn't help being decent and broad-minded.... Recall his staunch nonracism...."

I recalled it, all right. Hitchens's address took me back ten years or more to one lunchtime in clubland. I was sitting next to Kingsley, who made some disobliging remark about people of color. Too lazy or cowardly for a serious argument, I merely said, "I thought you were meant to be keen on jazz, Kingsley." The terrifying, bulbous eyes in that great red face swung round on me: "You're not another of those fucking fools who think the blacks invented jazz, are you?" After that I changed the subject. The hero of I Want It Now (1968) is Ronnie Appleyard, a cynical jerk-on-the-make television interviewer who wears his bleeding heart on his sleeve and harangues government ministers about why they aren't doing more for the disadvantaged. He pursues his American girlfriend across the Atlantic and to the South, where her rich parents live. At a party he hears a local racist denouncing the inferiority of blacks, within earshot of black servants. Ronnie suddenly realizes that he is experiencing an emotion "altogether new to him ... pure, authentic, violent sentiment of a liberal or progressive tendency." Kingsley had that effect on me.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and the author of The Randlords (1986) and The Controversy of Zion (1996), which won a National Jewish Book Award.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; What Kingsley Can Teach Martin - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 110-118.