One Fraught Englishman

The turbulent life of Kingsley Amis

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.

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.

By Zachary Leader

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.