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.