In his Journals of the early 1990’s, English novelist Anthony Powell observed that Kingsley Amis (1922-95) “has begun to look oddly like Evelyn Waugh.  He now seems to be behaving rather like Evelyn too.”  On the telly, showing full jowl, pot belly, and beefy complexion, and sporting loud check suits, Amis—who moved from trendy Socialist to eccentric Tory—condemned, with reactionary relish, all the vulgar manifestations of contemporary life.  Like Waugh, the most unpleasant as well as the wittiest modern writer, Amis was an alcoholic, rude, and insulting, bored to death, and finally paranoid—tormented by the hallucinations, hysteria, and panic attacks that Waugh had vividly described in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

Born in a south London suburb, the son of a lower-middle-class clerk at Colman’s Mustard, Amis attended the City of London School and won a “cut-price scholarship” to read English at St. John’s College, Oxford.  There he met his lifelong friend and correspondent, Philip Larkin, a weird-looking, withdrawn, and pessimistic outsider who provided a striking contrast to the handsome, ebullient Amis.  Amis’s education was interrupted in 1942 when he became an officer in the Signal Corps, landed in Normandy three weeks after D-Day, and followed the Allied advance through Northern Europe at a safe distance from combat.

After graduating from postwar Oxford with a First Class degree, Amis brought out his first book of poems, Bright November (1947), with Reginald Caton’s Fortune Press.  The firm made money by publishing pornographic novels such as A Brute Like You and Sadean accounts of corporal punishment in German prisons.  Caton appears, under his own name and with haunting frequency, in many of Amis’ novels.  But, as Richard Bradford writes in the liveliest part of this book, “the real Caton was almost beyond parody, dressed in a greasy suit and collarless shirt and . . . substituting digressive diatribes for answers to questions.”

While working on his B.Litt. thesis at Oxford, “English Dramatic Poetry, 1850-1900, and the Victorian Reading Public” (influenced by Queenie Leavis’ Fiction and the Reading Public and the sort of subject Amis would later satirize in his novels), he landed his first teaching job at the university at Swansea, in Wales.  Twelve years later, he moved to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he loathed the excessive formality, dressing up, respectability, and gratuitous protocols of the cloistered college life.  He also taught for a year at Princeton and at Vanderbilt.  Amis’s first novel—like those of Thomas Wolfe, Philip Roth, and Joseph Heller—was his best.  Lucky Jim (1954), which made use of Larkin’s letters and is the funniest novel in the English language, went through ten impressions the first year and immediately established his reputation.  The poet John Betjeman, in a perceptive review, called it “the equivalent of silent film comedy in prose.”

Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that Hemingway needed a new wife (and life) for every stage of his literary career, and the same was true of Amis.  Bradford notes that the first stage of Amis’s career coincided with his marriage to the charming Hilary Bardwell, the patient Griselda of his life; the second, with his marriage to the glamorous (yet equally submissive) novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who also left him; and the third, with his strange ménage à trois, when he moved in with Hilary and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock, and she continued to take care of him.

Amis met Hilary at Oxford in January 1946 and, proceeding with unusual deliberation, didn’t sleep with her (as he finally announced to Larkin) until May.  When she became pregnant, they refused to get an abortion and married in 1948.  Amis referred to the main characters of Lucky Jim, Dixon and Christine, as “D and C,” which may have been a sly allusion to dilation and curettage.  A nonstop fornicator, he had many affairs during their marriage, and Hilary had a few retaliatory ones of her own before she finally left him in 1956.  “Having one’s wife f- – – – d is one thing,” Amis wrote Larkin, “having her taken away from you, plus your children, is another. . . . It’ll be odd to be a bachelor again.”

Since, as Bradford writes, the university at Swansea “in 1949 was informed by the Chapel-based morality that was still very influential in South Wales,” it’s astonishing that Amis never got into trouble after reckless sex with (sometimes underage) students.  Opposing this moral ethos, he wrote Larkin: “You know what I should like to see?  Apart from two corrupt schoolgirls undressing, I should like to see a bit of life.  Almost any sort.  Drinking, or sex, or fine talk.”  Impressed by Amis’s adventures, the more circumspect Larkin wrote of “your staggering skirmishes / In train, tutorial and telephone booth, / The wife whose husband watched away matches / While she behaved so badly in the bath.”  Many of these liaisons took place in borrowed London flats and evoked the romantic frisson of David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

Only after Amis had engaged in sex, told Larkin and sometimes even Hilary about it, and then wrote about it in his novels did it become authenticated and entirely real to him.  Toward the end of his time with Elizabeth, he lost all sexual desire and made no attempt to treat this problem.  He felt sex had destroyed both marriages and moved from priapic to penitential.  His psychological (but not physical) impotence was probably caused by intense guilt about using up and then discarding all the women in his life.

During his last phase, Amis lapsed into a regular routine: three hours of writing in the morning, rewarded with two glasses of malt whiskey; early afternoon in the local pub, followed by a late lunch and more drinks at the Garrick Club, where he could “get pissed in jovial not very literary bright all male company.”  Evenings were occupied by comedies on the telly, sustained by more whiskey, beer, and sleeping pills—all of which belie the title of this book.  Amis, who lived across the street from the aptly named liquor store Bibendum, wrote two books about drink.  As in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Lowry’s Under the Volcano, his fictional characters drink obsessively.

Lucky Him—a repetitive and intensely irritating book—is literary criticism disguised as biography.  Like an old turkey, it is stuffed with the crumbs of Bradford’s previous studies of Amis’s work.  He has made very little use of Amis’s papers at the Huntington Library and the University of Texas, has conducted very few interviews, and has no footnotes to identify his sources.  He does not describe Amis’s life directly but through his novels, which he reads as straight autobiography.  Though he concedes that “it can be unwise and presumptuous to regard books as symptoms of an author’s state of mind,” he reductively claims that Amis’s personal experience “is reproduced in the novels with autobiographical verity,” that actual and fictional characters are “interchangeable.”  This leads to absurdity when Bradford himself confuses real and imaginary people and, when discussing I Like It Here, writes of “Bowen alone in the Barley [i.e., the Oates] house.”  Obsessed with this method, Bradford constantly interrupts the narrative of Amis’s life (which I have pieced together for this review) with long and tedious analyses of his 46 books.  Bradford devotes, for example, only one sentence to his year in Princeton, but nine pages to his unpublished military novel.

There are several other serious problems.  Bradford’s style is sometimes pedantically awkward.  Instead of writing that Amis and Larkin often exchanged jokes, he states: “It was as though both were in private able to enjoy breaking down the institutionalized borders between comic irreverence and high culture, while in their attempts to produce proper literature they deferred to the humourless conventions of the latter.”  He frequently insists that his points are “intriguing” (a favorite word) when they are actually quite boring.  And he often describes events out of chronological order.  He quotes reviews of I Like It Here before Amis has finished writing the novel and mentions Amis’ encounter with a “splendid busty Redhead” at Princeton well before he ever gets there.

There are, in addition to numerous small errors, some major blunders.  The University of South Carolina Press is not in Charleston, but in Columbia.  The Mediterranean cruise ship that Amis took in 1981 did not stop in Granada, which is inland, but in the port of Málaga.  Connolly’s inscription “To Wystan.  We must love one another AND die.  Cyril,” does not prove they had a homosexual affair.  Connolly was merely repeating Auden’s own emendation of a line in “September 1, 1939,” a work Auden eventually thought dishonest and excluded from his Collected Poems.  And Bradford’s assertion that, in 1967, Nashville “had hardly changed at all since before the Civil War” is patently absurd.

Bradford also fails to explain many important aspects of Amis’s life.  What was the profession of Amis’s father-in-law—“an awful price to pay for Hilary” and the model for the absurd professor Neddy Welch in Lucky Jim?  Why didn’t Amis, after getting a First at Oxford, protest when his B.Litt. thesis was failed for personal, rather than academic, reasons?  What were Hilary’s duties when she supported herself, after leaving Amis, with a job at the Battersea Park Zoo?  What sort of relations did Amis have with his three children (Sally became an alcoholic) when they were growing up and as adults?  Why did he want to live in Majorca after hating the summer he had spent in Portugal?  Why is Tibor Szamuely, “one of Amis’ closest friends,” not mentioned until after he has died of cancer?  Why, if Amis was opposed to translations, did he allow his own works to appear in other languages?  What was Kilmarnock’s attitude about sharing his wife with Amis?  With Amis’s irascible temperament, weren’t there serious problems and quarrels during the last decade rather than “an admirable state of civility and mature solicitude”?

Bradford’s plodding account of Amis’s works, propped up by superficial references to his life, seems thoroughly inadequate when compared to the lively evocation of Amis’s character in his own Memoirs and Letters, in Larkin’s Letters and Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin, in Paul Fussell’s memoir and Eric Jacobs’ journalistic but firsthand life of Amis, and in Martin Amis’s dazzling autobiography, Experience.


[Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Richard Bradford (Chester Springs, PA: Dufour) 432 pp., $37.95]