There is nothing else like the careening prose of Sir Kingsley Amis. Somehow his syntax, his diction, and his tone have a way of collapsing in sync, so that the reader is left lurching in an air pocket of laughter. I have long thought Amis to be the funniest writer in the English-speaking world, and he is that, off and on, in this latest of his productions. So the first thing to say is that if you’re looking to be entertained, then Amis’s Memoirs is quite a treat.
Now I’ve put it that way so that I will feel quite free—as a devoted fan of Kingsley Amis—to grumble about these same disappointing Memoirs. The book’s a toot, but it’s also lazy and evasive, a ragbag that doesn’t cohere, containing as it does an uneasy mixture of sentimentality, meanness, philistinism, snobbery, complacency, and coarseness. Is it possible that this inchoate assembly might have some point or overriding idea, other than the ineffable superiority of the Amisian view? If so, it is not stated, though I think it might be intuited.
I believe I can isolate two themes either left undeveloped or else avoided by the author that hint at the structure of a real book—the one the author withheld. One of those items is intellectual, the other spiritual. The first is the story of a novelist and academic; the second is the tale of a man uneasily in search of love—a man who found sex and booze instead of soul. There simply isn’t much here about the novelist. Instead there is this careful disclaimer: “Who would want to read about the time I had thinking up and writing one book and what I felt about its reviews, sales, translation into Catalan, or about how I spent my summer holidays in 1959?” The calibrated disingenuousness of this preemption shows just how thoughtfully its author has considered his avoidance of the curiosity of his public. And the humor of its expression characteristically beclouds the anxiety of the writer, who may be a bit worried that his readers might notice his contempt for their intelligence. After all, they have been put in the position of saying, “We’re not interested in how a writer writes. We know writers don’t care about their work or its reception, and we don’t care either.” And they will later see that they have also been put in the position of saying, “Tell us the dirty stuff. Tell us the naughty bits about dead people who can’t answer back. Above all, no ideas please—just lots of drinking stories.”
So there isn’t much here about writing, though there is rather a great deal about the creative superiority of Kingsley Amis, who never “lost it” even though he seems to have processed as much alcohol as all those who did. There isn’t much here either of the academic persuasion, and on this point I must say that though Amis taught for years, there is hardly a word in his Memoirs that would convince anyone of his academic background and experience. Two of the worst chapters are about his academic sojourns in the States, but these only go to show that he shouldn’t have bothered. The author of I Like It Here should have stayed there, since he seems to have a blind spot where the U.S.A. is concerned. His notion of a nice bit of Americana seems oddly chosen, and is phrased with all the elegance with which he has graced this volume: “[A]ny one who walks up Fifth Avenue (say) on a sunny morning without feeling his spirits lift is an a–hole.” Add to that his representation of Nashville and Vanderbilt—which emerge as something of a cross between a KKK gathering and an episode of Hee Haw—and we must conclude that Colonel Blimp is not much to be preferred to the Ugly American. Even a brilliant novelist is only a human being after all, and there is something about this country that turns Sir Kingsley into Fred Scuttle. In short, his reflections on the colonies and their culture are dumb and even (as on the battle of Nashville) nasty.
No, the literary and historical stuff isn’t Amis’s strong point, though I daresay it could have been if he had been interested. Instead there is a thread of inverted spirituality in these memoirs that hints at the book that didn’t get written. The resentful portrait of Malcolm Muggeridge suggests to me a jealousy of Muggeridge’s faith—a faith denied to and by an author who shows his fear of death in his last chapter. Amis’s postmortem barbs cut both ways: “. . . he developed an amazing capacity for investing platitudes with an air of novelty and freshness: ‘What we all have to realise,’ he would say, screwing up his face in the familiar way that meant something important was coming, ‘is that we live in an increasingly materialistic society.'” But Amis himself has not avoided similar platitudes, as for instance in his treatment of Elizabeth Taylor—the English novelist, I mean, not the American whatever.
Complacency and, whiskey may make a fine breakfast, but they constitute a bad supper. Avoiding the important stories of his life—of his marriages, of his novels, of his political enlightenment, of his study and knowledge of English literature—Amis has devoted most of his energies to relating trivia about hangovers, hanky panky, booze hounds, and famous or not so famous dead people he has known. After the tittering has subsided, some readers may agree with me that the book leaves a bitter aftertaste—the sense of having been stiffed. But look again: for perhaps no one has been so shortchanged by Kingsley Amis as he has been by himself The aggressive ego that peeps between the lines—that fires the male libido and the novelist’s stamina, and that is cloaked in comic gestures—here has hidden itself in the novelist’s disavowal, in the satirist’s “modesty.” The focus on others shrouds a twisted self-love; all the laughter muffles a scream in the dark. Though these memoirs are spirited and spirituous, they aren’t spiritual. They weren’t written in the right spirit.
[Memoirs, by Kingsley Amis (New York: Summit Books) 346 pp., $25.00]