The Life of Kingsley Amis

by Zachary Leader

New York: Pantheon Books;
996 pp., $39.95

No, I’m not sorry.  I’m not.  Really.  And I’m not sorry about a lot of things that we won’t go into, such as believing in the 1950’s that “we” were against communism, and such as ever believing that higher education meant very much, or such as entertaining even for a second, much less decades, the notion that my feelings about Ida Lupino would naturally be returned.

And so I have no regrets about investing my attention in some of the books of the late Sir Kingsley Amis (1922-95).  How could I regret that—and why should I?  Lucky Jim (1954) and One Fat Englishman (1963) are two of the funniest novels ever written, and the latter is a particularly subtle example of the necessary sublimation of the lower energies by its author, precisely because we cannot say “by its protagonist.”  And there are other works of different tones and methods, such as The Green Man (1969) and Ending Up (1974) and The Alteration (1976) and Jake’s Thing (1978) and Stanley and the Women (1984), not to mention other notable fictions.  There are as well collections of poetry and short stories and essays and three books on boozing, a book of memoirs, and an edition of the letters by the author of the present volume.  So take it altogether and, yes, this was quite a talent and career, a real contribution, and even a political and cultural one.  The particularities of Amisland were rather idiosyncratic, and the man had his limitations, but this was a remarkable personality.  If he made us laugh many times, he also showed us something, and for all that, the appropriate response is gratitude.

But that doesn’t mean that we necessarily want, or even that we have been forced at gunpoint or on a water board, to read about Kingsley Amis in microscopic detail for long enough to fly to Afghanistan, where, having finished the procedures, we might then wish to apply for political asylum.  And I freely admit on my own recognizance that I was not forced to read this valuable volume, while conceding with unsolicited frankness that reading it made me feel that I had, indeed, been forced.  And forced again and again.

Let me put it this way: I have recently, thanks to reprehensible lapses in judgment, learned more about the paternity of the late Anna Nicole Smith’s second child than the late Anna Nicole Smith herself knew; and, more recently, I have learned much more about the drinking, driving, and drugging practices of Lindsay Lohan than Anna Nicole Smith ever knew, or than I had ever known, or ever wanted to know, or even asked to know.  But still, even during those elevating moments of instruction and exposure, I never anticipated, much less prophesied, that those woozy dingbats had more human dignity than did the man who was, at least ostensibly, the premier British novelist of the last half of the 20th century.

Kingsley Amis was an only child who enjoyed pretending that he had been oppressed by his father because his father didn’t want him to masturbate.  So he compensated by cultivating sexual chaos to an absurd degree.  Marriage vows, friendship, social contradictions—nothing would stop him from making advances at anything in a skirt.  The amount of pain and damage he caused to his family was great, and the exasperation to today’s reader is not inconsiderable.  Interestingly enough, though, the spoiling of the young Kingsley by his mother was also a lifelong mark.  She literally spoon-fed him for years, resulting in a thumb-sucking passivity that strains credulity.  Amis had to be taken care of, practically babied, for the rest of his life, and he made sure that he was, in notorious circumstances, when, after his second wife left him, he commissioned his first wife and her second husband to take him into their house and cater to his needs and whims night and day.

When Kingers had it going, he was a professional writer, systematically productive.  His support system allowed him to get the job done—and that, mind you, at the rate of two drunken episodes per day going on for something like an adult lifetime.  We would miss the point of Professor Leader’s exposition if it were not perfectly clear from his fictions, his essays, and his letters that Amis was honest about all this in the sense that he never denied how abusive and self-indulgent he was.  And he did sublimate his misbehaviors variously, in his work.

There were some aspects, then, of his personality that have the effect, illogically enough, of discrediting his achievement.  His early membership in the Communist Party was an act of youthful rebellion, nothing more.  His later turn right was emotionally derived to thumb his nose at the usual suspects, even though the most authoritative writer on the gross illegitimacy of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest, was one of his best friends.  His deep desire to caricature and mock what he saw led him to deny himself whatever solace might be derived from engagement with literature.  He did a Benny Hill number on Keats and Jane Austen and much else, but he wanted the cover of the academy, at least for a while.  In addition, Amis’s contempt for and ignorance of other cultures—his fear of travel and of experience—were so provincial as to induce many a cringe.

In short, Professor Leader’s life of Amis—scholarly, nuanced, and unstinting—must produce a bimodal response, as the behaviorists say.  To read about the man who wrote the books, who was often called the funniest man many individuals had ever met, is one thing.  But the schizophrenic monstrosity of the compensating artist is so disgusting that delight is blighted, even as it blooms.  How ironic that Amis should have lived in such a way as to justify the most paranoid of feminist fantasies, the very ones that he had satirized.  How strange that the clever author seems stripped of all authority.  And how sad that, at the end, even with all the books on the shelf, we wind up with no brekkers, no champers, no Kingers.  I have to recall that moment when I remarked to a young woman that I like reading biographies.  “Not me,” she said.  “They all die at the end.”  This is the first literary biography I can remember reading that made me think, Yes, they do all die at the end.  But not all of them die soon enough.