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May 24, 2007

Kingsley Amis's determination to be free from cant eventually turned his existence into a kind of prison, argues David Womersley: The Life of Kingsley Amis - Zachary Leader

Posted by David Womersley

The Life of Kingsley Amis
by Zachary Leader
Pp. xii + 996. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006.
Hardback, 25

Since his death in 1995, Kingsley Amis has become the most biographised of twentieth-century English authors. His own Memoirs had come out in 1991; Eric Jacobs' controversial and eventually disowned Kingsley Amis: A Biography appeared in 1995; Martin Amis's Experience followed five years later in 2000; and now, finally (?) Zachary Leader has published this lengthy, exhaustive but absorbing account of the writer who, it seems, is fast becoming the central figure - or at least the most written-about - in the English literary world of the later twentieth century.

Ten years ago, this would have been surprising. In some quarters Amis's actual death seemed just like the physical corroboration of an artistic suicide which had been long pursued, and indeed successfully accomplished, some time before. Lucky Jim (1954) had launched Amis's career in the most emphatic and stylish way possible (Leader is excellent on the circumstances surrounding the publication of that work, and evokes with great skill how Amis was catapulted from more or less complete obscurity to celebrity - as we would now call it - in a very short space of time).

The exhilaration this produced in Amis is captured in a letter at once avid, hubristic, and doomed, which he wrote to Larkin three weeks before Lucky Jim was published:

What I want . . . is a chance to decide, from personal experience, that a life of cocktail parties, cars, week-ending at rich houses, wine, night-clubs and jazz won't bring happiness. I want to prove that money isn't everything, to learn that pleasure cloys.
The witty puncturing of what the outsider will naturally suspect to be the hypocritical pieties mouthed by those in secure possession of all these supposedly ineffectual or transient sources of satisfaction is to be relished; but the joke's bitter aftertaste arises from the fact that (as Leader remarks) Amis did indeed get the chance to test out these pieties, and perhaps in the event found them to be not so wide of the mark.

However, according to the accepted wisdom, with Lucky Jim Amis planted his flag on a peak he was never again to scale. The novels that followed did not achieve the same impact, and Amis then retreated into genre fiction, of which the apogee (or nadir) was not so much the extolling of science fiction as a form (his Princeton audiences in 1958-59 must have found this a surprising choice of subject for his Gauss Seminars), but rather the James Bond sequel, Colonel Sun (1968).

His personal life followed suit, declining precipitately from glamour to seediness by way of the ill-judged Sanderson advert, mercilessly lampooned in Private Eye. Drink played a starring role in this descent. In Lucky Jim, it is drink which allows Jim to give the lecture he otherwise would not have dared to deliver, which frees him from the bondage of academic life, and which gets him the girl. In Amis's case, drink seems to have lost him the girl for whom he walked out on his first wife, Hilly, delivered him into a bondage of dependency which he insisted on representing as choice, and prevented him from seeing (or at least from acknowledging that he could see) the noonday truth of certain injustices in the world simply because they were associated with causes adopted by the fashionable.

It is at this point that we enter Amis's Garrick years, years of obstinate drinking, of even more obstinate talking, and of an obstinate conviction that certain qualities - American-ness, for instance - were an infallible indication of badness. Those in whose mouths this orthodoxy about Amis was most often to be found did not always speak as if they had actually read the books they were happy to denounce, still less as if they had witnessed the encounters they gleefully related, and - still less again - as if they had ever met the man they were perfectly willing to traduce on the basis of hearsay. But by this time Amis had become such a pariah among the bien-pensant that such scruples would have been dismissed as ridiculous nit-picking. The truth about Amis lay on the surface, and was too plain not to be acknowledged by anyone who was not in secret sympathy with his regressive attitudes.

It would be an hyperbole to say that Leader's biography completely overturns this view, and gives us an Amis who is an indefatigable advocate of progressive causes, a tireless champion of his fellow-man whoever he may be, a lover of children and animals, a man always sensitive to the beauties of nature - these, as Geoffrey Madan put it, so-common attributes of the recently-dead. What Leader achieves is much more interesting, much more plausible, and much more subtle. Keats, as Leader tells us, was not one of Amis's favourite poets (he wrote an attack on Keats's "self-indulgence" for the second issue of Essays in Criticism). But Keats's remark about Shakespeare, that he lived a life of allegory upon which his works were a commentary, could be applied to Amis. His generation were marked above all by the intellectual, rather than the material, aftermath of World War Two (grim though that material aftermath was, as Leader's biography almost incidentally testifies).

The key intellectual legacy of that conflict was, in those who survived it, a determination never to be taken in, and therefore an intense fear of phoneyness. In Amis, this was one of many fears which increasingly dominated his life - fears of being alone, of flying, of travelling at all, of the dark. Those who act out of fear are in the grip of compulsions, and it is the compulsive nature of Amis's life and career which Leader evokes with great skill and insight. Amis's determination to be free from cant eventually turned his existence into a kind of prison from which (unlike for Jim Dixon) there was no escape. Leader's biography is a meticulous and moving account of Amis's life, composed with great craft and restraint.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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