The trial and defense of Kingsley Amis

November 08, 1994|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,Sun Staff Writer

The defendant, Kingsley Amis, stands accused of incorrigibly right-wing views and -- worse still -- attitudes deeply offensive to women, all expressed vigorously and repeatedly in his novels.

The counsel for the defense, Paul Fussell, has filed a spirited brief on behalf of his client, who is also a friend. He concedes that Mr. Amis went a bit potty about the Red Menace during the years before it collapsed under its own weight. But the charge of anti-feminism, he argues, rises mainly from the vulgar error of misidentifying characters in a novel with the author -- which is particularly unfair to Mr. Amis, who has created some of the most thoroughly disagreeable characters in contemporary British fiction.

Then adroitly sidestepping the whole issue of the novels, Mr. Fussell invites the jury to focus its attention on his client's nonfictional accomplishments: the literary criticism, the teaching, the poetry, the memoirs, the travel writing and restaurant reviews, the anthologies -- the work of a diligent and productive man of letters. There, he gestures grandly, we may see plainly the character and values of Kingsley Amis and come to appreciate him as a champion of ordinary people, the enemy of pretense, the demolisher of snobbery, the critic of shoddy values.

He makes a good case by inviting us to measure Mr. Amis' moral standing by looking at the targets of his satirical attacks: obscurantist poets who scorn clarity and the common reader, people of means who are stingy with drink, pedants and poseurs and "all who would use literature and art largely as a means of exhibiting their own acuteness and superiority."

Mr. Amis takes aim at the EFTA (Easier for Them Association), which numbers among its members bureaucrats, shopkeepers, restaurateurs and medical personnel around the world who consult their convenience before yours. Mr. Amis abhors the racist faculty members he met as a visiting professor at Vanderbilt University in the mid-1960s ("I can't find it in my heart to give a negro [pron. nigra] or a Jew an A," an English professor says).

Throughout his writing, Mr. Fussell argues, Mr. Amis attacks egotism, affectation, phoniness and fraud, and thereby risks misunderstanding: "Moral satire is not common today, and only a few understand it. Amis is one of its best living practitioners, and it is depressing to see his attempts thrust aside as evidence merely of bad temper and irrational hatred."

Yet, appealing as the argument is, it is not fully persuading. Mr. Fussell presents Mr. Amis as a champion of ordinary people but mentions that in Nashville he despised "stupid country music." However apt that characterization, it is not respectful of the simpler tastes. And if the novels display the "essayistic impulse," resembling "not so much fictions as anthologies of opinions, with the fiction serving as mere carriage or cement." That being the case, it is not an easy matter to separate the author from opinions that some readers find repellent.

The book also disappoints, largely by hinting at how much more the author might have done. Mr. Fussell is the author of an excellent study of Samuel Johnson, a prize-winning examination of the effect of World War I on the modern imagination, and an amusing book on the American class system. But this book looks a little scrappy.

What there is of it is good -- one wouldn't wish to miss the skewering of dishonesty and affectation in the restaurant reviews, for example -- but the decision to omit the novels except in passing references results in a sense of incompleteness.

The book starts out, in fact, as the skeleton of a biography -- Mr. Amis' dreary youth, his career in the army, his early stints as a teacher. It may be churlish to complain that the book is not the one the author chose to write, but one longs for a fuller biographical treatment. The coyness of the brief account of a voyage in 1980 that included Mr. Fussell and his former wife, Mr. Amis, "Kingsley's former wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, and the Powells, Anthony and Lady Violet," leaves one wondering how much more Mr. Fussell might have regaled us with if he had chosen to do so.

Mr. Fussell writes fluently, clearly and amusingly, as always, but this time he leaves us hungering for more.

Mr. McIntyre is a deputy chief of The Sun's copy desk.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters"

Author: Paul Fussell

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Length, price: 206 pages, $23

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