Frequently funny writing, nasty life

June 24, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

The Life of Kingsley Amis

By Zachary Leader

Pantheon Books / 996 pages / $39.95

The life of Kingsley Amis was nasty, brutish and a bit too long. With flashes of brilliance. A popular and prolific writer, Amis produced 25 novels, seven volumes of poetry, 11 nonfiction books, 17 edited works, nine plays for radio and television and 1,300 pieces of journalistic ephemera. As one of Britain's "Angry Young Men" of the 1950s, he was a compelling personality, clever, clubbable and iconoclastic. But Amis never quite matched his early success with Lucky Jim, a hilarious satire of university culture. Long before his death in 1995, phobias, self-doubts, erectile dysfunction and booze had overwhelmed him. A self-absorbed, inconsiderate bigot, Kingsley had lost his court.

Based on an avalanche of correspondence and over a hundred interviews with people Amis befriended, beguiled, besmirched, betrayed, and begat, The Life of Kingsley Amis is an authorized, but by no means sanitized, biography. To reveal "what it was like to meet Amis and be him," the book is compulsively - and excessively - detailed. Fortunately, Amis' life was rarely dull and Zachary Leader, a professor of English literature at Roehampton University, is an elegant stylist and a superb storyteller. He almost succeeds in generating sympathy for his talented and tormented subject.

Leader believes that Amis was the finest British novelist of comic realism in the second half of the 20th century. An important literary critic as well, he evinced a prescient predilection for popular culture, especially science fiction, and a healthy impatience with anything that retarded a novel's narrative and anyone who searched for symbols and intertextual references - or made literature a mere auxiliary to politics and sociology. Amis loved to skewer academic discourse "on such questions as the significance of the two shades of yellow in the clothes worn by the wife and husband of Lawrence's Two Blue Birds, or the possible Homeric overtones of the name Helen in Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Surprisingly, then, Leader probes Amis' fiction for insights into his personal life. As he knows, there are "dangers in such speculation." Without denying that, in some sense, all novelists draw on their own experiences, Amis insisted that his fiction was "firmly un-autobiographical." Even if it isn't, Leader acknowledges, "the life finds its way into the writing, disguised, displaced, complicatedly re-configured." Since biographers often cannot separate the actual from the invented, moreover, they tend, at best, to use fiction to confirm already documented claims about their subjects. Or worse, Amis feared, as part of a "reductive, de-universalizing, anecdote-hatching process."

Nonetheless, Leader presses ahead, drawing imprecise parallels between real and imagined characters. The Green Man, he notes, is about an alcoholic who sees ghosts. In Ending Up, Amis made room for his mother-in-law's malicious outbursts. In Jake's Thing, Amis' sex therapist is "disguised" as Dr. Proinsias Rosenberg. The bitter divorce between Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard "helps explain the venom" of Stanley and the Women. And the co-habitation of Peter and Rhiannon in The Old Devils "resembles" the bizarre living arrangement Amis worked out at the end of his life with his first wife and her husband. These observations provide readers with the rush that comes with "special knowledge," unavailable to those who know the novelist only through his fiction. They don't illuminate Amis' life or his texts.

That life, Leader demonstrates, was animated by "alarming appetites and energies." And, we might add, selfishness and mean-spiritedness. At a fried clam joint, Amis announced, "I want more than my share before anyone else has had any." He meant it. With his best friends, Philip Larkin and Robert Conquest, Amis was unreliable and callous. When Larkin was dying from cancer of the esophagus, Leader writes, "Amis's novel-writing took precedence over correspondence, shockingly so." His treatment of his two wives and three children was shabby. He completed more passes (with married and unmarried women) than Johnny Unitas, without regard for the consequences of his actions. And he lashed out often at African-Americans and Jews, opining that the only way to preserve white civilization in South Africa was to "shoot the nignogs," or asking his son if he was reading a book by "some Jew."

Leader does not excuse these slurs, but he struggles to put the best face on them. Like the character in One Fat Englishman, he suggests, "being a bastard and realizing it" was a cross Amis bore - and explored in his fiction. And, Leader believes, "Amis's animuses emanated from a desire to `wind people up, or to test them', or to bend them to [his] will, or to assert male commonality, or because he was `in a mood.'" Maybe. But, then, again, maybe Amis meant what he said.

Near the end of his life, in Swansea, the novelist signed the visitors' book of his friends Virginia and Michael Rush, in an unsteady hand: "Kingsley Amiss." At long last, it seems, he got it right.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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