A thoughtful look at 'The Life of Kingsley Amis'
A new biography by Zachary Leader carefully parses the complex character of Kingsley Amis.
"What you put into fiction isn't the things that happen to you, it's [what] the things that happen to you make you think up."
Zachary Leader quotes this observation by the English novelist, poet, critic and teacher Kingsley Amis in his vast authorized biography The Life of Kingsley Amis. The point is that interspersed throughout Amis's fiction – from the early comedy of "Lucky Jim" to the outrageous misogyny of "Stanley and the Women" on to the preposterous grumpiness of "The Old Devils" – are many things that happened to this popular author in "real life."
Amis himself often felt he needed to disguise his characters or sometimes throw readers off the scent by confusing them as to which person in a particular book was most nearly based on himself. Some of his heroes (or anti-heroes) have been too simply read as self-portraits, but, on the other hand, Amis always admitted that something of his own persona would inevitably be there.
As a biographer Leader abundantly shows how fact and fiction were entangled, and he frequently raids Amis's fiction to throw light on his exhaustive analyses of the writer's own complicated character. It is one of the remarkable aspects of this biography that Amis, for all his astonishing wit and vitality and openness, is in many ways gross, appalling, irresponsible, selfish, inconsiderate, obsessive, insulting, weak and so forth (the list could go on) – and yet, by the 822nd page of this close-knit text, one finds oneself rather inexplicably liking the reprobate curmudgeon.
Amis once rudely objected, in one of his many provocative encounters with friends and acquaintances, to being treated as "a character." And yet, usually fueled by alcohol, he worked very hard at presenting himself to the world as a character.
He considered excessive drinking a hobby and essential to social interaction, and, in his fiction, he very rarely invented a protagonist who didn't drink. Partying was virtually a way of life for him and he got on particularly well with people who shared his passion for alcohol.
Leader is perfectly frank about his subject's faults, but rarely sits in judgment. He allows facts to speak for themselves and Amis to speak for himself. Letters, particularly to Philip Larkin in which Leader says Amis was "wholly trusting and frank" (not to mention jocularly revolting), not only display a penchant for exaggeration and malice, but also reveal his fears and phobias.
He was terrified of being alone, for example, and that was only one of the ways in which he burdened those around him – two wives, children, friends. He never really grew out of being a spoiled only child.
Humor was his chief defensive weapon, and his ability to make others laugh was undoubtedly what endeared him to many. But coupled with this, Leader says, was "the desire to irritate and annoy" that "animated Amis all his life."
He had "no bump of reverence." He apparently enjoyed causing offence. He could be deliberately boorish. In conversation he preferred to monopolize. He was a "contrarian" who "set out to wound." Late in life, at least one friend, a heralded novelist himself, gave up on the friendship, weary of constantly swallowing his own opinions in the face of the overbearing Amis.
"The boa-constrictor, sex," as Amis called it, obsessed him. He described himself as "always on the look-out for a good time." He believed it was "a novelist's duty not to be reticent about sex." In his first marriage he was habitually and unashamedly adulterous – a compulsive lecher. He referred to the notion of being "faithful" as a "funny old" idea.
And yet when his marriage was threatened by his wife's interest in another man he fought like a tiger to keep it together. Only when it did break up (due to his involvement with another woman) does one realize that in spite of all his and his first wife's irresponsibilities, their union did have a kind of stability. His children missed him desperately.
As a university lecturer and teacher Amis was notably kind and generous and made his students feel they were on equal terms with him. Robert Graves described him as "one of the few non-phonies."
He was also immensely hardworking, furiously inventive, and energetic as a writer. The originality of his work opened doors for other writers, particularly in the period following World War II.
And he was always generous about people in need of help. He could be surprisingly amiable sometimes.
Even though it was true that Amis's fame meant that he expected others to treat him as a great man, and that his "circle" sustained that persona, one friend at least said that in fact "there was something great about him." Something that warrants this vastly detailed and readable biography.
• Christopher Andreae writes on arts for the Monitor.