Return of the Kingsley
Prayers have been answered: Kingsley Amis’s novels Lucky Jim and The Old Devils are being reissued in the United States. The New York Review of Books Press has printed the new editions with introductions by Keith Gessen (n+1 editor and novelist) and John Banville (Irish novelist and critic). Eric Hanson has drawn splendid covers for both, but I especially like his Jim Dixon: head down, arms behind his back and hands reaching out from his elbow-patched tweed, his weary cigarette sending up a pathetic little smoke signal as he approaches the lecture hall’s monstrous redbrick façade.
Why has Amis been out of print in the United States for so long? Taste enters into the equation: strict High Tories as a rule prefer the mandarin prose of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell, just as the sanguine among us favor P.G. Wodehouse, who never left the sunny side of the street. Academic snobbery must also be inculpated: the Amis oeuvre tenaciously avoids subsumption into fashionable critical narratives, and Girl, 20 will never appear on an American college syllabus. But finally there is that familiar specter haunting Amis père—his son Martin.
Wander into the literature section of any large American bookstore, and you will see amassed Martin’s fleet of Vintage paperbacks, including his flagship Vintage Reader. His appearance in this series, which collects “the twentieth century’s best prose,” implies that to Americans, or at least to his American publisher, Martin is the equal of H.L. Mencken, Willa Cather, Vladimir Nabokov, and V.S. Naipaul.
British critics have been less indulgent. Thus Tibor Fischer, writing in the Daily Telegraph of Martin’s Yellow Dog: “Yellow Dog isn’t bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It’s not-knowing-where-to-look bad. I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder (not only because of the embargo, but because someone might think I was enjoying what was on the page).”
Kingsley Amis himself rarely had a kind word to offer about his son’s work. After encountering a character named Martin Amis in Money, he threw the manuscript across the room. (Here he was being a bit of a hypocrite: the narrator of his 1972 short story “Who or What Was It?” is Amis himself, more or less reliving the plot of The Green Man.) He accused Martin of “American cleverness,” shorthand for facile experimentation, especially with prose style. “I think,” Kingsley said, “you need more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room.’”
Martin has tried to explain away his father’s decidedly unflashy style by suggesting that, since he also wrote poetry, Kingsley had no reason to quest after the “terrible compulsive vividness”—another terse Kingsley formulation—characteristic of Martin’s own work. I find this unconvincing: why then did so many of Kingsley’s fellow novelist-poets—Nabokov, Anthony Burgess, John Updike—write prose that is alternately purple or eggplant?
The vagaries of literary taste and fashionable mania for Martin cannot by themselves account for America’s neglect of Amis senior, however. Kingsley himself is to blame for being such a memorable public figure: these days Amis l’homme is probably more famous than any item in his bibliography, thanks to his reactionary quotient and numberless crotchets. A literary parlor game could be made of finding the most outrageously illiberal Amis quotation. He hated tolerance, diversity, foreign languages, airplanes, popular music, all female novelists—save perhaps Dame Agatha Christie—bebop and modal jazz, being alone, art cinema, purchasing gifts for his wives, the Arts Council of Great Britain, homosexuals, America, defenders of communism, gardens, and the dark.
Like Nabokov, Waugh, and Ray Bradbury, Kingsley Amis never learned to drive an automobile. Like Paul Ryan’s financial guru Ayn Rand he never made a single investment, though by the 1970s he was spending thousands of pounds on drink every month. He bragged that he could not scramble an egg. He denounced Portnoy’s Complaint, Lolita, Ulysses, and Mansfield Park and declared “Beverly Hills Cop” “a flawless masterpiece.”
In his Memoirs he admits to using Martin as bait while trying to obtain some obscene limericks by W.H. Auden for The New Oxford Book of Light Verse. The Auden poems were in the possession of a peer of the realm “famous for the ferocious vigour and glaring conspicuousness of his homosexual activities.” Amis got the poems—these turned out to be no good—and Martin, who had gone into a bedroom to call a taxi, was chased five times around Tom Driberg’s bed before the gasping lord relented with a terse “Fair enough, youngster.”
Amis’s loyalty to the Crown was absolute. He even claimed to have had wet dreams about Queen Elizabeth II, all of which consisted of him throwing an eager hand upon Her Majesty’s royal bosom and her responding, “No, Kingsley, we mustn’t.” He called Margaret Thatcher “one of the best looking women I had ever met” and compared seeing her in person to “looking at a science-fiction illustration of the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2220.”
Amusing stuff, but it tends to distract from the truth: namely, that Amis wrote some of the best fiction of the last century, including at least three classics (the two present reissues and The Alteration) and a handful of novels (Take a Girl Like You; Girl, 20; and The Green Man) that I would recommend to anyone. Anyway, it’s likely that Amis cultivated his intransigent public persona in order to drum up publicity and get a laugh from friends like Robert Conquest. This becomes especially clear after reading his letters to Conquest and Philip Larkin, in which he seems almost obsessed with making chop steak out of as many progressive sacred cows as possible.
In Lucky Jim, Amis writes with unflagging, almost mechanical energy, like a literary combine harvester reaping, threshing, and winnowing its way through fields of tedium and mawkishness. His debut novel is a dexterous middle finger (or bitten thumb) presented to snobs, puritans, sycophants, and fussbudgets—the literary equivalent of Clement Attlee ordering toast and jam at the Savoy.
Its eponymous hero, Jim Dixon, is a junior lecturer in history at an undistinguished Welsh college. Dixon’s pleasures are simple: he smokes a carefully allotted number of cigarettes each day and drinks a rather less measured amount of beer most nights at pubs. His single goal is to coast successfully through his two-year probation period and become a permanent faculty member in the history department.
Standing in his way is the departmental supervisor, Professor Welch. (“No other professor in Great Britain, Dixon thought, set such store by being called Professor.”) Welch is a dedicated amateur flautist—or, as he insists, recorder player—and busybody who forces Dixon to attend chamber music recitals during impossibly dull weekend visits to the professor’s home and perform quotidian tasks such as doing Welch’s research for him and proofing his manuscripts.
In order to remain in good standing with his department, Dixon must also publish an article, “The Economic Influence of Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485,” in an scholarly journal. Dixon, despite his having little knowledge and even less interest in the period, is a medievalist. Amis’s description of Dixon’s article will ring true for anyone who has ever been forced into academic writing: “It was a perfect article, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.”
Many first-time readers of Lucky Jim find themselves believing that the novel’s title is simply one of Amis’s larger, less subtle ironies. From his drunken burning of Mrs. Welch’s bed sheets to his, well, drunken ribbing of Welch himself during a public lecture on “Merrie England,” Jim’s, it seems, is just another hard-luck story. But Lucky Jim is in fact, as a number of critics have suggested, nothing if not a kind of postwar English fairy tale in which an undistinguished but more or less decent youth gets the girl (Christine, ex-girlfriend of Welch’s exasperating son Bertrand) and makes his fortune (a secretarial position with her uncle) through sheer fortuity.
Lucky Jim was an immediate popular and critical success, and Amis, a consummate literary professional who wrote at least 500 words nearly every morning of his adult life, followed it with a series of comic novels, all of which offer something of his debut’s comedic charm without managing to equal it. The best of these is Take a Girl Like You, his 1960 tale of lost innocence that, among other things, shows us that Amis was no misogynist.
But by the mid-1960s Amis was sick to death of farce and melodrama. He began to experiment with genre—never with style—alternating bitter comedies like I Want It Now; Girl, 20; and Ending Up with, among other things, suspense and spy novels (The Riverside Villas Murder, The Anti-Death League, and the first non-Ian Fleming James Bond novel, Colonel Son) and horror and speculative fiction (The Green Man and The Alteration). During the period leading up to end of his second marriage, to novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who in 1983 offered him an ultimatum: her or booze, Amis’s fiction entered its bleakest phase with Jake’s Thing and Stanleyand the Women. These barely found American publishers.
The Old Devils, which Martin Amis has called one of the best half-dozen novels of the 20th century, must have been like a glass of champagne after downing six or seven pints of bitter for Amis’s longtime readers. Here at last we see Amis at rest: oldish, sentimental, content, the expected skewerings and obloquies still present but no longer essential to the proceedings. The novel’s plot, less well known than that of Lucky Jim, is too good for me to spoil, but it involves the return of Alun Weaver, an over-the-hill novelist, and his wife Rhiannon to their native Wales. The titular old devils are a group of married couples whose lives the Weavers’ unanticipated—and almost literally short-lived—Welsh retirement disrupts.
Amis’s comedy in The Old Devils does not depend not on the usual succession of set pieces and grotesques. For once, his characters are almost soft. Here, early in the novel, are the old devils at table:
Alun began to relax. He went on relaxing over the next drink, when they got on to politics and had a lovely time seeing who could say the most outrageous thing about the national Labour Party, the local Labour Party, the Labour-controlled county council, the trade unions, the education system, the penal system, the Health Service, the BBC, black people and youth. (Not homosexuals today.) They varied this with eulogies of President Reagan, Enoch Powell, the South African government, the Israeli hawks and whatever his name was who ran Singapore?
Notice the verb “relax,” which never appears in the relentless Lucky Jim. See also the casual thoroughness of their political discussion. In a later scene, Malcolm (one of the devils) and Rhiannon enter an abandoned church. Here, instead of the riotous atheism of many earlier essays and public pronouncements, Amis shows himself capable, if not of piety, then certainly of respect and even awe when faced with its trappings. William H. Pritchard rightly compares this episode to Philip Larkin’s poem “Church-Going.”
The Old Devils is also, despite its dedication to Martin’s sons Louis and Jacob, a kind of love letter to Amis’s first wife, Hillary Bardwell, a typewritten apology note to a woman whom he seems suddenly to have realized he loved desperately despite his many infidelities during the nearly two decades of their marriage.
The reissue of these two novels may not guarantee an increase in Google Scholar citations of Kingsley Amis’s fiction, but then, of literary reputations he once quipped: “Importance is not important; only good writing is.”
Matthew Walther writes from Marquette, Michigan.