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Return of the Kingsley

Prayers have been answered: Kingsley Amis’s novels Lucky Jim [1] and The Old Devils [2] 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).”

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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 Stanley and 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.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Return of the Kingsley"

#1 Comment By KateLE On September 27, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

Lucky Jim was one of my favorite books as a teenager. Re-read it a couple of years ago, and did not like it at all this time around, but cannot really figure out why.

#2 Comment By Ted Fontenot On September 27, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

Stanley and the Women is a favorite of mine. I think it’s reputation as misogynistic is undeserved. Or, should I say, merely misogynistic? The men get it in the neck, too. The balance between comedy and seriousness is well-maintained. There’s an air of of helplessness about the thing. The characters are well drawn, those satirized especially so.

#3 Comment By Russell Seitz On September 27, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

Let us not forget that Kingsley had a good Cold War.

His literary junta hastened the Evil Empire’s end by drinking its defenders under the table at long lunches at an Italian restaurant in the Portebello Road.

#4 Comment By Peter On September 28, 2012 @ 2:23 am

I’ve nothing of much consequence to add here, but Lucky Jim is the book–the book–that pushed me into my current work. I read and re-read it. It’s such a cool work, and KA such a wonderful writer.

#5 Comment By Steve Sailer On September 28, 2012 @ 2:41 am

Wow, “Lucky Jim” was out of print in America? That’s bizarre.

Here’s the hangover scene from “Lucky Jim:”

“Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad.”

#6 Comment By buddy66 On September 28, 2012 @ 4:13 am

Wow, I just had a flashback hangover! What great writing.

#7 Comment By Jon On September 28, 2012 @ 8:52 am

It would be nice, just once, for a conservative to enjoy something without claiming/whining that one had to overcome such obstacles, such liberal obstacles… and only just barely by the skin of one’s teeth, or else the object in question would have passed into oblivion. Shhh! Hide that Amis book under the FT, a liberal is coming!

Hardly any author of Amis’ generation could hope to be as ubiquitous as Kingsley Amis.

#8 Comment By Merritt Moseley On September 28, 2012 @ 9:24 am

Glad to see this appreciation, though I agree with Jon, above, and remind people that, when he wrote Lucky Jim, Amis was a Socialist. Two corrections–the James Bond novel was called Colonel Sun. And there’s no reason to think Jim Dixon teaches at a Welsh college. Yes, he works for Professor Welch. Yes, the next novel, That Uncertain Feeling, is set in Wales, and Amis himself taught in Wales, but he said Lucky Jim was prompted by a visit to Philip Larkin at the University College in Leicester.

#9 Comment By Ted Fontenot On September 28, 2012 @ 9:36 am

Well, there was a set of Kingsley haters who despised him for his political views, not for the quality of his writing, and they should be called out. However, it is true that during his life he definitely was a high-profile writer.

For writers that have been unfairly relegated to obscurity, see Peter De Vries (Comfort Me With Apples, Let Me Count the Ways, and The Vale of Laughter–for his progression from straight comedy to dark humor). Or the more recent, and horrendously underappreciated Thomas Berger (Little Big Man aside, there’s the Reindhart quartet, especially Reinhart in Love, Killing Time, and Sneaky People). Work to bring these two neglected writers back into our literary consciousness.

#10 Comment By Roy Turner On September 28, 2012 @ 10:15 am

Just started reading Girl, 20, my first Kingsley Amis in a long time. I shall put down my drink. leave the room and read a lot of Kingsley Amis.

#11 Comment By alan nourie On September 28, 2012 @ 10:44 am

You may want to revise your remarks obout KA and female novelists. See his reviews of Elizabeth Taylor(the novelist, not the actress) reprinted in The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction 1954-1990. He was a Big fan.

#12 Comment By Ryan On September 28, 2012 @ 11:24 am

“Take A Girl Like You” is great fun for the most part, but it ends with a rape that magically solves the female protagonist’s sexual hang-ups. How is that not “misogynistic?”

#13 Comment By Frank Gado On September 28, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

I loved Lucky Jim when I read it in 1958 for a course in which the professor declaimed that the trajectory from Lord Jim to Lucky Jim in the syllabus reflected the decline in the scope and ambitions of 20th C literature.

Since that first reading, I became a college professor. The population of that relatively small quasi liberal arts college reminded me of Lucky Jim.(An invitation to the President’s house for an intimate dinner with the presidential and decanal couples led to the “polite” question, “Which church do you belong to?,” I replied “None.” The two wives understood that I hadn’t joined any of the local affiliates, so they asked about my religion. I didn’t want to embark on a theological discussion, so I said, “You would probably call me an atheist,” whereupon one of the wives asked the other, “Why, I never met an atheist, have you?” The addressee replied, “No, oh wait, yes. Remember X? But then he turned Episcopalian when his mother died.”

This was not my element, and I had my battles, but I must say that, forced to choose between two distasteful alternatives, I would prefer the Old Stodgies to the empowered, ignorant-yet-self-righteous rabble who seized power.

Maybe Lucky Jim is not much read today because the academy it described has been superseded by a different, even more vicious crowd.

#14 Comment By Dan McCarthy On September 28, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

There is a slight misquotation here. The quote about Jim’s dreadful article should begin with the words “It was a perfect title,” not “It was a perfect article”.

#15 Comment By Matthew Walther On September 28, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

Dan,

Damn. Reads the same in my MS.

#16 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On September 28, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

(Just for clarity’s sake — that’s a different Dan McCarthy than your humble editor, who comments under his full name.)

#17 Comment By RN On September 29, 2012 @ 7:49 am

…and as well as this: ‘You may want to revise your remarks about KA and female novelists. See his reviews of Elizabeth Taylor(the novelist, not the actress) reprinted in The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction 1954-1990. He was a Big fan’, you might want to revise your views about him hating homosexuals. Why would he make so many sympathetic characters out of queers (the word he would have used), if he hated them? For example: Charlie’s brother, Victor in ‘The Old Devils’; Colonel Manton in ‘The Riverside Villas Murder’ and Max Hunter in ‘The Anti-Death League’.

#18 Comment By Bob Harper On September 29, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

I wonder if this line, “Like Paul Ryan’s financial guru Ayn Rand he never made a single investment.” was really necessary, or was it simply a bow to the Zeitgeist. It added nothing to the review.

That said, it’s good to see an appreciation of Kingsley Amis, whose Lucky Jim remains one of the greatest of all comc novels.

#19 Comment By Michael Sherman On September 30, 2012 @ 6:49 am

If Americans overvalue any writers more grossly than their own, it is British writers. Jim Dixon resembles Richmal Crompton’s William in his philistinism, his violent impulses, his attitude to authority (outwardly truculent but inwardly truckling), his habit of eating (though in Jim’s case it’s drinking) until he’s sick, and even his sexuality (a girl he doesn’t like is coming after him, while there’s one he fancies but doesn’t think he’d good enough for). Jim’s adversary is a chimera who sometimes has the lines of a travelling salesman (‘One of the best, she is’) and sometimes those of a Victorian guyed in a 1920s review (‘Tremendous body of men, the gentlemen of the press.’). Don’t forget, Conservatives, that the professor set up for ridicule is a conservative (very strange as he is a medievalist and the left in 1950s Britain had had a half-nelson on medieval studies since the days of William Morris – right wing medievalists existed but were so rare as they would be worth a comment).
I got some of the above from Brigid Brophy but no less true for that.

#20 Comment By Steve On October 1, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

Nabokov purple? Updike the same?

#21 Comment By Roddy Netzer On October 2, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

Kingsley Amis did not hate America. He spent a lot of time here (teaching jobs at Princeton then later at Vanderbilt), considered moving here permanently, set two novels here, and wrote of his fondness for Americans, and for New York City in particular, in the Memoirs.

And RN is right about the sympathetic homosexual characters. Not just sympathetic, but in the cases of Hunter (The Anti-Death League) and Manton (the excellent Riverside Villas Murder), dashing as well — effectively the heroes of the two books in which they appear. Then there is the unfinished novel written from a gay point of view, the adolescent romance in You Can’t Do Both, and Bunty in The Folks That Live on the Hill. All in all, his output is striking for the attractive portrayal of gay characters.

Finally, to pick a last nit, the Auden verse was one poem (“The Platonic Blow”) not limericks. The limericks were Constant Lambert’s.

#22 Comment By paul dixon On October 2, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

rody is a beast! he knows his amis’ well.

#23 Comment By David Rankin On April 19, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

As disgusting men go, Amis is hard to beat. He was a drunken womanizer of epic proportions who targeted the wives of friends and colleagues. He told a professor friend of mine at Princeton that his move on the man’s wife is “nothing personal.” A lot said about the man, right there.
When young and heady with Brit leftist righteousness Amis savaged Orwell’s late satires. Is it just a coincidence that Amis “turned right” after he became rich and famous? ( See his essay, “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right.” )
The “happy ending” of Lucky Jim is a cop-out, and unjust in Aristotelian terms. Jim Dixon is a punk who doesn’t deserve to get the girl.
The old British academic establishment is an easy target — an Aunt Sally in the person of Welch. Amis’s hand is too heavy to qualify as genuine satire.
The book came out just as the restlessness that exploded in the 1960’s was ginning up. It is, at bottom, an adolescent book.

#24 Comment By David Rankin On April 20, 2014 @ 12:59 am

Let me add that in these interviews Amis looks bloated and buttery — a veritable image of Colonel Blimp, a bete noire of his youth. Irony turned against an ironist.