The Old Devil and the Whole Man: Kingsley Amis at 100
On the birth centenary of one of England’s best humorists.
Quite a few lovers of English literature raised a glass—specifically a Macallan single malt Scotch with a dash of water—this past April. The occasion? The centennial of the birth of the greatest comic writer of his generation, and kingfish of the literary quaffers as well: Kingsley Amis.
Make that two or three glasses—er, no, “Let’s do this right,” I can hear him bellowing. “Prepare a decent-sized flask.” Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990 for his “services to Literature” and known affectionately to his friends as “Kingers,” Amis was a man of letters who excelled above all as a novelist and cultural critic. Along with his lifelong friend, the poet Philip Larkin, he has a strong claim to being the best-known British writer of the second half of the twentieth century.
Bursting on the literary scene as the author of Lucky Jim (1954), a satirical gem and the first British campus novel, Amis (1922-1995) followed that tour de force with another twenty novels, pulling off the feat of being both best-selling and critically acclaimed throughout the next forty years. Numerous contemporaries achieved commercial success; many others impressed the reviewers or dazzled the literary academics. Yet Amis was virtually alone as a mainstream novelist who, consistently, both captivated the broad reading public and attracted serious, if at times severe, attention from the literary-intellectual elite and literary scholars. The masterpiece of his mature years is surely The Old Devils, published in 1986, which received the august Booker Prize, a combined British version of the Pulitzer and National Book Award, beating out Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and other strong contenders.
Like so many others, I first met Amis in the pages of his hilarious debut novel when I read Lucky Jim in the mid-1970s before my first trip to England. It was a quarter-century after the publication of the novel and the British university world that it portrayed. Yet, as I soon discovered first-hand, initially during my encounters at several English universities and later as a Ph.D. student in the U.S., Lucky Jim had not much dated—and had indeed remained superior in every way to the flood of academic novels that had followed in its wake on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was an unsettling experience to read Lucky Jim just as I was embarking on my Ph.D. in literary history. Its hero Jim Dixon is a history lecturer at a provincial British university—like Amis at University College, Swansea in the 1950s—whose policy in his teaching and research is “to read as little as possible of any given book.” His scholarly topic is “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485”: “a perfect title,” Dixon muses, which “crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.” As his research proceeds, Dixon reflects that he “had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.” Explaining his topic choice to his colleague Beesley, Dixon points out: “Haven’t you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?”
Bathed in scintillating wit, laced with delicious satirical invective, and sidesplittingly funny on every page, Lucky Jim yielded a laugh-out-loud quotient that exceeded any ultramarathon binge-watch of sitcoms. In the genteel climate of early post-Second World War British and American academic life, its mockery of “higher” education had the force of a convulsive shock—and a revelation. Although the novel certainly triggered personal disquiet that suggested my idealistic imaginings about the exalted vocation of professor needed quick revision, Lucky Jim turned me into a permanent Amis fan.
My admiration for Amis both as an entertaining satirist and formidable polemicist grew with the years. I paid him a visit in 1985. Growing restless as he basked in public praise—Amis hated nothing so much as boredom, even endlessly sunny California days—he had decided to burnish his politically incorrect credentials. His target was feminism. He was returning for a second round. Six years earlier, his novel Jake’s Thing (1978) had raised the eyebrows and the ires of some “women’s libbers” as they were known in the 1970s, chiefly in the U.S. (The novel was short-listed for the Booker in the U.K.) Jake’s Thing tells the woebegone saga of Jacques “Jake” Richardson, a 59-year-old Oxford University lecturer fretting over the loss of his libido and frequent impotence. That is to say: “Jake’s thing” doesn’t work, and much of the blame went to “the women” in Jake’s life.
The subject of “the women,” and incriminations about sexism widely voiced a few years earlier had resurfaced by the time of my visit to the Kingers. On a chilly mid-March afternoon in London, I found myself sitting in Amis’s bachelor digs in a small house in Kentish Town. In a decidedly unusual ménage, the floor upstairs was occupied by none other than his first ex-wife, who served as his housekeeper/cook/chauffeur, assisted by her third husband, in return for free rent and household expenses. (Amis’s divorce a couple of years earlier from his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, had been public and painful.)
The hubbub in literary London about Jake’s Thing and “the women” had died down, and probably would have been utterly forgotten, if it had not been for the appearance of its thematic sequel, Stanley and the Women (1984), published just a few months earlier both to acclamations and animadversions, with the latter predominating. It was “back to the barricades,” Amis announced with glee, reveling in the sniping from the feminist snipers. The reservations about Jake’s Thing now seemed in hindsight little more than a tempest in a teapot compared to the firestorm of controversy attending Stanley and the Women. The twice-divorced Stanley Duke is a quite explicit British version of Archie Bunker—not an Oxford don like Jake but rather a car magazine staffer who handles the advertising accounts. Even more so than Jake, he is a cantankerous, ill-tempered, behind-the-times man of old-fashioned opinions who finds himself "out of touch, high and dry, a survivor from a bygone era."
What are those opinions? Consider a representative passage in which Amis satirizes feminism, psychiatry—and even the Soviets, as the twice-divorced Stanley quotes approvingly a friend who holds forth that women are “like the Russians”:
If you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs.
With specific reference to his ex-wife, Stanley explains that her Orwellian version of history is to “make up the past as she goes along. You know, like communists.”
[W]hatever she said has got nothing to do with what's happened. If you remind her that she said something, and it doesn't suit her down to the ground at that moment to have said, she says she didn't say it, even if you're fool enough to produce a boatload of people who heard her say it.
Asked whether such pronouncements reflected Amis’s own opinions, he told one interviewer: “People are so over sensitive. If they had a sense of humor it would help.” He might have added that three of the women in the novel are presented quite favorably, as a counterbalance to the trio of “difficult” women.
This line of thinking considerably enriches the novel’s title. On this view, Stanley and the Women refers not just to his tribulations with his two wives and female sex therapist, but also to cordial and warm relations with his housekeeper, journalist colleague, and occasional lover, Lindsey. This more inclusive interpretation of the title helps us to appreciate that his Swiftian satire is not directed against “women” per se, but rather against some features of second-wave feminism that Amis regarded as immature, narcissistic, and above all humorless. A line from one of the other male characters is “firmly” autobiographical, in fact, pure Kingers: “The rewards for being sane are not many, but knowing what's funny is one of them.”
He would have fully endorsed the view of Clive James, a younger friend in the circle of his son Martin, who affirms it in an essay on Kingsley in The Rub of Time:
Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing moving at different speeds. The sense of humor is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humor are without judgement and should be trusted with nothing.
However fallacious (or, at minimum, dated) Stanley Duke’s generalizations about women, it is worth noting here that the other half of his analogy—about “the Russians”—seems unfortunately true enough if applied to the current batch of Kremlin diplomats conducting “peace talks” with Ukraine and guided by Vladimir Putin’s speeches on Russian history. Indeed, though Amis’s novels about Russia were often dismissed on the left as the bluster and blather of a Cold Warrior, they seem stunningly relevant—quite unfortunately—in today’s geopolitical climate.
I should add that diatribes about “the Russians,” by which Amis meant Party apparatchiks and the Soviet nomenklatura—not the Russian people—turn up frequently in his oeuvre. Of course, novels such as Russia Hide-and-Seek (1980) were widely condemned in bien pensant circles when he wrote them. Amis had good grounds for some aspects of his critique, starting with the “liquidation” of Soviet art. Consider, for instance, this passage from The Russian Girl (1992), spoken by a prominent Russian dissident on how Soviet Russia coopted writers and destroyed literature:
You don't crush literature from outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish…. You do better to induce them to destroy it themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes…. [This situation has] applied in Russia for a long time, not just since 1931…or 1917.
Back to Stanley and the Women. A few dissenting voices notwithstanding, the novel’s ambivalent reception in London was practically a Kingers coronation in comparison to its boycott in New York publishing circles. It made the rounds for months with repeated, not-so-polite turndowns for Britain’s most famous novelist, including from houses such as Harcourt Brace and Viking, both of which had published him for three decades. Before my visit, leading periodicals such as TLS and the Spectator reported that feminist editors had pressured those publishers and others to rescind offers to publish Amis. American publications ranging from the New York Times Book Review to the Saturday Review ran stories throughout the spring and summer of 1985 about whether Amis was the victim of “censorship.” Rumors swirled in the conservative press about the forbidding specter of a new feminist-left version McCarthyism. The novel was finally published by Summit Books a year later.
For a brief moment, Amis was the center of a feud among New York and London literati about Cancel Culture, circa 1985: "the biggest debate on what should be or should not be made available to the intelligent reader,” as another Amis biographer Richard Bradford observed, “since the unbanning of Lady Chatterley's Lover” in 1959/60. (A telling, curious landmark to cite, for Bradford omits mention that Amis had loudly refused to take part in the 1950s campaign to lift the Lady Chatterley ban in Britain, arguing that Lawrence was nothing more than a sexual ideologue indulging in sexual explicitness in order to provoke a sensation.)
Amis would continue to have immense success with the British public—no fewer than six of his novels were adapted for British film and television during 1986-92—and with the critics. At the time of his death in October 1995, he had more than forty titles in print. He still has more than a dozen today, and Penguin Modern Classics marked the Amis centennial by adding two more, a pair of collections, covering his poetry and his nonfiction. Among Amis’s current top sellers are a “high-spirited” trio devoted to his favorite non-literary activity: drinking.
Reissued in a posthumous omnibus edition, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis includes an engaging introduction by another world-class imbiber, Christopher Hitchens, who enjoyed many a round with the Kingers. A late-life honor that Kingsley valued far more than the Booker—so went the rumor—was his featured appearance in several print ads for the divine Macallan malt whiskey, with partial remuneration, gratefully acknowledged, in his favored currency to ensure “maximum liquidity.”
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At Amis’s memorial service, held in October 1996, exactly a year after his death, his son Martin—perhaps Britain’s best-known novelist of the succeeding generation—spoke wistfully about his father’s afterlife. Martin voiced confidence that the world will “now… begin to see him differently, and not just as the old devil. We will begin to see the whole man.” The service closed with an excerpt from a posthumously broadcast radio interview in which the host asks Kingsley if he would most “like to be remembered as Kingsley Amis the critic, the poet, the serious writer, or rather as Kingsley Amis the man who wrote books that made people laugh?”
“Oh,” he answered, “as somebody who made people laugh.”
You shall be, Kingers, you shall.