Sour vintage: raising a glass to Kingsley Amis.
IN THE LAST CENTURY, English writers came in crops or vintages. Maybe the greatest was the first, born in the reign of Edward VII during the first decade of the century: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell all began life within 30 months of one another. Then there was the crop born in the years after World War II: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwan.
In between had been another generation, flanked by the wars. Two names in particular stand out: Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, both born in 1922. Unlike the vintage of 20 years earlier, they came from modest lower-middle-class homes and didn't attend public schools (as the English call elite private boarding schools), but they went to Oxford, where they met at St John's College in 1941.
They remained close friends for more than 40 years, not meeting often--Larkin always lived a long way from London and Swansea, when Amis was there in the 1950s--but corresponding in letters that were scabrous and indecent, childish but funny. Both men were insular to the point of xenophobia: Amis had a couple of spells at American colleges, Princeton in the late 1950s, Vanderbilt ten years later, but didn't return, not least because an acute fear of flying meant he could only travel by sea. Larkin never visited the United States.
Their friendship ended only when Amis stood in the pulpit of St. Mary the Virgin in Cottingham, a Yorkshire village church, one chilly December day in 1985 and gave a touching and perceptive funeral address for his oldest friend. Larkin had died of cancer. Ten years on, Amis died at 73. He had no specific illness but, weakened by many years of intimate acquaintance with the bottle, was carried away by a bout of pneumonia.
By the time both died, they were famous, though not quite as they had once hoped. Amis originally wanted to be a poet and published a few volumes of poetry, but became a novelist. Larkin wanted to be a novelist and published two early novels, but became a poet. It was Amis who was first established as a "celebrity writer," his opinions eagerly sought by newspapers. A collection of interviews has just been published as Conversations with Kingsley Amis (edited by Thomas DePietro, University Press of Mississippi), and they bring out much of what was most memorable about him, though that means the bad as well as the good.
Myself a generation younger, I got to know them both when they were middle-aged. I knew Amis quite well from the 1970s, Larkin only slightly and later on, thanks to Amis. By then they were both in the process of turning into caricatures, as writers sometimes do--Larkin the miserly misanthrope, Amis the cantankerous curmudgeon. All the same, each left behind a real body of work.
How had they got there? Unfit for military service, Larkin graduated from Oxford and became a librarian, his day job for the rest of his life. Amis joined the army in 1942, served in Normandy as a signals officer, returned to Oxford after the war, and became an academic, appointed lecturer in English in 1949 at what was then University College of Swansea. That was also the year his second son, Martin, was born. Amis and Hilary Bardwell, his first wife, had two sons, and then a daughter. Her birth in 1954 inspired Larkin's beautiful little poem "Born Yesterday":
May you be ordinary; Have, like other women, An average of talents: Not ugly, not good-looking, Nothing uncustomary To pull you off your balance.
That hope was belied by Sally's very sad short life, but that's a story for her brother Martin to tell, as he has.
Although Swansea had its share of insufferably pompous persons of the type Amis lethally pinned down as Professor Welch in Lucky Jim, his first novel, the germ of that book was actually a visit to Larkin at University College, Leicester, where he then worked: "The young man surrounded by bores who for various reasons he doesn't dare to offend."
What might be called the varsity novel was well established in England, often marked by lushly sentimental reminiscence of gilded undergraduate life, as in Sinister Street by Compton Mackenzie or Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. But Amis's Lucky Jim was something quite new, the English campus novel. That novelty was one reason the book was a instant success, in England, then in America, and in many European countries (as Jim il Fortunato, Gluckfur Jim, and Jim-la-Chance, I was delighted to learn, not to mention Jim Szazeaciarz in Polish). It was new also in its hero or anti-hero. Jim Dixon is a dissipated young man trying to make a start in academic life for want of anything better, although he's more interested in beer and girls than the medieval shipbuilding that is meant to be his subject, and his not-very-promising career comes to a disastrous end when he calms his nerves with too much drink before a lecture.
This scene has clear echoes of "prize-giving at Market Snodsbury Grammar School" and Gussie Fink-Nottle's immortal intoxicated speech in P.G. Wodehouse's Right Ho, Jeeves. Amis at his best was in the great English tradition of the comic novel that runs from Thackeray and Dickens through Waugh along the line to, well, Martin Amis in an earlier phase of his career. Kingsley continued to teach at Swansea until 1961, when he moved to Cambridge, but he quit after less than two years and thereafter lived by his pen and his considerable wits.
As with any writer worth taking seriously, some of Amis's books are better than others. After Lucky Jim came That Uncertain Feeling and then I Like It Here, generally and rightly dismissed as a failure. In these first years, he was labeled an "Angry Young Man," the title of a now forgotten autobiographical book published in 1951 by the now forgotten Leslie Paul. But Amis, who would one day become the definitive grumpy old man, wasn't particularly angry at that time. He was lively, bumptious, opinionated, thirsty, and lecherous, just like Jim.
He combined teaching with novel-writing and journalism, a vigorous social life and an even more vigorous love life, although that expression is far too genteel. No one now need be told that when Larkin wrote, in one of his more famous opening lines, that "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three," he was employing the literary device known as irony. Long before that date Amis was a remarkably enthusiastic adulterer, not least with the female students whom, in those bad old days, he was able to treat as a personal harem. It's surprising that his first marriage lasted as long as it did.
In 1962, he met Elizabeth Jane Howard, a gifted writer herself, and left his family. His coup de foudre was followed by years of apparent bliss, and this decade, his forties, was the time of his best work, with a series of terrific books: One Fat Englishman; I Want It Now; Girl, 20; and The Green Man. He was brasher than ever in public, and while he was swerving violently away from youthful leftism, he supported the war in Vietnam, though he combined that with an obstinate vein of cultural anti-Americanism.
To be sure, he was as funny as ever. "So if," an interviewer asks, "I said words like Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow or John Updike or Philip Roth ..." "Please don't," he responds. And "I don't think any Englishman, again thank God, could have written Portnoy's Complaint." Still, he was quite right more than 40 years ago in complaining about "novels that seem to get written for an audience of academics. I don't mean they're academic novels in the sense that they're mandarin or coated with style or anything like that, but they'll be interesting material for university discussion." Being Kingsley, he had to add that he preferred Harold Robbins or Grace Metalious: "what you can't say against them is that they are writing to appeal to campus classes," as though that were the only recommendation any novelist needed.
Then something went wrong. This was in the 1970s, when I first knew him and when he was still boisterous but just beginning to deteriorate. His 1978 novel Jake's Thing is both embarrassing and unsuccessful: the veteran novelist and critic Francis King wrote a review of feline skill in The Spectator, ending with the words, "Not many novelists in England today could have written a better comic novel than Jake's Thing; but Mr. Amis is one of them." The least priggish or squeamish readers were startled by the misogyny (although the final tirade against the female sex has amused even some women), and the theme of a man struggling with impotence is not in truth a fruitful one for the comic writer.
When Amis's letters were published after his death, it became painfully clear that his second marriage was already falling apart at the time, and that Jake's problem was also his creator's. This is a decorous literary essay and not a personal advice column, but two practical thoughts occur. One is that when a liaison begins, as was true of Kingsley's with Jane, on a basis of intense passion, it may not survive the inevitable cooling of that ardor. The other is that if a chap wants to retain his amorous vigor until later middle age, he would be well advised not to drink quite as much as Kingsley did, a daily bottle or more of scotch for years. Then again, Kingsley almost echoed W.C. Fields: "My wife drove me to drink. It's the only thing I'm grateful to her for." When Jane finally said it was either her or the booze, he had no difficulty in making his choice, and it wasn't for her.
As he drank harder and became more surly, his earlier characteristics became ever more pronounced. One of the most astute American critics 50 years ago, Dwight Macdonald, rightly said that although Lucky Jim was a very funny book, it had enjoyed an extraneous success more to do with generation than genius. He saw through the "facile bravura" of Amis's critical writings, and he also recognized that Kingsley and his chums were in revolt not just against "bourgeois culture," which had after all been standard form for the literary intelligentsia since the late 19th century, but all culture.
One phrase in Amis's first book became notorious: Jim hears the strains of "filthy Mozart." Many years later, Amis irritably mentioned the way "Jim and I have taken a lot of stick and a lot of bad mouthing for being Philistine, aggressively Philistine," and he tried to refute the charge: "It's nice to have a pretty girl with large breasts rather than some fearful woman who's going to talk to you about Ezra Pound and hasn't got large breasts and probably doesn't wash much." This is not, I think, the most convincing refutation imaginable.
In his late 30s, Amis said that the targets of his satire were "bores, of course. And anything that might vaguely be described as Right wing." Amis joined the Communist Party at Oxford and remained a member, albeit inactive, until 1956, though he was later evasive about that "brief flirtation," telling Clive James in 1974 that in the nature of things it "couldn't have lasted very long." By the time he became famous, he was writing, not very well, about "Socialism and the Intellectuals."
Then he moved away, far away, from the Left. One reason for his shift was education, or more exactly the decay of the English educational system that has been one of the scandals of my lifetime. And yet, one shrewd interviewer wrote in 1962, "It is not quite clear just how serious he takes his politics." Not very seriously, in my view, and it was as bad an idea for conservatives to treat Amis as an important political voice in his later years as it was for leftists to do so earlier. He was yet another illustration of Cardinal Newman's profound observation that convictions change but habits of mind endure. In whichever political guise, Kingsley was clever without being deeply intelligent, and he had prejudices rather than beliefs.
This is a little ungrateful. In 1981, I wanted to interview Larkin, whom I didn't then know, and mentioned this to Amis. Years later, when Amis's letters appeared, I found that he had written to Larkin commending me, adding that I was "quite good fun, too." So was Kingsley much of the time--and so, more surprisingly, was Philip in his way. As I discovered, he was courteous, companionable, and amusing, quite unlike the misanthropic recluse he was taken for, not without some encouragement from himself.
All the same, Amis turned not merely into a caricature but a gross parody. One of his most vivid characters is Roger Micheldene, the appalling (but thoroughly entertaining) hero of One Fat Englishman. "Of the seven deadly sins," Amis wrote, "Roger considered himself qualified in gluttony, sloth and lust but distinguished in anger." The author was presciently describing himself as time went by, less concupiscent but continually angrier.
In the 1950s, photographs show him as a very good-looking young man. But by the last ten years of his life, he was physically repulsive, obese, bloated, and red-faced, as though on the very point of exploding with rage. Until age 50, however annoying he sometimes was, he was good company, but in those last years people at the club he and I went to would shy away as he sat skulking and scowling with a large tumbler of malt whisky. Along with such not altogether happy memories, how fortunate we are that he also left us his books.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include The Controversy of Zion and Yo, Blair! He is writing a study of Winston Churchill's reputation and influence.