Performance Art

John Bayley writes about Kingsley Amis

In 1948 I was sitting in my college room trying to work when Kingsley Amis opened the door and looked in apologetically. We must have been conscripted at the same point in the war, but being older he had already been up at Oxford: now he was a graduate, starting a BLitt. Since he was already quite famous in university circles I knew who he was although we had never met. I remember being impressed by his clothes. In those days after the war clothes were drab; grey flannels as common as jeans today. Those who wore smart jobs, like Ken Tynan in the purple-dyed battledress he had cadged off some ex-army student, did so very consciously. But Amis wore his brown tweed jacket and cherry-red polo sweater without giving the impression of having taken any thought about them. He was seeking contributions for Oxford Poetry. As editor he printed long pieces of his own, strangely dithyrambic, almost Swinburnian, and about some never-never land of Audenish fantasy. A far cry from the crisp and sexy stuff he was learning to write with Larkin, then a junior librarian at Leicester.

Amis was friendly and polite in a pleasant unselfconscious way: he seemed natural. Indeed, he was natural, and I think this natural Amis stayed with him all his life alongside the other one, the fantasy persona which grew to be so lifelike. They were like big Amis and little Amis, growing up together and both becoming men of habit – one domestic, the other fabulous – who depended on each other’s rituals.

The best piece on Amis I have ever read was by James Wolcott and came out lately in the New Yorker. It starts as a protest against the English reviews of The Biographer’s Moustache.[*] Wolcott, an unabashed admirer as he admits of everything Amis wrote, points out the totality of fantasy represented by Jimimie Fane, the biographee. As his friend Paul Fussell admiringly told Wolcott, Amis-lovers in America revered him chiefly for his absolute lack of ‘sincerity’, that great American quality: ‘everything about Amis is figurative.’ Wriggling out of sincerity like a tight shirt has always been the Amis thing, and a very liberating demonstration for the reader, causing the almost physical sense of ease which true Amis-lovers feel as they relax with each paragraph. Wolcott comments on the way the original Lucky Jim persona brought this kind of relief to those who welcomed a pseudo-Philistine emancipation from the literary establishment of the day – those who have now themselves become the new literary orthodoxy. As such they have no room for later Amis, liberating as his performance art can still be. Too much of that freedom is now incorrect.

Bien-pensants of today, according to Wolcott, even tacitly repudiate the sunny fantasy persona of Jim himself, and the Amis whose then childishly simple performance went with the ‘shot-in-the-back face’ that Jim put on to confront authority, the operating an AA gun or failing to start a motorcycle acts which entranced Larkin and made him think Amis the only man he’d met at Oxford cleverer than himself. Larkin was in many ways more of a model for the physical style of Jim than was his creator and Larkin’s friend Monica was certainly the inspiration, though not the model, for Margaret, with her adhesive habits and her ‘silverbells’ laugh. It is worth remembering that Larkin had published a masterpiece – his second novel, A Girl in Winter – in 1947, nearly seven years before Lucky Jim appeared. It had no great success, and Larkin cannot have been best pleased (as Anthony Powell would say) by the runaway sales of Lucky Jim – indeed his letters show that he wasn’t. Powell, an expert judge of fictional techniques, was greatly impressed by Jim, and in his recent journals points out some usually overlooked features. Why does the author seem so obsessed with showing that the hero does not behave like a cad to the clinging Margaret? Even by the standards of the time there is something obsolete and Wodehouseish about the anxious attribution of chivalrous if not ‘moral’ scruples to Jim, as if Amis in the novel was concerned to make fictional amends for his crafty and dedicated pursuit of girls in real life. What is engaging about the novel is that the author seems somehow to have arranged for the reader to see all this going on, and to be indulgent about it, just as the reader is prepared to be indulgent about the implausible but certainly comic villain, the ‘artistic’ Bertrand, whom he accepts as having some sort of affair (but what sort? as Powell cogently enquires) with the pretty girl Christine. Christine effortlessly ditches Bertrand and teams up with Jim, which is only feasible according to very crude novel conventions; and Jim’s continued attacks of chivalry show that the novel could easily have been subtitled, or titled, ‘Having Things Both Ways’.

This elaborate process of decoying the reader into lending his indulgent connivance to the letting off of the hero, usually for sins which the male reader (80 per cent or so of Amis’s readership?) wouldn’t be inclined to bother about much anyway, remained a stock feature of Amis fiction, which otherwise continued to show remarkable fertility and variety. The texture and feel of detail in performance – food, movements, smoking, tricks of mouth and utterance– are always deftly and delicately done, and become a kind of mosaic or figured tapestry, substituting for the play of the moral or intellectual life. The reader is encouraged to accept and be fascinated by this; and in the best novels it becomes not so much a substitute as the thing itself – the moral life somehow incarnated in our daily and trivial precisions of being. Obsession with the niceties of being in the right, somehow or other, continues: but in the more sombre novels, like Stanley and the Women, an excessive and almost gothic degree of leverage is used against Stanley’s wife, in order to release Stanley himself into the habitual Amis male state of not being at all a bad chap really. Most readers, I suspect, find this perfectly acceptable, so much has the superb verbal texture of the Amis fantasy taken over the business of the novel.

But it remains striking how much Amis was influenced as a young writer by the moral outlook then thought suitable for a serious novelist – ‘suitable’ in the sense that it had been inculcated into us at university by the then modish Dr Leavis. Larkin was independent in this respect: A Girl in Winter was a far more original novel than Lucky Jim. Early Amis always got round this orthodox moral outlook but never wholly subverted it, remaining deferential to the moral mood and judgment of the Eng Lit bien-pensants, as they were when he was young. The later and most independent as well as subtle novel, The Old Devils, succeeds by getting right away from this moral hangover, plunging into Welsh life (and particularly Welsh women’s lives) as if it were the properest medium for relaxation. Hard to get rid of, subliminal Amis anxieties return in more recent novels, where they make an obvious contrast with the lack of interest in all that sort of thing in his son Martin’s books. Kingsley once remarked of his son’s work that there were no sentences beginning ‘Having finished the bottle the two men left the room’: an indication of the fact that it is sentences like these which seem to have a ghostly but persistent moral grip on the texture of the Amis world.

The magic of that connivance principle always remains strong, though some usually avid novel-readers reject it almost with abhorrence – A.S. Byatt, for instance, in whose novels a comparable verbal saturation comes from a close affinity with real Victorian moral tradition. Amis is certainly one of those creators of a fictional world – Evelyn Waugh and Powell himself being other cases – whose worlds are funny and compelling to read about but would, the reader can comfortably feel, be most disagreeable to have a part in. This simple reader/novelist contract seems no longer relevant today, though it is hard to say why; perhaps because novelists’ worlds are no longer concerned with being so socially present as they once were. It isn’t common now to love reading about what we disapprove of in real life.

The two Amises continued co-existing. When he married Elizabeth Jane Howard they went to live in a big house near Barnet, a matriarchal establishment largely run, it seemed, by his new mother and brother-in-law. Amis rejoiced in this set-up, which seemed to come quite naturally to him. Not in the least the squire or ‘mine host’, his behaviour about the house was more like that of a good little boy who loved his home life. He listened obediently each evening to what his wife had written during the day, as if doing his homework; when not working himself he would rather do anything than be alone. Of course appearances can be misleading, but there was much of the obliging child in the natural Amis. The only revelation of interest in the authorised biography by Eric Jacobs is that he liked his mother to spoon-feed him when he was 12: Mrs Amis senior was sure that with his finicky habits he wasn’t getting enough to eat.[†] The Biographer’s Moustache presents a Wodehousian idyll of a big country house where everything is done for you if you are a good chap and behave well – something no Amis character or persona is, of course, capable of doing. But everyone at Lemmons, the Barnet house, behaves well all the time.

In his last novel the fantasy Amis reaches out arms in open yearning towards the natural Amis. This is rather different from the deliberate attempts (part of the fantasy?) to make amends to wronged wives, or to cry out for love and forgiveness, which rather embarrassingly insert themselves in The Biographer’s Moustache, as once before in The Old Devils. (Amis would secretly have echoed H.G. Wells’s admission that he didn’t give a damn for most things.) Amisian fantasy can indirectly move the reader but it cannot fudge up a direct appeal to emotion. Fantasy Amis is always too hilariously knowing, about himself and everyone else. And it was the fantasy that kept things going: Amis must be one of the very few English novelists who have done their book a year and managed to go on being news, where most book-a-year men, and women, are put out to grass, relegated to more or less obscure retirement with their fans. Sensitive literary orthodoxy today could not forgive Amis for what seemed like attempts to become flamboyantly ‘upper-class’; but that was surely a big Amis publicity gag, even though natural Amis, the good little boy from Muswell Hill, did, I suspect, once take pleasure in that discreet brown tweed suit, with the red polo jersey.

[*] Flamingo, 282pp., £9.99, 4 September, 0 00 225 330 5.

[†] Kingsley Amis: A Biography, by Eric Jacobs. Hodder, 382 pp., £17.99, 15 June, 0 340 59072 6.