Do you think he didn’t know?

Stefan Collini

  • The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader
    Cape, 996 pp, £25.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 224 06227 1

Giving offence has become an unfashionable sport, but Kingsley Amis belongs in its hall of fame, one of the all-time greats. When Roger Micheldene, the central character in his 1963 novel, One Fat Englishman, is warned that he’s about to say something he’ll be sorry for, he replies, ‘those are the only things I really enjoy saying’ – and there isn’t much sign that Micheldene or his creator did feel sorry afterwards. The Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling, who overlapped with Amis’s circle in the early 1960s when Amis was in his pomp, spoke of their having ‘a doctrine about being rude’, a topic on which Cowling spoke with some authority. One of the phrases that crops up most often in recollections of Amis’s social manner is ‘fuck off!’, or, as he responded when somebody once had the courage to reproach him for his selfish behaviour: ‘Fuck off. No, fuck off a lot.’

The issue of offensiveness is one of the recurring complications at the heart of any attempt to arrive at an overall assessment of Amis: of his quality as a novelist, his significance as a cultural figure, his appeal (or otherwise) as a man, and his symptomatic and influential expression of one powerful strain of Englishness. Closely linked to this is the question of the acceptable costs of humour. Both as a writer and a man, Amis could be hugely and memorably funny. In the introduction to his excellent edition of Amis’s letters (2000), Zachary Leader remarked that one of Amis’s qualities that did not seem to decline much with age, among so many that did, was his ‘comic aggression’. It’s an accurate phrase, if leaning towards pleonasm, and it underlines the need for targets; giving offence cannot, by definition, be a victimless pleasure. There are also what might be called the ‘opportunity costs’ of humour: to be funny about something is not always to be unserious, but a compulsive drive to turn everything into hilarious absurdity is likely to shut out other idioms, other human needs.

And then there is the egotism. Witnessing the giving of offence, like being part of the audience for someone else’s humour, may have its enjoyment, but, tellingly, the real champions of comic abuse don’t much care for this secondary role, and this points to another dimension of the pleasure involved: it’s a way of performing, attracting attention, showing off, a form of the will to power.

This may seem to be getting a bit heavy as a way of talking about the author of Lucky Jim, if that still engaging novel is all one recalls of Amis, but reading or rereading a wider selection of his work alongside Leader’s sympathetic yet unsparing biography has driven me to brood not just on the relation between Amis the comic novelist and Amis the serial offender, but on the costs (that word again) of his relentlessly mocking idiom, his increasingly wilful insistence on the priority of the laugh, and that streak of inner despair which initially finds expression in an anarchic farcing but progressively degrades into nihilistic bleakness.

No one writing about Amis’s life can help but be intimidated by the dazzling presence of Martin Amis’s Experience (2000). An unclassifiable memoir-testament-album-apologia, this deeply clever book is also a love song to his father, whose last years and death it selectively recounts, interweaving other episodes in the son’s life, including anecdotes from the earlier years of his relationship with his father. It’s much the best case that can be made for the later Amis: yes, he was often impossible, but through all their arguments and rows (the verbals must have been classy), Martin manages to love and, mostly, to forgive. They couldn’t, it seems, talk much about their writing, largely because Kingsley really hated all that clever-clever experimental Nabokovian crap he thought of his son as writing. And when young the poncey smartarse was a leftie (by his father’s standards, anyway), and would go on about it. But one is still left envying aspects of Martin’s relation with his father, Kingsley buying his early post-pubescent sons a gross of condoms or doing his imitation of the dog whose bark sounded just like ‘fuck off!’ (‘When he made you laugh he sometimes made you laugh – not continuously, but punctually – for the rest of your life.’)

Experience ends with an account of the comprehensive falling-out of the Amis family with Kingsley’s first biographer, Eric Jacobs. In agreeing to take on the tasks of, first, editing the letters, and then writing the ‘authorised’ biography, Leader, a close friend of Martin Amis, was thus taking on a delicate and highly charged project, which makes it the more impressive that his biography is full, perceptive and admirably even-handed. Leader clearly has a high regard for Kingsley Amis as a writer, but he does not shy away from documenting his failings as a man (to the less sympathetic eye, the second half of Amis’s life seems largely to consist of failings). One benefit of Leader’s diligence in tracking down papers and witnesses is that his picture of Amis corrects for the distorting power of what is, by any measure, the richest single source, the letters to Philip Larkin. Some 530 of these survive, almost half of which were printed in Leader’s edition, predominantly from the 1940s and 1950s, the period of their greatest intimacy.

They wrote to amuse each other but also to outdo each other, especially in offensiveness. ‘I love the persistent mis-spelling of authors’ names,’ Amis confides at one point, ‘it’s amazing how it lowers . . . the tone’ (Lord David ‘Cess-hole’, for example). Getting the tone down to sewer-level became an end in itself, with much verbal japing along the way: ‘Fucky Nell’, ‘a bit of an R-scrawler’ and so on.

Above all, the Amis-Larkin correspondence was an abattoir specialising in sacred cows. There was blood everywhere (‘Do you know who I hate? I hate T.S. Eliot. That’s who I hate’), and no literary reputation emerged unscathed (‘all those cheerless craps between 1900 and 1930 – Ginny Woolf and Dai Lawrence and Morgy Forster’). It is perhaps not surprising that the publication of their letters did not exactly enhance the contemporary standing of either author, but, quite apart from the faux-naif priggishness of much of the disapproval, there was a failure to allow for the literary conventions of the genre. One of the many services rendered by Leader’s biography is that it reminds us, in the face of much contrary temptation, not to underestimate Amis’s knowing self-awareness about himself and his writing. Or, putting it more briefly (as he did in recording, for Larkin’s delight, his response to an unimpressive poem by John Wain): ‘Could of told you that, shitface.’

Amis was not born into the literary purple, as many of the Bloomsburyish or Bloomsbury-affiliated writers of the previous generation had been, and this humbler background was thought to be somehow explanatory of Lucky Jim’s distinctive tone when it was published in 1954. He was born (in 1922) into the clerical lower middle class, his father commuting from Norbury in London’s southern suburbs to his undemanding but respectable job at the Cannon Street offices of J. and J. Colman, the mustard firm. An only child of bookish disposition, Kingsley won a scholarship at City of London School and then, in 1941, an exhibition to St John’s College, Oxford. Three years in the army interrupted his studies, such as they were (he and his new Oxford friends, including Larkin, spent a healthy amount of time keeping their distance from the boringly old-fashioned English course). Returning in October 1945, he came to recognise that getting a good enough degree to save himself from various dreary fates required some work; going too far, as usual, he got a First, and ended up staying on to do a B.Litt. While still a student, he got married, to Hilary Bardwell (‘Hilly’), and had two children, Martin being the second (a third followed a few years later). Having failed to get any of the several academic jobs he had applied for, Amis was facing destitution at the end of the summer of 1949 when, to his surprise, he landed an assistant lectureship in the English department at Swansea, starting immediately.

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