Do you think he didn’t know?
- 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.
Up to this point, poetry was the chief focus of his literary ambition. His later fame as a novelist has tended to obscure his standing as a poet, though by 1979 he had written enough, and was well enough thought of, to merit a ‘Collected’. In the early Swansea years, he had been intermittently working on a novel, provisionally titled ‘Dixon and Christine’, but initial efforts to find a publisher met with rejection. His 30th birthday found him bewailing his lot: ‘What am I doing here? Or anywhere for that matter. If only someone would take me up, or even show a bit of interest. If only someone would publish some books of mine.’ A Swansea friend, noting the Amises’ financial hardship, remembers helping Kingsley load Martin’s pram with empty beer flagons so that they could be returned to the pub to collect the deposits (‘Ah, empties,’ Amis later recalled, ‘my only form of saving at the time.’) Then Larkin (who had published two novels while still in his twenties) read his friend’s typescript, making fundamental and detailed suggestions for improvement. Leader provides an excellent account of Larkin’s contribution to the revising of what became Lucky Jim, a contribution, Larkin was prone to feel later in his life, that was not properly recognised, perhaps not even by Amis.
Amis’s life was ‘utterly transformed’ by the immediate success of Lucky Jim, published at the end of January 1954. Later that year he was raised to the dignity of spokesman for the zeitgeist when ‘the Movement’ was first identified, a group of writers that included Amis, Larkin, Wain, Donald Davie, Robert Conquest and others. As J.D. Scott put it in the baptismal piece in the Spectator, ‘The Movement, as well as being anti-phoney, is anti-wet; sceptical, robust, ironic, prepared to be as comfortable as possible.’ Amis in particular had, as a later acquaintance put it, ‘this laser pick-up for anything pretentious’. He made frankness and lack of pretension seem like a cause well worth giving offence for.
A lot of early Movement writing had a swing to it that came partly from knowing their moment had come and partly from sensing that there was a large and responsive audience for writing that cocked a snook at both the social conventions of the drawing-room and the literary conventions of High Modernism. This audience has been characterised in various ways – young, Penguin-reading, ex-services, ‘provincial’ – but was united by a delight in seeing ordinary human appetites and fallibilities treated sympathetically in fiction. The characteristic tone of the writing was, in a phrase Amis the reviewer used in speaking of one of the forerunners of this fashion (William Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life), ‘non-cosmic and non-operatic; entirely believable’.
Commercially, Amis was the most successful of the group. Success brought him more drinking companions in London and the money to keep up with them. It also brought him a lot of reviewing and other journalistic commissions (Leader calculates that Amis reviewed 75 novels within a year of Lucky Jim’s publication), throwing him into a career as an all-round man-of-letters, which he pursued with gusto. Karl Miller, a frequent commissioner of his reviews for the Spectator and the New Statesman during the late 1950s and 1960s, recalled Amis’s impact in this role: ‘To the older literati he was his jokes and sneers and funny faces, a low and vulgar fellow – which helped to endear him to readers of his own age. To his friends he seemed gifted, abrasive, condignly abusive, enjoyable, engrossing. He was the glamorous beauty of his circle.’ Given what was to follow, it is important to emphasise his human attractiveness in the early years: several witnesses are reported as finding him ‘natural’, ‘easy, amiable, unself-conscious’.
He remained at Swansea until 1961, an increasingly celebrated novelist and critic who maintained a sideline in university teaching, at which point he was tempted away by a fellowship in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge. This was not a successful experiment. He found Cambridge academics dull and conventional; they affected to be mildly scandalised by his excesses (F.R. Leavis didn’t do mildness: he denounced Amis as a ‘pornographer’). It is hard to know whose tongue was in whose cheek in the reported comment of the economic historian at Peterhouse, Michael Postan, that he didn’t understand what was so funny about Jim Dixon writing (or not writing) on ‘the development of shipbuilding techniques, 1450-85’: ‘Fellow had a perfectly good topic.’
Amis remained in his Cambridge job for only two years before, at the age of 41, setting out to live by his writing, which he did with great success until his death 32 years later. But 1963 marked a turning-point in his life in an even more fundamental way. During the 15 years of their marriage up to this point, he and Hilly had each had a lot of sex with other people (I mean a lot of sex: he was ‘a man who used to live for adultery’ during these years, according to his son’s uncensorious recollection). The stormy bohemianism of their relationship was finally put under intolerable strain when Amis started an affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard. Almost immediately, this affair threatened to be different from its innumerable predecessors because Kingsley fell passionately in love with Jane. Hilly finally walked out on him; he and Jane set up together, marrying in 1965.
This seems to have been something of a golden period in Amis’s life: he was in love, and with a fellow writer (they read their day’s tally of words to each other over pre-dinner drinks); he was a well-known author who was diversifying into various forms of genre fiction (James Bond thrillers, science fiction) and popular journalism; he was making money, and he and Jane lived a conspicuously comfortable life. But Leader’s clear-eyed narrative leaves enough clues around for those disposed to look for the seeds of later decline. Amis expected people to look after him, especially if they were married to him. He held ‘wholly traditional notions of the female domestic sphere’, in Leader’s dry summary. Amis organised the drinking, of which there was a lot; Jane did everything else, of which there was a lot more, including paying closer attention to his children than Amis always remembered to do. His writing included more and more meretricious or cheaply ideological journalism for publications such as Penthouse and the Daily Mail; he was gratified not only by the large sums this earned him, but also by ‘the thought of how cross with me the intellectual left will get’.
This phrase signalled an important change in Amis’s public identity. Briefly a Communist at Oxford, and a not-very-political Labour voter in early adulthood, he now became a vocal and even splenetic Tory. Or, at least, he became that kind of right-winger, no lover of toffs and traditions, who may have been more common in American rather than British politics until Thatcherism crystallised some underlying social resentments. He denounced ‘the 1960s’; he denounced ‘liberal intellectuals’, ‘women’s libbers’ and associated demons; and he virulently denounced Communism and anyone suspected of not denouncing it with equal virulence. He noisily supported America’s war in Vietnam. His close friend Robert Conquest (‘Kingers and Conquers’ as Martin recalled them) provided a lot of the stuffing for these views, and the two of them were at the heart of a group that for many years lunched together at Bertorelli’s to hone their invective (‘the fascist lunch’ he liked, tauntingly, to call it). The combination of his increasingly dismissive hostility towards the modern world and a flatteringly eager market for his views was not good for his writing. Leader describes The Importance of Being Hairy (1971) as ‘a television play crudely and unfunnily satirising campus lefties, perhaps the worst thing he ever wrote.’
An admirer from the late 1950s, when Amis could still seem attractively responsive to other people, shrewdly noted that he was ‘a closer off as well as an opener up’; in the course of the 1960s and 1970s this negativity increasingly expressed itself as cultural truculence. He despised, for example, all ‘fucking phoney foreign films’, didn’t read ‘experimental crap’, was increasingly dismissive of ‘American crap’, and so on. He became one of those tiresome cultural pessimists who doesn’t even try to distinguish his personal sense of nostalgia occasioned by the loss of the familiar from a generalised symptomatic reading of change as decline. The prejudices got uglier as he got older – ‘queers’, ‘blacks’, ‘lefties’, ‘females’ – or as Leader puts it, with teasing judiciousness: ‘He was hardly without intolerant moments, especially in the later years of his life.’ As usual with self-conscious bigots, there are mitigating instances of individual kindness to members of these groups to be taken into account, as well as an allowance for the desire to épater les bien-pensants. But, also as usual, Amis showed little sign of understanding the larger social-structural circumstances condensed into such labels nor much awareness of how intellectually lazy and humanly limiting the pleasure of provocation for provocation’s sake can be.
By the mid-1970s his relationship with Jane was showing evident signs of strain. Leader’s account is, as one has by now come to expect, carefully fair to all parties, but it’s hard not to sympathise with Jane. Amis had gone off sex, perhaps as a result of his sustained drinking; in fact, he went off a lot of things other than the routines that he insisted on tyrannically. Finally, in 1980, Jane left him. He was badly shaken. Expressing it in his own way, he wailed: ‘I’ve had a wife for 32 years.’ Having one almost seemed more important than the particular woman. He hated living alone: he was a complete domestic dependent and he suffered various phobias and anxieties that were sometimes disabling when he was by himself.
It seems to have been his sons who hit on an improbable solution. Amis had a lot of money and needed someone to look after him. Hilly, by now happily remarried to an impoverished SDP peer, Lord Kilmarnock, had no money and needed somewhere to live. After negotiation, a curious ménage à trois was established on a partly commercial footing; Hilly had had a lot of practice in looking after him, after all, and at least now she was paid for it.
The other essential prop of Amis’s later life had been in place since 1973, when he was elected a member of the Garrick. Its bar now became the preferred stage for his regular lunchtime performances, which tended to stretch into brandy-fuelled matinées. He liked the Garrick, he reported in 1984, as ‘somewhere to get pissed in jovial not very literary bright all-male company’ (his emphasis). ‘Pissed’, ‘jovial’, ‘not very literary’, ‘all-male’: it’s obviously possible that someone so at home in such company could be, as Leader claims, ‘not only the finest British comic novelist of the second half of the 20th century but a dominant force in the writing of the age’, but it’s somehow a depressing thought.
It would be easy to see the story as downhill all the way from this point, but that would be, once again, to underestimate Amis the writer. After a brief nose-dive following Jane’s departure, his literary energy revived in the early 1980s. In 1984 he published Stanley and the Women, something of a revenge novel (revenge on ‘females’ generally), and then in 1986 The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize. Leader alerts us to the Larkinian echoes in this book, from its title onwards (‘The Old Fools’, one of his most unsparing poems); Larkin’s emotional and imaginative presence seems to have been a feature of much of Amis’s best work.
Amis’s correspondence with Larkin had largely lapsed during the years of his great success and happy second marriage, but it revived in the 1980s, when they could compare ailments and share dismay at the decline of practically everything. There had always been a competitive edge to the friendship, and it is interesting to see how pleased Amis was to be invited to edit The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), partly no doubt because Larkin had earlier been asked to edit The Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse. The will to power assumes another form in such projects, not least in their shared desire to displace the Modernist tradition. ‘We shall have stamped our taste on the age between us in the end,’ Larkin reflected with evident satisfaction.
Larkin died in 1985 – in the funeral address Amis celebrated his friend’s honesty and humour, always his touchstone qualities – but Amis himself went on for another ten years, publishing several more books. Even in his final, heavily criticised novel, The Biographer’s Moustache (1995), he could handle the themes of selfishness and outrageous behaviour in ways that raise the possibility that he understood their place in his own life and had them to some extent under control. But so much of the evidence that Leader has assiduously compiled suggests otherwise. There are too many reports of his ‘domineering’ social style: he ‘was determined to monopolise the conversation’; he could be ‘very dictatorial’; ‘he was full of fun but “if you took issue with him then you were in trouble”’; ‘when Kingsley was arguing, he didn’t just despise your opinions, he despised you personally’; he ‘has a sadistic side to him and . . . he will look for your weak spot and then he will press it’ and so on. The will to power had hardened into a kind of bullying.
Amis died in October 1995, following, as Leader puts it, ‘the loss of everything he needed to live – the ability to write, to drink, to joke, to laugh’. The ability to cause laughter lived on, of course, in his friends’ memories as well as in his books. Leader reports Christopher Hitchens, at Amis’s memorial service in 1996, recalling an occasion when Amis performed several of his most celebrated ‘imitations’: ‘He made all his noises, and by all I don’t just mean the Metropolitan Line train approaching the station at Edgware Road, and I don’t just mean the brass band approaching on a foggy day . . . or even the one described by Philip Larkin as unusually demanding and very seldom performed, of four British soldiers attempting to start a lorry on a freezing morning in Bavaria.’ With self-conscious design, the last word of this very long biography is ‘fun’.
But that can’t be ‘the last word’, of course. Considered as a narrative of the growth and decay of character, Leader’s biography starts to assume the features of an Aristotelian tragedy, in which habits of selfishness, laziness and self-indulgence undermine virtue and lead to nemesis. Strategies for avoiding difficult emotions are at the heart of the tale: turning them into material for jokes, not letting other people’s needs impinge too much, keeping life superficial, amusing, manageable. One wouldn’t be asking Amis to become Dostoevsky if one remarked that some of his fiction, too, might have benefited from a bit more intrusion by the humanly and emotionally unmanageable sides of life. Maybe some of Amis’s vulnerabilities were too raw for exposure, but it is the deadly corrosion of the selfishness that is most in evidence as the narrative progresses: you start to feel that life can be made bearable only if we care enough about things other than our own ease and are willing to reveal or express this care at least some of the time.
One of the effects of Amis’s tone and stance, it will already be clear, is that the critic is immediately cast into the waiting role of prig, disapproving of cakes and ale. How many lives, after all, have produced as much laughter as Amis’s? But those (loosely) Aristotelian reflections I mentioned will keep coming back, here in the thought that one of the constitutive elements in much tragedy is waste. Amis could be ‘an opener up’, but he became a great ‘closer off’. Negativity more and more became his modal form. And this, too, can be a form taken by the will to power. Never venture onto terrain where you can’t dominate. If you can’t be the one in the spotlight, kick the fucking bulb out. And that ‘laser pick-up for anything pretentious’: why was it so alert, so acute, so savage? Pretentiousness deserves all it gets, but by becoming such a virtuoso in mockery Amis was shoring up his own impregnability, too; lots of fun at other people’s expense, with no risk of having to expose his own deeper self.
Then there was the drink. Although in his early work Amis could write about being drunk in a way that makes you hurry to top up your glass, reading the latter part of Leader’s biography almost makes you want to take the pledge. It’s not just the amount, though he drank ‘at least a bottle of whisky a day’ in his later years, creating the need for a counter-balancing cocktail of pills to keep his bodily functions more or less working. It was the selfish rigidity of it all that is most dispiriting. Even as early as 1968, in his mid-forties and very happily married to Jane, a motoring holiday with another couple in Mexico was in effect organised around his drinking:
In addition to suitcases Amis carried with him what amounted to a cocktail cabinet: a large straw bag with handles in which he packed bottles of tequila, gin, vodka and Campari, as well as fruit juices, lemons, tomato juice, cucumber juice, Tabasco, knives, a stirring spoon and glasses. Amis insisted that wherever they were the car had to stop at 11.30 so that they all could have a drink: only one drink, though a big one, carefully prepared. Everyone had to get out of the car while Amis fetched his drinks basket and mixed elaborate cocktails.
Later, he became even more rigid in insisting on being at the pub when it opened, insisting on long pre-lunch drinks, insisting on long post-lunch drinks, always insisting, brooking no obstacle to his desires. Martin Amis suggests that, for his father, getting drunk was the thing rather than being drunk; hilarity rather than oblivion was the goal, at least for as long as he had any choice in the matter. But after a certain point he didn’t have a choice: he just needed it, and finally, of course, he needed oblivion, too.
And then there were the women. For all Leader’s sympathetic and perceptive remarks about his subject’s relations with individual women, whether wives, lovers or friends, there remains something scarcely intelligible about Amis’s attitude, though perhaps milder versions of it were common among men of his generation. He really did seem to think of ‘females’, collectively, as a separate species, maddeningly attractive though a few among them might be. When he was young, their chief function was to be on the receiving end of ‘the old pork sword’; when he was older, especially after Jane had left him, he banged on about their general irrationality and vindictiveness (though at the same time confiding to his son that life without a woman was ‘only half a life’). The maleness of so much of his idiom and sensibility as well as of his preferred social world is something of a deterrent in itself. Leader quotes from a John Carey review of Amis’s Memoirs (1991): ‘His prose style seems to exert masculinity at the expense of feeling.’ That still seems dead right, and not just about that book. More generally, one is left feeling that the drive of too much of his writing as well as of his persona and habits is to narrow experience: too many kinds of feeling, too many kinds of reasoning, are shut out, mocked, pissed on, talked over.
The case for the defence has, in the end, to hinge on the quality of the best of the novels. Reflecting in Experience on the decline of his father’s marriage to Jane, Martin Amis remarks: ‘Penetrating sanity: they both had that, in their work.’ It seems a rather uncharacteristic idiom at first, till one remembers that Amis fils had at one point stood up for Leavis against fashionable dismissal of him. It is also not an obvious, or even perhaps wholly persuasive, thing to say about Amis père: ‘knockabout sanity’ maybe; ‘penetrating satire’ certainly; but ‘penetrating sanity’? ‘In their work’ is crucial, for as he goes on to editorialise, recalling the way these two penetratingly sane individuals drove each other to distraction and eventually divorce, ‘writers write far more penetratingly than they live.’ Was this sufficiently true of the later Amis to outweigh any strictures on Amis the man?
In mounting his carefully argued case that the later Amis was still capable of writing fiction of a quality that not only contradicted the public perception of its author as a ranting curmudgeon, but could place and even satirise some of his own most unlovely characteristics, Leader makes much of The Old Devils, published when Amis was 64. Rereading the novel now, I half-recognise what Leader is led to admire in it (and what, presumably, the Booker judges and enthusiastic reviewers admired), while nonetheless finding the experience on balance a lowering and disagreeable one. Yes, there are funny passages and portraits, mostly mordant and acidulous; yes, one can read a kind of hope into at least one strand of the deftly restrained ending; and yes, a book portraying a group of limited and largely unappetising individuals may be the work of an altogether richer and more generous sensibility than any represented in the book itself (creating the consummate representation of provincial small-mindedness does not make Flaubert a small-minded provincial). And yet, and yet.
The disagreeable aspect of the experience comes, at least in part, from the way in which Amis’s humour presumes a matey collusiveness with the preoccupations of those it is satirising. They may be shits, but they’re our kind of shits. It’s a social world in which, for example, petty point-scoring is prominent. This dispiriting trait is half-mocked, half-endorsed, as though to say: come on, we’re all at that game, so don’t get too high and mighty about it. Lack of honesty about oneself is mocked, but usually when it takes the form of pretentiousness or trying to disguise low motives: the greater emotional dishonesty of not confronting the paucity of positive, other-directed hopes and feelings passes largely unchallenged.
These reactions may seem ungenerous to the novel, whose satire is frequently penetrating and intelligent. But consider the effect of the narrative voice in the following small example. Peter is the one character who at the end has the possibility of finding something like late-life love, reunited with Rhiannon, a woman he had loved and behaved very badly to decades earlier. For the moment, however, he is still bound to Muriel, in a marriage in which almost everything seems to have died except the low flame of antagonism. The penultimate scene of the novel centres on the wedding of their son to Rhiannon’s daughter and the reception back at Rhiannon’s house. Here is Peter emerging from the house and catching sight of his wife:
She was strolling along the edge of the lawn and, just as he noticed her, she half turned to run a superior eye over what was growing – nothing very much, perhaps – in the nearby bed. She let her gaze linger, making quite sure things were as bad as they had looked at first glance, then snatched it apologetically away, both in a style he felt sure he would have recognised with an inward yell of loathing at ten times the range. Seeing it, seeing it unseen, catching the old bitch out even on such a puny scale, was as good as a stiff one.
It matters to the intensity of Peter’s reaction that it should be Rhiannon’s garden that is being condescended to, and it matters for the timing of the whole scene that Muriel had chosen the eve of their son’s wedding to announce to Peter her decision to sell their home and move away, in effect to leave him. Even so, the passage is representative of those moments when Amis seems closest to sharing his character’s emotion, in part just because it records one person triumphing over another, ‘even on such a puny scale’. And a nagging uncertainty about how deep the irony goes is partly the result of the way the prose, from the middle of the second sentence, starts to veer from impersonal third-person narration to something like free indirect style, with the final sentence voiced very much in Peter’s idiom. Or, should one rather say, in the idiom Amis often shares with Peter, the idiom of the chap familiar with the equally morale-boosting effect of ‘a stiff one’ and of ‘catching out’ a resented ‘female’? It’s the kind of collusive interiority Amis’s fiction (not his alone, of course) tends to reserve for its more sympathetic characters. Peter is no Jim Dixon; he is sourer and pockmarked by disappointment. Still, he is the least depressing man in the novel.
And yet – the dialectic of one’s reactions swings back again, once more prompted by Martin Amis. One of the many bravura passages in Experience describes the son struggling to get his paralytically drunk father safely home one night. ‘On a traffic island in the middle of the Edgware Road’, the older Amis falls over.
And this was no brisk trip or tumble. It was a work of colossal administration. First came a kind of slow-leak effect . . . Then came an impression of overall dissolution and the loss of basic physical coherence. I groped around him, looking for places to shore him up, but every bit of him was falling, dropping, seeking the lowest level, like a mudslide.
We seem to be witnessing one of his father’s own legendary, exaggerated impressions, as though he were ‘doing’ Kingsley Amis falling down drunk; we are also reminded that we are reading a passage by the son of the author of the celebrated account of Jim Dixon’s heroic, incapable drunkenness. Martin finally gets his father home. ‘Dad, you’re too old for this shit, I might have said to him. But why bother? Do you think he didn’t know?’
And that’s the larger problem facing anyone writing about Kingsley Amis, especially with Experience to hand, proprietorial yet also (to use Martin’s word) penetrating, tacitly challenging even the slightest slackness in judgment. You are not, you can sometimes feel, likely to say anything they haven’t between them thought of already. So what if you do find something worse than unlovely in this man, and so what if you find yourself pondering the relationship of that unloveliness to the limited but incontestable merits of his work? What about it? Do you think he didn’t know?
Reviewing a biography of Evelyn Waugh in 1975, Amis reflected that he was glad he had never met the author of work that he so much admired, not least because he would probably have been on the receiving end of a savagely rude put-down. ‘It was his nature to go too far, most of all in the direction of outrageousness,’ Amis judged. ‘At a safe distance, one can rather half-heartedly deplore all this, but without this compulsion to say the unsayable he would never have come to be the writer he was. There was the drink too.’ Amis was 53 when he wrote this; the best period of his life was coming to an end, his habits and his persona were rigidifying beyond recall. But he never, quite, became one of ‘the old devils’, and his intelligence, including intermittent, often largely concealed, intelligence about himself, was part of what saved him from that fate. At the same time, one cannot help wondering whether that intelligence wasn’t a burden, too, adding to the pathos of the later years. It is not, in the end, comforting, as one broods on the Aristotelian morality tale of his life, to hear that other, distinctive but uncannily resonant, Amisian voice asking: ‘Do you think he didn’t know?’