“We shall have stamped our taste on the age between us at the end.” So boasted Philip Larkin in 1974, of his and Kingsley Amis’s influence on English literary culture. The occasion of the boast was Amis’s invitation to edit The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), the successor to WH Auden’s edition of 1938. Larkin had previously edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973), the successor to W.B. Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Poetry (1936). That Larkin’s boast was well established was admitted even by those who deplored his and Amis’s taste, labeling it retrogressive, a lament for “England gone”.
It is hard to see Amis (1922–95) lamenting “England gone”. The novel with which he made his name, Lucky Jim (1954), was as hostile to ersatz English or folk purity (madrigals, recorders, organic husbandry, homemade pottery) as to Frenchified notions of ennui and alienation. Both foreign and domestic strands of cultural pretension, as Jim Dixon sees it, evade reality, the French because it thinks reality an illusion, the English because it thinks illusion is reality. Jim’s big thing, like Amis’s, like Larkin’s, is being undeceived, as clear-sighted about his own hypocrisy as about that of the hypocrites and egomaniacs who surround him, principally his ridiculous boss, Professor Welch, and Welch’s odious son Bertrand. In his most famous comic set piece, Dixon tears to bits fantasies of Merrie England in a drunken speech delivered to the entire university, first in imitation of Professor Welch, who has chosen the topic, then in imitation of the university principal.
Being undeceived, or less deceived, can itself be seen in Amisian terms as “English”, in contradistinction to “British,” a term once used to designate a nation thought of by its inhabitants as not just stronger but rightly stronger than other nations. Before he allowed himself to become a Blimpish caricature, Amis was conservative in a Burkean or Orwellian sense, an “English” sense. In a famous passage from “England Your England” (1940), Orwell compares his country to a stuffy Victorian family in which “most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts”. There is also “a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income”. Orwell concludes: “A family with the wrong members in control, that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”
One can deplore or despair of one’s family, or make fun of it, as Orwell does, or leave it, but it is still one’s family. At Oxford Amis was a communist, but his experience of the war, especially of the officer class, helped him to arrive at Orwell’s position, to see his enemies as “irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts” rather than greedy, gouging capitalists. In the decade after the war, as the extent of Soviet and Nazi atrocities became known, the dangers of totalizing ideologies, whether of the left or right, contributed to a determination not to be taken in by programs or extremes, including literary ones, modernism in particular. In this sense, Amis’s anti-modernism was also “English”.
The style of Lucky Jim is clear and straightforward, in the tradition of Henry Fielding, for whom the only source of comedy is “affectation, which has two aspects: vanity and hypocrisy”. These aspects remained the chief target of Amis’s comedy throughout his life. A great engine of comic aggression, he attacked vanity in all its forms, as egotism, selfishness, narcissism. In Take a Girl Like You (1960), the hero, Patrick Standish, is capable both of self-awareness (“I’m not a very nice sort of chap, I’m afraid”) and remorse, putting his head in his hands in a way “that was no mere piece of stage business.” He is also, he realizes, the sort of person “incapable of noticing opposition”. Here is what happens in Patrick’s mind when he wants something, for instance to seduce a woman:
It’s as if I were tight – you know, I haven’t got the car so I want to be driven home, and that chap’s got a car, hasn’t he? So he’ll drive me home, won’t he? He happens to live in the other direction, but that doesn’t matter, does it? because he won’t mind, will he? Because he’s got to do it, hasn’t he? And if he says he doesn’t want to, then it’s You bloody drive me home, Jack, and like it, because I want it, see? Oh Christ. Terrifying.
Amis once said that “a good source of material and a salutary exercise was to take an aspect of his own character he wasn’t particularly proud of, push it to the limit (in fictional form, of course), and see what happened” . When, in 1980, his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, left him, for reasons obvious to everyone but himself, Amis set to work on Stanley and the Women (1984), a novel so hostile towards women, the Women’s Movement and therapy (to which he thought Howard in thrall) that his American publishers turned it down. Amis had long been suspicious of therapeutic “openness”, which he thought of as “American”. “How close we seem to be tonight, James”, says Margaret in Lucky Jim, “all the barriers are down at last, aren’t they” – a remark that makes Jim want to “give an inarticulate shout and run out of the bar”. Were Amis’s feelings about women – and, more casually, Jews – those of Stanley and his friend Cliff? “I wouldn’t like it to be thought that Stanley’s thoughts are the author’s last word on the subject, but they’re certainly my thoughts up to a point, enough for me to be able to present a man thinking them.”
Twenty years earlier, newly in love with Howard, Amis’s advice to young men was that it was important to like women, by which he meant
really like them, not just pursuing them or being constantly in their company or talking about them all the time… For all sorts of reasons (economic, social, biological, psychological) men have it in their power to damage women far more than women can damage men. A man who realizes he has this power and never uses it is a man who likes women.
In The Old Devils (1986), his first novel after Stanley and the Women, Amis recovers something of this attitude, creating a heroine, Rhiannon, who is not only wholesome and without pretence, like his earlier heroines, but also neither innocent nor otherworldly, a woman who tries to convince an aged suitor, a hopeless romantic,” that she was not the curious creature, something between Snow White and a wild animal, that he had seemed to take her for, but an actual friend of his and now quite old.” The convincing takes place on a walk by the sea, which calls to her mind the awkwardnesses of youthful beach outings: “hoping you looked wonderful with wet hair”, “smiling and trying to feel if half your bottom was out of your bathing-costume” “.
The Old Devils is Amis’s best novel; Lucky Jim is the novel that propelled him to stardom. Both are very funny. Of the remaining twenty-three published novels, almost all have their virtues, including plenty of laughs, as do his seven books of poetry (including pamphlets), eleven works of non-fiction (excluding pamphlets), seventeen edited volumes, several dozen short stories, nine television and radio plays, more than 1,300 pieces of occasional journalism and almost 2,000 letters. Amis thought of writing as a craft or profession and was hostile to distinctions between high culture and low, with a concomitant attraction to popular forms. Not content with documentary realism, he tried his hand at all fictional genres: a classic detective novel, a ghost story, a James Bond thriller, two alternate-world novels, what is now called autofiction. Even the novels of social satire combine with other fictional types – the novel of ideas, the moral fable, Swiftian farce, fairy tale. “I think of myself as a sort of mid- or late-Victorian person, not in outlook but in the position of writing a bit of poetry… writing novels, being interested in questions of the day and occasionally writing about them, and being interested in the work of other writers and occasionally writing about that.”
Although none of Kingsley Amis’s books are likely to be taught in today’s universities, almost all of his fiction and much of his non-fiction remains in print in major trade presses, either in the UK or US. If asked to recommend five other novels after Lucky Jim and The Old DevilsI’d choose: Take a Girl Like You, Ending Up (1974), The Alteration (1976), You Can’t Do Both (1994) Stanley and the Womena work of great power and feeling, for all the hatefulness of Stanley’s views.
Zachary Leader‘s books include The Letters of Kingsley Amis2000, and The Life of Kingsley Amis2006
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