Amis, Kingsley 1922–1995
Amis, Kingsley 1922–1995
(Kingsley William Amis, Robert Markham, William Tanner)
PERSONAL: Born April 16, 1922, in London, England; died after suffering severe injuries in a fall, October 22, 1995, in London, England; son of William Robert (an office clerk) and Rosa Annie (Lucas) Amis; married Hilary Ann Bardwell, 1948 (divorced, 1965); married Elizabeth Jane Howard (a novelist), 1965 (divorced, 1983); children: (first marriage) Philip Nicol William, Martin Louis, Sally Myfanwy. Education: St. John's College, Oxford, B.A. (first class honors in English), 1947, M.A., 1948. Hobbies and other interests: Music (jazz, Mozart), thrillers, television, science fiction.
CAREER: University College of Swansea, Swansea, Glamorganshire, Wales, lecturer in English, 1949–61; Cambridge University, Peterhouse, Cambridge, England, fellow, 1961–63; full-time writer, 1963–95. Princeton University, visiting fellow in creative writing, 1958–59; Vanderbilt University, visiting professor of English, 1967–68. Appeared (as guest) in the film Tell Me Lies, 1968. Military service: British Army, Royal Signal Corps, 1942–45; became lieutenant.
MEMBER: Authors' Club (London, England), Bristol Channel Yacht Club, Garrick Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: Somerset Maugham Award, 1955, for Lucky Jim; Booker-McConnell Prize nomination, Great Britain's Book Trust, and Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award, both 1974, for Ending Up; fellowship, St. John's College, Oxford, 1976; Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1981; fellowship, University College of Swansea, 1985; Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction, Great Britain's Book Trust, 1986, for The Old Devils; Cholmondeley Award, 1990; knighted, 1990.
Lucky Jim, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1954, abridged edition, edited by D.K. Swan, illustrations by William Burnard, Longmans (London, England), 1963, abridged edition with glossary and notes by R.M. Oldnall, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
That Uncertain Feeling, Gollancz (London, England), 1955, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1956.
I Like It Here, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1958.
Take a Girl Like You, Gollancz (London, England), 1960, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1961.
One Fat Englishman, Gollancz (London, England), 1963, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1964.
(With Robert Conquest) The Egyptologists, J. Cape (London, England), 1965, Random House (New York, NY), 1966.
The Anti-Death League, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1966, Gollancz (London, England), 1978.
(Under pseudonym Robert Markham) Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
I Want It Now, J. Cape (London, England), 1968, collected edition, 1976, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1969.
The Green Man, J. Cape (London, England), 1969, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1970.
Girl, 20, J. Cape (London, England), 1971, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972.
The Riverside Villas Murder, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1973.
Ending Up, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1974.
The Alteration, J. Cape (London, England), 1976, Viking (New York, NY), 1977.
Jake's Thing (also see below), Hutchinson (London, England), 1978, Viking (New York, NY), 1979.
Russian Hide-and-Seek: A Melodrama, Hutchinson (London, England), 1980, Penguin (New York, NY), 1981.
Stanley and the Women (also see below), Hutchinson (London, England), 1984, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1985.
The Old Devils (also see below), Hutchinson (London, England), 1986, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1987.
The Crime of the Century, Dent (New York, NY), 1987.
A Kingsley Amis Omnibus (includes Jake's Thing, Stanley and the Women, and The Old Devils), Hutchinson (London, England), 1987.
Difficulties with Girls, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1988.
The Folks That Live on the Hill, Hutchinson (London, England), 1990.
The Russian Girl, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
You Can't Do Both, limited edition, Hutchinson (London, England), 1994.
The Biographer's Moustache, Flamingo (London, England), 1995.
Bright November, Fortune Press (London, England), 1947.
A Frame of Mind: Eighteen Poems, School of Art, Reading University (Reading, England), 1953.
Poems, Oxford University Poetry Society (Oxford, England), 1954.
Kingsley Amis, Fantasy Press (Oxford, England), 1954.
A Case of Samples: Poems, 1946–1956, Gollancz (London, England), 1956, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1957.
(With Dom Moraes and Peter Porter) Penguin Modern Poets 2, Penguin (New York, NY), 1962.
The Evans Country, Fantasy Press (Oxford, England), 1962.
A Look Round the Estate: Poems 1957–1967, J. Cape (London, England), 1967, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1968.
Collected Poems: 1944–1979, Hutchinson (London, England), 1979, Viking (New York, NY), 1980.
Socialism and the Intellectuals, Fabian Society (London, England), 1957.
New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1960.
My Enemy's Enemy (short stories; also see below), Gol-lancz (London, England), 1962, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1963.
Reading His Own Poems (recording), Listen, 1962.
(With Thomas Blackburn) Poems (recording), Jupiter (London, England), 1962.
(Under pseudonym William Tanner) The Book of Bond; or, Every Man His Own 007, Viking (New York, NY), 1965.
The James Bond Dossier, New American Library (New York, NY), 1965.
Lucky Jim's Politics, Conservative Political Centre (London, England), 1968.
What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions (essays), J. Cape (London, England), 1970, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1971, published as What Became of Jane Austen and Other Essays, Penguin (New York, NY), 1981.
Dear Illusion (short stories; also see below), Covent Garden Press (London, England), 1972.
On Drink (also see below), illustrations by Nicolas Bentley, J. Cape (London, England), 1972, Harcourt, 1973.
First Aid for ABA Conventioneers (excerpt from On Drink), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1973.
Rudyard Kipling and His World, Scribner (New York, NY), 1975.
Interesting Things, edited by Michael Swan, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1977.
Harold's Years: Impressions of the Harold Wilson Era, Charles River Books (Boston, MA), 1977.
The Darkwater Hall Mystery (also see below), illustrations by Elspeth Sojka, Tragara Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1978.
(Editor) The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1978.
An Arts Policy? (with a foreword by Hugh Thomas), Centre for Policy Studies (London, England), 1979.
(Editor) The Faber Popular Reciter, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1979.
Collected Short Stories (includes "My Enemy's Enemy," "Dear Illusion," and "The Darkwater Hall Mystery"), Hutchinson (London, England), 1980, Penguin (New York, NY), 1983, revised edition, 1987.
Every Day Drinking, illustrations by Merrily Harper, Hutchinson (London, England), 1983.
How's Your Glass? A Quizzical Look at Drinks and Drinking, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1984, with cartoons by Michael Heath, Arrow, 1986.
The Amis Anthology, Century Hutchinson (London, England), 1988.
The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction, 1954–1990, Hutchinson (London, England), 1990.
The Pleasure of Poetry, Cassell (London, England), 1990.
Kingsley Amis, in Life and Letters, edited by Dale Salwak, Macmillan (Basingstoke, England), 1990, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1991.
Memoirs, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1991.
We Are All Guilty (for children), Viking Children's Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Mr. Barrett's Secret and Other Stories, Hutchinson (London, England), 1993.
The Biographer's Mustache, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.
The Letters of Kinsley Amis, edited by Zachary Leader, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2000.
Also author of a science fiction radio play, Something Strange, and of television plays A Question about Hell, 1964, The Importance of Being Harry, 1971, Dr. Watson and the Darkwater Hall Mystery, 1974, and See What You've Done, 1974. Also editor of Spectrum: A Science Fiction Anthology, Amereon. Author of column on beverages in Penthouse. Editor of and contributor to literary anthologies. Contributor to periodicals, including Spectator, Encounter, New Statesman, Listener, Observer, and London Magazine.
ADAPTATIONS: Lucky Jim was adapted as a motion picture, written by Jeffrey Dell and Patrick Campbell, directed by John Boulting, starring Sharon Acker and Ian Carmichael, British Lion, 1957; That Uncertain Feeling was adapted as a motion picture as Only Two Can Play, written by Bryan Forbes, directed by Sidney Gilliat, starring Peter Sellers, Mai Zetterling, Virginia Maskell, and Richard Attenborough, Columbia, 1962; Take a Girl Like You was adapted as a motion picture, written by George Melly, directed by Jonathan Miller, starring Hayley Mills and Oliver Reed, Columbia, 1970; That Uncertain Feeling was adapted as a television miniseries, 1985; one of Amis's novels formed the basis of the television movie Haunted: The Ferryman, 1986; Jake's Thing was recorded on audiocassette, Books on Tape, 1988; Ending Up was adapted for television, 1989; The Old Devils was adapted as a play, 1989; The Green Man was adapted for television, 1990; Stanley and the Women was adapted as a television miniseries, 1991; The Old Devils was adapted as a television miniseries, 1992; Take a Girl Like You was adapted for television, 2001; Lucky Jim was adapted for television by Jack Rosenthal, 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: "I think of myself like a sort of mid-or late-Victorian person," said Kingsley Amis in Contemporary Literature, "not in outlook but in the position of writing a bit of poetry (we forget that George Eliot also wrote verse), 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. I'm not exactly an entertainer pure and simple, not exactly an artist pure and simple, certainly not an incisive critic of society, and certainly not a political figure though I'm interested in politics. I think I'm just a combination of some of those things."
Though an eclectic man of letters, Amis was best known as a prolific novelist who, in the words of Blake Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement, had the "ability to go on surprising us." He won critical acclaim in 1954 with the publication of his first novel, Lucky Jim. After producing three other comic works, Amis was quickly characterized as a comic novelist writing in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Critics ranked him among the foremost "Angry Young Men," a school of British writers who disdained post-World War II British society throughout the 1950s. However, "Amis," stated Los Angeles Times writer William D. Montalbano, "rejected the label as 'a very boring journalistic phrase.'"
After his early works, Amis produced a spate of novels that differed radically in genre and seriousness of theme. He kept "experimenting with ways of confounding the reader who hopes for a single focus," claimed William Hutchings in Critical Quarterly, though Clancy Sigal suggested in National Review that Amis simply had "the virtue, rare in England, of refusing to accept an imposed definition of what a Serious Writer ought to write about." His place in British literature was recognized in 1986, when his novel The Old Devils won the Booker Prize, Britain's highest literary award. In 1990, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Lucky Jim, is, according to Anthony Burgess in The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction, "the most popular anti-hero of our time." Though a junior lecturer at a provincial university, Jim has no desire to be an intellectual—or a "gentleman"—because of his profound, almost physical, hatred of the social and cultural affectations of university life. This characteristic of Jim has led several critics to conclude that he is a philistine, and, moreover, that beneath the comic effects, Amis was really attacking culture and was himself a philistine. Brigid Brophy, for example, wrote in Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews that the "apex of philistinism" is reached "when Jim hears a tune by the composer whom either he or Mr. Amis … thinks of as 'filthy Mozart.'" Ralph Caplan, however, claimed in Charles Shapiro's Contemporary British Novelists that Lucky Jim "never [promises] anything more than unmitigated pleasure and insight, and these it keeps on delivering. The book [is] not promise but fulfillment, a commodity we confront too seldom to know how to behave when it is achieved. This seems to be true particularly when the achievement is comic. Have we forgotten how to take humor straight? Unable to exit laughing, the contemporary reader looks over his shoulder for Something More. The trouble is that by now he knows how to find it."
Critics generally have seen the three novels that follow Lucky Jim as variations on this theme of appealing to common sense and denouncing affectation. Discussing Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, I Like It Here, and Take a Girl Like You in the Hudson Review, James P. Degnan stated: "In the comically outraged voice of his angry young heroes—e.g., Jim Dixon of Lucky Jim and John Lewis of That Uncertain Feeling—Amis [lampoons] what C.P. Snow … labeled the 'traditional culture,' the 'culture of the literary intellectuals,' of the 'gentleman's world.'" James Gindin noted in Postwar British Fiction that the similarity of purpose is reflected in a corresponding similarity of technique: "Each of the [four] novels is distinguished by a thick verbal texture that is essential comic. The novels are full of word play and verbal jokes…. All Amis's heroes are mimics: Jim Dixon parodies the accent of Professor Welch, his phony and genteel professor, in Lucky Jim; Patrick Standish, in Take a Girl Like You, deliberately echoes the Hollywood version of the Southern Negro's accent. John Lewis, the hero of That Uncertain Feeling, also mimics accents and satirically characterizes other people by the words and phrases they use."
The heroes in these four novels are in fact so much alike that Brophy charged Amis with "rewriting much the same novel under different titles and with different names for the characters," although Walter Allen insisted in the Modern Novel that the "young man recognizably akin to Lucky Jim, the Amis man as he might be called,… has been increasingly explored in depth." Consistent with her assessment of Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim, Brophy saw the other three Amis heroes also as "militant philistines," a view that was not shared by Caplan, Burgess, or Degnan. Caplan explained that though the Amis hero in these novels is seemingly anti-intellectual, he is nonetheless "always cerebral," and Burgess pointed out that the hero "always earns his living by purveying culture as teacher, librarian, journalist, or publisher." Representing a commonsensical approach to life, the Amis protagonist, according to Degnan, is an inversion of a major convention of the hero "as 'sensitive soul,' the convention of the 'alienated' young man of artistic or philosophical pretensions struggling pitifully and hopelessly against an insensitive, middle-class, materialistic world…. In place of the sensitive soul as hero, Amis creates in his early novels a hero radically new to serious contemporary fiction: a middle-class hero who is also an intellectual, an intellectual who is unabashedly middle-brow…. Suspicious of all pretentiousness, of all heroic posturing, the Amis hero … voices all that is best of the 'lower middle class, of the non-gentlemanly' conscience."
Degnan, however, did believe that Patrick Standish in Take a Girl Like You came dangerously close to "the kind of anti-hero—e.g., blase, irresponsible, hedonistic—that Amis's first three novels attack," and that this weakened the satirical aspect of the novel. Echoing this observation in The Reaction against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950–1960, Rubin Rabinovitz detected an uncertainty as to what "vice and folly" really are and who possesses them: "In Take a Girl Like You Amis satirizes both Patrick's lechery and Jenny's persistence in preserving her virginity…. The satire in Lucky Jim is not divided this way: Jim Dixon mocks the hypocrisy of his colleagues in the university and refuses to be subverted by it. [In Lucky Jim] the satire is more powerful because the things being satirized are more boldly defined."
After Take a Girl Like You, Amis produced several other "straight" novels, as Time's Christopher Porterfield described them, as well as a James Bond spy thriller, written under the pseudonym of Robert Markham, called Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure; a work of science fiction, The Anti-Death League; and a ghost story, The Green Man. When Gildrose Productions, the firm to which the James Bond copyright was sold after Ian Fleming's death, awarded the first non-Fleming sequel to Amis, the literary world received the news with a mixture of apprehension and interest. Earlier, Amis had done an analysis of the nature of Fleming's hero, The James Bond Dossier, and he appeared to be a logical successor to Bond's creator. But the reactions to Colonel Sun were not entirely positive. Though Clara Siggins stated in Best Sellers that Amis "produced an exciting narrative with the expertise and verve of Fleming himself," S.K. Oberbeck claimed in the Washington Post Book World that the changes Amis made "on Bond's essential character throw the formula askew…. In humanizing Bond, in netting him back into the channel of real contemporary events, Amis somehow deprives him of the very ingredients that made his barely believable adventures so rewarding." Similarly, David Lodge, discussing the book in The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism, considered Colonel Sun "more realistic" yet "duller" than most of the Fleming novels, because "the whole enterprise, undertaken, apparently, in a spirit of pious imitation, required Amis to keep in check his natural talent for parody and deflating comic realism."
Amis's comic spirit, so prominent in his first four novels and muted in Colonel Sun, is noticeably absent from The Anti-Death League, which was published two years before the Bond adventure. Bernard Bergonzi commented in The Situation of the Novel that in The Anti-Death League, Amis "has written a more generalised kind of fiction, with more clearly symbolic implications, than in any of his earlier novels. There is still a trace of sardonic humor, and his ear remains alert to the placing details of individual speech; but Amis has here abandoned the incisive social mimicry, the memorable responses to the specificity of a person's appearance or the look of a room that have previously characterized his fiction."
The story concerns a British army officer who becomes convinced that a nonhuman force of unlimited malignancy, called God, is responsible for a pattern of seemingly undeserved deaths. Bergonzi viewed the work as a provocative, anti-theological novel of ideas and maintained that it "represents Amis's immersion in the nightmare that flickers at the edges of his earlier fiction." He did, however, find one shortcoming in the novel: "The Anti-Death League … is intensely concerned with the questions that lead to tragedy—death, cruelty, loss of every kind—while lacking the ontological supports—whether religious or humanistic—that can sustain the tragic view of life." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer admitted that the rebellion against the facts of pain and death "seems rather juvenile, like kicking God's ankle for doing such things to people," but declared: "[Amis] takes the argument to more audacious and hopeful lengths…. We do care about his creatures; the agents intrigue us and the victims concern us. The handling is vastly less pompous than the theme: oracular, yes, but eloquent and earthly and even moving."
Amis followed The Anti-Death League with The Green Man and Girl, 20, a comic novel with serious overtones. Paul Schleuter in Saturday Review viewed Girl, 20 as a harmonious addition to Amis's body of work. He wrote: "[Amis's] talent for creating humorous situations, characters, and dialogue is as fresh as ever…. Amis also has a distinct undercurrent of pathos, darkness, and trauma. The result is not really a 'new' Amis so much as a more mature examination of human foibles and excesses than was the case in his earlier novels." But Amis's next novel, The Riverside Villas Murder, "offers no comfort to those who look for consistency in [his] work," according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer.
A departure from Amis's previous works, The Riverside Villas Murder is a detective story, though there was some debate among critics as to whether it is should be read "straight" or as a parody of the genre. Patrick Cosgrave, for example, claimed in Saturday Review/World that the book is "a straight detective story, with a murder, several puzzles, clues, a great detective, and an eminently satisfying and unexpected villain. So bald a statement is a necessary introduction in order to ensure that nobody will be tempted to pore over The Riverside Villas Murder in search of portentiousness, significance, [or] ambiguity…. The book is straight detection because Amis intended it to be such: It is written out of a great love of the detective form and deliberately set in a period—the Thirties—when that form was … most popular." The Times Literary Supplement reviewer, however, considered the book "something more and less than a period detective story. Mr. Amis is not one to take any convention too seriously, and on one plane he is simply having fun." Patricia Coyne, writing in National Review, and Time's T.E. Kalem expressed similar opinions. Coyne described the story as "a boy discovers sex against a murder-mystery backdrop," and Kalem concluded that by making a fourteen-year-old boy the hero of the novel, "Amis cleverly combines, in mild parody, two ultra-British literary forms—the mystery thriller with the boyhood adventure yarn."
Amis followed The Riverside Villas Murder with a straight novel, Ending Up, before producing The Alteration, which Time's Paul Gray said "flits quirkily between satire, science fiction, boy's adventure, and travelogue. The result is what Nineteen Eighty-Four might have been like if Lewis Carroll had written it: not a classic, certainly, but an oddity well worth an evening's attention." According to Bruce Cook in Saturday Review, The Alteration belongs to a rare subgenre of science fiction: "the so-called counterfeit-or alternative-world novel." Though set in the twentieth century, in 1976, the book has as its premise that the Protestant Reformation never occurred and, as a result, that the world is essentially Catholic. The plot centers on the discovery of a brilliant boy soprano, the Church's plans to preserve his gift by "altering" his anatomy through castration, and the debate on the justice of this decision.
Thomas R. Edwards noted in the New York Review of Books that though "Amis isn't famous for his compassion," in The Alteration he "affectingly catches and respects a child's puzzlement about the threatened loss of something he knows about only from descriptions." John Carey insisted in the New Statesman that the book "has almost nothing expectable about it, except that it is a study of tyranny." The tyranny to which Carey referred was the destructive power of the pontifical hierarchy to emasculate life and art, which he saw as the theme of the novel.
From The Alteration to Jake's Thing, Amis again made the transition from science fiction to "comic diatribe," according to V.S. Pritchett in the New York Review of Books. Pritchett considered Jake's Thing "a very funny book, less for its action or its talk than its prose…. Mr. Amis is a master of laconic mimicry and of the vernacular drift." A reviewer wrote in Choice that this is "the Amis of Lucky Jim, an older and wiser comic writer who is making a serious statement about the human condition."
The story focuses on Jake Richardson, a sixty-year-old reader in early Mediterranean history at Oxford who in the past has been to bed with well over a hundred women but now suffers from a loss of libido. Referred to sex therapist Dr. Proinsias (a Celtic name, pronounced "Francis") Rosenberg, Jake, said Nation's Amy Wilentz, "is caught up in the supermarket of contemporary life. The novel is filled with encounter groups, free love, women's liberation, and such electronic contrivances as the 'nocturnal mensurator,' which measures the level of a man's arousal as he sleeps." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times noted that Amis "makes the most of all the comic possibilities here. Just imagine sensible, civilized Jake coming home from Dr. Rosenberg's office with … assignments to study 'pictorial pornographic material' and to 'write out a sexual fantasy in not less than six hundred words.' Consider Jake struggling to find seventy-three more words, or contemplating the nudes in Mezzanine magazine, which 'had an exotic appearance, like the inside of a giraffe's ear or a tropical fruit not much prized by the locals.'"
But for all the hilarity, there is an undercurrent of seriousness running through the novel. "It comes bubbling up," wrote Lehmann-Haupt, "when Jake finally grows fed up with Dr. Rosenberg and his experiments." Wilentz argued that the novel expresses "outrage at, and defeat at the hands of, modernity, whose graceless intrusion on one's privacy is embodied in Dr. Rosenberg's constantly repeated question, 'I take it you've no objection to exposing your genitals in public?'" Malcolm Bradbury shared this interpretation, writing in the New Statesman: "Amis, watching [history's] collectivising, behaviourist, depersonalizing progress, would like nice things to win and certain sense to prevail. Indeed, a humanist common sense—along with attention to farts—is to his world view roughly what post-Heideggerian existentialism is to Jean-Paul Sartre's."
After the problems of libido in Jake's Thing, wrote Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement, Russian Hide-and-Seek "signals the return of the young, uncomplicated, highly sexed Amis male; … the more important connection, however, is with Amis's earlier novel, The Alteration." Another example of the "alter-native world" novel, Russian Hide-and-Seek depicts an England, fifty years hence, that has been overrun by the Soviet Union; oddly enough, though, the Soviets have abandoned Marxism and returned to the style of Russia under the czars. Paul Binding described the book in the New Statesman as "at once a pastiche of certain aspects of nineteenth-century Russian fiction and an exercise in cloak-and-dagger adventure. The two genres unite to form a work far more ambitious than those earlier jeux—a fictional expression of the author's obsessive conviction that, whatever its avatar, Russian culture is beastly, thriving on conscious exploitation, enamoured of brutality."
Amis placed himself at the center of political controversy with his next novel, Stanley and the Women. Well received upon publication in England, the book was rejected by publishing houses in the United States twice because of objections to its main character's misogyny, said some sources. "When rumors that one of Britain's most prominent and popular postwar novelists was being censored Stateside by a feminist cabal hit print [in early 1985], the literary flap echoed on both sides of the Atlantic for weeks," reported Time's Paul Gray. After the book found an American publisher, a critical debate ensued, with some reviewers condemning its uniformly negative depiction of women and others defending the book's value nonetheless.
In a Washington Post Book World review, Jonathan Yardley charged that "Amis has stacked the deck against women, reducing them to caricatures who reinforce the damning judgments made by Stanley and his chums." Though Yardley felt that "much else in the novel is exceedingly well done," he also felt that its "cranky misogynism" is too prominent to be ignored. Indeed, Stanley casts himself as the victim of a gang of female villains: a self-centered ex-wife; a current wife who stabs herself and accuses Stanley's emotionally unstable son; and a psychiatrist who deliberately mishandles the son's case and blames Stanley for the son's schizophrenia. On the other hand, "the men in the novel hardly fare any better," remarked Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. In her view, similar to that of Susan Fromberg Schaeffer in the New York Times Book Review, Stanley and the Women proves Amis to be "not just a misogynist, but a misanthrope as well. Practically every character in the novel is either an idiot or a scheming hypocrite." Amis, who observed that British women took less offense from the book, claimed it is not anti-female; Time presented his statement that "all comedy,… all humor is unfair…. There is a beady-eyed view of women in the book, certainly…. But a novel is not a report or a biographical statement or a confession. If it is a good novel, it dramatizes thoughts that some people, somewhere, have had."
Viewing the book from this perspective, some critics found it laudable. Spectator contributor Harriet Waugh argued, "It does have to be admitted … that Mr. Amis's portrayal of Stanley's wives as female monsters is funny and convincing. Most readers will recognise aspects of them in women they know…. [Amis] has written a true account of the intolerableness of women in relation to men." Such a tract, she felt, is comparable in many respects to novels by women that show women "downtrodden" by men. Wrote Gray, "Amis has excelled at rattling preconceptions ever since the appearance of his classically comic first novel…. Is this novel unfair to women? Probably. Is the question worth asking? No…. The females in the world of this book all commit 'offences' … at least in the eyes of Stanley, who is … nobody's idea of a deep thinker." In the Times Literary Supplement, J.K.L. Walker concluded, "Stanley and the Women reveals Kingsley Amis in the full flood of his talent and should survive its ritual burning in William IV Street unscathed."
The author's next novel, The Old Devils, "manifests little of the female bashing that made the satiric Stanley and the Women … so scandalous. In fact, dissatisfied wives are given some tart remarks to make about their variously unsatisfactory husbands…. Even so, these concessions never denature Amis's characteristic bite," wrote Gray. In a London Times review, Victoria Glendinning thought: "This is vintage Kingsley Amis, fifty percent alcohol, with splashes of savagery about getting old, and about the state of the sex-war in marriages of thirty or more years' standing." Reviewers admired most the book's major female character; Amis gives her a relationship with her daughter "so close, candid and trusting that the most ardent feminist must applaud," noted Martin Champlin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Her husband, Alun, an aggressive womanizer, drew the most disfavor. In what Gray felt was the author's "wisest and most humane work," both sexes enjoy their best and worst moments. "This is one of Amis's strengths as a novelist, not noticeably to the fore in recent work but making a welcome return here: 'bad' characters are allowed their victories and 'good' characters their defeats. Yet Amis comes down against Alun in a firmly 'moral' conclusion," commented Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement. Alun's funeral near the close of the book is balanced with "the reconciliation of two of the feuding older generation, and the marriage of two of the younger," such that the ending has "an almost Shakespearean symmetry," stated Morrison. But the mood, he warned, is not exactly one of celebration. He explained that the character Amis seems to most approve of "belongs in that tradition of the Amis hero who would like to believe but can't," whose "disappointed scepticism" keeps him from seeing a romantic encouragement behind a pleasant scene. "Finally," reflected Bryan Appleyard in the London Times, "it is this sense of an empty, somewhat vacuous age which seems to come close to the heart of all [Amis's] work. His novels are no-nonsense, well-made, good-humored products. They are about the struggle to get by in the gutter and their heroes seldom roll over to gaze at the stars. Like Larkin he is awestruck by the idea of religion but he cannot subscribe. Instead, his novels are happily committed to the obliteration of cant without thought of what to put in its place."
For The Old Devils, Amis received the Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction, the most prestigious book award in England. Among critics who felt the prize was well deserved was Champlin, who referred to "its sheer storytelling expertise, and its qualities of wit, humanity, and observation." In the New York Times Book Review, William H. Pritchard recognized The Old Devils as Amis's "most ambitious and one of his longest books,… neither a sendup nor an exercise in some established genre. It sets forth, with full realistic detail, a large cast of characters at least six of whom are rendered in depth…. The Old Devils is also Mr. Amis's most inclusive novel, encompassing kinds of feeling and tone that move from sardonic gloom to lyric tenderness."
Critics celebrated Amis's return to the satiric comic-novel again in Diffyculties with Girls, a sort of sequel to his 1960 work Take a Girl Like You. "In returning to the characters of … Take a Girl Like You," wrote New York magazine contributor Rhoda Koenig, "Amis has also … reverted to his style of that period, the sprightly, needling tone he had only six years after Lucky Jim." Patrick Standish has not changed much from the "dedicated sexual predator" who married the girl he raped after getting her drunk at a party, declared Judith Grossman in the New York Times Book Review. He has left his job as a high school teacher and entered the world of publishing, which provides him with just as many opportunities for sexual conquests. When his wife, Jenny, discovers the latest of these, she leaves him; then, discovering she is pregnant, she returns. "Amis is one of the best chroniclers we have of the lost world [of 1950s-era male chauvinism]," Michael Wood wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "in large part because he knows it's not lost at all, but lies around us everywhere…. Amis is not a praiser of the old world, but he is very suspicious of the new one. Maybe it's not even there; maybe it's just a phantom bred of our lame trendiness, our cult of tolerance."
The Folks That Live on the Hill again looks at problems in modern life—alcoholism, prostate surgery, divorce—in a serio-comic vein. "Formally," commented New Statesman and Society contributor Anthony Quinn, "it's another funny-sad comedy of social and sexual manners, cast in the old-farts-ensemble mould of Ending Up and The Old Devils." It tells of the struggles of retired librarian Harry Caldecote to resolve the problems of different members of his extended family—his son's financial irresponsibility, his brother's suffering marriage, and the various problems of relatives of his ex-wives. "Mr. Amis is, however, less interested in exploring Harry's burden of obligation toward others than in focusing on the novel's different characters as they undergo their troubles," Pritchard explained in the New York Times Book Review. Although critics noted that The Folks That Live on the Hill covers ground that Amis had written about before, many found, as did Quinn, that "Amis is still funny. The knack of capturing the false starts and dead ends of everyday chatter, the gift for mimicry, the elaborate expressions of outrage—time has withered none of these. You wince as he drives a coach and horses over the liberal consensus, but you find yourself cackling like a maniac."
Amis reviewed his own career in Memoirs, published four years before his death. "Television interviewers and others who expected him to be uniformly reactionary on every issue," wrote Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor, "were often surprised to discover that he was not an advocate of capital punishment, a racist, or an America-basher, after all." However, many reviewers criticized the work, claiming that it lacked focus and personal insight. "The faint hope might have been that, in writing directly about himself, the irascible old shag would come over as … cuddlier than his usual public image makes him seem," said London Review of Books critic Ian Hamilton. "To any such tender expectations, though, Amis offers here a close-to-gleeful 'In a pig's arse, friend'—i.e. you bastards will get nothing out of me, or not much and what you do get you won't like." "Amis," Craig Brown wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "has created his autobiographical persona along the lines of one of his most comically pitiless characters."
In his novel The Russian Girl, Amis returned to skewer one of his prime targets: the halls of academe. Richard Vaisey is an academic at a British university who specializes in Russian literature. Like other Amis protago-nists, he is also oversexed and unhappily married—to Cordelia, whose good points are that she is good in bed and independently wealthy. Vaisey is approached by an expatriate Russian poet named Anna Danilova, who is circulating a petition to have her brother released from prison in Russia. "Anna Danilova is a terrible poet but sweet, gentle and deferential," explained Diane Roberts in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Richard must choose between Cordelia (and money) and Anna (and true love)." "Amis, the old master, somehow orchestrates all these themes, and several more, into a wonderful new concert of plot and language," Gary Abrams declared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "that provokes both belly laughs and twinges of discomfort over the silly messes we humans make while blundering through life." "The Russian Girl," wrote New York Times Book Review contributor Christopher Buckley, "is … vintage Amis: smooth, dry and not overpriced."
Amis died unexpectedly late in 1995, while he was being treated in St. Pancras Hospital, London, after having crushed several vertebrae in his back in a severe fall. A posthumous publication, The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage, represented a last foray into nonfiction for an author who had written works of literary criticism, political commentary, and history dating back to Socialism and the Intellectuals, published by the Fabian Society in 1957. The publication gave occasion for a new round of obituaries-cum-reviews, many of them appreciative commentaries regarding Amis's vigorous stance with regard to proper English usage—the subject of the book itself. Several critics noted that by choosing the title he did—taken from that of a definitive 1906 volume by British lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler and his brother George Francis Fowler—Amis, perhaps in a final act of audacity, raised the stakes to an almost insurmountable height. For Roger Draper of the New Leader, the author's gambit failed: "In appropriating the title The King's English … for his posthumously published effort, the English comic novelist Kingsley Amis gives the impression of having aspired to a very high standard—and, perhaps inevitably, fell short of it. Amis' opus is largely a collection of crochets and jokes."
Those "crochets and jokes," however, are precisely what endeared the book to other reviewers, particularly in England. Several British critics, in fact, had known Amis, and they peppered their reviews with personal reminiscences. "Kingsley loved to present his prejudices outrageously," wrote James Michie in the Spectator. "I remember him clinching an argument with me about Milton by a simple mime, one hand pinching his nose, the other pulling a lavatory chain. There's plenty of gratuitous provocation here." Thus, as Michie went on to note, Amis lambasted the seemingly innocuous "continental crossed seven" as "gross affectation" or even "straightforward ignorance." The old anti-feminist issues were much in evidence as well, a fact noted both by Michie and E.S. Turner in the Times Literary Supplement. "Women will not expect to find much for their comfort in these pages," wrote Turner, "though Lady Thatcher is commended for saying 'There is no alternative' (and not 'no other alternative'). Women, it seems, know nothing about etymology, but 'can be trusted with revision and kindred tasks.'" Though some may find Amis's social views objectionable, Sebastian Faulks suggested in the New Statesmen that his knowledge of the language itself was above reproach: "Kingsley Amis wrote in a style that was as close to actual speech as one can get without talking, or without foregoing effects only written language can produce; yet it was based on a classical education and a life-long exploration of grammar and etymology."
Amis's death prompted many retrospectives and assessments of his career. His first novel, Lucky Jim, was still widely regarded as his masterpiece at the time of his death. "It established him as a master of invective and a man well able to raise a guffaw from his readers, especially the male ones," wrote a London Times obituary writer. "For the next forty years Amis produced a regular flow of books which established him as the leading British comic novelist of his generation. The tone varied considerably, but Amis picked his targets carefully and his aim was deadly accurate. He wrote about what he knew well and made sure that he did not too much like what he saw around him."
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