Amis, (Sir) Kingsley (William)
AMIS, (Sir) Kingsley (William)
Nationality: British. Born: Clapham, London, 16 April 1922. Education: Norbury College; City of London School, 1935-39; St. John's College, Oxford, 1941, 1945-49, B.A. 1948, M.A. Military Service: Served in the Royal Corps of Signals, 1942-45. Family: Married 1) Hilary Ann Bardwell in 1948 (marriage dissolved 1965), two sons, including Martin Amis, q.v., and one daughter; 2) Elizabeth Jane Howard, q.v., in 1965 (divorced 1983). Career: Lecturer in English, University College, Swansea, 1949-61; visiting fellow in creative writing, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1958-59; fellow in English, Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1961-63; visiting professor, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1967. Awards: Maugham award, 1955; Yorkshire Post award, 1974, 1984; John W. Campbell Memorial award, 1977; Booker prize, 1986. Honorary Fellow, St. John's College, 1976; University College, Swansea, 1985. C.B.E. (Commander, Order of the British Empire), 1981. Knighted, 1990. Died: 1995.
My Enemy's Enemy. 1962.
Penguin Modern Stories 11, with others. 1972.
Dear Illusion. 1972.
The Darkwater Hall Mystery. 1978.
Collected Short Stories. 1980.
Mr. Barrett's Secret and Other Stories. 1993.
Lucky Jim. 1954.
That Uncertain Feeling. 1955.
I Like It Here. 1958.
Take a Girl Like You. 1960.
One Fat Englishman. 1963.
The Egyptologists, with Robert Conquest. 1965.
The Anti-Death League. 1966.
Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure (as Robert Markham). 1968.
I Want It Now. 1968.
The Green Man. 1969.
Girl, 20. 1971.
The Riverside Villas Murder. 1973.
Ending Up. 1974.
The Alteration. 1976.
Jake's Thing. 1978.
Russian Hide-and-Seek: A Melodrama. 1980.
Stanley and the Women. 1984.
The Old Devils. 1986.
The Crime of the Century. 1987.
Difficulties with Girls. 1988.
The Folks That Live on the Hill. 1990.
We Are All Guilty. 1991.
The Russian Girl. 1992.
You Can't Do Both. 1994.
Something Strange, 1962.
A Question about Hell, 1964; The Importance of Being Harry, 1971; Dr. Watson and the Darkwater Hall Mystery, 1974; See What You've Done (Softly, Softly series), 1974; We Are All Guilty (Against the Crowd series), 1975.
Bright November. 1947.
A Frame of Mind. 1953. (
A Case of Samples: Poems 1946-1956. 1956.
The Evans Country. 1962.
Penguin Modern Poets 2, with Dom Moraes and Peter Porter. 1962.
A Look round the Estate: Poems 1957-1967. 1967.
Wasted, Kipling at Bateman's. 1973.
Collected Poems 1944-1978. 1979.
Kingsley Amis Reading His Own Poems, Listen, 1962;Poems, with Thomas Blackburn, Jupiter, 1962.
Socialism and the Intellectuals. 1957.
New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction. 1960.
The James Bond Dossier. 1965.
Lucky Jim's Politics. 1968.
What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions. 1970.
On Drink. 1972.
Rudyard Kipling and His World. 1975.
An Arts Policy? 1979.
Every Day Drinking. 1983.
How's Your Glass? A Quizzical Look at Drinks and Drinking. 1984.
The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction 1954-1990, edited by John McDermott. 1990.
Memoirs. 1991. The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage. 1998.
Editor, with James Michie, Oxford Poetry 1949. 1949.
Editor, with Robert Conquest, Spectrum [1-5]: A Science Fiction Anthology. 5 vols. 1961-65.
Editor, Selected Short Stories of G.K. Chesterton. 1972.
Editor, Tennyson. 1973.
Editor, Harold's Years: Impressions from the New Statesman and the Spectator. 1977.
Editor, The New Oxford Book of Light Verse. 1978.
Editor, The Faber Popular Reciter. 1978.
Editor, The Golden Age of Science Fiction. 1981.
Editor, with James Cochrane, The Great British Songbook. 1986.
Editor, The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse. 1988.
Editor, The Pleasure of Poetry. 1990.*
Kingsley Amis: A Checklist by Jack Benoit Gohn, 1976; Kingsley Amis: A Reference Guide by Dale Salwak, 1978.
Manuscript Collection (verse):
State University of New York, Buffalo.
Kingsley Amis by Philip Gardner, 1981; Kingsley Amis by Richard Bradford, 1989; Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist by John McDermott, 1989; Kingsley Amis in Life and Letters edited by Dale Salwak, 1990; Understanding Kingsley Amis by Merritt Moseley, 1993; The Anti-egoist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters by Paul Fussell, 1994; Kingsley Amis: A Biography by Eric Jacobs, 1995; Kingsley Amis by William E. Laskowski, 1998.* * *
Except in the matter of scale, Kingsley Amis's short stories have a strong affinity with his novels. In the introduction to Collected Short Stories (1980), he affectionately but somewhat apologetically referred to them as "chips from a novelist's workbench." He noted that many writers are drawn to the short story form because it lends itself to an impressionistic sketch, a Joycean epiphanous tale, a brief slice of life, or a landscape with figures but no characters. In his case these aspects held little appeal. Stories sprang to his mind from an idea, a line of dialogue, or an experience. Some drew on the same characters and situations he had explored in his novels. Dialogue came most easily to Amis, with descriptive prose being harder, and his stories rely heavily on dialogue and use character and description in much the same proportions as do his novels.
As a stylist Amis took exquisite care to use the precise word for the occasion. He liked words of all kinds and was particularly good at creating catalogues, for example, detailing the clutter that a photographer gathered to take his shot or the maze of bureaucratic rules and regulations that governed an army camp. He was a witty, mischievous, sometimes nasty, sometimes nutty, and often hilarious writer whose style was unique. Although Amis resented comparisons between his style and that of Anthony Burgess, both were wordsmiths, and both relished language, savoring the texture of words. Amis was a marvelous imitator of others' styles and, in life, a great mimic. In one of his short stories he took on the persona of Sherlock Holmes's estimable colleague, Dr. Watson, to unfold his detective story. The reader laughs in sheer pleasure at Amis's seemingly effortless imitation of Watson's way of telling Holmes's tale.
Amis's short stories are extremely good. They are enjoyable to read, his craft is strong, and at their best they hold high moral purpose, crystallize a moment of revelation, satirize cherished social institutions, parody literary genres, offer imaginary portraits of well-known literary figures, and explore the present and future. His 1980 collection of short stories is far stronger than the 1993 collection, Mr. Barrett's Secret and Other Stories (1993), where only the title story and "A Twitch on the Thread" are equal to his best work. In Collected Short Stories, Amis gathered most of the stories he had written to that point, omitting only "The Sacred Rhino of Uganda," an early story that he considered "uncharacteristic" and that his biographer, Eric Jacobs, says is lost. G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, and Rudyard Kipling were his masters. He wrote stories of several kinds, including army stories, futuristic stories, science fiction tales about time travel, stories on drinking, stories about Wales, and an epistolary tale.
A number of Amis's best short stories take the army and the end of World War II as their subject. Drawing heavily on his own experience when he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant, his stories ridicule the arbitrariness of army regulations and depict a variety of characters, many very different from the men Amis had known prior to the war. He was brilliant at capturing the petty rivalries that gnawed at the British officer class and infected their behavior. In "My Enemy's Enemy," "Court of Inquiry," and "I Spy Strangers," he wrote about a signal camp in Belgium. While in the army, Amis was reprimanded by an unconstitutional court of inquiry for having lost a battery-charging engine, an incident he re-created and embellished in "Court of Inquiry." In "My Enemy's Enemy" Amis described in rich, ironic detail a conflict between an adjutant and Lieutenant Dalessio, an Italian whose dark complexion "marks" him for humiliation and racist prejudice. Although Dalessio is contemptuous of authority and unwilling to cater to the British upper classes, he is extremely able. The story begins when the adjutant threatens an unexpected inspection in the hope that it will be the undoing of Dalessio. The latter triumphs but in a way that also has unsettling moral implications for the narrator.
"Moral Fibre" is the best of Amis's tales about Wales. It is a funny story about John Lewis, a librarian on the staff of the Aberdacy (Central) Public Library, and his wife Jean. The middle-class couple and their two children are beleaguered by Mair Webster, an overly self-congratulatory social worker and a friend of Jean's. Mair has decided that the couple would benefit from the domestic and child care services of her difficult charge, a young Welsh girl. John wants no part of Mair's plan, for he views the social worker as "a menace, a threat to Western values." He loathes her interfering ways and the way she has of always asserting that she knows what is best for people. Betty Arnulfsen, her charge, also has little use for Mair and at one point becomes a prostitute. When Mair presses the girl into marriage and insists that she stop her trade when her husband returns, Betty turns on her in cold fury, wanting no part of the do-gooding reform values espoused by the welfare worker.
Some of Amis's best humor is found in another story in the collection, "Who or What Was It?" It is a ghost story of sorts in which the first-person narrator is haunted by the seeming similarity between an inn he is visiting and the inn in Amis's novel The Green Man. The short story was originally a radio script, and after its first airing it occasioned a brouhaha, much to Amis's delight. Many of the listeners, not recognizing the satirical elements, made ample fools of themselves. The story plays with the theme of coincidences, mocking a breed of credulity that believes that one person can actually be in two locations at the same time. Amis wrote in the first-person, assuming a narrative stance that is breathtakingly refreshing. As a true trickster, Amis unnerves the reader by affecting to be writing in his own persona, referring to his book The Green Man and alluding to his second wife and other real people by name. He then turns the tables on the narrator, his wife, and the reader by making utterly preposterous assertions and ends the tale by stating that, while he is out walking and brooding about ghostly coincidences, someone in his guise is upstairs making love to his wife.
One of the pleasures of reading Amis's short stories stems from the marvels of his style. Examples of what is often called the "vintage Amis" style abound, and in "Moral Fibre" and "Dear Illusion" he is at his best. Consider, for example, the concluding paragraph of "Moral Fibre," spoken by the narrator, John Lewis:
Actually, of course, it wasn't Mair I ought to have been cogitating about. Mair, with her creed of take-off-your-coat-and-get-on-with-it (and never mind what 'it' is), could be run out of town at any stage, if possible after being bound and gagged and forced to listen to a no-holds-barred denunciation of her by Betty. What if anything should or could be done about Betty, and who if anyone should or could do it and how—that was the real stuff. I was sorry to think how impossible it was for me to turn up at the gaol on the big day, holding a bunch of flowers and a new plastic umbrella.
In "Dear Illusion" Amis wickedly mocks the publishing industry, the academy, literary critics, and the decline of modern taste that permits poets to be celebrated for junk verse or, in this case, for a trite poem, "Unborn," of no merit. Amis's description of the occasion of Edward Arthur Potter's receipt of a special prize in recognition of the publication of his latest book, Off, is deliciously wicked. After Potter is feted as England's greatest lyric bard, he declines the prize and tells his admiring audience and the pompous Sir Robert, bestower of the award, that his latest volume was completed in one day, "just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of…." By the end of the story, a subdued Potter reports that he wrote only to make himself feel better and now that he no longer needs writing to feel better he will write no more.
In the title story of Mr. Barrett's Secret and Other Short Stories, the narrator is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father, who offers a highly self-serving explanation of his "problem with Mr. Browning." Typical of Amis, Barrett's objections to Browning are as politically incorrect as can be. While Amis's story is fiction, it is based on historical facts. Employing an epistolary style, it opens with Barrett's written account of the series of events that transpired between January 1845, when he first learns that his daughter has received a letter from the Victorian poet Robert Browning, through his last conversation with Elizabeth in September 1846, when he orders her to banish Browning from their house. His ghastly secret is his fear that Browning, who is rumored to be of Creole or colored blood, and his daughter, who is descended from a slave-owning family dwelling in the West Indies, will bear a child that is colored. Barrett insists that he cannot tell his daughter that the combined heredities of herself and Browning "might—very likely would not, but still might—produce black offspring." Feeling certain that, if he were to express these fears to his daughter, he would destroy her love for him, he claims to prefer to appear the tyrant, selfishly refusing to permit her to see Browning again. He vows to play this part until his death, keeping his secret until he goes to the grave. Even when Barrett confides his secret, after first seeing his grandson in 1855 and discovering that the six-year-old child is as fair an English boy as can be, he does not acknowledge his wrong to his daughter. In his last entry he writes, "But I find I cannot bring myself to come face to face with her, and with him. I could bear her silent reproaches, his silent triumph, but not their pity. Her pity."
The last words of the story are given to the author, who continues to play with the themes of misidentification and racism. Amis claims that he wanted the feelings and emotions he attributes to Barrett to be sincere on the father's part. He confesses, however, that he does intend for Barrett's final motive for not seeing his daughter to seem "thin." Amis concludes that Barrett's real feelings are those of a jealous father who cannot bear to see his daughter and Browning together unequivocally. Amis also confides that he thinks it highly unlikely that Browning had Creole blood, adding that he would rather have liked to have Browning be black so that he could be added to the "great trio of European coloured writers of the nineteenth century, the others being Alexander Dumas père (black grandmother) and Alexander Pushkin (black great-grand-father), both of whom can be taken as sharing something of his spirit." In the story, with its imaginary portrait of Browning, Amis renders a wholly plausible re-creation of Mr. Barrett's late nineteenth-century style of speech and written expression.
The other excellent but disturbing story in the collection is "A Twitch on the Thread." Amis based the story on a study conducted by Peter Watson of monozygotic twins who had been separated soon after birth and brought up apart. In Amis's story the protagonist, Daniel Davidson, a pastor and a recovered drunk, is sought out by his American twin, with dreadful consequences for all concerned, including the pastor's wife. Daniel learns that his American twin also found religion after having reached a point of breakdown from drink. The knowledge that both men have found God after liquor is too much for him to bear. The story ends with the haunted pastor shouting confusedly in a bar, unable to distinguish between his religious calling and the call of booze. The last line of the story is given to the bartender, who is calling Daniel's wife to come fetch her husband, whom he will no longer serve.
Although Amis's reputation is based on his novels, his short stories, with their varied genres and subjects, richly delineated characters, and genius for language, are likely to have continued appeal.
—Carol Simpson Stern