Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) became one of Britain's most daring and acclaimed new writers with the 1954 publication of his debut novel, Lucky Jim. Amis went on to write nearly two dozen more novels, as well as scores of other works, including discourses on science fiction, the detective novel, the English language, and even alcoholic beverages, for which he himself had a legendary and well-documented propensity. But it was his bitingly funny portrayal of a young but disillusioned college lecturer, Jim Dixon, that earned Amis enduring fame. Lucky Jim's scathing critique of English culture and society would land the title on most surveys of the best English-language novels of the twentieth century. With that stellar debut, asserted Adam Gopnik in a 2007 article in the New Yorker, Amis “more or less invented the modern English comic novel—the small-scale satiric inspection, flavored with sexual malice, that dominates English fiction.”
Kingsley William Amis was born on April 16, 1922, as the only child of William Amis, who worked in the London offices of Colman's, the mustard maker, and Rosa (Lucas) Amis. “It is a sad fate to be the child of the urban or suburban middle classes,” Amis once wrote, according to Zachary's Leader's biography The Life of Kingsley Amis. Both parents were reportedly talented mimics of their friends, neighbors, and radio personalities, a trait that was passed on to their son, whose prose would feature an unusually nuanced degree of characterization through dialogue. While growing up in the southwest London area of Norbury, the young Amis also apparently inherited some nervous tendencies from his mother, who worried about his health, diet, and safety. “I used to tell myself stories all the time,” he said in a 1988 London Sunday Times interview with John Mortimer, adding that he concocted the stories in part to quell his anxieties. “I was always nervous. Full of fear. I was afraid someone would come into my bedroom and murder me.”
Served in British Army
Amis entered the City of London School at the age of 12, a boys' school that provided a university track education. In 1941, with Britain in the midst of World War II, he entered St. John's College of Oxford University and took part in a British Army officer training program over the next year while beginning his studies. In July of 1942 he entered the Royal Signal Corps, where he attained the rank of lieutenant and served at several different sites in the European field of combat. Returning to civilian life and Oxford, he pursued an undergraduate degree in English, which he earned with first class honors in 1947, a year later receiving his master's degree. In between those two degrees, his first collection of poetry, Bright November, was published.
The years 1947 and 1948 were significant in Amis's life for another reason: he became romantically involved with a student from the Ruskin College of Art, Hilary “Hilly” Bardwell, whose middle class but eccentric family would become the model for the one so mercilessly skewered in Lucky Jim. In a letter he wrote to Philip Larkin (1922-1985)—a fellow Oxford student who became Amis's lifelong friend as well as an acclaimed writer in his own right—he described meeting Hilly's family, whose “dog smells of corpses …. And the father does folk dancing.” Near the end of 1947 Hilly became pregnant, and the two wed in January of 1948. Their first child, whom they named Philip in honor of their friend Larkin, was born that August. At the end of 1948, Amis was hired by the University College of Swansea, Wales, as an assistant lecturer in English, and the family moved there in December. In August of 1949, a second son, Martin, was born.
Amis spent the next 12 years teaching at Swansea, and in the early 1950s began to work on his first novel, after working out some of Lucky Jim's structure with Larkin. The novel was accepted for publication by the London publisher Gollancz in May of 1953, a prestigious house with whom he would remain for the first decade of his career. The novel's publication the following January prompted the Times of London to assert that “Mr. Amis could have afforded to give it a further polish, but he writes with such energy and enjoyment that it matters little.”
Hailed as Voice of Generation
Lucky Jim recounts a few weeks in the life of Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer in history at a lesser university in northern England. He dislikes the job, finds his colleagues pretentious, and fears that he will be released from his contract at the end of the term when his probationary period ends. His success hinges upon Professor Welch, the department chair, though he secretly despises both his mentor and the man's family. “The novel's real comedy, and its originality, comes from its bracing contempt for culture and higher education—for madrigal singing, and lectures on ‘organic’ village life, and people who make a big deal of the difference between recorders and flutes,” noted Gopnik. Dixon also finds himself romantically involved with two women, one pretty, the other plain, and is halfheartedly attempting to write his first serious treatise, an examination of medieval shipbuilding. In a February 12, 1954, review in the Times Literary Supplement, contributor Alan Ross compared the debut novel with the work of other up-and-coming writers who had come of age after the war. He commented that Amis's “dialogue and characterization are pointed and observant, and not the least of the genuinely funny things come from the imaginative gusto of Dixon's thoughts about what he would like to do with those around him.”
Amis's debut novel was a tremendous success in Britain, and he was hailed as his generation's newest literary star. Lucky Jim seemed to touch a nerve in postwar Britain, with many of the once-mighty imperial nation's longcherished notions giving way to a new, suddenly more mobile middle class. Amis was deemed one of Britain's new “Angry Young Men,” a catchall phrase denoting a group of young novelists and playwrights who were unafraid to challenge and even mock long-held British traditions and beliefs. They included Larkin as well as playwrights Harold Pinter (born 1930) and John Osborne (1929-1994). Not surprisingly, Amis's novel and the whole movement also prompted some pointed backlash, including an essay by W. Somerset Maugham in December of 1955 in a yearly roundup of notable books in the Sunday Times, as quoted in The Life of Kingsley Amis. Maugham praised Amis and Lucky Jim but went on to discuss the larger issue of a new postwar Britain and its disappearing class boundaries. Noting that more than half of university graduates were by then earning their degrees thanks to new government grants, Maugham fumed that these youth “do not go to university to acquire culture, but to get a job.” Maugham went on to remark that “they have no manners, and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament …. Charity, kindness, generosity, are qualities which they hold in contempt.”
Adultery and Alcohol
Lucky Jim was made into a film in 1957, as was Amis's second novel, That Uncertain Feeling. Published to great fanfare in 1955, the story centers on John Lewis, an adulterous librarian in a small town in Wales. It was made into a 1962 Peter Sellers film titled Only Two Can Play. In September of 1958, Amis took a year-long position as a lecturer and fellow in creative writing at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he also gave a series of lectures on science fiction. The entire family—which now included daughter Sally, born the same week Lucky Jim was published—went with him, and their rented house soon became the site of raucous, alcohol-fueled soirees. Amis had long dallied extramaritally, and years later his son Martin famously described his father as “a man who used to LIVE for adultery,” according to New York Times writer A. O. Scott, in his review of Zachary Leader's book. During this reckless American period, Hilly reportedly conducted her own affairs as well.
Echoes of his affairs often found their way into Amis's fiction, such as descriptions of the vicious sexual games played by the male villain in his fourth novel, 1960's Take a Girl Like You. These affairs decimated Amis's marriage, which began a precipitous decline in early 1963 during his affair with novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (born 1923), a former actress and model whose first marriage had been to the son of the noted Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912). By the time they met, Howard was an acclaimed writer in her own right and, like Amis, rather unconventional and uncommitted in her romantic exploits. In somewhat uncharacteristic fashion, however, Amis seems to have fallen quite hard for her. The divorce from Hilly became final in June of 1965, and he wed Howard in London at the end of the month.
The union with Howard also served as a catalyst for severing ties with Gollancz, and he signed with his new wife's publisher, Jonathan Cape. His first title for them was written under the pseudonym Robert Markham, and was one of the James Bond adventure tales that continued on after the death of the original author, Ian Fleming (1908-1964). Amis's more serious literary efforts from this period include I Want It Now, published in 1968, followed by The Green Man, a tale of an alcohol-abusing, adulterous middle-aged proprietor of an English country inn who fears that the property is haunted. Subsequent titles published during the 1970s include Girl, 20, Ending Up, The Alteration, and Jake's Thing. These are the works “that most deeply divide Amis's admirers and his detractors,” according to Gopnik. “To their fans, they are models of a disabused, cleanly written, and unsparingly Swiftian satire of mostly bad modern manners. To their nonfans, they seem like exhausting, increasingly alcoholic, rightwing rants.”
Won Booker Prize
Amis had been a member of the Communist Party during his Oxford days, but his political ideals had traversed the full range from left to right by the 1980s, as he went from being a supporter of the Labour Party to admitting to a minor crush on prime minister Margaret Thatcher (born 1925), leader of Britain's Conservative (Tory) Party. He even wrote that Thatcher was “one of the best-looking women I have ever met,” according to Scott, and he confessed that at times he seemed to find himself momentarily tricked “into thinking I am looking at a science-fiction illustration of some time ago showing the beautiful girl who has become President of the Solar Federation in the year 2220.”
Amis's 1986 novel The Old Devils, about a novelist who returns to his Welsh hometown after many years and then dies in the middle of an evening of drinking with his longtime pals, won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction. By then Amis's marriage to Howard had ended, and in his later years he lived in a rather unorthodox arrangement in the posh London neighborhood of Primrose Hill with Hilly and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock. In 1991 Amis's autobiography, Memoirs, was published, followed by the novel The Russian Girl in 1994. In August of 1995 he fell and injured his back, which seemed to set off a rapid decline, and he died in London, England, on October 22, 1995. His twenty-third and final novel, The Biographer's Moustache, was published that year. “From young Turk to old Devil, he maintained an amazingly high standard, as well as that unerring ability to infuriate,” noted Harry Ritchie, the writer of Amis's London Guardian obituary. Ritchie went on to quote Amis's own summation of his literary career: “I just enjoy annoying people.”
Leader, Zachary, The Life of Kingsley Amis, Pantheon, 2007.
Atlantic Monthly, May 2002.
Economist, March 9, 1991.
Guardian (London, England), October 24, 1995.
New Statesman, March 21, 1997.
New York Times, June 3, 2007.
New Yorker, April 23, 2007.
Sunday Times (London, England), September 18, 1988.
Times (London, England), January 27, 1954.
Times Literary Supplement, February 12, 1954.
"Amis, Kingsley." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/amis-kingsley
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