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Sir Kingsley Amis (1922-1995)


Novelist, poet, critic, and teacher, father of the writer Martin Amis, generally grouped among the "angry young men" in the 1950s with such writers as John Osborne, John Braine, John Wain, Arnold Wesker, and Alan Sillitoe. However, Amis himself denied the affiliation. A radical in his young adulthood, Amis was later know for his conservative critique of contemporary life and manners. He once said, that if you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.

"'You'll find that marriage is a good short cut to the truth. No, not quite that. A way of doubling back to the truth. Another thing you'll find is that the years of illusion aren't those of adolescense, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they're the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head. Your age, by the way, Jim. That's when you first realize that sex is important to other people besides yourself. A discovery like that can't help knocking you off balance for a time.'" (from Lucky Jim, 1954)

Kingsley Amis was born in London, the only son of a business clerk. He was educated at the City of London School and St. John's College, Oxford. There he joined the Communist Party, edited the Oxford Labour Club Bulletin, and led the Labour Club choir. "Most party members join without any knowledge, some, it is whispered, without any intelligence," he wrote to his friend. Amis served in the army with the Royal Corps of Signals, earning in 1943 his commission as second lieutenant. When he was stationed in Belgium and Germany, he co-wrote with his fellow officer a novel, which dealt with his affair with a married woman. Although Amis failed the examination on his B. Litt. thesis, he worked as a lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea, from 1948 until 1961. He was a visiting fellow in creative writing at Princeton University and in the early 1960s he also taught at Cambridge.

In 1947 Amis published his first collection of poems, Bright November. It was followed by A Frame of Mind (1953), Poems: Fantasy Portraits (1954) and A Case of Samples: Poems 1946–1956 (1956). Martin Amis was born in 1949, and had Dickensian early years: "I slept in a drawer and had my baths in an outdoor sink. My nappies bore triangular singe marks where they had been dried on the fireguard. It was tough. My father's dinner would often consist of the contents of the doggybag that my mother brought back from the cinema café (the Tivoli) where she worked." (from Experience by Martin Amis). He studied English at Exeter College, worked for the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesmen, and from the 1980s special writer for the Observer. Martin Amis's first novel was The Rache Papers (1973). Other works include Dead Babies (1975), Success (1978), My Oxford (1977, with A. Thwaite), Other People (1981), Invasion of the Space Invaders (1982), Money (1984), The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), Einstein's Monsters (1987), London Fields (1989), Time's Arrow (1991), Two Stories (1994), The Information (1995), Night Train (1997), Koba the Dread (2002), Yellow Dog (2003), House of Meetings (2006), The Second Plane (2008), The Pregnant Widow (2010); Lionel Abo: State of England (2012).

During this time Amis was a member of the literary group The Movement, whose members included Robert Conquest, Elisabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin. As a novelist Amis made his debut with Lucky Jim (1954). It gained a huge success. The comic main character also reappeared in the novel That Uncertain Feeling (1956), which was filmed in 1962, starring Peter Sellers. Lucky Jim is the antihero Jim Dixon, a junior faculty member at a small university, who faces one disaster after another with his girlfriend and Professor Welch. Dixon's job is in constant danger, often for good reason. Dixon despises the pretensions of academic life, but at the same time he tires to make Welch like him. Dixon's ambitious plans to improve his situation are fruitless. The class distinctions are unbreakable. Behind the story was the Education Act of 1944, which attempted to assimilate a larger amount of working- and lower-middle-class students into English university life. Amis' work as a junior lecturer gave him inside information about the academic life.

After the death of Ian Fleming in 1964, Kingsley Amis wrote a James Bond adventure, Colonel Sun (1968). His study of the world famous spy appeared under the title The James Bond Dossier (1965). In the story Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the People's Liberation Army of China collaborates with an ex-Nazi plan to open the eastern Mediterranean for Chinese influence and continue to the whole Arab world and Africa. Also M is kidnapped. "The empty room gazed bleakly at Bond. As always, everything was meticulously in its place, the lines of naval prints exactly horizontal on the walls, water-colour materials laid out as if for inspection on the painting-table up against the window. It all had a weirdly artifical, detached air, like part of a museum where the furniture and effects of some historical figure are preserved just as they were in his lifetime." (from Colonel Sun)

Amis's unfeigned stance is seen in such anthologies as The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978) and The Popular Reciter (1978). Amis loved detective stories and science fiction, and managed with his writings to recruit new readers to these genres. However, academic interest in science fiction horrified him:. "Science fiction has come from Chaucer to Finnegans Wake in less than fifty years... now you can take it anywhere, and it is not worth taking," he wrote pessimistically. Amis published columns on food for Harper's and Queen, detective books, critical study Rudyard Kipling and His World (1975), Memoirs (1990), and The King's English (1998), mini-essays on the craft of writing well. He was very sure about his likes and dislikes: "I dislike men and women when they are cold-hearted (a reserved manner is okay), unpleasant to those who can't hit back (waiters, etc.), unable to allow others to finish a sentence, stingy, disinclined to listen to reason and fact, bad hosts, bad guests, affected, racialist, intolerant of homosexuality, anti-British, members of the New Left, passively boring." (from The Letters of Kingsley Amis, ed. by Zachary Leader, 2002) On Drink (1972), How's Your Glass? (1984) and Everyday Drinking (1983) were books on alcohol. Poor health convinced him to give up smoking but not not scotch or gin. Amis had gained reputation as a "supreme clubman, boozer and blimp", but partly his enthusiams was hobbyistic. His second wife Jane Howard also insisted that he should, in effect, join Alcoholics Anonymous. Amis's own "New Alcoholic Policy" meant that he took 4-5 drinks a day.

--'I don't really like reading anything. I don't think reading is an experience.'
--'But what about people reading you? Isn't that an experience?' Jenny felt horrible as she used the word.
--'I don't really care about reading me, I'm a writer,' said Vera Selig...'

(from Difficulties with Girls, 1988)

In the 1980s Amis wrote the Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils (1986), about a group of retired friends and their wives. Their lives revolve around social drinking, but they also must adjust to the reappearance of Alun Weaver, a professionally Welsh literary pundit. Semi-autobiographical You Can't Do Both(1994) was set between the wars, and told the story of Robin Davies, who progresses from south London suburbia, through Oxford, and on to a lectureship in a provincial university.

Amis was knighted in 1990 - according to Martin Amis he got it partly for being "audibly and visibly right-wing, or conservative/monarchist." He had three children from his first marriage to Hilary Bardwell; the separated in the mid 1960s. After divorce, her second husband was D.R. Shackleton Bailey and 3rd Lord Kilmarnock. Amis was married from 1965 to 1983 to the novelist Elisabeth Jane Howard. The author's disappointments, which unwinded in bitternes in some of his later work, were seen in the poem 'Wasted' (1973). Amis described in it a memory of a cold winter evening, when he is trying to kindle rain-soaked logs. Others have gone to their chilly beds before the wood began to flame. "Why should that memory cling / Now the children are all grown up, / And the house - a different house - / Is warm at any season?" Amis died in 1995 at the age of 73 with over 20 novels to his credit, plus dozens of volumes of poetry, stories, collections of essays, and criticism. His last unfinished novel was Black and White, about an attraction between a white homosexual man and a black heterosexual girl.

The popular notion of Amis as mean spirited reactionary has been criticized by Paul Fussell in his monograph The Anti-Egotist. Fussell sees the author as one of the great literary moralists of this century. A "cultural democrat," Amis values honesty, civility, and lack of pretense. The only novelist Amis admitted reading (other than his son Martin), was George McDonald Frazer, author of the Flashman series. Among the author's life long friends was the poet Philip Larkin, whom Amis befriended because they were "savagely uninterested in the same things."

In his memoir Experience (2000) Amis draws a compassionate, probing, and sharp portrait of his father. Amis admits that as a writer he always knew he would have to commemorate him. But there is also another reason, more universal: "The intercessionary figure, the father, the man who stands between the son and death, is no longer here; and it won't ever be the same. He is missing. But I know it is common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity. My father lost his father, and my children will lose theirs, and their children (this is immensely onerous to contemplate) will lose theirs." On the pages of the book also appears another character, Lucy Partington, Amis' cousin, who was murdered by the serial killer Frederick West.

For further reading: Kingsley Amis: A Reference Guide by Dale Selwak (1978); Kingsley Amis: In Life and Letters, ed. by Dale Selwak (1991); Kingsley Amis by Dale Selwak (1992), Understanding Kingsley Amis by Merritt Moseley (1993); The Anti-Egotist by Paul Fussell (1994); Kingsley Amis by Eric Jacobs (1998); Critical Essays on Kingsley Amis, ed. by Robert H. Bell (1998) Kingsley Amis by William E. Laskowski (1998); Experience by Martin Amis (2000); Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis by Richard Bradford (2001); Father and Son: Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, and the British Novel Since 1950 by Gavin Keulks (2003); The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader (2007)

Selected works:

  • Bright November, 1947
  • A Frame of Mind, 1953
  • Poems: Fantasy Portraits, 1954
  • Lucky Jim, 1954
    - film 1957, dir. by John Boulting, starring Ian Carmichael, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas, Sharon Acker; film 2002, dir. by Robin Sheppard, starring Stephen Tompkins, Keeley Hawes, Robert Hardy
    - Onnellinen Jim: romaani (suom. Mikko Kilpi,m 1956)
  • That Uncertain Feeling, 1955
    - film: Only Two Can Play (1962), dir. Sidney Gillat, written by Bryan Forbes, starring Peter Sellers, Mai Zetterling, Virginia Maskell, Richard Attenborough
    - Virka ja viettelys (suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1957)
  • A Case of Samples: Poems 1946-1956, 1956
  • Socialism and the Intellectuals, 1957
  •  I Like it Here, 1958
  •  Take A Girl Like You, 1960
  • New Maps of Hell, 1960
  • Spectrum, 1961 (ed., with Robert Conquest)
  • My Enemy's Enemy, 1962
  • The Evans County, 1962
  • One Fat Englishman, 1963
  • The Egyptologists, 1965 (with Robert Conquest)
    - Herrasmieskerho (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1966)
  • The James Bond Dossier, 1965
    - Raportti James Bondista (suom. Matti Salo, 1966)
  • The Anti-Death League, 1966
  • A Look Round the Estate: Poems 1957–1967, 1967
  • I Want It Now, 1968
  • Colonel Sun, 1968 (as Robert Markham)
    - Lohikäärmeen kynnet (suom. Eero Raassina, 1968)
  • The Green Man, 1969
  • What Became of Jane Austen?, and Other Questions, 1970
  • Girl, 20, 1971
  • On Drink, 1972
    - Otetaan taas: juomisen nautinnot (suom. Hannu Harju, 2006)
  • Selected Stories / G.K. Chesterton, 1972 (ed.)
  • Poems / Tennyson, 1973 (ed.)
  • The Riverside Villas Murder, 1973
  • Ending Up, 1974
  • The Crime Of The Century, 1975 (book pub. 1987)
    - Vuosisadan rikos (suom. Pertti Koskela, 1990)
  • Rudyard Kipling and his World, 1975
  • The Alteration, 1976
  • Harold's Years, 1977 (ed.)
  • The Faber Popular Reciter, 1978  (ed.)
  • The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, 1978  (ed.)
  • Jake's Thing, 1978
  • Collected Poems 1944-78, 1979
  • Collected Short Stories, 1980
  • Russian Hide-and-Seek, 1980
  • The Golden Age of Science Fiction, 1981 (ed.)
  • Everyday Drinking, 1983
    - Otetaan taas: juomisen nautinnot (suom. Hannu Harju, 2006)
  • How's Your Glass?, 1984
  • Stanley and the Women, 1984
    - Naisten mies (suom. Irma Lassila, 1985)
  • The Old Devils, 1986
    - Vanhat pirut (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1987)
  • The Great British Songbook, 1986 (ed., with J. Cochrane)
  • Difficulties With Girls, 1988
  • The Folks That Live on the Hill, 1990
  • The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction, 1954-1990, 1990 (with an introduction by John McDermott)
  • Memoirs, 1991
  • We Are All Guilty, 1991
  • The Amis Story Anthology: A Personal Choice of Short Stories, 1992 (ed.)
  • Mr Barrett's Secret and Other Stories, 1993
  • The Russian Girl, 1994
  • You Can't Do Both, 1994
  • The Biographer’s Moustache, 1995
  • The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage, 1998
  • The Letters of Kingsley Amis, 2001 (ed. by Zachary Leader)
  • Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008 (introduction by Christopher Hitchens)
  • Conversations with Kingsley Amis, 2009 (edited by Thomas DePietro)

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