Zachary Leader's superb biography paints Kingsley Amis as a master of measured satire and wild invectiveby Tom Chatfield / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader Jonathan Cape, £25
In January 1954, with the publication of Lucky Jim, literary success finally began to happen to Kingsley Amis. He was 31 years old, with a wife and three children and a job as a lecturer in Swansea that paid around £8,000 a year in today’s money, and had already begun a career of lifelong adultery that can only be described as prodigious. He was, he felt, eminently ready for success: as he put it in a letter to Philip Larkin, “What I want, cully, is a chance to decide, from personal experience, that a life of cocktail parties, cars, week-ending at rich houses, wine, night-clubs and jazz won’t bring happiness. I want to prove that money isn’t everything, to learn that pleasure cloys.” He would, Zachary Leader notes, get his chance.
Leader’s new biography is the only life of Amis that does anything like justice to his colossal drives, perversity and talent. It is also a monument of textual scholarship: having edited Amis’s letters back in 2000, Leader gives us Amis’s own voice on almost every page, as well as an impeccably detailed provenance for each remark, anecdote and statistic. It begins, methodically and unexcitingly enough, with Amis’s unexciting and methodical parents in Norbury, a corner of London so morosely suburban that the young Amis used to think of Streatham as glamorous. With Amis’s arrival at St John’s College, Oxford, however, the great engine of his comedy begins to kick into gear, and doesn’t fully release readers until the funeral bells toll some 800 pages later. It is impossible to read this biography without acknowledging that Amis was a hugely able writer, and a master both of measured satire and wild invective (this to Larkin, on his own father-in-law—”I shall swing for the old cockchafer unless I put him in a book, recognisably, so that he will feel hurt and bewildered at being so hated.”) It is equally obvious that he was, at times, an utter bastard, a stridently ignorant political commentator, a loving husband and father, and a nervous wreck. Somewhere in the middle of all this comes the art.
To a degree that even Larkin found strange, Amis cared about audiences and the opinions other people held. He may have delighted in causing offence, but one thing Leader’s account makes clear is that throughout his life…