Sunday 27 April 2014

Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader

Early in Kingsley Amis's novel Take a Girl Like You, the hero Patrick Standish is reflecting on the enticing, eponymous heroine Jenny Bunn and thinks, "He wanted more than his share of her before anybody else had any." It's a remark which becomes even more amusing when you learn that it originated from Amis on a visit to America, when he and a bunch of friends were hurrying towards a fried clam joint. "Oh, good," declared our man. "I want more than my share before anybody else has any." Which became a catch phrase in his circle of friends.

Kingsley Amis had more than his share in life. More than his share of talent, literary success, fun, booze, money and — very definitely — women. He was, as another character refers to Patrick Standish, "A veritable king of shaft." 

On that same American sabbatical which gave rise to the fried clam remark, Amis's wife Hilly received an anonymous phone call. "You realise your husband's screwing every dame in Princeton?" said the woman. "Every one but you, evidently," replied Hilly, and hung up.

I know all this because I've just finished reading Zachary Leader's excellent biography of  Amis which I mentioned in last week's post. It's a huge book, literally a doorstop, but constantly readable and seldom less than utterly gripping. Leader is a gifted author and the book is unlikely to be bettered soon, or indeed ever.

What was particularly fascinating was the discussion of how Amis's childhood gave rise to the themes and subjects of his fiction. Often with biographies I'm tempted to skip past the early years and start in at the point where, say, Count Basie joins his first band. In this case I'm glad I'm resisted the temptation to forgo the early sections and dive in when, say, Amis began writing Lucky Jim. I would have missed a huge amount of valuable material.

Also eye opening was the discussion at the other end of Amis's life, of his final work. As I've said elsewhere Russian Hide and Seek is my least favourite Amis novel. I'd assumed the book marked the beginning of a terminal decline and that nothing after it would be worth reading. 

On the contrary, Leader (who agrees about Russian Hide and Seek) makes clear that it's just a blip in the graph and that there are some impressive and hilarious novels — and quite possibly a venomous masterpiece or two — among those that followed, which include Stanley and the Women, The Old Devils (a Booker Prize winner), Difficulties with Girls (a sequel to Take a Girl Like You) and The Folks That Live on the Hill.

Also priceless are the excerpts from Amis's correspondence, particularly the letters to Philip Larkin and Robert Conquest, which are often convulsively funny. I am now tempted to get Zachary Leader's giant volume of The Letters of Kingsley Amis. Hell, the excerpts from Amis's poems are so beguiling I'm tempted to read some of the poetry.

I said I'd finished reading Zachary Leader's biography. That's not quite true. I skipped the detailed description of most of Amis's novels. I'll go back to them after I've read the books themselves. Lots of reading pleasure in store.

(Image credits: The book covers are from Good Reads. The shot with the wine bottle is from Mans-Womans. The photo of Kingsley with his cat is from the Observer Archive. The splendid caricature by Mark Waghorne is from the artist's own Caricatures Gallery, where you can buy signed prints.)

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