Amis at 100: a master satirist without honour

It’s time to appreciate Kingsley Amis — flaws and all

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In 1986, I won the Booker Prize for Fiction with my novel The Old Devils. With that substantial exception, I found the occasion of the award a horrid one.” Kingsley Amis described winning the literary world’s most prestigious award in his Memoirs with customary wit and economy. 

His by-then substantial frame was squeezed into a tight dinner jacket, with his feet in brown brogues because they would no longer fit into his smart patent leather half-boots. The food at the ceremony was “worse than is inevitable”, and the atmosphere tense. As he noted, “I realised I was becoming as much bothered by the prospect of making a fool of myself in public as of not winning.” 

Amis had already been nominated twice before (for Jake’s Thing and Ending Up) but was attending the ceremony as the acknowledged frontrunner, with competition including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World and Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession. The chair of the judges was Anthony Thwaite (“another old chum of mine, of which you may make what you will”) and the otherwise all-female judging panel included the novelists Bernice Rubens and Isabel Quigly, the radio critic Gillian Reynolds and the “general reader” Edna Healey, wife of Denis. 

Amis surrounded by well-wishers at the Booker Prize presentation dinner at the Guildhall

While they might have been expected to side with Atwood, there had been two previous female winners, Anita Brookner and Keri Hulme, and it was also generally felt that Amis, by far the best known of the nominated writers, was due his turn. Thwaite, Reynolds and, after some deliberation, Quigly all supported Amis, and the Booker was his. 

When he went on stage to accept the award, Amis was typically droll. “Until just now, I had thought the Booker Prize a rather trivial, showbizzy caper, but now I consider it a very serious, reliable indicator of literary merit.” This was, unsurprisingly, taken seriously (“Memo to writers and others: never make a joke against or about yourself that some little bastard can turn into a piece of shit”) and it also did not help that, because Amis was weaving from table to table to accept his peers’ accolades and congratulations, it was generally assumed that he — one of English literature’s most renowned topers — was drunk. (“So I was, of course, but not to the extent suggested.”) 

The man once regarded as the greatest comic novelist since Evelyn Waugh is now seen as little more than a joke himself

Amis’s place in the literary firmament was already assured, but the Booker seemed to confirm that his peers had acknowledged him. At a time when his son Martin seemed to have become both the more fashionable and bestselling of the two novelists, it was a welcome reminder that “the King”, as Amis only semi-jokingly styled himself, still reigned. Sales of The Old Devils soared; 30,000 copies were ordered by book shops after the Booker, and a total of 180,000 hardbacks and paperbacks were sold by February 1988, three times that of Amis’s previous novel Stanley and the Women. 

He should have been both triumphant and relieved. Yet even amid the celebrations, Amis was miserably aware that his reputation was less that of a major writer and more of an ungovernable piss artist. Shortly after the ceremony, he wrote to Donald Trelford, the editor of the Observer, to complain about a profile the newspaper ran, in which he was accused of uttering “outrageous racist remarks” at a party, which he described as “the miserable blend of incompetence and dishonesty that typifies your newspaper”. 

On this occasion, the slur was easily disproved and an apology was made. But Amis’s attempts to play a game of reputational whack-a-mole were doomed, if only because he had made too many enemies during his life who were only too happy not only to believe the worst of him, but to actively join in denigrating him. 

After his death on 22 October 1995, at the age of 73, first came the tributes (the Guardian, never instinctively onside when it came to all things Kingers, called him “a good poet, a good critic, and a comic artist of genius with lots of staying power”) and then came the backlash, not least because of Martin’s not altogether flattering portrayal of his father in his memoir Experience. 

Amis’s biographer tactfully describes this as “dependent on changes in fashion and in the nature of the book business and the reading public”, but even by the early 2000s, the novelist was regarded as Problematic, a reputation that has only worsened over the past two decades. Terry Eagleton’s description of him as “a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals” is all too typical. 

He has one of the most distinctive yet readable styles of any of his peers

The Oxford academic Julian Thompson, an expert on Amis’s work, once remarked that he was mystified how “that consummate literary professional Kingsley Amis has gone down in history as a drunken, women-hating bigot”. In his centenary year, the man once regarded as the greatest comic novelist since Evelyn Waugh is now seen as little more than a joke himself, a Blimpish caricature of a bon viveur whose major books are little more than reactionary relics of a (thankfully) bygone age, and whose minor works are, at best, blessedly forgotten squibs and, at worst, vile indicators of personal failings that would, in our more enlightened era, have immediately led to Amis’s cancellation. (One can only imagine what Kingers would have had to say about the culture wars.) 

Lucky Jim is allowed to occupy a place in the firmament, reluctantly — although its most famous passage, about its protagonist Jim Dixon waking up with a humdinger of a hangover, is tut-tutted at, and its female characters are held up as an example of Amis’s sexism, misogyny, women-hating etc — and the Memoirs can be used as a piece of cautionary social history about the unreconstructed literary scene in the second half of the twentieth century. 

But generally, Amis’s writing is now seen, even more than Waugh’s or his friend Philip Larkin’s, as the grim expression of a disordered mind. To admit to an affection, let alone an idolatry, for his works is to stand above the parapet and declare oneself a thoroughly wrong ’un. 

Well, I have been tarred and feathered for my literary views before, so another round of denunciation will make little difference now. Amis remains, along with Waugh, the finest comic novelist of the twentieth century — and yes before you say “what about Wodehouse”, Plum is essentially a timeless writer who removed himself from anything so dull as social concerns or normal life — and a memoirist, correspondent, critic and even poet of distinction, even brilliance. 

He has one of the most distinctive yet readable styles of any of his peers, and his books should, in an ideal world, be held up with those of Dickens and Fielding. And yet I fear that, today, he would find it difficult to even be nominated for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing, let alone win it: an award, lest we forget, that was not even handed out in 2018 because of the low quality of contemporary humorous prose. 

Delving into Amis’s biography offers some clues as to his downfall. The basic facts are familiar to all aficionados: the middle-class background, university friendship with Larkin, arrival of fame in 1954 with the publication of Lucky Jim, notorious ending of his first marriage to Hilary in the early Sixties to take up with the modish novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, and then the slow slide into alcohol-induced torpor and decrepitude, interrupted only by the success of The Old Devils and the scandal that greeted the publication of Stanley and the Women two years previously, which seemed to confirm all the worst rumours about his reputation both literarily and personally. 

It remains his least enjoyable and most dyspeptic novel, shot through with the anger that he felt about his then-recent separation from Howard, and is the easiest of all his books to skim over without unnecessary comment. 

Viewed like this, Amis’s life seems little more than a descent into tragic obsolescence, interspersed with some slap-up meals in the form of the so-called “fascist lunches” at Bertorelli’s, self-consciously boozy and gossipy events to which the likes of Bernard Levin, Anthony Powell and the “much-feared” John Braine were invited to make fun of writers who couldn’t write and thinkers who couldn’t think. But, as with Amis’s speech at the Booker Prize, the line between self-reflexive irony and straightforward unpleasantness has always been a fine one. 

He was a man who drank to excess by his own admission (even publishing a trio of books about his love of alcohol; the first, 1972’s On Drink, is by far the best) and whose adulterous affairs and alleged ill-treatment of his family have seen him cast into darkness; this renders him an unlikely subject for literary or personal rehabilitation. But if it falls to those who regard Amis as a writer of rare distinction so to do, then the challenge must be embraced with alacrity. 

It is disappointing that such a fellow of infinite jest is not being lionised in any meaningful way for his centenary

I am, of course, not an uncritical admirer of “the King”. He wrote prolifically, and, like most prolific scribblers, the sheer amount produced means that much of the fiction and non-fiction alike is dispensable. After the initial magnificent run of Fifties form that produced Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, I Like It Here and Take A Girl Like You, his novels soon began to alternate between the brilliant (1969’s genre-hopping supernatural comedy The Green Man), the ambitious but not entirely successful (1976’s The Alteration, which imagined an alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened) and the trivial; 1980’s Russian Hide-and-Seek was critically panned, and Anthony Burgess, a friend and admirer, openly wondered whether “the overall dullness and, may I say, futility of the book, represent a deliberate aesthetic”. 

Amis was a pleasant but ultimately undistinguished poet who never escaped Larkin’s shadow. And his non-fiction, Memoirs aside, seldom showcased the best of his creative genius, although his occasional reviews and essays, best read in collected form in 1990’s The Amis Collection, frequently delight.

But to nit pick about the individual failings of his work is to stare obsessively at the twigs and branches and fail to notice the glorious forest that surrounds them. To read Amis’s correspondence, edited by his biographer Zachary Leader with suitable care and affection, is to socialise with a man who as Larkin famously recalled after first encountering him at Oxford, “for the first time I felt myself in the presence of a talent greater than my own”. 

There are endless details and anecdotes that a lesser writer would have spun out and over-indulged, but which Amis allows to stand on their own merits. Taken purely at random, there is a letter to Larkin on 8 July 1954, post Lucky Jim success, in which he recounts a dull meal with Edith Sitwell (“rather like lunching with a kindly maiden aunt who wants to show you she’s interested in all that writing you’re doing”) and then offers this observation: 

Must run and meet Hilly; she is on the jury at the Assizes this week. Yesterday there was a wonderful chap who used his television set to attract all of the small boys of the neighbourhood into his parlour, where he would assault them and induce them to assault each other. 15 years he got. Still, it’ll be a holiday for him in a way, I suppose.

The dark wit of the observation, tossed away in a concluding paragraph, is entirely of a piece with anything within Amis’s fiction or criticism. But the impression that one often has when reading his writing is of a man who literally ran over with jokes and ideas and fun: the famous faces that he made to amuse his friends (not least the “sex life in Ancient Rome” expression, which gets an outing in Lucky Jim) seem less the attention-seeking antics of a born extrovert and more the outpouring of a desire to entertain those around him at all costs. 

One could even — perhaps over-charitably — ascribe the adulterous affairs that ultimately wrecked his first marriage less to lechery and more to a surfeit of bonhomie, and a desire to share that with anyone who came to hand. Little wonder that Hilary Amis once wrote on his back, while on holiday in Yugoslavia, “1 Fat Englishman, I Fuck Anything”. 

It is deeply disappointing that such a fellow of infinite jest is not being lionised in any meaningful way for his centenary. (An idea I floated a couple of years ago to publishers of editing a new collection of Amis and Larkin’s letters to commemorate their dual anniversaries was swiftly shot down on the grounds that it would be considered “uncommercial” to promote the work of two such controversial writers.) 

But Kingsley Amis — the most clubbable of men in his lifetime, as the Bertorelli’s lunches and his much- used membership of the Garrick would attest — was not someone who would have wanted to be celebrated in a po-faced or banal way. 

If there was to be some well-intentioned but worthy memorial planned, perhaps with speeches that tortuously tried to excuse or explain away Amis’s more controversial aspects, he would undoubtedly have been deeply bored by such an occasion. And then, with a cry of “please communicate with my secretary should you wish to take part in the bum”, he would have insisted that proceedings adjourn to a more salubrious location, where jazz could be listened to, Herculean quantities of alcohol drunk, and the whole world, in all its giddy, silly absurdity, could be ridiculed and celebrated with equal flair. 

That, rather than any number of Booker Prizes, is Kingsley Amis’s lasting legacy. Let us hope that he is still remembered in the same vein in another century, too. 

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