|Born||Kingsley William Amis|
16 April 1922
Clapham, London, England
|Died||22 October 1995 (aged 73)|
|Alma mater||St John's College, Oxford|
|Genre||Fiction, fictional prose|
|Literary movement||Angry young men|
Sir Kingsley William Amis(16 April 1922 – 22 October 1995) was an English novelist, poet, critic and teacher. He wrote more than 20 novels, six volumes of poetry, a memoir, short stories, radio and television scripts, and works of social and literary criticism. He is best known for satirical comedies such as Lucky Jim (1954), One Fat Englishman (1963), Ending Up (1974), Jake's Thing (1978) and The Old Devils (1986).
His biographer Zachary Leader called Amis "the finest English comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century." He was the father of the novelist Martin Amis. In 2008, The Times ranked him ninth on a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
Kingsley Amis was born on 16 April 1922 in Clapham, south London, the only child of William Robert Amis (1889–1963), a clerk – "quite an important one, fluent in Spanish and responsible for exporting mustard to South America" – for the mustard manufacturer Colman's in the City of London, and his wife Rosa Annie (née Lucas). The Amis grandparents were wealthy. William Amis's father, the glass merchant Joseph James Amis, owned a mansion called Barchester at Purley, then part of Surrey. Amis considered J. J. Amis – always called "Pater" or "Dadda" – "a jokey, excitable, silly little man", whom he "disliked and was repelled by".
His wife Julia "was a large, dreadful, hairy-faced creature ... whom [Amis] loathed and feared. His mother's parents lived at Camberwell. Her father George was an enthusiastic collector of books and Baptist chapel organist who was employed at a Brixton gentleman's outfitters as a tailor's assistant, being "the only grandparent [Amis] cared for". Amis hoped to inherit much of his grandfather's library, but his grandmother Jemima – whom Amis already disliked for her habit of mocking her husband when he read his favourite passages to Amis, making "faces and gestures at him while his head was lowered to the page" – permitted him to take only five volumes, on condition he wrote "from his grandfather's collection" on the flyleaf of each.
Amis was raised at Norbury – in his later estimation "not really a place, it's an expression on a map ... really I should say I came from Norbury station." Having been educated first at St Hilda's, an "undistinguished, long-vanished local school ... an independent girls' school of the kind which also took small boys, before they became pubescent and dangerous", he then moved to nearby Norbury College.
In 1940, the Amises moved to Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, and Amis (like his father before him) won a scholarship to the City of London School. In April 1941, after his first year, he was admitted on a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he read English. There he met Philip Larkin, with whom he formed the most important friendship of his life.
In June 1941, Amis joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. He broke with communism in 1956, in view of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Joseph Stalin in his speech "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences". In July 1942, he was called up for national service and served in the Royal Corps of Signals. He returned to Oxford in October 1945 to complete his degree. Although he worked hard and earned a first in English in 1947, he had decided by then to give much of his time to writing.
In 1946 he met Hilary Bardwell. They married in 1948 after she became pregnant with their first child, Philip. Amis initially arranged for her to have a back-street abortion, but changed his mind, fearing for her safety. He was a lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea from 1949 to 1961. Two other children followed: Martin in August 1949 and Sally in January 1954.
Days after Sally's birth, Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim, was published to great acclaim. Critics felt it had caught the flavour of Britain in the 1950s and ushered in a new style of fiction. By 1972, its impressive sales in Britain had been matched by 1.25 million paperback copies sold in the United States. It was translated into 20 languages, including Polish, Hebrew, Korean, and Serbo-Croat. The novel won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction and Amis became one of the writers known as the Angry Young Men. Lucky Jim was among the first British campus novels, setting a precedent for later generations of writers such as Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe and Howard Jacobson. As a poet, Amis was associated with The Movement.
In 1958–1959 Amis made the first of two visits to the United States, as visiting fellow in creative writing at Princeton University and a visiting lecturer in other north-eastern universities. On returning to Britain, he fell into a rut, and he began looking for another post. After 13 years at Swansea, Amis became a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1961, but regretted the move within a year, finding Cambridge an academic and social disappointment. He resigned in 1963, intent on moving to Majorca, although he actually moved no further than London.
In 1963, Hilary discovered that Amis was having an affair with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hilary and Amis separated in August and he went to live with Howard, divorcing Hilary and marrying Howard in 1965. In 1968 he moved with Howard to Lemmons, a house in Barnet, north London. She and Amis divorced in 1983.
In his last years, Amis shared a house with Hilary and her third husband, Alastair Boyd, 7th Baron Kilmarnock. Martin's memoir Experience contains much about the life, charm and decline of his father.
Amis was knighted in 1990. In August 1995 he fell, following a suspected stroke. After apparently recovering, he worsened and died on 22 October 1995 at St Pancras Hospital, London. He was cremated and his ashes laid to rest at Golders Green Crematorium.
Amis is widely known as a comic novelist of life in mid- to late-20th-century Britain, but his literary work covered many genres – poetry, essays, criticism, short stories, food and drink, anthologies, and several novels in genres such as science fiction and mystery. His career initially developed in an inverse pattern to that of his close friend Philip Larkin's. Before becoming known as a poet, Larkin had published two novels; Amis originally sought to be a poet and turned to novels only after publishing several volumes of verse. He continued throughout his career to write poetry, in a straightforward, accessible style that often masks a nuance of thought.
Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), satirises the highbrow academic set of an unnamed university through the eyes of a struggling young lecturer of history. It was widely perceived as part of the Angry Young Men movement of the 1950s, in reacting against stultification of conventional British life, although Amis never encouraged this interpretation. Amis's other novels of the 1950s and early 1960s likewise depict contemporary situations drawn from his experience.
That Uncertain Feeling (1955) features a young provincial librarian (perhaps with an eye to Larkin working as a librarian in Hull) and his temptation to adultery. I Like It Here (1958) takes a contemptuous view of "abroad", after Amis's own travels on the Continent with a young family. Take a Girl Like You (1960) steps away from the immediately autobiographical, but remains grounded in the concerns of sex and love in ordinary modern life, tracing a young schoolmaster's courtship and ultimate seduction of the heroine.
With The Anti-Death League (1966), Amis begins to show some of the experimentation – in content, if not style – that marked much of his work in the 1960s and 1970s. His departure from the strict realism of his early comedic novels is not so abrupt as it might first appear. He had been avidly reading science fiction since a boy and developed that interest in the Christian Gauss Lectures of 1958, while visiting Princeton University. These were published that year as New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, giving a serious yet light-handed treatment of what the genre had to say about man and society.
Amis was especially keen on the dystopian works of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and in New Maps of Hell coined the term "comic inferno" to describe a type of humorous dystopia exemplified by the work of Robert Sheckley. He further displayed his devotion to the genre in editing, with the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, the science-fiction anthology series Spectrum I–V, which drew heavily upon 1950s numbers of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction.
Though not explicitly science fiction, The Anti-Death League takes liberties with reality not found in Amis's earlier novels. It introduces a speculative bent that continued to develop in others of his genre novels, such as The Green Man (1969) (mystery/horror) and The Alteration (1976) (alternative history). Much of this speculation concerned the improbability of the existence of any benevolent deity involved in human affairs.
In The Anti-Death League, The Green Man, The Alteration and elsewhere, including poems such as "The Huge Artifice: an interim assessment" and "New Approach Needed", Amis showed frustration with a God who could lace the world with cruelty and injustice, and championed the preservation of ordinary human happiness – in family, in friendships, in physical pleasure – against the demands of any cosmological scheme. Amis's religious views appear in a response reported in his Memoirs. To the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's question, "You atheist?", Amis replied, "It's more that I hate Him."
During this time, Amis had not turned completely away from the comedic realism of Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You. I Want It Now (1968) and Girl, 20 (1971) both depict the "swinging" atmosphere of late-1960s London, in which Amis certainly participated, though neither book is strictly autobiographical. Girl, 20, for instance, is set in the world of classical (and pop) music, in which Amis had no part. The book's noticeable command of music terminology and opinion shows Amis's amateur devotion to music and almost journalistic capacity to explore a subject that interested him. That intelligence is similarly displayed in the ecclesiastical matters in The Alteration; Amis was neither a Roman Catholic nor a devotee of any church.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Amis regularly produced essays and criticism, principally for periodical publication. Some were collected in 1968 into What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Essays, in which Amis's wit and literary and social opinions were displayed on books such as Colin Wilson's The Outsider (panned), Iris Murdoch's début novel Under the Net (praised), and William Empson's Milton's God (inclined to agreement). Amis's opinions on books and people tended to appear, and often were, conservative, and yet, as the title essay of the collection shows, he was not merely reverent of "the classics" and of traditional morals, but more disposed to exercise his own rather independent judgement in all things.
Amis became associated with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which he admired, in the late 1960s, when he began composing critical works connected with Bond, either under a pseudonym or uncredited. In 1965, he wrote the popular James Bond Dossier under his own name. The same year, he wrote The Book of Bond, or, Every Man His Own 007, a tongue-in-cheek how-to manual about being a sophisticated spy, under the pseudonym "Lt Col. William ('Bill') Tanner", Tanner being M's chief of staff in many of Fleming's novels. In 1968 Amis wrote Colonel Sun, which was published under the pseudonym "Robert Markham".
Amis's literary style and tone changed significantly after 1970, with the possible exception of The Old Devils, a Booker Prize winner. Several critics found him old-fashioned and misogynistic. His Stanley and the Women, an exploration of social sanity, could be said to instance these traits. Others said that his output lacked his earlier work's humanity, wit and compassion.
This period also saw Amis as an anthologist, displaying a wide knowledge of all kinds of English poetry. The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), which he edited, was a revision of an original volume done by W. H. Auden. Amis took it in a markedly new direction: Auden had interpreted light verse to include "low" verse of working-class or lower-class origin, regardless of subject matter, while Amis defined light verse as essentially light in tone, though not necessarily simple in composition. The Amis Anthology (1988), a personal selection of his favourite poems, grew out of his work for a London newspaper, in which he selected a poem a day and gave it a brief introduction.
Amis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, for Ending Up (1974) and Jake's Thing (1978), and finally, as prizewinner, for The Old Devils in 1986.
In 2008, The Times ranked Amis 13th on its list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
As a young man at Oxford, Amis joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and left it in 1956. He later described this stage of his political life as "the callow Marxist phase that seemed almost compulsory in Oxford." Amis remained nominally on the Left for some time after the war, declaring in the 1950s that he would always vote for the Labour Party.
Amis eventually moved further right, a development he discussed in the essay "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" (1967); his conservatism and anti-communism can be seen in works like the dystopian novel Russian Hide and Seek (1980). In 1967, Amis, Robert Conquest, John Braine and several other authors signed a letter to The Times entitled "Backing for U.S. Policies in Vietnam", supporting the US government in the Vietnam War. He spoke at the Adam Smith Institute, arguing against government subsidy to the arts.
By his own admission and according to his biographers, Amis was a serial adulterer for much of his life. This was a major contributory factor in the breakdown of his first marriage. A famous photograph of a sleeping Amis on a Yugoslav beach shows the slogan (written in lipstick by wife Hilary) on his back "1 Fat Englishman – I fuck anything."
In one memoir, Amis wrote, "Now and then I become conscious of having the reputation of being one of the great drinkers, if not one of the great drunks, of our time". He suggests this reflects a naïve tendency in readers to apply the behaviour of his characters to himself. He enjoyed drink and spent a good deal of time in pubs. Hilary Rubinstein, who accepted Lucky Jim for Victor Gollancz, commented, "I doubted whether Jim Dixon would have gone to the pub and drunk ten pints of beer.... I didn't know Kingsley very well, you see."
Clive James commented: "All on his own, he had the weekly drinks bill of a whole table at the Garrick Club even before he was elected. After he was, he would get so tight there that he could barely make it to the taxi." But Amis was adamant that inspiration did not come from a bottle: "Whatever part drink may play in the writer's life, it must play none in his or her work."
This matched a disciplined approach to writing. For "many years" Amis imposed a rigorous daily schedule on himself, segregating writing and drink. Mornings were spent on writing, with a minimum daily output of 500 words. Drinking began about lunchtime, when this had been achieved. Such self-discipline was essential to Amis's prodigious output.
Yet according to James, Amis reached a turning point when his drinking ceased to be social and became a way of dulling his remorse and regret at his behaviour towards Hilly. "Amis had turned against himself deliberately.... It seems fair to guess that the troubled grandee came to disapprove of his own conduct." His friend Christopher Hitchens said: "The booze got to him in the end, and robbed him of his wit and charm as well as of his health."
Amis had an unclear relationship with antisemitism, which he sometimes expressed but also claimed to dislike. He occasionally speculated on the commonly advanced Jewish stereotypes. Antisemitism was sometimes present in his conversations and letters to friends and associates, such as "The great Jewish vice is glibness, fluency ... also possibly just bullshit, as in Marx, Freud, Marcuse", or "Chaplin [who was not Jewish] is a horse's arse. He's a Jeeeew you see, like the Marx Brothers, like Danny Kaye." It is a minor theme in his Stanley and the Women novel about a paranoid schizophrenic. As for the cultural complexion of the United States, Amis had this to say: "I've finally worked out why I don't like Americans ... . Because everyone there is either a Jew or a hick." Amis himself described his antisemitism as "very mild".
Amis's first, 15-year marriage was to Hilary Bardwell, the daughter of a civil servant, by whom he had two sons and one daughter: Philip Amis, a graphics designer; Martin Amis, a novelist who died in 2023; and Sally Amis, who died in 2000.
Amis was married a second time, to the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard from 1965 to 1983, with whom he had no children. At the end of that marriage, he went to live with his former wife Hilary and her third husband, in a deal brokered by their two sons Philip and Martin to ensure he could be cared for until his death.