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Of Sense and Sensibilities

Of Sense and Sensibilities

The writings of Kingsley Amis, whose centenary passed this year, evoke admiration and offense in equal measure.

John G. Rodden

If there were ever anyone with a claim to being a knight errant of letters, it was the greatest British comic novelist of his generation, Sir Kingsley Amis (1922–95). His centenary last April 16 passed in a burst of nostalgic fanfare in Britain, from liberal as well as conservative organs, yet nary a mention on these shores, shamefully so. Looking more like a belligerent, be(k)nighted Sancho than the Don—Amis carried a hefty 260 pounds on a 5’10” frame during his last decade—he nonetheless sallied forth with gusto ‘til the end, tilting at politically correct windmills as if they were nefarious left-leaning Towers of Pisa, or Towers of Babel. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990 for his “services to Literature” and known affectionately to his friends as “Kingers,” Amis was a man of letters who excelled as a novelist and cultural critic. Along with his lifelong friend poet Philip Larkin, Amis has a strong claim to being the best-known (and, at least in conservative circles, the best-loved) British writer of the second half of the twentieth century.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Certainly no other writer of his generation received a full-page memorial tribute from Time Magazine, let alone one that extravagantly declared, “The British decades between 1955 and 1995 should in fairness be called the Amis Era.” During these years Amis was Britain’s most provocative, most pugnacious, and most prominent literary figure. From his sensational breakthrough on the literary scene in the mid-1950s with Lucky Jim (1954) to his Booker Award-winning The Old Devils (1986) to his widely reviewed Memoirs (1991), Amis enjoyed a distinguished career of achievement during which he became a habitation and a name in the cultural firmament.

Kingers was also a ubiquitous presence in British cultural debates, thundering increasingly conservative and even reactionary pronouncements as the decades progressed on every topic of the day—from the New Left in the 1950s, to the Vietnam War and counterculture in the Sixties and Seventies, to the policies of his beloved “Lady Margaret” Thatcher in the 1980s and the hydra-headed manifestations of political correctness in the 1990s—including the fatuities of the “academic proletariat,” “delusional” Marxists, “crazy” feminists, and so much more. Already by the 1980s his bluff ridicule of self-absorbed identity politicians made him a prominent target of left-wing reviewers. Today? Surely he would be de-platformed.

Or maybe not. In a centennial tribute, the Daily Telegraph headlined: “‘Misogynist’ Kingsley Amis is too good to cancel.” The admirer declared, “His reputation seems to be holding up better than all but a couple of the British novelists of his generation,” rivalled or exceeded only by Doris Lessing or Muriel Spark. “Sympathy for the Old Devil,” beseeched the Times of London in its headline. “His comic zest was unparalleled,” added the contributor, “and throughout his ranting and raging I always laughed.”

So did I—and still do today.

“The Funniest, the Cleverest—or the Rudest”

Known for decades on both sides of the Atlantic as an outspoken man of the right, it is easy to forget that Amis was a member of the British Communist Party during his Oxford University undergraduate years (1939–41) and later—in fact, a full fifteen years later, as we shall see. In both cases, however, his positions were not so much political as contrarian—first a young Turk against bourgeois orthodoxies, later an old fogy against radical fashions. He enjoyed being a “character.” As his authorized biographer Zachary Leader observed, Amis was “the funniest man most people had ever met, or the cleverest, or the rudest”—all of which “helped make him a celebrity, everywhere quoted.”

He had already acquired that reputation in his early thirties with the publication of Lucky Jim, still regarded by many as the finest comic novel of the last half of the twentieth century—and the best since those of Evelyn Waugh in his prime. My admiration for Amis both as an entertaining satirist and formidable polemicist grew with the years. I paid him a visit in March 1985. The ostensible reason was to ask him about his views of the two outstanding English writers of the previous generation who struck me as his elder literary siblings, Waugh and George Orwell. We veered onto other topics, however, for Amis was at that time embroiled in the most controversial episode of his career bearing on his attitudes toward women.

“All good fun,” I recollect him remarking about the hubbub, adding a couple of disparaging remarks about “Yanks.” Political correctness was “much worse” in America than in Britain (“What can you expect of Yanks?”), though Britain was doing its best to catch up. It was typical of the hypocrisy of literary London, he continued with a mock sigh, that a few British reviewers who had praised Stanley on its publication had recently expressed disparaging “second thoughts” in light of the feminist backlash in New York. “Such minor annoyances aside,” he allowed, he was enjoying himself. “Much too long since I’ve had a good public row,” he concluded.

Amis once wrote that his biggest vice was “boredom.” Others disagreed—and added that his demons were legion. Yet he may well have been right, for much of his bad boy behavior arose from acedia. Whenever he was bored, Amis was at his rudest (if not necessarily his funniest and cleverest). By the mid-1980s, a bored Kingers was in a mood, once again, to rock the boat. He had decided to take aim at a reliable and familiar target: feminism. He was returning for a second round. Six years earlier, his novel Jake’s Thing (1978) featured some “women’s libbers” (as they were known in the 1970s), above all, American ones.

Jake’s Thing is the story of Jacques (“Jake”) Richardson, a fifty-nine-year-old Oxford University lecturer. The embattled Jake is suffering from daily challenges to his manliness, including lack of desire and bouts of impotence. Nonetheless, when his GI doctor holds out the prospect of restoring “Jake’s thing” to good working order, Jake replies with a curt, “No thanks.” Half surprised at first that he is so uninterested in rejuvenating his libido even though the prospects are good, Jake ultimately concludes that the decision was actually “quite easy” after conducting “a quick run-through of women in his mind, not [merely] of the ones he had known … [but] all of them,” noting their “concern with the surface of things … their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion,” among more biting critiques. Was this just the literary character Jake holding forth? Or, as many of critics at the time charged, was it the fifty-six-year-old former Cambridge University lecturer, Kingsley Amis, speaking?

Amis always insisted, as he later wrote in his Memoirs, that his novels were “firmly non-autobiographical.” His letters and other biographical evidence make clear, however, that Amis too suffered from a lack of sexual desire and impotence by the 1970s, which substantially contributed to the breakup of his second marriage.

Quite apart from Amis’ sexual midlife crisis, many critics argued that his novels were autobiographical in the sense that he himself believed most of the outrageous things his characters said—and that his protagonists, starting with Jim Dixon of Lucky Jim, were obviously based on Amis’ own temperament and experiences. That perception won him a massive following as an anti-Establishment, épater-le-bourgeois-maverick in the wake of Lucky Jim. He was widely viewed as “just like Lucky Jim,” partly because the comical gestures and facial expressions that Jim exhibits derived from the astounding repertoire of Amis himself, who was renowned as a master of mimicry and impersonation equal to Peter Sellers and Robin Williams. Amis publicly identified with Jim in his most famous political essay, “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right.”

The questions about Amis’ personal views and the sexual politics in Jake’s Thing acquired special significance because of the Jim/Jake connection. To wit: Fast-forward three decades and—voila!—you have Jim Dixon transformed into Jake Richardson. Whereas Jim leaves the academic profession at the close of Lucky Jim, Jake stays in it and rises up to teach at Oxford—yet he is still a lowly lecturer, just as Jim was. Jake’s academic field is classics—assailable as an even older, moribund, more irrelevant discipline than Jim’s medieval history—and Jake has no stronger commitment to it than does Jim to his scholarly article on fifteenth-century shipbuilding. Moreover, Jake paces in Jim’s footsteps: both men have lowbrow tastes and aim to escape the clutches of neurotic women who fake suicide attempts.

So Jake’s Thing is a thinly veiled, what-if sequel to Lucky Jim, with Amis conducting a wacky thought experiment: What if “lucky” Jim had not received a lavish job offer as a rich aristocrat’s personal assistant, won away the beautiful girlfriend of his senior professor’s repugnant son, and walked off with her arm in arm in a ludicrously over-the-top, happily-ever-after ending? What might his life be like if he had remained stuck in his hateful academic job, and faced middle age with deepening cynicism about his profession and growing despair about his sexual performance?

If Amis’ characters had an autobiographical edge, then was not the mature Amis very much like Jake after all? Was Jake just a mouthpiece for Amis—and Jake’s pronouncements about “all” women little more than Amis’ own frustrated ravings? QED: Was not the author, along with his protagonist, a blatant misogynist?

Or is it possible that Amis was satirizing Jake, with the latter’s closing speech about “all” women exposed as a takedown of Archie Bunkerish men who droned on like Jake? On the other hand, if Jake did speak for the author, was Jake—as Amis always insisted about himself—not “anti-woman” but rather an anti-feminist who didn’t believe in any “isms”?

The Crusty Grand Old Man

A few months after my visit to Amis in the spring of 1985, Larkin—Amis’ closest friend—died at the age of sixty-three. Amis, four months older than Larkin, felt himself to be a weary culture warrior, if not a mellowed one. He soldiered on, and the tide of critical opinion toward him shifted just a year later with the enthusiastic reception across the literary spectrum accorded to The Old Devils. The favorable outcome of the Booker Prize deliberations made clear that the offenses associated with “Kingsley and the Women” had been forgiven, if not forgotten. To his amazement and delight, the London literary elite had not only honored him with the Booker, but The Old Devils had also beaten out the kind of book about which the Kingers was invariably at his rudest: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. With shrugs of resignation tinged with amusement, the London literary commentariat had accepted that Sir Kingsley, as his first authorized biographer Eric Jacobs noted, “had settled into his persona as the crusty Grand Old Man, part Evelyn Waugh, part Samuel Johnson.”

As he settled into his curmudgeonly Mount Rushmore persona—sculpted with love through the decades of his impassioned identifications with Rudyard Kipling, G. K. Chesterton, Waugh, and Samuel Johnson Amis came to glory in playing the cantankerous countercultural contrarian. He became almost a caricature of himself at times as he performed his signature, crowd-pleaser role of royal pain-in-the-arse Kingers to the hilt. “Until just now, I had thought the Booker Prize a rather trivial show business caper,” he said at the awards dinner, “but now I consider it a very serious and reliable indication of literary merit.”

During his last decade, Amis occupied a unique place in British culture. Critics and the British literary world were divided over whether he was a national treasure or a national scandal, with a consensus eventually forming that he was both, depending on your literary tastes and political stance. It was widely noted that he had traveled the full arc of the political spectrum. Indeed, Amis had an odd and certainly singular double distinction. Touted as the radical heir apparent to Orwell as a young man, he was viewed as the refractory successor to Waugh in his later years. Having begun as a revolutionary, he had wound up a reactionary.

If anything, Amis the Oxford undergraduate had been further left than Orwell had ever been. Having joined the British Communist Party shortly after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939, he stayed through his wartime army service in the Royal Signal Corps and long beyond. He was still a party member—albeit long inactive—throughout the writing and publication of Lucky Jim in the mid-1950s, not leaving formally until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956, “which turned me into a violent anti-Communist.” Writing to The Daily Worker in February 1957, he announced: “Marxism repels me by offering certainty instead of Truth.”

Amis’ sharp rightward turn—or lurch, as his detractors would soon come to say—had already begun around 1946, not long after returning home from the army. He had re-enrolled at Oxford a few months earlier, this time to do a postgraduate degree in English. (Shades of Jim Dixon, his postgraduate thesis was flunked by his committee at Oxford, apparently because he had mocked one of the committee members, Lord David Cecil, who took vengeance on him.) As Amis veered from Stalinism toward the Labour Left, he adopted a version of radical politics—and a “common man” intellectual stance—that resembled Orwell’s own. In the aftermath of a global war and in the shadow of the bomb, Amis felt it necessary to repudiate grand gestures and ideologically driven visions and to embrace instead solid, even stolid, traditional English virtues. In poetry and fiction, that meant writing regular, disciplined verse forms and avoiding radical experiments in plot and character.

For Amis, as well as his like-minded friends Larkin and the poet-historian Robert Conquest, Orwell was their man. The trio formed the core of a group that became known as “the Movement” in the mid-1950s, with Orwell serving as a guiding presence. Following his example, the Movement writers believed, would serve as a stay against postwar exhaustion and ennui, representing a small effort in the realm of art to do something constructive in a postwar Britain of lowered expectations and shrinking global influence.

Rather than Bloomsbury and the modernists, Amis looked to Orwell as a model for his limpid style and pragmatic ethos. Amis affirmed what he regarded as Orwell’s empirical, commonsensical, workaday sensibility in order to reassert the values of order, tradition, and restraint. Formal strictness, clear expression, concrete imagery, and a controlled voice summed up the Movement credo, above all in poetry. The Movement writers maintained that poetry was a form of public communication, not an occasion for display of personality or ideological solidarity. Given their emphasis on reason, ordinary language, familiar illusions, everyday feelings, accessibility, and the wider audience, it is hardly surprising that they—especially Amis and Conquest—came to admire the lucid and straightforward prose style of Orwell and his demonstrable appeal to the general reading public.

Thus, in revolt against the obscurantism and perceived elitism of the followers of T.S. Eliot, the agitprop verse of the 1930s, the apocalyptic mysticism of some wartime pacifists, and the neo-romanticism of Dylan Thomas, Amis publicly advocated the style and values that he exhibited in his poetry and fiction: the return to a more level tone, the rejection of panache and prophetic pomp, the repudiation of experiment and consequent embrace of traditional form, the refusal to make large gestures. (This spirit of revolt—exhibited most famously in the umbrage that Jim Dixon displays toward all forms of posturing and phoniness—also led to Amis’ becoming known as one of England’s “Angry Young Men,” a group of novelists and playwrights much publicized in the media as social critics, “the rebels with a cause” of the postwar generation.)

By the mid-1960s, however, Amis was not just a liberal anti-communist: his opposition to Marxists and socialists had turned him into a fully committed conservative, as he explained in his widely discussed programmatic statement, “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right” (1967). Amis credited his close friend Conquest, best known as the author of The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968), for midwifing his own political maturation. During my London visit to him, Amis shared “Conquest’s Law” with me: “Everyone tends to be more conservative on matters that directly affect his personal welfare and/or exert impact on his life.” For instance, as a young man, he explained, he himself had howled loudly about colonialism and empire, about which he knew nothing. Like Lucky Jim, however, he was “sound” (i.e., conservative) on education policy, about which he “knew a sickening amount, unfortunately first-hand.”

Years later, Amis publicly acknowledged his debt to Conquest and cited a version of this very example of the “law” in his Memoirs. Amis was by no means alone among prominent writers who acknowledged Conquest’s tutelage—so too, in varying degrees, did Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and others.

Of Blimps and Bores

As he grew more conservative, Amis’ persona grew uncannily congruent with that of the ageing Waugh. Already with Lucky Jim, Amis’ resemblance to Waugh as a comic novelist and master craftsman had been noted by readers. Jim seemed to be a junior, more resolute sibling of Paul Pennyfeather (Decline and Fall, 1928) and William Boot (Scoop, 1938). By the late 1960s, however, Amis’ ideological and temperamental affinities with Waugh appeared equally striking to the literary likenesses: the outrageous, sometimes vulgar, and even racist or sexist pronouncements; the ready willingness to shock and offend; the contempt for “fashionable” leftism; the Colonel Blimp outlook.

One aforementioned feature of the Amis persona corresponded to Waugh’s physiognomy above all: the intolerance of boredom. Amis often chastised Conquest for leaving England and succumbing to “the lures of boringly Edenic” weather when Conquest relocated to Palo Alto in the 1970s, accepting a position as a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute. To acquiesce to boredom, Amis believed, risked becoming a “bore” oneself—and no fate was worse than that.

As biographer Eric Jacobs observes, Amis “couldn’t abide bores, someone with nothing interesting, intelligent or amusing to say.” The species had to be avoided at all costs. If the “bore” failed to vacate the scene in a timely fashion, Amis did not hesitate to insult and humiliate him (or, occasionally, her) until that result was achieved. Waugh did the same. This allergy to boredom and bores—and the boorish behavior it triggered—was a key to the humor of both men: they loved nothing better than stirring things up and creating a scene. As with Waugh, however, one was never quite sure with Amis how seriously he believed his pronouncements or how much of it was simply part of a gruff and grumpy shtick and a penchant for sounding off.

The major difference between the pair was religion: Amis bemoaned Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited(1945) as “a pseudo-elitist fantasy” and its author as a “very silly fellow” who had written “one marvelous book (D & F)” of early fiction and “then went off and joined the carcholic ch” (in Amis’ mock spelling). Faced with the gloom of postwar England, claimed Amis in 1978, Waugh had been “in real need of something that offered an explanation or an excuse for the horrors of existence. We all know what Waugh found—to his artistic detriment.”

Similarly, in the case of Chesterton, Amis honored the creative artist while deploring the Christian apologist. In one sense his esteem for Chesterton was (inadvertently? deliberately?) ironic. Amis credited The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) as “an important source” for The Alteration (1976), his sci-fi “alternate world” novel that satirizes Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular with fiendish, indeed diabolical, gusto.

Let us dwell for a moment on this irony, for Amis’ anti-Christian stance is the key difference that separates him from his aforementioned conservative admirations. And in this respect, he is quite like the avowed atheistic, anti-papist, George Orwell (“my enemies, the R.C.s,” Orwell once wrote), a fellow secularist and moralist who also had no trouble valuing Chesterton, Waugh, and some other Catholics for their literary achievements.

Imagine a world, posits Amis in The Alteration (or “Altar-ation”), in which the Protestant Reformation had never happened and the world is dominated by a papal theocracy. Imagine that Martin Luther had soft-pedaled his protestations and become Pope Germanicus I, later succeeded by Pope Hadrian VII (the erstwhile Thomas More). The English language has become a serviceable vehicle for theological disquisitions and little else; the schismatic Shakespeare has been excommunicated and his plays burned. The original of Hamlet is unknown, though the play survives in the rectified version of Thomas Kyd.

So much for Amis’ version of ecclesiastical history. Fast-forward to the present: we are now in the Holy Year of 1976 and the iron-willed Pope is assisted by the brilliant Jesuit theologian Monsignor Jean-Paul Sartre (author of De Existentiae Natura), along with Monsignori Henricus and Lavrentius (a.k.a. pre-ordination as Messrs. Himmler and Beria). All Jews must display in public the Star of David. Approved literature includes The Lord of the Chalices, The Wind in the Cloisters, and the Father Bond stories. Vatican art is exemplified by the frescoes of St. Augustine by William Blake and of Ecce Homo by David Hockney.

Lest the reader get the impression that Catholicism alone is the target, the ten-year-old hero of the tale escapes England and crosses the Atlantic to Protestant “New England,” where a devout liberal clergyman cautions him that the family “servant” named Abraham has a “small brain” unfit for mature cogitation. “Under God’s guidance,” therefore, “separateness” is state policy—that is, segregation. Returning home to papal England, the main setting of Amis’ altered/altared world, our innocent boy hero—who possesses a “divine” singing voice—is about to undergo the medical version of “the alteration.” He will thereby become—Deo gratia!exclaims a cardinal—the papal court’s leading castrato.

Admittedly, Chesterton and Waugh might have gasped at the audacity and ruthlessness of Amis’ counterfactual history. But Catholic intellectuals such as Anthony Burgess regarded the novel as “a brilliant, grim joke.” And sci-fi masters such as Philip K. Dick extolled it as “one of the best—possibly the best—Alternate World novels in existence.”

By the mid-1980s, after the publication of both Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women, Amis the harrumphing Garrick Club curmudgeon had become the enduring, widely recognized, often castigated, and occasionally celebrated writer known to the public. In some circles his image had congealed into the devilish Old Devil. Kingers Kong, Neanderthal. Relishing every chance to play the philistine, Amis once wrote that the best film he ever watched was King Kong. With Mafiosi relish, he added: “Dubbed in Italian.”

In his final weeks in intensive care, Sir Kingsley was still busily collecting material for another novel. Its working title? The Last Old Devil.

John Rodden has written numerous books and articles on British writers and intellectuals ranging from Smollett, Godwin, Dickens, and Hardy to Orwell, Raymond Williams and Christopher Hitchens.  His most recent book is The Intellectual Species: Evolution or Extinction? (2022).

Image: "Fashion Plate," Richard Hamilton, 1970. (Wikiart)