Monday, February 05, 2007

Kingsley and the Women: review of Zachary Leader's The Life of Kingsley Amis (Cape, 2006)

Modern biographies thrive on revelation, but there is little that is new in Leader's monumental study. This is hardly surprising, since Amis's life has already been well documented in his 1200-page Letters, edited by Leader, Martin's Experience, his own Memoirs, Eric Jacob's biography, compiled shortly before Amis's death, and in various autobiographical articles, supplementing the fictionalised life traceable in the fiction. Leader discusses the problem, and concludes that there remains something to be said of man and works, mainly because it is now possible to fill out the partial views which KA stamped on accounts of his life.

Thus although in late Amis there is much allusion to Hilly or Hilly-type figures, it is refreshing to hear directly from her descriptions of the chaotic, energetic, doomed marriage of the 1950s (previously she was best represnted as a sort of voice off in the footnotes of the Letters). Similarly Elizabeth Jane Howard emerges with more credit here than Kingsley post-divorce ever allowed her, although Leader seems colder to her than to Hilly.

The book's chapter are arranged chronologically, although the works are dealt with out of sequence. The earliest chapters are the best, telling a relatively unknown story, and expertly sewn together from autobiography, letters, others' testimony, and the two fictional accounts of the period from The Riverside Villas Murder and You Can't Do Both. In later years, domestic drudgery and tedious infidelity takes over, interestingly paralleling the novels but otherwise sparse in incident. Although it is not intended as a critical study (Amis's claim to be a titan of 20th-century literature is assumed), there are perspicuous summaries of most of Amis's works (including a good account of the poetry and high praise for Take a Girl Like You, The Old Devils and The Alteration). At times the pace is breathless: the later years are padded out with accounts of sales fugures and advances, mainly of economic interest, and it is in general hard to establish how well Amis was appreciated by his reviewers and audience.

This breathlessness extends to the larger questions raised by Amis and his politics. Two pages are spent discussing Amis's views on race, which isn't much. It would have been more honest to set out clearly that Amis was, in public writing, anti-racist, outspokenly so, and that there was a tension between this and his views as expressed in conversation or correspondence with his cronies. Similarly, Amis's anti-semitism is shown as mild but definite, despite the fact that well into the 1960s he would treat the prejudice as a sure sign of dullness. Perhaps this is partly a reflection of his experience of ageing as the process by which we turn into our parents. But as Leader does point out on numerous occasions, Amis's political views were emotional and illinformed, unlike his views on literature. But there remains the truth that in later years Amis was as famous for his opinionated journalism as for his more nuanced fiction, and he can hardly complain that he is taken at his word. It is, though, hard to take too much notice of the late 60s hippy-hater who had turned his early 60s Cambridge house into a proto-squat of rolling bacchanalia of sex and drugs.

And what of feminism? Amis lived through the raging sex war of the 70s, taking much of it, with good reason, personally. Looking back now, it is notable that the virtues he praised in women: of straightforwardness, honesty, and disdain for conventional morality, were those advanced by his foes.

Leader's prose is serviceable but indistinctive, giving the frequent quotations from Amis and Larkin a shocking comparative verve. The sad theme running through the second half of the book is the problem of Sally: while Philip and Martin emerged from their disrupted and unconventional childhoods intact, she did not; it is hard to read of her alcoholism and death without asking (as Leader does) who is at fault. Not that this type of question is likely to lead to resolution. It seems hardly necessary to lay this at Amis's door, since Leader shows that he had alaready suffered fear, doubt and remorse about this as about much else. Amis was better at analysing his flaws in his fiction than in correcting them in his life, but that is hardly surprising.

This is not the place to start for those new to Amis: they should read his fiction first, then his Letters. But this account raises a series of questions about the novels, while also showing how the latterday Colonel Blimp had started as a radical who instinctively sided with the unprivileged, the dispossed and the powerless.

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