World Literature

Kingsley Amis

 

BORN: 1922, London, England

DIED: 1995, London, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE : Fiction; poetry; criticism

MAJOR WORKS:

Lucky Jim (1954)

The James Bond Dossier (1965)

The Anti-Death League (1966)

The Old Devils (1985)

 

 

Kingsley Amis. Amis, Kingsley, photograph by Jerry Bauer.© Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Although an eclectic man of letters, Kingsley Amis was best known as a prolific novelist who, in the words of Blake Morrison in the Times Literary Supplement, had the ‘‘ability to go on surprising us.’’ He won critical acclaim in 1954 with the publication of his first novel, Lucky Jim. After producing three other humorous works, Amis was quickly characterized as a comic novelist writing in the tradition of P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Critics ranked him among the foremost of the ‘‘Angry Young Men,’’ a school of British writers who disdained post-World War II British society throughout the 1950s. William D. Montalbano of the Los Angeles Times stated that ‘‘Amis rejected the label as ‘a very boring journalistic phrase.’’’ Following his early works, however, Amis produced a spate ofnovels that differed radically in genre and seriousness of theme. He kept “experimenting with ways of confounding the reader who hopes for a single focus,’’ claimed William Hutchings in the Critical Quarterly, though Clancy Sigal suggested in the National Review that Amis simply had ‘‘the virtue, rare in England, of refusing to accept an imposed definition of what a Serious Writer ought to write about.’’ His place in British literature was recognized in 1986, when his seventeenth novel, The Old Devils, won the Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary award. In 1990, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Amis's famous contemporaries include:

Robertson Davies (1913-1995): A preeminent Canadian novelist whose work often deals with religion and metaphysics while interweaving theatrical elements with traditional novel forms.

Richard Nixon (1913-1994): This U.S. president's time in office was marred by the Watergate scandal, which eventually forced Nixon to resign to avoid being impeached.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): This Spanish artist worked in a variety of media, including paint and ceramics. Although his work largely transcends barriers, he is often associated with the cubist art movement.

Graham Greene (1904-1991): This British novelist is known for the breadth of his work, which includes westerns, political thrillers, travelogues, and religious novels.

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007): Prolific Swedish director, whose works include more than sixty films and more than one hundred plays.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Middle-Class Boy to Oxford Man. An only child, Amis enjoyed a comfortable but dull relationship with his Baptist, Conservative, lower-middle-class parents, William Robert and Rosa Lucas Amis. Recalling his father, an office worker, as ‘‘the most English human being I have ever known,’’ Amis added that boredom rather than hostility was his chief response to his father’s company.

School was more rewarding than family life. Amis attended Norbury College, where at the age of eleven he had his first story, ‘‘The Sacred Rhino of Uganda,’’ published in the school magazine. He then entered the City of London School, where he remained until 1941 as a scholarship student. Amis writes enthusiastically about his years at this excellent day school, recalling the broad range of social strata from which its students were drawn and its humane spirit of tolerance: ‘‘I have never in my life known a community where factions of any kind were less in evidence, where differences of class, upbringing, income group and religion counted for so little.’’ Academic standards were high, and Amis, specializing first in classics and then in English, maintained a level that earned him a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford. Although Amis became acquainted with members of the upper class, his middle-class roots instilled in him a skepticism of the pretense found among the wealthy and well- heeled; this clash of classes later became the fodder for some of his most popular works.

While Amis was in school, England entered World War II as one of the Allied nations battling against Nazi Germany’s advance across western Europe. Amis was called for military service when he was twenty and served three years in the army (in France, Belgium, and West Germany), having been commissioned because, he says, ‘‘an Oxford man was likely to be enough of a ‘gentleman’ to do all right as an officer.’’ Late in 1945, at the age of twenty-three, he returned to St. John’s where he earned a first-class degree in 1947 but failed to win a research degree when his thesis (‘‘Poets and Their Public, 1850-1900’’) was rejected. He married Hilary A. Bardwell in 1948 and took a post as lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea in Wales.

Teacher, Husband, Father, Writer. During the next half-dozen years, Amis labored to clarify his roles as teacher, husband, father (two of his three children were born during this time), and writer. His traditionally structured, colloquial, and wittily antiromantic poems began to appear in anthologies, and he occasionally read his works on John Wain’s distinguished BBC poetry program, First Reading. A collection of his poems, A Frame of Mind (1953), helped to associate him in the public mind with Wain, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, and Robert Conquest as part of a concerted dissent from tradition known as The Movement, a label whose validity each of them denied.

Although Amis continued to write and edit collections of poetry, his most significant work was his prose fiction. Also during these years, he was beginning his first major work, Lucky Jim, a novel about a lower-middle-class man who becomes a professor of a subject he dislikes and finds himself surrounded by upper-class colleagues he despises. The germ of the novel was the result of a brief encounter with faculty in the Senior Common Room at Leicester University, which Amis attended in 1946. ‘‘Christ,’’ Amis recalls saying, ‘‘someone ought to do something about that lot.’’ In 1951, he began ‘‘to do something’’: he finished his manuscript a year later and saw it published at the outset of 1954.

A Mixed Bag. At the outset of his career, Amis wrote, ‘‘We are in for a golden age of satire.’’ In his best fiction, Amis validates his prophecy, deftly deflating pretension while expressing a genial affection for humanity. Later, however, misanthropy darkened Amis’s comic sense without deepening his moral or psychological insight. Often, he seemed unable to decide whether his hero is admirable or despicable, or whether to celebrate or mourn the descent of man and society.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Amis's Jim Dixon has been deemed an antihero by author and critic Anthony Burgess. An antihero is a figure in a text who participates in shady dealings or immoral acts but who, due to the presentation of the author, appears to be a sympathetic— indeed, heroic—figure. Antiheroes became popular when the poet Lord Byron featured them in his poems. For instance, Don Juan describes the amorous flings of a sexually irresponsible man; yet the reader cannot help but root for Don Juan and against the husbands of his lovers. Since Byron, the antihero has been used to great effect in both literature and film. Here are some examples:

3:10 to Yuma (2007), a film directed by James Mangold. This adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story depicts Ben Wade, a thief and gang leader in the Old West. As the movie proceeds, the viewer comes to understand and appreciate Ben Wade, even though it is also clear that he is a hardened criminal.

Batman (1939—), a comic book series by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. At first glance, Batman might appear to be an unmitigated positive hero, but upon closer examination, one sees that the questions surrounding Batman and his dark and mysterious past suggest a shady side to his character.

Crime and Punishment (1866), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In this novel, the most sympathetic character is Raskolnikov, a young man who murders a pawnbroker for no good reason.

 

Works in Literary Context

More than fifty years after the turbulence attending the publication of his overwhelmingly popular first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), Kingsley Amis remains a controversial figure in English letters. Many find him an affable and entertaining novelist whose heroes are engagingly antic mimes. Behind the mild lunacy and benign irreverence, others discern in Amis’s fiction a profound concern with serious moral problems. Fellow novelists such as Anthony Burgess, Anthony Powell, V. S. Pritchett, and C. P. Snow have praised him. He has been lauded by critics as the successor to the satiric genius of Evelyn Waugh; as a dissenting realist in the tradition of Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding; as a diverting wit like P. G. Wodehouse or Peter DeVries; and has even been paradoxically labeled an ‘‘antiliberal, antigenteel, antimoralist... left conservative,’’ like Norman Mailer.

Angry Young Man? Early in his career, Amis became associated with a group of writers known as ‘‘Angry Young Men.’’ What linked these writers, who established a loose consortium, was less their anger (though all could pout and rage) than a shared class origin (lower or middle class, but not upper) and unsettled social and cultural values. They suffered the benefits of the post-World War II welfare state without grace or gratitude. Although the Labour Party government made possible their attendance at Oxford or Cambridge, they resisted what they identified as an obligation to embrace—in the name of culture and progress—what Richard Hoggart called the ‘‘shiny barbarism’’ of the middle class. Lucky Jim became the archetypal antihero of the Angry Young Men.

Nonetheless, in spite of all the journalistic declarations in the late 1950s about ‘‘Angry Young Men,’’ a rebellion Amis supposedly led, he never was or claimed to be iconoclastic about society. Rather, the novels, whatever the setting, demonstrated an acceptance, no matter how ironic or grudging, of the social status quo. As such, Amis’s work must be considered a predecessor in tone of the entire body of Philip Roth’s work. American novelist Roth often utilizes a young, angry narrator, but the source of this narrator’s anger is not merely a desire to escape his past and upbringing but to come to terms with it in light of his own individual personality and its relationship to the culture and society in which he was raised. A similar theme is evident in the later writer Tobias Wolff. However, Wolff employs a far less emphatic and demonstrative tone—though no less a pained one—in order to portray the desire of his characters to achieve social mobility and to attain happiness despite their upbringing.

 

Works in Critical Context

Writing in the Christmas 1955 issue of the London Sunday Times, Somerset Maugham described Jim Dixon, the young academic hero of Lucky Jim (which had, ironically, just won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction), and his ilk as ‘‘white collar proletariat [who] do not go to the university to acquire culture, but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. ... They are mean, malicious, envious. ... Charity, kindliness, generosity are qualities which they hold in contempt. They are scum.’’ In 1970, Q. D. Leavis accused Amis of targeting as ‘‘the consistent objects of [his] animus,’’ the ‘‘only bastions against barbarism: the university lecturer, the librarian, the grammar school master, the learned societies, the social worker.’’

Despite the strong reaction of writers like Maugham, Lucky Jim received a largely positive response from critics. The same, however, cannot be said of much of Amis’s later work, which was generally condemned as either inferior to or derivative of Amis’s debut novel.

Lucky Jim. Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Lucky Jim, is, according to Anthony Burgess in The Novel Now, ‘‘the most popular antihero of our time.’’ Though a junior lecturer at a provincial university, Jim has no desire to be an intellectual—or a ‘‘gentleman’’—because of his profound, almost physical, hatred of the social and cultural affectations of university life. This characteristic of Jim’s has led several critics to conclude that he is a philistine, and, moreover, that beneath the comic effects, Amis was really attacking culture and was himself a philistine. Brigid Brophy, for example, wrote in Don’t Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews that the ‘‘apex of philistinism’’ is reached ‘‘when Jim hears a tune by the composer whom either he or Mr. Amis... thinks of as ‘filthy Mozart.’’’

Ralph Caplan, however, claimed in Charles Shapiro’s Contemporary British Novelists that Lucky Jim ‘‘never [promises] anything more than unmitigated pleasure and insight, and these it keeps on delivering. The book [is] not promise but fulfillment, a commodity we confront too seldom to know how to behave when it is achieved. This seems to be true particularly when the achievement is comic. Have we forgotten how to take humor straight? Unable to exit laughing, the contemporary reader looks over his shoulder for Something More. The trouble is that by now he knows how to find it.’’

More of the Same? Critics generally saw the three novels that followed Lucky Jim as variations on the theme of appealing to common sense and denouncing affectation. Discussing Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, I Like It Here, and Take a Girl Like You in the Hudson Review, James P. Degnan stated: ‘‘In the comically outraged voice of his angry young heroes—e.g., Jim Dixon of Lucky Jim and John Lewis of That Uncertain Feeling— Amis [lampoons] what C. P. Snow.. .labeled the ‘traditional culture,’ the ‘culture of the literary intellectuals,’ of the ‘gentleman’s world.’’’

The heroes in these four novels are in fact so much alike that Brigid Brophy charged Amis with ‘‘rewriting much the same novel under different titles and with different names for the characters.’’ Degnan, however, defends the similarity: ‘‘In place of the sensitive soul as hero, Amis creates in his early novels a hero radically new to serious contemporary fiction: a middle-class hero who is also an intellectual, an intellectual who is unabashedly middlebrow. He is a hero ... whose chief virtues, as he expresses them, are: ‘politeness, friendly interest, ordinary concern and a good natured willingness to be imposed upon. ... ’ Suspicious of all pretentiousness, of all heroic posturing, the Amis hero ... voices all that is best of the ‘lower middle-class, of the non-gentlemanly’ conscience.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Research the word cynic. Based on your experience with Amis’s work, especially Lucky Jim, do you think that Amis can accurately be described as a cynic? Explain your thinking in a short essay.

2. Compare Amis’s representation of Jim Dixon with Dostoyevsky’s representation of Raskolnikov. What do you see as some of the differences and similarities between these two antiheroes? Consider their backgrounds, social status, and motivations. Based on these readings, what do you make of antiheroes in novels? (What is appealing about them, what is not?)

3. The concept of the antihero can be extended into other areas of the creative arts, such as in music and art itself. What could that type of antihero represent? What would the profile be like? Provide contemporary examples of the antihero in each area of the arts. Support your examples.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Allsop, Kenneth. The Angry Decade: A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the Nineteen-Fifties. London: Owen, 1964.

Bradford, Richard. Kingsley Amis. London: Arnold, 1989.

Brophy, Brigid. Don’t Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews. New York: Holt, 1966.

Burgess, Anthony. The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction. New York: Norton, 1967.

Gardner, Philip. Kingsley Amis. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Gindin, James. Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962.

Lodge, David. Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel. London: Routledge & Paul, 1966.

O’Connor, William Van. The New University Wits and the End of Modernism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.

Rabinovitz, Rubin. The Reaction Against Experiment: A Study of the English Novel, 1950-1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Salwak, Dale, ed. Kingsley Amis in Life and Letters. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Vannatta, Denis, ed. The English Short Story, 1945-1980. Boston: Twayne, 1985.