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Kingsley Amis at 100

The centenary of a (sometimes comic) novelist.
by Bill Ryan
June 2, 2022
Kingsley Amis at 100
4th May 1956: British novelist Kingsley Amis (1922 - 1995). (Photo by Daniel Farson/Getty Images)

Not long ago, I saw someone on that nebulous demon known as Social Media going on about how Kingsley Amis—the once-famous, then out-of-fashion, now somewhat-more-in-fashion British comic novelist—was “retrogressive,” and his fans were guaranteed to be “humorless.” By way of example, he mentioned the description of the main character’s hangover from Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim. Certainly this must be the most famous passage from what remains Amis’s best-known book. It’s also funny, which strikes me as a crucial point in its favor:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad.

If the argument had been that this passage has been over-quoted through the decades, that might be something I could get behind, the primary reason being that Amis wrote many wonderful paragraphs and even whole books, so it’s unnecessary to lean so hard on just those few sentences. Furthermore, regardless of what I said earlier, and of what my Twitter nemesis also said, Kingsley Amis, whose centenary we are celebrating this year, was not, strictly speaking, “just” a comic novelist. I don’t remember any jokes in his classic science fiction novel The Alteration, for example. Even most of his comedic works have many varied textures and tones.

Look at, for example, what I consider his best novel, Take a Girl Like You. It’s made very clear that one of the characters in that book, Graham McClintoch, is physically very unattractive. This has led to a life without any sort of romantic companionship, and at one point he explains what his existence has been like to the novel’s heroine, the beautiful Jenny Bunn:

“…When I see someone as pretty as you I always start off by thinking that it’s going to be different this time, this time she’ll have to want me a little because I want her so much. That’s the bit I always do fool myself about, at first. Perhaps it isn’t normal, all this wanting. But I wouldn’t know, would I? I haven’t any way of knowing. What’s sex all about? How would I know? And not knowing that means not knowing a lot of other things, too. For instance, literature. I used to be a great reader at one time, but not any more. Eternity was in our lips and eyes, bliss in our brows’ bent. It’s not envy. Simpler than that. What’s he talking about?”

Take a Girl Like You, in addition to being a great novel, is also an instructive one in understanding Amis as an artist. To call him a famous skirt-chaser would be to put it mildly—but while Amis was notoriously infidelious during his two marriages, the extremely likable and sympathetic Jenny Bunn is celibate by choice, wanting to lose her virginity for what she feels are the right reasons. The novel revolves around her relationship with Patrick Standish, a handsome player who wants nothing more than to make Jenny his latest conquest. The novel was published in 1960 when, at least in England, certain sexual and societal barriers were starting to be torn down. This new freedom was something Amis happily took advantage of, and yet it’s impossible to finish Take a Girl Like You on the side of Patrick, because Amis understood an inherent hypocrisy when people like, well, him looked down their noses at people like Jenny. Here, Jenny is reflecting on her attitudes towards sex as they contrasted with Patrick’s:

…[N]o doubt a rule-and-routine thing with kissing and so on had a lot wrong with it. She knew how much. On the other hand, the non-rule idea seemed by all accounts to have even more wrong with it. She could see the point of sex being frank, free, and open, as Patrick had unwisely put it to her once and as she had put it back to him again a couple of dozen times since. What was meant by the expression in practice was a frank, free, and open (and immediate and often repeated) scuttle into bed with some man; to tell them all to drop dead, however frankly, freely, and openly, did not count as that. After dwelling on the frank, free, and open enjoyment that would follow arrival in bed the story tended to fade away rather.

What Amis achieves through this kind of prose, apart from being funny, is to use his opponent’s—or his character’s opponent’s—undeveloped and/or circular logic against them. That “tended to fade away rather” is a beautifully sharp way of showing that the other, less popular, and much sneered-at opinion could be argued from the same structure of thought that had earlier come from the other direction, so at the very least if you’re going to make your point against someone like Jenny, you’d better do a better job than that, and don’t let your prejudices lead you to underestimate her. Add to this that by the end of Take a Girl Like You, Jenny’s experiences with men over the course of the novel have left her worse off than she was before suggests a certain self-reckoning for Amis, at least in his writing.

And even if it is, admittedly, quite easy to slot him into the “English comic novelist” category (it helps being as funny as he was), Amis’s imagination could take him anywhere. The most remarkable example of this that I can think of is his horror novel The Green Man. Amis often experimented with genre—in addition to horror and science fiction, he wrote a James Bond novel, and, more than any others, mystery fiction, a genre of which he was an enormous fan. Later in life, he would point to mystery writer Dick Francis as one of the few living writers he cared to read. But in The Green Man, he indulged, quite successfully, in a blend of what could be considered a classic Amis domestic scenario—a middle-aged man who drinks too much, runs an inn, and is trying to set up a threesome with his wife and her best friend—with English folk horror. I won’t get into the plot, but most memorable, for me, is the scene late in the novel when the protagonist Maurice Allington meets a young man sitting alone in the inn’s bar. This young man, as Maurice almost instantly realizes, is, literally, God. During their conversation, the young man explains to Maurice that He’s often misunderstood, and that while His powers are immense, they are not as extensive as most mortals believe:

“…one thing nobody’s ever credited me with is the power of undoing what I’ve done, of abolishing historical fact and so on. I often wish I could—well, occasionally I do. It’s not that I want to be cruel, not that so much as finding that’s what I seem to be turning out to be. Not an easy situation, you know. … You can’t imagine what it’s like to be faced with a set of choices that are irrevocable and also unique.”

Later, when asked by Maurice why the young man is never tempted to make life “a little less hard on people,” he answers:

“No prospect of that, I’m afraid. Much too tricky from the security point of view. Some of your chaps have found out quite enough already. Your friend Milton, for instance. … He caught on to the idea of the work of art and the game and the rules and so forth. Just as well it never quite dawned on him who Satan was, or rather who he was a piece of. I’d have had to step in there, if it had. … A little heart attack, perhaps. Paralytic stroke. That kind of thing.”

Amis was an atheist, struggling here in prose with a question he posed to himself elsewhere in a poem called “A.E.H.”:

Wounded lads, when to renew them
Death and surgeons cross the shade
Still their cries, hug darkness to them;
All at last in sleep are laid

All save one, who nightlong curses
Wounds imagined more than seen
Who in level tones rehearses
What the fact of wounds must mean.

Funny, funny stuff.

But yes, Kingsley Amis was, first and foremost, a comic novelist. This is impossible to deny, and who would want to? The ability to write funny prose is a marvelous gift, and it’s one that Amis possessed. In his wonderful introduction to the NYRB Classics reprint of Ending Up, one of Amis’s best and darkest comedies, Craig Brown points out that one of the dominant themes in Amis’s humor is irritation. Brown recognizes that the feeling of irritation, or of being irritating to others, is something that long ruled over Amis’ fiction in the way that, say, being male seemed to somewhat preoccupy Norman Mailer. “Throughout his oeuvre,” Brown writes, “irritation plays on the Amis landscape like sun on sea.” And it’s true: both the best of Amis’ humor and many of his most insightful passages, or even simply the moments that make the reader think “Yes, I’ve experienced that too, and it’s like that,” were born from irritation. Such as this exchange between two characters, late in Ending Up:

“I must be off,” said Adela on the Friday morning of that week. “They said the sooner I take the car into the garage the sooner they’ll be finished with it.”

“It sounds logical,” said Bernard. “When will you be back? In case anyone comes or anything.”

“As soon as they’ve finished with the car I’ll start for home.”

“When will you be back?”

“They’ve got to change all the oil, do you see, and make sure the tyres are all right, and clean things in the engine and so on.”

“Yes, and so forth into the bargain I shouldn’t wonder. For the love of God, when will you be back?”

So, I’m sorry if the first and only thing that comes to mind when you think of Kingsley Amis is the hangover scene from Lucky Jim, but if that’s the case, I’m afraid you have no one to blame but yourself. He was a writer of many and varied gifts, a precise writer of prose, both comic and otherwise, as he demonstrated over and over again, self-critical in his work if not necessarily in his personal affairs. He thought deeply about life, and pain, and irritation, and disappointment, and weakness, and when he put those thoughts on paper, he was, more often than not, funny as hell about it.

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.