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Sir Kingsley William Amis, CBE (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, various short stories, radio and television scripts, along with works of social and literary criticism. According to his biographer, Zachary Leader, Amis was "the finest English comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century." He is the father of British novelist Martin Amis.
In 2008, The Times ranked Kingsley Amis thirteenth on their list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
Life and career
Kingsley Amis was born on 16 April 1922 in Clapham, south London, the son of William Robert Amis, a mustard manufacturer's clerk in the City of London and his wife, Rosa Annie (née Lucas). He was raised in 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". He was educated at the City of London School on a scholarship, after his first year, and in April 1941 was admitted to St John's College, Oxford, also on a scholarship, where he read English. It was there that he met Philip Larkin, with whom he formed the most important friendship of his life. While at Oxford, in June 1941, Amis joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (but later broke with communism in 1956, after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced former Soviet premier Joseph Stalin in his speech On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences). After only a year, in July 1942, he was called up for national service. After serving in the Royal Corps of Signals in the Second World War, Amis returned to Oxford in October 1945 to complete his degree. Although he worked hard and earned in 1947 a first in English, he had by then decided 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 became a lecturer in English at the University of Wales, Swansea (1949–1961). 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 saw it as having caught the flavour of Britain in the 1950s, ushering in a new style of fiction. By 1972, in addition to impressive sales in Britain, one and a quarter million paperback copies had been sold in the United States, and it was eventually translated into twenty languages, including Polish, Hebrew, Korean, and Serbo-Croat. The novel won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction and Amis was associated with the writers labelled the Angry Young Men. Lucky Jim was one of 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.
During 1958–1959 he made the first of two visits to the United States, where he was Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at Princeton University and a visiting lecturer in other northeastern universities. On returning to Britain, he fell into a rut, and he began looking for another post; after thirteen years at Swansea, Amis became a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge (1961–1963). He regretted the move within a year, finding Cambridge an academic and social disappointment and resigned in 1963, intent on moving to Majorca; he went no farther than London.
In 1963, Hilary discovered Amis's love affair with novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hilary and Amis separated in August, and he went to live with Howard. He divorced Hilary in 1965 and married Howard the same year. 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 his first wife Hilary and her third husband, Alastair Boyd, 7th Baron Kilmarnock. Martin wrote the memoir Experience about the life, charm, and decline of his father.
Amis was knighted in 1990. In August 1995 he fell, suffering a suspected stroke. After apparently recovering, he worsened, was re-admitted to hospital, and died on 22 October 1995 at St Pancras Hospital, London. He was cremated; his ashes are at Golders Green Crematorium.
Amis is widely known as a comedic novelist of mid- to late-20th-century British life, but his literary work extended into many genres — poetry, essays and criticism, short stories, food and drink writing, anthologies, and a number of novels in genres such as science fiction and mystery. His career initially developed in a pattern which was the inverse of that followed by his close friend Philip Larkin. Before becoming known as a poet, Larkin had published two novels; Amis, on the other hand, originally wished to be a poet, and turned to writing novels only after publishing several volumes of verse. He continued throughout his career to write poetry which is known for its typically straightforward and accessible style, yet which often masks a nuance of thought, for example, in "Bookshop Idyll" or "Against Romanticism", just as it does in his novels.
Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), is perhaps his most famous, satirizing the high-brow academic set of an unnamed university, seen through the eyes of its protagonist, Jim Dixon, as he tries to make his way as a young lecturer of history. The novel was perceived by many as part of the Angry Young Men movement of the 1950s which reacted against the stultification of conventional British life, though Amis never encouraged this interpretation. Amis's other novels of the 1950s and early 1960s similarly depict situations from contemporary British life, often drawn from Amis's own experiences. That Uncertain Feeling (1955) centres on a young provincial librarian (again perhaps with reference to Larkin, librarian at Hull) and his temptation towards adultery; I Like It Here (1958) presents Amis's contemptuous view of "abroad" and followed upon his 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 the courtship and ultimate seduction of the heroine Jenny Bunn by a young schoolmaster, Patrick Standish.
With The Anti-Death League (1966), Amis begins to show some of the experimentation – with content, if not with style – which would mark much of his work in the 1960s and 70s. Amis's departure from the strict realism of his early comedic novels is not so abrupt as might first appear. He had avidly read science fiction since a boy, and had developed that interest into the Christian Gauss Lectures of 1958, while visiting Princeton University. The lectures were published in that year as New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, a serious but light-handed treatment of what the genre had to say about man and society. Amis was particularly enthusiastic about 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, particularly as exemplified in the works of Robert Sheckley. Amis 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, and introduces a speculative bent into his fiction, one which would continue to develop in other of his genre novels, such as The Green Man (1969) (mystery/horror) and The Alteration (1976) (alternative history). Much of this speculation was about the improbable 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 such 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. The matter of Amis's religious views is perhaps ultimately summed up in his response, reported in his Memoirs, to the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's question, in his broken English: "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 London in the late '60s, in which Amis certainly participated, though neither book is strictly autobiographical. Girl, 20, for instance, is framed in the world of classical (and pop) music, of which Amis was not a part — the book's relatively impressive command of musical terminology and opinion shows both Amis's amateur devotion to music and the almost journalistic capacity of his intelligence to take hold of a subject which interested him. That intelligence is similarly on display in, for instance, the presentation of ecclesiastical matters in The Alteration, when Amis was neither a Roman Catholic nor, for that matter, a devotee of any Church.
Throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, Amis was regularly producing essays and criticism, principally for journalistic publication. Some of these pieces were collected in 1968's What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Essays, in which Amis's wit and literary and social opinions were on display ranging over books such as Colin Wilson's The Outsider (panned), Iris Murdoch's debut novel Under the Net (praised), or William Empson's Milton's God (inclined to agree with). Amis's opinions on books and people tended to appear (and often, be) conservative, and yet, as the title essay of the collection shows, he was not merely reverent of "the classics" and of traditional morals, but was more disposed to exercise his own rather independent judgment in all things.
Amis became associated with Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which he greatly admired, in the late 1960s, when he began composing critical works connected with the fictional spy, either under a pseudonym or uncredited. In 1965, he wrote the popular The James Bond Dossier under his own name. That 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 Bond 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 accused him of being 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 the humanity, wit, and compassion of earlier efforts.
This period also saw Amis the anthologist, a role in which his wide knowledge of all kinds of English poetry was on display. The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), which he edited, was a revision of the original volume done by W. H. Auden. Amis took the anthology 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 daily and presented it with a brief introduction.
Amis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times in his writing career for Ending Up (1974), Jake's Thing (1978), and finally winning the prize for The Old Devils in 1986.
In 2008, The Times ranked Kingsley Amis thirteenth on their list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
As a young man at Oxford, Amis briefly joined the Communist Party. He left 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. But he 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 such later works of his as the dystopian novel Russian Hide and Seek (1980). In 1967, Amis, Robert Conquest, John Braine and several other right-wing authors signed a controversial 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.
Amis was by his own admission and as revealed by his biographers a serial adulterer for much of his life. This was one of the main contributory factors in the breakdown of his first marriage. A famous photograph of a sleeping Amis on a Yugoslav beach shows the slogan (written by wife Hilly) on his back "1 Fat Englishman – I fuck anything".
In one of his memoirs, 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 that this is the result of a naïve tendency on the part of his readers to apply the behaviour of his characters to himself. This was disingenuous; the fact was that he enjoyed drink, and spent a good deal of his time in pubs. Hilary Rubinstein, who accepted Lucky Jim for publication at 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 comments: "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." Amis was, however, adamant in his belief 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." That this was certainly the case is attested to by Amis's highly disciplined approach to writing. For 'many years', Amis imposed a rigorous daily schedule upon himself in which writing and drinking were strictly segregated. Mornings were devoted to writing with a minimum daily output of 500 words. The drinking would only begin around lunchtime when this output had been achieved. Amis's prodigious output would not have been possible without this kind of self-discipline. Nevertheless, according to Clive 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 toward 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 a somewhat complex relationship with anti-Semitism, which he sometimes expressed but also disliked and opposed. He occasionally speculated on the historically received, and commonly accepted, stereotypes attributed to Jewish character. Anti-semitism was sometimes present in his conversations and letters written to friends and associates: "The great Jewish vice is glibness, fluency ... also possibly just bullshit, as in Marx, Freud, Marcuse." Or, "Chaplin 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 novel about a paranoid schizophrenic, Stanley and the Women. As for the cultural complexion of America, 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 anti-Semitism as being "Very mild ..."
Amis's first marriage, of fifteen years, was to Hilary Bardwell, daughter of a civil servant, by whom he had two sons and one daughter: Philip Amis, a graphics designer; Martin Amis, a novelist; 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 his second marriage, he went to live with his ex-wife Hilary and her third husband, in a deal brokered by their two sons Philip and Martin, so that he could be cared for until his death.
Poets in The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse (1988)
Richard Aldington – Kenneth Allott – Matthew Arnold – Kenneth Ashley – W. H. Auden – William Barnes – Oliver Bayley – Hilaire Belloc – John Betjeman – Laurence Binyon – William Blake – Edmund Blunden – Rupert Brooke – Robert Browning – Robert Burns – Thomas Campbell – Thomas Campion – G. K. Chesterton – Hartley Coleridge – Robert Conquest – W. J. Cory – John Davidson – Donald Davie – C. Day Lewis – Walter de la Mare – Ernest Dowson – Michael Drayton – Lawrence Durrell – Jean Elliot – George Farewell – James Elroy Flecker – Thomas Ford – Roy Fuller – Robert Graves – Thomas Gray – Fulke Greville – Heath – Reginald Heber – Felicia Dorothea Hemans – W. E. Henley – George Herbert – Ralph Hodgson – Thomas Hood – Teresa Hooley – Gerard Manley Hopkins – A. E. Housman – Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – T. E. Hulme – Leigh Hunt – Elizabeth Jennings – Samuel Johnson – John Keats – Henry King – Charles Kingsley – Rudyard Kipling – Philip Larkin – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – John Lydgate – H. F. Lyte – Louis MacNeice – Andrew Marvell – John Masefield – Alice Meynell – Harold Monro – William Morris – Edwin Muir – Henry Newbolt – Alfred Noyes – Wilfred Owen – Thomas Love Peacock – George Peele – Alexander Pope – Frederic Prokosch – Walter Ralegh – John Crowe Ransom – Christina Rossetti – Siegfried Sassoon – John Skelton – Robert Southey – Edmund Spenser – Sir John Squire – Robert Louis Stevenson – John Suckling – Algernon Charles Swinburne – George Szirtes – Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Dylan Thomas – Edward Thomas – R. S. Thomas – Francis Thompson – Anthony Thwaite – Chidiock Tichborne – Aurelian Townsend – W. J. Turner – Oscar Wilde – John Wilmot, Lord Rochester – Roger Woddis – Charles Wolfe – William Wordsworth – William Butler Yeats – Andrew Young