• Kingsley Amis, who specialized in writing pithy comic novels that cut to the chase in the very first sentence, would doubtless have been amused to find himself the subject of a thousand-page authorized biography. I don’t presume to know how he would have felt if he’d known how brutally revealing it was going to be. Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis (Pantheon, 1,008 pp., $39.95) leaves no doubt whatsoever that the author of Lucky Jim was a dreadful, pitiful man who, like so many other great comedians, contrived through inexplicable acts of literary alchemy to wrench amusement out of his awfulness.
I led with my chin in that last sentence. I do indeed think Amis was a “great” comedian, by which I don’t mean great as in Shakespeare—but not as in Jack Benny, either. He wrote laugh-out-loud novels in which he cast the coldest possible eye on the manners and morals of postwar England. A highly intelligent middle-class populist with a powerful aesthetic streak and a long nose for humbug, he listened to Mozart with the same gusto that he read the novels of Ian Fleming. (He even turned out a fair amount of far-better-than-average poetry.) For all his love of art in its myriad manifestations, rage was the fuel on which Amis’s engine ran, and he was never funnier than when he was most disgusted. As a no-longer-young man he became ferociously conservative, having decided that the enemies of all he held dear were (mostly) on the Left. Yet even in his belligerently crusty old age, he never ceased to live by Noël Coward’s credo: “Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.”
In private life, alas, Amis was a caddish, self-absorbed pleasure-seeker not unlike Roger Micheldene, the hideous anti-hero of One Fat Englishman, one of his sharpest and least appreciated novels, and The Life of Kingsley Amis is crammed to overflowing with well-sourced tales of his beastliness. Such things should of course be known, but Leader could have made his point four times as effectively in half the space, though he writes well enough to make his excesses palatable. He also has a sharp eye for self-revealing passages in Amis’s novels, as in this striking excerpt from The Green Man: “You just have your own ideas about what to do and when and how, about everything, and they always stay the same, doesn’t matter who you’re dealing with or what they say to you. . . . I don’t know what you think about people, which is bad enough, but you certainly go on as if they’re all in the way.”
By all means read The Life of Kingsley Amis if you’re familiar with his work. It will tell you everything you could ever want to know about him, along with a lot of things you’d just as soon not know. If, on the other hand, Amis is only a name to you, go first to Lucky Jim, which is as funny as anything by Waugh or Wodehouse (from both of whom he learned a lot). Thereafter I suggest Girl, 20, The Green Man, That Uncertain Feeling, One Fat Englishman, The Alteration, and The Russian Girl, in that order. Somewhere along the way, you should also dip into Amis’s Memoirs, which are as irresistible as they are unreliable. From there you can branch out to the lesser novels, poetry and nonfiction (The Amis Collection contains a representative selection of essays and reviews). Not all of Amis’s books are worth the trouble—Russian Hide-and-Seek is a dud—but few 20th-century writers have been more consistently entertaining.