Almost from the beginning of his career, Kingsley Amis (16 April 1922 – 22 October 1995) enjoyed the attention of numerous commentators. Because his works have been filled with innovations, surprises, and variations in techniques and themes, it is not surprising that critics and reviewers alike found it difficult to make a definitive statement about his achievements. The range of his work is extraordinary: fiction, poetry, reviews, criticism, humor, science fiction, and biography. Of all of his writings, however, his achievement depends most upon his novels.
Amis’s early novels are considered by many critics to be “angry” novels of protest against the contemporary social, political, and economic scene in Britain. The themes include resentment of a rigid class stratification, rejection of formal institutional ties, discouragement with the economic insecurity and low status of those without money, loathing of pretentiousness in any form, and disenchantment with the past. Because many of Amis’s contemporaries, including John Wain, John Osborne, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe, seemed to express similar concerns, and because many came fromworking-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, went to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, and taught for a time at a provincial university, journalists soon spoke of them as belonging to a literary movement. The “Angry Young Men,” as their fictional heroes were called, were educated men who did not want to be conventional gentlemen. Kenneth Allsop called them “a new, rootless, faithless, classless class” lacking in manners and morals; W. Somerset Maugham called them “mean, malicious and envious . . . scum” and warned that these men would some day rule England. Some critics even confused the characters with the writers themselves. Amis’s Jim Dixon (in Lucky Jim) was appalled by the tediousness and falseness of academic life; therefore, Dixon was interpreted as a symbol of anti-intellectualism. Dixon taught at a provincial university; therefore, he became a symbol of contempt for Cambridge and Oxford. Amis himself taught at a provincial university (Swansea); therefore, he and Dixon became one and the same in the minds of many critics. Like all literary generalizations, however, this one was soon inadequate. The most that can be said is that through Amis’s early heroes there seemed to sound clearly those notes of disillusionment that were to become dominant in much of the literature of the 1950’s.
Because it seems so artless, critics have also found Amis’s fiction difficult to discuss. His straightforward plotting, gift for characterization, and ability to tell a good story, they say, are resistant to the modern techniques of literary criticism. Because Amis lacks the obscurity, complexity, and technical virtuosity of James Joyce or William Faulkner, these critics suggest that he is not to be valued as highly. In many of the early reviews, Amis is described as essentially a comic novelist, an entertainer, or an amiable satirist not unlike P. G. Wodehouse, the Marx Brothers, or Henry Fielding. Furthermore, his interest in mysteries, ghost stories, James Bond thrillers, and science fiction confirms for these critics the view that Amis is a writer lacking serious intent.
Looking beyond the social commentary and entertainment found in Amis’s work, other critics find a distinct relationship between Amis’s novels and the “new sincerity” of the so-called Movement poets of the 1950’s and later. These poets (including Amis himself, Philip Larkin, John Wain, and D. J. Enright, all of whom also wrote fiction) saw their work as an alternative to the symbolic and allusive poetry of T. S. Eliot and his followers. In a movement away from allusion, obscurity, and excesses of style, the Movement poets encouraged precision, lucidity, and craftsmanship. They concentrated on honesty of thought and feeling to emphasize what A. L. Rowse calls a “businesslike intention to communicate with the reader.” Amis’s deceptively simple novels have been written with the same criteria he imposed on his poetry; one cannot read Amis with a measure suitable only to Joyce or Faulkner. Rather, his intellectual and literary ancestors antedate the great modernist writers, and the resultant shape is that of a nineteenth century man of letters. His novels may be appreciated for their commonsense approach. He writes clearly. He avoids extremes or excessive stylistic experimentation. He is witty, satirical, and often didactic.
Amis’s novels after 1980 added a new phase to his career. One of the universal themes that most engaged Amis is the relation between men and women, both in and out of marriage. After 1980, he moved away from the broad scope of a society plagued by trouble to examine instead the troubles plaguing one of that society’s most fundamental institutions—relationships—and the conflicts, misunderstandings, and drastically different responses of men and women to the world. Most of his characters suffer blighted marriages. Often they seem intelligent but dazed, as if there were something they had lost but cannot quite remember. Something has indeed been lost, and loss is at the heart of all of Amis’s novels, so that he is, as novelist Malcolm Bradbury calls him, “one of our most disturbing contemporary novelists, an explorer of historical pain.” From the beginning of his canon, Amis focused upon the absence of something significant in modern life: a basis, a framework, a structure for living, such as the old institutions like religion or marriage once provided. Having pushed that loss in societal terms to its absolute extreme in the previous novels, Amis subsequently studied it in personal terms, within the fundamental social unit. In The Old Devils, for example (for which he won the 1986 Booker Fiction Prize), his characters will not regain the old, secure sense of meaning that their lives once held, and Amis does not pretend that they will. What success they manage to attain is always partial. What, in the absence of an informing faith or an all-consuming family life, could provide purpose for living? More simply, how is one to be useful? This is the problem that haunts Amis’s characters, and it is a question, underlying all of his novels, that came to the forefront near the end of his life.
In looking back over Amis’s career, critics have found a consistent moral judgment quite visible beneath the social commentary, entertainment, and traditional techniques that Amis employs. Beginning in a world filled with verbal jokes, masquerades, and incidents, Amis’s view of life grew increasingly pessimistic until he arrived at a fearfully grim vision of a nightmare world filled with hostility, violence, sexual abuse, and self-destruction. Critics, therefore, view Amis most significantly as a moralist, concerned with the ethical life in difficult times. Amis’s response to such conditions was to use his great powers of observation and mimicry both to illuminate the changes in postwar British society and to suggest various ways of understanding and possibly coping with those changes. For all these reasons, one can assert that Amis has achieved a major reputation in contemporary English fiction, and, as is so often the case today, his is an achievement that does not depend upon any single work. It is rather the totality of his work with which readers should reckon.
Kingsley Amis’s fiction is characterized by a recurring preoccupation with certain themes and concepts, with certain basic human experiences, attitudes, and perceptions. These persistent themes are treated with enormous variety, however, particularly in Amis’s novels which draw on the conventions of genre fiction—the mystery, the spy thriller, the ghost story, and so on. Of the twenty novels Amis has published, his development as a seriocomic novelist is especially apparent in Lucky Jim, Take a Girl Like You, The Anti-Death League, The Green Man, The Old Devils, The Folks That Live on the Hill, and The Russian Girl, his most substantial and complex works, each of which is representative of a specific stage in his career. All these novels are set in contemporary England. Drawing upon a variety of traditional techniques of good storytelling—good and bad characters, simple irony, straightforward plot structure, clear point of view—they restate, in a variety of ways, the traditional pattern of tragedy: A man, divided and complex, vulnerable both to the world and to himself, is forced to make choices that will determine his destiny. Built into this situation is the probability that he will bring down suffering on his head and injure others in the process.
In Lucky Jim, for example, Amis establishes a comic acceptance of many of life’s injustices in the academic world. The novel is distinguished by clear-cut cases of right and wrong, a simple irony, and knockabout farce. Because he has neither the courage nor the economic security to protest openly, the hero lives a highly comic secret life of protest consisting of practical jokes and rude faces, all directed against the hypocrisy and pseudointellectualism of certain members of the British establishment.While only hinted at in Lucky Jim, Amis’s moral seriousness becomes increasingly evident beginning with Take a Girl Like You. Whereas in Lucky Jim the values are “hidden” beneath a comic narrative, gradually the comedy is submerged beneath a more serious treatment. Thus, Take a Girl Like You is a turning point for Amis in a number of ways: The characterization is more complex, the moral problems are more intense, and the point of view is not limited to one central character. Distinguished also by a better balance between the comic and the serious, the novel is more pessimistic than its predecessors, less given to horseplay and high spirits.
In later novels such as The Anti-Death League and The Green Man, Amis continues to see life more darkly, shifting to an increasingly metaphysical, even theological concern. Contemporary England is viewed as a wasteland of the spirit, and his characters try vainly to cope with a precarious world filled with madness and hysteria, a world in which love and religion have become distorted and vulgarized. Threatened with death and ugly accidents by a malicious God, Amis’s characters feel powerless to change, and in an attempt to regain control of their lives, act immorally. Amis’s ultimate vision is one in which all of the traditional certainties—faith, love, loyalty, responsibility, decency—have lost their power to comfort and sustain. Humanity is left groping in the dark of a nightmare world. In the later The Old Devils, Amis’s study of a Wales and a Welshness that have slipped out of reach forever clearly shows a culmination of his increasing damnation of Western society, portrayed through the microcosm of human relationships. The final picture is one of the aimlessness of old age, the meaninglessness of much of life itself.
In Lucky Jim, a bumbling, somewhat conscientious hero stumbles across the social and cultural landscape of contemporary British academic life, faces a number of crises of conscience, makes fun of the world and of himself, and eventually returns to the love of a sensible, realistic girl. This is the traditional comic course followed by Amis’s first three novels, of which Lucky Jim is the outstanding example. Beneath the horseplay and high spirits, however, Amis rhetorically manipulates the reader’s moral judgment so that he or she leaves the novel sympathetic to the hero’s point of view. By triumphing over an unrewarding job, a pretentious family, and a predatory female colleague, Dixon becomes the first in a long line of Amis’s heroes who stand for common sense and decency, for the belief that life is to be made happy now, for the notion that “nice things are nicer than nasty things.”
To develop his moral concern, Amis divides his characters into two archetypal groups reminiscent of the fantasy tale: the generally praiseworthy figures, the ones who gain the greatest share of the reader’s sympathy; and the “evil” characters, those who obstruct the good characters. Jim Dixon (the put-upon young man), Gore- Urquhart (his benefactor or savior), and Christine Callaghan (the decent girl to whom Dixon turns) are among the former, distinguished by genuineness, sincerity, and a lack of pretense. Among the latter are Professor Welch (Dixon’s principal tormentor), his son, Bertrand (the defeated boaster), and the neurotic Margaret Peele (the thwarted “witch”), all of whom disguise their motives and present a false appearance.
One example should be enough to demonstrate Amis’s technique: the introduction to the seedy, absentminded historian, Professor Welch. In the opening chapter, Amis establishes an ironic discrepancy between what Welch seems to be (a scholar discussing history) and what he is in reality (a “vaudeville character” lecturing on the differences between flute and recorder). Although he tries to appear a cultured, sensitive intellecutal, all of the images point to a charlatan leading a boring, selfish life. His desk is “misleadingly littered.” Once he is found standing, “surprisingly enough,” in front of the college library’s new-books shelf. Succeeding physical description undercuts his role-playing: He resembles “an old boxer,” “an African savage,” “a broken robot.” What is more, his speech and gestures are mechanized by cliché and affectation. Professing to worship “integrated village-type community life” and to oppose anything mechanical, he is himself a virtual automaton and becomes more so as the novel progresses. Although Amis does not term Welch a ridiculous phony, the inference is inescapable.
Central to the novel’s theme is Dixon’s secret life of protest. Although he hates the Welch family, for economic reasons he dares not rebel openly. Therefore, he resorts to a comic fantasy world to express rage or loathing toward certain imbecilities of the Welch set. His rude faces and clever pranks serve a therapeutic function, a means by which Dixon can safely release his exasperations. At other times, however, Dixon becomes more aggressive: He fantasizes stuffing Welch down the lavatory or beating him about the head and shoulders with a bottle until he reveals why he gave a French name to his son.
In Amis’s later novels, when the heroes’ moral problems become more intense, even life-threatening, such aggressive acts become more frequent and less controlled. In this early novel, however, what the reader remembers best are the comic moments. Dixon is less an angry young man than a funny, bumbling, confused individual for whom a joke makes life bearable. There are, of course, other ways in which to react to an unjust world. One can flail at it, as does John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter (Look Back in Anger, 1956). One can try to escape from it, as will Patrick Standish in Take a Girl Like You, or one can try to adapt to it. Like Charles Lumley’s rebellion against middle-class values in John Wain’s Hurry on Down (1953), Dixon’s rebellion against the affectations of academia ends with an adjustment to the society and with a partial acceptance of its values. By remaining in the system, he can at least try to effect change.
Take a Girl Like You
Ostensibly another example of the familiar story of initiation, Amis’s fourth novel, Take a Girl Like You, contains subtleties and ironies that set it apart from Lucky Jim. The characterization, the balance between the comic and the serious, and the emphasis on sexual behavior and the pursuit of pleasure blend to make this novel a significant step forward in Amis’s development as a novelist.
The plot of this disturbing moral comedy is built around a variety of motifs: the travelogue and the innocent-abroad story, the theme of love-in-conflict-with-love, and the country-mouse story of an innocent girl visiting the big city for the first time. Jenny Bunn, from whose point of view more than half the novel is narrated, is the conventional, innocent young woman who has not been touched by deep experience in worldly matters. Like Jim Dixon, she finds herself in an unfamiliar setting, confronting people who treat her as a stranger with strange ideas. Out of a simpleminded zeal for the virtues of love and marriage, she becomes the victim of a plausible, nasty man. .
Jenny carries out several artistic functions in the story. She is chiefly prominent as the perceptive observer of events close to her. Again like Dixon, she is able to detect fraud and incongruities from a considerable distance. When Patrick Standish first appears, for example, she understands that his look at her means he is “getting ideas about her.” Amis draws a considerable fund of humor from Jenny’s assumed naïveté. His chief device is the old but appropriate one of naïve comment, innocently uttered but tipped with truth. Jenny, a young girl living in a restrictive environment and ostensibly deferential toward the attitudes and opinions of the adults who compose that environment, yet also guided by her own instinctive reactions, may be expected to misinterpret a great deal of what she observes and feels. The reader follows her as she is excited, puzzled, and disturbed by Patrick’s money-mad and pleasure-mad world—a world without fixed rules of conduct.Many of the “sex scenes” between them are built upon verbal jokes, comic maneuvers, digressions, and irrelevancies, all of which give life to the conventional narrative with which Amis is working.
Patrick Standish is the antithesis of the good, moral, somewhat passive Jenny. Like the masterful, selfish Bertrand Welch, he is a womanizer and a conscious hypocrite who condemns himself with every word he utters. In spite of Patrick’s intolerable behavior and almost crippling faults, Amis maintains some degree of sympathy for him by granting him more than a surface treatment. In the earlier novels, the villains are seen from a distance through the heroes’ eyes. In Take a Girl Like You, however, an interior view of the villain’s thoughts, frustrations, and fears allows the reader some measure of understanding. Many scenes are rhetorically designed to emphasize Patrick’s isolation and helplessness. Fears of impotence, cancer, and death haunt him. He seeks escape from these fears by turning to sex, drink, and practical jokes, but this behavior leads only to further boredom, unsatisfied longing, and ill health.
Also contributing to the somber tone of the novel are secondary characters such as Dick Thompson, Seaman Jackson, and Graham MacClintoch. Jackson equates marriage with “legalised bloody prostitution.” MacClintoch complains that, for the unattractive, there is no charity in sex. Jenny’s ideals are further diminished when she attends a party with these men. The conversation anticipates the emotional barrenness of later novels, in which love is dead and in its place are found endless games. Characters speak of love, marriage, and virtue in the same tone as they would speak of a cricket game or a new set of teeth.
With Take a Girl Like You, Amis leaves behind the hilarity and high spirits on which his reputation was founded, in order to give expression to the note of hostility and cruelty hinted at in Lucky Jim. Drifting steadily from bewilderment to disillusionment, Jenny and Patrick signal the beginning of a new phase in Amis’s moral vision. Life is more complex, more precarious, less jovial. The simple romantic fantasy solution at the end of Lucky Jim is not possible here.
The Anti-Death League
The Anti-Death League represents for Amis yet another extension in philosophy and technique. The conventions of the spy thriller provide the necessary framework for a story within which Amis presents, from multiple viewpoints, a worldview that is more pessimistic than that of any of his previous novels. A preoccupation with fear and evil, an explicit religious frame of reference, and a juxtaposition of pain and laughter, cruelty and tenderness all go to create a sense of imminent calamity reminiscent of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). No longer does Amis’s world allow carefree, uncomplicated figures of fun to move about, relying upon good luck and practical jokes to see them through their difficulties. Life has become an absurd game, and the players are suffering, often lonely and tragic individuals, caught in hopeless situations with little chance for winning the good life, free from anxieties, guilt, and doubts.
As the controlling image, the threat of death is introduced early in the novel in the form of an airplane shadow covering the principal characters. Related to this scene is an elaborate metaphor drawn from the language of pathology, astronomy, botany, and thermonuclear war. Part 1 of the three-part structure is entitled “The Edge of a Node”—referring to Operation Apollo, an elaborate project designed to destroy the Red Chinese with a horrible plague. As the narrative progresses, the characters are brought to the edge or dead center of the node.
Related to this preoccupation with death is the sexual unhappiness of the characters. Jim Dixon’s romps with Margaret are farcical and at times rather sad. Patrick Standish’s pursuit and conquest of Jenny Bunn are disgusting and somewhat tragic. In The Anti-Death League, the characters’ pursuit of love and sex leads only to unhappiness and even danger. Two disastrous marriages and several unhappy affairs have brought Catherine Casement to the brink of madness. An unfaithful husband and a possessive lover have caused Luzy Hazell to avoid any emotional involvement whatsoever. A desire to get away from love impels Max Hunter, an alcoholic and unabashed homosexual, to join the army.
Along with the inversion of love, Amis dramatizes an inversion of religion. In place of a benevolent, supreme being, Amis has substituted a malevolent God whose malicious jokes lead to death and tragic accidents. In protest, Will Ayscue, the army chaplain, declares war on Christianity as the embodiment of the most vicious lies ever told. Max Hunter writes a poem against God (“To a Baby Born Without Limbs”), organizes the Anti-Death League, and demolishes the local priory. James Churchill cites Max Hunter’s alcoholism, the death of a courier, and Catherine’s cancer as reasons for retreating from a world gone bad. While, in the preceding novels, laughter helps the heroes cope with specific injustices, in The Anti-Death League, laughter only intensifies the horror, the pain. Sometimes Amis shifts abruptly from laughter to pain to intensify the pain. A lighthearted moment with Hunter in the hospital is followed by a depressing scene between Catherine and Dr. Best. News of Catherine’s cancer is juxtaposed with Dr. Best’s highly comic hide-and-seek game.
Hysteria, depression, boredom: These are some of the moods in the army camp, bespeaking a malaise and a loss of hope from which neither sex nor religion nor drink offers any escape. Although the reader both condemns and laughs at the characters’ foibles, he feels a personal involvement with them because he sees the suffering through the sufferers’ eyes. Alone, trying to regain control of their lives, they act irresponsibly and immorally. OnlyMoti Naidu, likeGore-Urquhart, a moral voice in the novel, speaks truth in spite of the other characters’ tragic mistakes. His recommendations that they aspire to common sense, fidelity, prudence, and rationality, however, go unheeded.
The Green Man
Although The Green Man offers the same preoccupation with God, death, and evil as The Anti-Death League, the novel is different from its predecessor in both feeling and technique. The work is, to begin with, a mixture of social satire, moral fable, comic tale, and ghost story. Evil appears in the figure of Dr. Thomas Underhill, a seventeenth century “wizard” who has raped young girls, created obscene visions, murdered his enemies, and now invaded the twentieth century in pursuit of the narrator’s thirteen-year-old daughter. God also enters in the person of “a young, well-dressed, sort of after-shave lotion kind of man,” neither omnipotent nor benevolent. For him, life is like a chess game whose rules he is tempted to break. A seduction, an orgy, an exorcism, and a monster are other features of this profoundly serious examination of dreaded death and all of its meaningless horror.
The novel is narrated retrospectively from the point of view of Maurice Allington. Like Patrick Standish and James Churchill, he spends most of his time escaping, or trying to escape, from himself, and for good reason. Death for him is a fearful mystery. Questions of ultimate justice and human destiny have been jarred loose of any religious or philosophical certainties. He suffers from “jactitations” (twitching of the limbs) as well as unpleasant and lengthy ”hypnagogic hallucinations.” What is more, problems with self extend to problems with his family and friends: He is unable to get along well with his wife or daughter, and his friends express doubts about his sanity. In fact, the only certainty Maurice has is that as he gets older, consciousness becomes more painful.
To dramatize Maurice’s troubled mind, Amis also employs supernatural machinery as an integral part of the narrative. The windowpane through which Maurice sees Underhill becomes a metaphor for the great divide between the known, seen world of reality and the unknown, hence fearful world of the supernatural. Dr. Underhill, a Doppelgänger, reflects Maurice’s own true nature in his selfish, insensitive manipulation of women for sexual ends. Also, Underhill’s appearances provide Maurice with an opportunity to ennoble himself. In his pursuit and eventual destruction of both Underhill and the green monster, Maurice gains self-knowledge—something few of Amis’s characters ever experience. He realizes his own potential for wickedness, accepts the limitations of life, and comes to an appreciation of what death has to offer as an escape from earthbound existence. For the first time in his life, Maurice recognizes and responds to the loving competence of his daughter, who looks after him when his wife leaves.
On one level, this elaborately created story is a superbly entertaining, fantastic tale. On another level, it is a powerful and moving parable of the limitations and disappointments of the human condition. Unlike Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You, both of which are rooted in the real world and are guided by the laws of nature, The Green Man—and to some extent The Anti-Death League—employs fantastic and surreal elements. Ravens, specters, vague midnight terrors, all associated with guilt and despair, provide fitting emblems for Maurice’s self-absorbed condition.
The Old Devils
The Old Devils is not an easy book to read, but it is an almost irresistibly easy book to reread. It is one of Amis’s densest novels, its many different characters and their stories diverging, interweaving, and dovetailing with a striking precision that requires the utmost concentration of the reader. The novel has no central hero-narrator; each of the major characters claims his (or her) own share of reader attention. Though their talks and thoughts wander from topic to topic casually, appearing aimless and undirected, actually the inner workings of the characters are carefully regulated, as are the descriptive comments by the omniscient narrator, to support, define, develop, and ultimately embody the novel’s themes.
In terms of narrative, the story itself is painted in muted tones. Alun Weaver has chosen to retire from his successful television career in London as a kind of “professional Welshman” and third-rate poet and return after thirty years with his beautiful wife, Rhiannon, to South Wales. The novel explores, over a span of a few months, the effect of this return on their circle of old friends from university days. The old devils—a group of Welsh married couples all in their sixties and seventies—include Malcolm Cellan-Davies, an unsung local writer, and his wife, Gwen; Peter Thomas, a chemical engineer, and his wife, Muriel; Charlie Norris, the proprietor of a restaurant, and his wife, Sophie; Percy and Dorothy Morgan; and Garth Pumphrey, a former veterinarian who with his wife, Angharad, now attends to business at a local pub. Of the five couples, the first three have never left their hometown or accomplished anything very remarkable; their lives have passed them by. They are old now, retired from their professions, and do little else but drink heavily, a device Amis has often used to lower his characters’ defenses and reveal their true emotional states. As Sophie says of her husband, “I never realised how much he drank till the night he came home sober. A revelation, it was.”
The physical ill health the cronies worry about extends to the spiritual health of their marriages. With the exception of Rhiannon, her daughter Rosemary, and a few minor characters, the women in this novel not only are plain, hard, sharp, critical, or cross but also lack any reasonable relation with their husbands that would make significant communication possible. Only Alun and Rhiannon, married for thirty-four years, still seem to have an appetite for life and love as well as drink, and most of their misunderstandings lead only to teasing, not to disaster. Their arrival, however, arouses conflict among their old friends. “You know,” says Muriel early in the novel, “I don’t think that news about the Weavers is good news for anyone.” The conflict comes in part because their return revives memories of various youthful liaisons and indiscretions, and also because the egotistical Alun immediately sets out to re-woo the three women with whom he had affairs in the old days.
Yet The Old Devils is about more than an aging present; it is also very much about the past and its impingements upon everyone.Many of the characters in The Old Devils are carrying scars from bitterness and regret because of something that happened in their lives long ago, something they hide carefully from the world, but on which their conscious attention is fixed. Past choices weigh heavily on all of them. These memories, like the memories of the aging characters in earlier novels, touch various notes, some sweet, some sour, some true, and others a bit off pitch. Indeed, these old devils are bedeviled by worries and fears of all kinds that deepen their uncertainty about life and increase their preoccupation with the past. Amis points out that one of the reasons old people make so many journeys into the past is to satisfy themselves that it is still there. When that, too, is gone, what is left? In this novel, what remains is only the sense of lost happiness not to be regained, only the awareness of the failure of love, only the present and its temporary consolations of drink, companionship, music, and any other diversions they might create, only a blind groping toward some insubstantial future. Neither human nor spiritual comfort bolsters their sagging lives and flagging souls; Malcolm speaks for all the characters, and probably for Amis himself, when he responds to a question about believing in God: “It’s very hard to answer that. In a way I suppose I do. I certainly hate to see it all disappearing.”
As in earlier novels, Amis finds in the everyday concerns of his ordinary folk a larger symbolic meaning, which carries beyond the characters to indict a whole country. By the end of the novel, one character after another has uncompromisingly attacked television, the media, abstract art, trendy pub decor, rude teenagers, children, shoppers, rock music, Arab ownership of shops and pubs, and anything that smacks of arty or folksy Welshness. The point, says Malcolm, sadly, is that Wales is following the trends from England and has found a way of destroying the country, “not by poverty but by prosperity.” The decline and the decay, he says, are not the real problem. “We’ve faced that before and we’ve always come through.” What he abominates is the specious affluence. “It’s not the rubble I deplore,” he says, “it’s the vile crop that has sprung from it.” Both extremes—decay and affluence—are suggested by the homes the characters occupy, and unhappiness characterizes either extreme. Amis’s awareness of rooms, of houses, and of what they reveal about their inhabitants is a critical commonplace. Here, in each instance, the description of a character’s personal environment is a means of rendering his or her appalled and irritated perception of the world.
Amis’s characterization in The Old Devils, however, goes beyond a study of that final form of human deterioration. Rather, the novel examines an often debilitating process of moral and spiritual decay, a lessening of these people as human beings as life goes on and their hopes have dimmed along with their physical and mental powers. Perhaps Rhiannon, the most well-rounded of Amis’s female characters in the novel, has kept her spiritual core more intact than any of the old devils. Without a doubt she holds a certain moral superiority over her husband in a way that is reminiscent of Jenny Bunn (in Take a Girl Like You), and the differences in husband and wife are played against each other. Rhiannon emerges as the voice of common sense in the novel, serene and utterly down-to-earth; Alun is condemned, by his actions and words, as a shallow, worldly, selfish man. In the end, he meets death, while Rhiannon survives and, in fact, looks ahead to future happiness. The two are unreconciled at Alun’s death, no mention is made of her mourning, no homage is paid to his memory, and at the end of the novel she turns to Peter, her lover of forty years before. She finally forgives him for his long-ago abandonment, and the two begin to look forward to spending their last years together.
That event is one of two at the end of the novel that vitiate its undertone of pain, despair, and anxiety. The other positive event is the wedding of Rosemary, the Weavers’ daughter, to William, the son of Peter and Muriel, suggesting the replacing of the older generation by the new, which in one sense is heralded by the author as a sign of progress and fulfillment. The reader feels that they will go on to live somewhat happy, placid lives. Despite the overriding negativism in the novel, there is some possibility of redemption. In The Old Devils, Amis pictures two relatively attractive people who show promise of living and working together peacefully, using their energy to make a new world instead of destroying an existing one.
The Folks That Live on the Hill
The Folks That Live on the Hill appeared only four years after The Old Devils, and while the two share certain similarities, especially the deployment of a wide, even panoramic, cast of characters, the latter novel exhibits a greater degree of acceptance of humankind’s foibles. This attitude is displayed in particular by the novel’s protagonist, Harry Caldecote, a retired librarian who cannot help caring about—and caring for—other people. These include a widowed sister who keeps house for him in the London suburb of Shepherd’s Hill, a niece by marriage whose alcoholism is reaching catastrophic proportions, and a brother whose mediocre poetry Harry nevertheless shepherds toward publication. Providing a kind of running commentary on the novel’s hapless characters are two immigrant brothers, a pair of bemused outsiders who see the follies of the “folks” all too clearly. When offered an attractive job in the United States, Harry chooses to remain where he is, partly through inertia but largely because he knows he is needed where he is. Yet Harry is recognizably an Amis character, and a distinctly male one at that. Twice-married and twice-divorced, he is largely intolerant of women, other classes, and their annoying patterns of speech.
The Russian Girl
The Russian Girl encapsulates many of Amis’s perennial motifs and patterns, yet the gentler note sounded in The Folks That Live on the Hill remains. The novel’s protagonist is Richard Vaisey, an opinionated professor of Russian literature and language, who is fighting to maintain the integrity of his subject in the face of academic progress. (It seems that Richard’s considerable knowledge of his subject “dates” him.) Richard’s wife Cordelia is perhaps the most harpy-like of all Amis’s female characters, a rich, sexually attractive but wholly villainous creation noted for her absurd but attention-getting accent. The “girl” of the title is Anna Danilova, a visiting Russian poet who becomes involved with Richard. Their affair propels Richard from his comfortable, sheltered existence into a life of possibility.
Saving the novel’s plot from a certain predictability is the fact that Anna, like Harry’s brother Freddie in The Folks That Live on the Hill, is not a good poet. (To drive the point home, Amis reproduces an embarrassingly poor poem Anna has written in loving tribute to Richard.) This is a situation that Richard understands, yet ultimately chooses to accept. In turn, Anna senses Richard’s true opinion of her work and accepts it as well. Although not his final novel, The Russian Girl represents in many ways the culmination of Amis’s fictional career. More sharply focused than many of its predecessors, it forces its protagonist through very difficult moral and intellectual choices. Anna too achieves a kind of dignity because of, not despite, her very lack of talent and emerges as one of Amis’s most gratifyingly complex female characters.
In retrospect, it is clear that Kingsley Amis is a moralist as well as a humorist. The early novels exhibit a richly comic sense and a considerable penetration into character, particularly in its eccentric forms. With Take a Girl Like You, Amis begins to produce work of more serious design. He gives much deeper and more complex pictures of disturbing and distorted people, and a more sympathetic insight into the lot of his wasted or burnt-out characters. In all of his novels, he fulfills most effectively the novelist’s basic task of telling a good story. In his best novels—Lucky Jim, Take a Girl Like You, The Anti-Death League, The Green Man, The Old Devils, The Folks That Live on the Hill, and The Russian Girl—Amis tries to understand the truth about different kinds of human suffering, then passes it on to the reader without distortion, without sentimentality, without evasion, and without oversimplification. His work is based on a steadying common sense.
Principal long fiction
Lucky Jim, 1954; That Uncertain Feeling, 1955; I Like It Here, 1958; Take a Girl Like You, 1960; One Fat Englishman, 1963; The Egyptologists, 1965 (with Robert Conquest); The Anti-Death League, 1966; Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure, 1968 (as Robert Markham); I Want It Now, 1968; The Green Man, 1969; Girl, 20, 1971; The Riverside Villas Murder, 1973; Ending Up, 1974; The Crime of the Century, 1975 (serial), 1987 (book); The Alteration, 1976; Jake’s Thing, 1978; Russian Hide-and- Seek, 1980; Stanley and the Women, 1984; The Old Devils, 1986; Difficulties with Girls, 1988; The Crime of the Century, 1988; The Folks That Live on the Hill, 1990; The Russian Girl, 1992; You Can’t Do Both, 1994; The Biographer’s Moustache, 1995.
Other major works
Short Fiction: My Enemy’s Enemy, 1962; Collected Short Stories, 1980; We Are All Guilty, 1991; Mr. Barrett’s Secret and Other Stories, 1993. POETRY: Bright November, 1947; A Frame of Mind, 1953; A Case of Samples: Poems, 1946-1956, 1956; The Evans Country, 1962; A Look Round the Estate: Poems, 1957-1967, 1967; Collected Poems: 1944-1979, 1979.
Nonfiction: New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, 1960; The James Bond Dossier, 1965 (with Ian Fleming); What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions, 1970; On Drink, 1972; Tennyson, 1973; Kipling and His World, 1975; An Arts Policy?, 1979; Everyday Drinking, 1983; How’s Your Glass?, 1984; Memoirs, 1991; The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, 1997.
Edited Texts: Spectrum: A Science Fiction Anthology, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 (with Robert Conquest); Harold’s Years: Impressions from the “New Statesman” and the “Spectator,” 1977; The Faber Popular Reciter, 1978; The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, 1978; The Golden Age of Science Fiction, 1981; The Great British Songbook, 1986 (with James Cochrane); The Amis Anthology, 1988; The Pleasure of Poetry: From His “Daily Mirror” Column, 1990; The Amis Story Anthology: A Personal Choice of Short Stories, 1992.
Bradbury, Malcolm. No, Not Bloomsbury. London: Deutsch, 1987.
Bradford, Richard. Kingsley Amis. London: Arnold, 1989.Fussell, Paul. The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Gardner, Philip. Kingsley Amis. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Jacobs, Eric. Kingsley Amis: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
Laskowski, William. Kingsley Amis. New York: Twayne, 1998.
McDermott, John. Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1989.
Mosley, Merritt. Understanding Kingsley Amis. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Salwak, Dale, ed. Kingsley Amis: In Life and Letters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.