Posted: Dec 13 1995 5:41PM
TITLE: Kingsley Amis, a Biography
AUTHOR: Eric Jacobs
PUBLISHED: 1995 (in the UK)
One of the strange new interests I have discovered in myself in the past couple of years is an interest in literary biographies and memoirs. In the past, I have never been much interested in biographies in general: the only exception I can think of is reading a couple of Wellington biographies while I was reading Bernard Cornwell`s Sharpe series of historical novels. But in recent years I have read with considerable enjoyment a number of memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies by authors whom I like, and I find them almost invariably interesting.
I've made it clear before that Sir Kingsley Amis is one of my favorite writers, so I have eagerly searched out material on him. Earlier I read his Memoirs (1991) and Paul Fussell`s The Anti-Egoist (1994), a critical survey of his occasional writing. This biography was published earlier this year in the UK, prior to Amis` death. I don't believe it is available in the USA. [It has since been published here.]
The biography is an authorized biography, and its primary sources are conversations with Amis, Amis` letters and his friends` letters, and Amis` own Memoirs. In addition, the author is quite sympathetic to Amis, so this account gives Amis the benefit of the doubt in most areas. However, I am myself sympathetic to that approach, so it didn't bother me.
Jacobs announces up-front that this is not a critical biography, that is, his interest is in recounting Amis` life, and not in discussing or analyzing his works. Jacobs is true to his word, which I find a lack in the book. I would have liked a fuller account of the genesis of each book, its popular and critical reception, and some opinions of the standing and value of the books at this time. Jacobs gives a fairly full treatment of Lucky Jim, but otherwise generally ignores Amis` fiction, except in one quirky area: he is constantly trying to draw parallels between Amis, his wives, and the characters in the books. On occasion this is useful and interesting, but I found it a little overdone. Jacobs reports that Amis considered the parallels to be excessive as well. Amis has long objected to the identification of an author's characters with the author, and he had particular difficulties his entire career with being identified with Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim). I would say that Jacobs is convincing in finding aspects of Amis` character in aspects of Maurice Allingham, protagonist of The Green Man, and I found myself speculating on some potential similarities between the protagonist's wife in The Russian Girl, and with Amis` apparent late-marriage feelings about his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.
In general, this book is well-written, and does a good job portraying the main events of Amis' non-writing life, as well as drawing a pretty good portrait of the man himself. Jacobs is quite frank about Amis' philandering, which led to the breakup of Amis' first marriage. He also quite openly discusses the reasons (on Amis' side) for the end of his second marriage, which are quite shockingly harsh. I was personally astounded at the scope of Amis' extramarital sexual adventures. I would perhaps have liked to see a little further discussion of some of Amis' friends' relationships with him (Philip Larkin is discussed at length, but other friends such as Robert Conquest, Tibor Szamuely, Anthony Powell, and Paul Fussell get only brief mentions.) Finally, a more detailed coverage of Amis' later political activities, in particular his contributions to the notorious Black Paper, on British education, would have been interesting. Jacobs goes into much detail on Amis' early Communism, and his drift from reflexive leftism to Toryism, but he downplays his political activities after he records the fact of Amis ceasing to vote Labour.
All in all, this is a worthwhile and (sadly) well-timed review of Amis life, but I am sure more significant biographies will appear in the future.
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