Biting Amis Autobiography

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.

MEMOIRS. By Kingsley Amis, Summit Books, 346 pp., $25IT says something about the dreariness of postwar England that the most conspicuous, if not the brightest, spot on the 1950s literary scene was occupied by the newly emerging specimen known as the "Angry Young Man." Not quite a precursor of the 1960s student radical, neither was he the transatlantic cousin of the 1950s American beatnik. True, he hated hypocrisy, pomposity, and cant; he prided himself on his bluntness and his readiness to take a swing at established institutions. But his values - far from being "far out" in the '60s sense - were resolutely lower-middle-class, even philistine: He was mistrustful of aesthetics and academicians, bohemians, and social engineers. Honesty was his quintessential virtue. Whether wooing a girl, visiting a museum, being lectured on literature, or listening to music, he wasn't going to pretend to feel things he didn't really feel or understand things he didn't really understand. This attitude undoubtedly nipped in the bud any tendencies toward pretension, but it also curtailed intellectual and emotional explorativeness, and fostered its own brand of lower-middle-class complacency. Kingsley Amis's first novel, "Lucky Jim" (1954), helped establish him as one of the central "Angry Young Men," along with writers like John ("Look Back in Anger") Osborne, and John ("Room at the Top") Braine. Amis, who had published some books of poetry before his novel, was also identified as part of the so-called "Movement," a group of British poets, including Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, D. J. Enright, and Robert Conquest, whose commitment to plain-spoken understatement bespoke much the same no-nonsen se attitude. By 1986, when he won the Booker Prize for his novel "The Old Devils," the erstwhile angry young Amis had become known as a curmudgeonly old Tory and a personal fan of Margaret Thatcher's. All of which is less surprising when one considers the essentially conservative cast of his outlook from the start. As Amis recounts in his "Memoirs," television interviewers and others who expected him to be uniformly reactionary on every issue were often surprised to discover that he was not an advocate of capital punishment, a racist, or an America-basher, after all. He even has some criticism for Margaret Thatcher's education policy: "There is education as social engineering, and she has rightly ... worked against it; there is education as vocational training ... and she has rightly promoted it; and there is education as education, definable as the free pursuit of knowledge and truth for their own sake, and this, I hate to say, the effect of her governments' policies has been to weaken and undermine." Pronouncements like this one notwithstanding, the thrust of Amis's "Memoirs" is personal rather than political. In more than 40 self-contained, increasingly brief, chapters, he takes a sardonic look at his family, schooling, service in the Army during World War II, his experience of teaching at Swansea (in Wales) and at Cambridge, his visits to the United States, and the assortment of people he's known, from college friends like the poet Philip Larkin to casual (and not much loved) acquaintances like Roa ld Dahl and Leo Rosten, whom he skewers within a couple of pages apiece. Indeed, most of the chapters are about a particular person, loved, liked, or loathed. Some, like novelist Anthony Powell and Robert Conquest, are portrayed affectionately. But most of the others - John Braine, playwright Arnold Wesker, self-styled eccentric Philip Toynbee, Lord David Cecil - are dispatched in a devastating, and usually entertaining, anecdote or two. In effect, this book is a parade of satirical thumbnail sketches: Pers onalities dominate, so that one could say it is a personal book - without in any sense being a private one. On the pretext that writing about his "intimate, domestic" experiences would be painful to those involved and that a writer's life is not very interesting anyway, Amis eschews the self-examining mode of autobiography in favor of the gossipy style of the raconteur. Amis's brand of gossip, however, is not exactly the sort that bespeaks a warm interest in other people's lives: It is the mean, old-fashioned, malicious sort that led moralists to call it a vice. Almost no one is exempt from this treatment, not even his own grandmother. Sometimes Amis's jaundiced outlook can be oddly insightful: Speculating as to why his friend Philip Larkin abandoned his career as a novelist to concentrate on poetry, Amis suspects "the workings of that underrated agency in human affairs, fear of failure. No poem of Philip's preferred length lays your head on the block in the way any novel does." As students at Oxford, Larkin, Amis, and others of their generation were quick to dismiss what they didn't understand: Old English, metaphysical poets, Milton, and others. Amis quotes a penciled comment by Larkin in the library copy of Spenser's "Faerie Queene": "First I thought Troilus and Criseyde was the most boring poem in English. Then I thought Beowulf was. Then I thought Paradise Lost was. Now I know that the Faerie Queene is the dullest thing out." Larkin's student outburst sums up what was (and is) refreshingly down-to-earth about this set of writers and what finally makes them a small-minded, complacent lot, judging everything and everyone by the limited yardsticks of themselves.

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