Amis and Larkin: Hate in a cold climate

Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim has its origins in his intense and competitive friendship with Philip Larkin.

Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis. Photograph: Getty Images

Lucky Jim is a young man’s book, in fact the book of two young men – two extremely angry young men. College friends with similar backgrounds, they had graduated from both Oxford and the Second World War to find themselves in an England that was in terminal decline. Nothing worked and the country was bankrupt. Worse still, no one seemed to appreciate the young men’s genius: neither the women they met nor the publishers to whom they sent their work.

When Kingsley Amis began writing his novel Lucky Jim in early 1951, he was 28 years old and an assistant lecturer at a university in Wales. He had written a novel that no one wanted to publish; a book of poems that had been published very badly; a monograph on Graham Greene, commissioned by a shadowy Argentinian outfit, that was never printed; and a postgraduate thesis, produced in the hope of improving his standing at his university, that had been failed by his examiners at Oxford.

Amis’s friend Philip Larkin, the same age as him, was at this point the more accomplished man of letters, having already published a book of poems and two novels. He was also more secure professionally: partly out of desperation, partly out of inclination, he had embarked on a career as a university librarian.

Amis and Larkin had met in their first year at Oxford in 1941 and quickly become good friends. They had some things in common: Both were from “respectable” but unremarkable middle-class backgrounds, which distinguished them from their wealthier classmates. It was a point of pride with them to be unimpressed by Oxford. The two were drawn together by their affection for jazz and their alienation from college.

Both young men spent a good portion of their time at Oxford abusing the literature they were supposed to study. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Larkin wrote to Amis about Old English poetry. “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.” They invented a game called “horsepissing,” in which they’d replace words from classic literary texts with obscenities –“I have gathered up six slender basketfuls OF HORSEPISS,” for example – which they’d write in their own and each other’s copies of famous books. It was a game they never tired of or, indeed, outgrew.

Amis and Larkin graduated into a literary world still dominated by the modernism of Eliot and Pound, and haunted by the shadow of W B Yeats. Though Larkin went through a long apprenticeship to Yeats’s poetry, both men eventually came to think that the modernists had made English-language poetry vague, pretentious and verbose.

Aside from Auden, who got a pass, the world was filled with junk. Dylan Thomas was an intolerable windbag “Somebody once told me,” Amis reported to Larkin, “that Dorothy Parker, was good, at writing, short stories. The other day I bought a book of hers for a shilling, and I am sorry now.” And of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Amis wrote: “I may have missed the irony, but I cannot believe that a man can write as badly as that for fun.”

Amis and Larkin complain about women as often as they complain about writers, though here their troubles diverge. “I really do not think it likely I shall ever get into the same bed as anyone again because it is so much trouble, almost as much trouble as standing for parliament,” writes Larkin, who was stooped, balding and myopic. Amis, who was tall and broad-shouldered, with a full head of hair, responds by regaling Larkin with tales of the multiple women he was juggling. Of an amorous correspondence with a woman he was trying to seduce, Amis reported that “It is nice to be able to write the words ‘I want to fuck you’ in a letter and send it off without qualm,” then asked: “What do you think of all this?” What did Larkin think? “After comparing lives with you for years,” he later wrote, “I see how I’ve been losing: all the while/I’ve met a different gauge of girl from yours.” For the moment, though, he tried to be a supportive friend and urged Amis on.

They were bound together by a hatred of the family – not just their own particular families but families in general. Larkin’s family was worse than Amis’s, by any measure: Sylvia Plath would write a famous poem comparing her father to a Nazi, but Larkin’s father actually was a Nazi – he kept a bust of Hitler in his office until the start of the war. As for Amis, his main trouble was with his in-laws. “Hilary is very nice, as you will agree,” he wrote to Larkin about his fiancée. “But her family, who put in sporadic, unneeded visits are nasty. She has two brothers, who are EXCREMENTALLY EVIL. One has sandals and saffron trousers, and No Socks, and a green shirt, and plays the recorder (yes) and likes Tudor music.” This family would appear in Lucky Jim, pretty much intact, as the Welches.

Later on, when asked about his contribution to Lucky Jim, Larkin would refer understatedly to “a period of intensive joke-swapping just after the war”. And there are certainly plenty of jokes in the correspondence. But it also served as a kind of test run, a way of egging each other on – just how nasty could one be, just how disrespectful, just how profane? Was it enough merely to hate stuff? The answer that began to emerge in the letters was that hatred and irritability could be an almost inexhaustible store of humour, liveliness and insight. If you hated intensely enough, deliberately enough, with enough determination and discrimination, you just might end up with something new, unexpected, true to life.

Then, as now, the world was filled with young college graduates convinced of the sheer, absolute idiocy of everyone, living or dead. The trick was to find a subject on which to focus all that rage. In 1948, the struggling Amis visited Larkin at the University of Leicester where Larkin was employed as a librarian. “I looked round a couple of times and said to myself, ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something with this,’” he later wrote. “Not that it was awful – well, only a bit; it was strange and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no one had got on to from outside, like the SS in 1940, say.” Not long after this visit, Amis began work on Lucky Jim.

In Lucky Jim, Amis gives us all of Larkin’s problems, and adds some extra of his own. Jim Dixon is a junior professor at a university that is, pointedly, neither Oxford nor Cambridge; he has an idiot boss, Professor Welch, who is also a bore and a snob; he has written an academic article that he detests and must produce a lecture that he will despise and – a problem so horrible he almost dare not mention it – there is “Margaret”, his love interest.

The problems were real, in the sense that they were based in the experience of the author and his friend. But the reader has to wonder, why are they such a problem? Lecturing in a provincial city? Surely better than working down a mine? Not being able to break up with Margaret? Better, perhaps, than no Margaret at all. Meanwhile Professor Welch does not seem like a particularly malignant or abusive authority, or much of an authority at all. And yet Jim wins our sympathy; his anger seems earned and his sufferings seem genuine. How is this possible – and why, when the book came out, did so many people embrace it and Jim?

The answer is at least partly historical. “Junior professor” may sound like an OK job but not in those years of postwar “austerity Britain”. The country had not only suffered significant damage from German bombing during the war, it had also expended far more money on fighting it than it had in the bank. In 1948, the Marshall Plan, of which Britain was the largest beneficiary, began to ease austerity measures, but money, and space, were still tight. When modern readers of Lucky Jim first encounter Jim’s hoarding of cigarettes – “he wasn’t allowed to smoke another cigarette until five o’clock” – they can be forgiven for thinking that he is trying to cut down on his smoking for reasons of health. It soon becomes clear, however, that Jim literally can’t afford to smoke more often. He also can’t afford to go on dates and he certainly can’t afford to live in London while indulging a desire to write or paint, as Welch’s two sons can. Not only can he not afford a London flat, he can’t even afford a place with a modicum of privacy. Jim’s room is constantly being barged in on by guests both welcome and (mostly) unwelcome. Even at the more spacious Welch home, where Jim is a guest, his bedroom has its entrance through a shared bathroom.

Poor Jim. Yet it’s hard not to feel that Jim’s biggest problem is himself. When he is not being outright lazy – in the academic realm, for example, it is his policy “to read as little as possible of any given book”– he is busy committing acts of minor vandalism. Also, he is a drunk.

And yet we like him. We are on his side. Again. Why? Perhaps the wealthy benefactor Gore-Urquhart gets it right when he says near the end that Jim may not have the qualifications but he hasn’t the disqualifications. He isn’t a snob or a fake; he isn’t a suck-up. And he has scruples. It takes a little while for these scruples of his to manifest themselves but they’re there. They’re there in his treatment of those who are not doing as well as he; they’re even there in the way he wages his campaign against his arch-enemy, Bertrand.

Goodness or scruples were never a focal point of the Amis-Larkin correspondence but precision with language, a certain scrupulousness about language, certainly was. “Why can’t I stand people who say once again,” Amis wondered once to Larkin, “as if when other people said again they meant . . .‘twice again’ or ‘three times again’ when what they mean is AGAIN.” Many writers have felt this way about language but if, for someone like Orwell, the cliché was a way for governments to cover up atrocities, for Amis it was also an opportunity. Received ideas papered over reality; words hid the essence of things; and given due attention the awful essence of things could be very, very funny. Take, for example, the famous description of Jim’s hangover:

He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

An elaborate literary metaphor is followed by intimations of, among other things, ancient archaeology and modern totalitarianism in the description of what is, after all, a historic hangover. A whole long history of cliched descriptions of the morning gave Amis a chance to describe what morning, for many people, is really like.

So who is Lucky Jim, in the end? Amis began Lucky Jim as a book about Larkin. When he sent it to Larkin, Larkin’s advice was to make Jim more like Amis. It was Amis who raged at adult life, who chafed so visibly at authority, who had a vast repertoire of faces at his disposal. Jim Dixon in the end is an Amis-Larkin hybrid who manages to be sweeter and more engaging than either of the men on their own. They were both Lucky Jim.

Amis dedicated the book to Larkin, but in the aftermath of its success the two grew apart. Different explanations have been given as to why. Amis was now famous and there were tremendous demands on his time – he was being commissioned to write reviews and asked to make numerous media appearances, and all the while still teaching. Larkin may have had his own reasons for keeping his distance. There were some transparent references in the book to his relationship with Monica Jones, a lecturer in the English department at Leicester, and Jones, understandably, did not appreciate it. Larkin may have had less noble reasons, too: Having published two novels of his own without anything like this kind of response, he may have found his friend’s sudden success a little hard to take.

Another reason may also be guessed at. They had been brought together by their mutual hatred of the universe, which for a while did a fine job of confirming their feelings about it by rejecting and ignoring them. As they began to find their way in the world it became a little harder to hate it, at least with the same intensity. And so their letters to each other dwindled: What was there to say?

They were rescued by the 1960s. Amis and Larkin managed to greet the transformations, disturbances and new thinking with shared hostility. It brought them a whole gamut of things to hate. And they began again to be in regular touch, as they would remain until Larkin’s death from cancer in 1985.

The later correspondence is in many ways funnier, though less charged with competition, than the earlier – Amis complains that he has become fat; Larkin complains that he is even fatter. By then they had become two of the most influential writers of the postwar period. It had become even harder to hate things and sometimes both Amis and Larkin tried too hard. But they had made a very valuable point. It was all right to hate things; it could be interesting and you could make literature out of it. Also, it was funny.

Among all the two men’s accomplishments, Lucky Jim remains unique. Larkin, especially, would do much to make poetry of depressed and declining middle age (“Life is first boredom, then fear/Whether or not we use it, it goes.”), and Amis’s later work is not insensible to the grotesquery of trying to live the rest of your life as if you were 25. Lucky Jim is their one document of youth, their youth. It is in a way as optimistic as it is angry. Jim’s rages are impotent rages, his small acts of vandalism useless and self-destructive – and yet he undertakes them in the belief that they are not meaningless, that the world he is disparaging can be changed. Lucky Jim is a weirdly hopeful book, written when the failures of the men whose sensibilities and lives it captured, as well as the successes, still lay very much in the future. In 1951 all these things were something to imagine and laugh at. Lucky Jim is a lucky book, snatched improbably from time, the product of a collaboration, both editorial and spiritual, that neither writer, once firmly established, could afford to attempt again.

Keith Gessen is a founding editor of n+1. He has written the introduction to a new edition of “Lucky Jim” published by NYRB Classics ($14.95)