Like father like scum

Lucky Him: the life of Kingsley Amis

Richard Bradford <em>Peter Owen, 448pp, £22.50 </em>


Over his four-decade career, Kingsley Amis produced a book or so a year. Since his death, in 1995, books by or about him (his Letters, his rules for good English, Martin Amis's memoir Experience) have continued to appear at almost the same rate. This year's instalment is Lucky Him, a biographical reading of Amis's oeuvre, endorsed on the dust jacket by no less than Amis fils. Amis himself always denied that his work was autobiographical but, right from the start, critics and fans insisted on conflating him with his protagonists. Something about the relaxed transparency of his prose suggested easy and direct access to its begetter. When Somerset Maugham called the hero of Amis's first novel "scum", he had more than just Lucky Jim Dixon in mind.

Richard Bradford, professor of English at the University of Ulster, is the latest in this long line. Amis's oeuvre, he argues, is "one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking autobiographies ever produced". Entertaining and thought-provoking, yes, but autobiographical? Sure enough, a few sentences later, Bradford is getting cold feet: Amis, he tells us, obscured "the autobiographical thread that runs through [his] books not only to disguise it, but also to allow himself space for conjecture, as a means of exploring his thoughts about life" - which sounds pretty much like how your average novelist transmutes experience into fiction.

The real question is whether Bradford's autobiographical parallels shed any more light on Amis's fiction than it sheds on itself. Since that fiction was illumined by great shafts of wisdom and wit, I think the answer has to be no. Amis's work explained itself.

The lineaments of his life are well enough known from the Eric Jacobs biography, his son's memoirs and the many interviews he gave throughout his career. Born in south London in 1922, the only child of a lower-middle-class family, he went to the City of London School, won a scholarship to Oxford, interrupted his degree for a wartime stint in the army and became an English lecturer in the postwar education boom. His lectures, first at Swansea, later at Cambridge, in which he paid far more attention to the means rather than the meaning of literature, sound like fun. Amis would ask his students whether, say, Twelfth Night was all it was cracked up to be: "It says it's a comedy. Fine. But does it have any decent jokes?"

Jokes, often indecent ones, were what made Amis famous, but darkness was always encroaching. Like most funny men, Amis was a depressive. Unlike most funny men, he never wanted to play Hamlet. His talent to amuse meant that the solemn could never take him seriously - F R Leavis called him a "pornographer" - but for Amis, jokes were a moral duty. The world was awful enough without his adding to its miseries.

His own miseries left him utterly dependent on others. Evelyn Waugh, with whom Amis is often compared, couldn't cope with the modern world. Amis just couldn't cope. He was afraid of the dark and, when he wasn't working, he couldn't be alone. When his second wife left him, he moved back in with his first wife and her new husband - a set-up of startling modernity. Otherwise, Amis was a fervent anti-modernist, who always maintained that the test of a good book was how fast it made you turn the pages.

Yet his own books can be very slow reads - the story beckons you on, but those coiling, colloquial cadences stop you in your tracks. They demand rereading. Unbelievable, then, that while sententious second-raters such as Iris Murdoch are forever being reissued, the bulk of our best postwar novelist's work is out of print, or that we still await a satisfactory biography. In the meantime, Richard Bradford's book is a pleasant and entertaining enough rehearsal. Should it encourage some enterprising publisher to commence reissuing Amis, it will have done good work.

Christopher Bray is an editor on the Daily Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win