Naughty but nice

<strong>The Life of Kingsley Amis</strong>

Zachary Leader <em>Jonathan Cape, 996pp, £25</em>

ISB

Elegantly organised, lovingly detailed, and - how could it not be? - eruptively funny, Zachary Leader's book is hard to put down. But put it down is what you keep wanting to do. Like the work of Kingsley Amis, The Life of Kingsley Amis offers terrifying insights into the encroachments of age, the ravages of booze, the withering of love. I would urge anyone who wishes to survive the festive season not to open the book until the spring. Long, dark nights are no time for this long, dark night of the soul.

And long it is. Taking up just shy of 1,000 pages, this biography is about four times the length of an average novel. It would take a big life to justify that big a book. And, indeed, Leader makes grand claims for his subject - though not, perhaps, grand enough ones. Amis was indubitably "the finest British comic novelist of the second half of the 20th century", though some of us would say he was rather more than that. The finest British novelist of the second half of the 20th century, perhaps; the subtlest, supplest English prose stylist of the century, period. Which claims advanced, I'm still not sure a 1,000-page life can be justified.

For one thing, its lineaments are familiar to anyone who has read Eric Jacobs's or Richard Bradford's recent Amis biographies, or Leader's edition of The Letters of Kingsley Amis. True, none of those books really captures the sheer horror of what it was like to be Kingsley Amis. But as Amis - an aficionado of the genre - knew, a little horror goes a long way. Grim enough to be reminded of the time a drunken Amis argued Mozart with Claudio Abbado before telling the then principal conductor of the LSO that "he didn't know what he was talking about". But do we need to know about the time a dinner-table barrage of Amis racism had Pat Kavanagh in tears? Chapter and verse on the gruesome breakdown and misogynist fall-out of Amis's marriage to Elizabeth Jane Howard? It's not that one wants such behaviour hushed up, it's just that anyone who's read more than a chapter or two of Amis can see he was a nasty piece of work.

But, as Lucky Jim Dixon taught us, "nice things are nicer than nasty things". And the nice thing about Kingsley Amis was that even at his bleakest he couldn't help being hilarious. Dix on's drunken destruction of his host's bedroom; the late-night dance-cum-seduction in That Uncertain Feeling; the première of "Elevations 9" (a suite for violin and heavy metal group) in Girl, 20; the concatenation of mishaps that brings Ending Up to its tenebrous close - we all have our nomination for funniest Amis scene.

Nominating your funniest Amis moment is rather tougher. There are too many to choose from. Amis was the most writerly writer of his age and it is difficult to read more than a sentence without marvelling. Take this description of Dixon and Welch (from page two of Lucky Jim): "To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act." One smiles not at the simile but the syntax - the contrapuntal beat of that beautifully timed non-restrictive clause. You cannot not read it again.

And so much of Amis is like that. Amis used to say that the test of a good book was how quickly you got through it, but it was a test his own books failed spectacularly. Amis might have believed himself on a mission to reverse English literature out of what he saw as the cul-de-sac of modernism, but a self-reflexive, attention-seeking air hangs everywhere about his work. Much as his subject would have harrumphed about it, Leader is on the right track when he compares Amis's style with that of Henry James.

Indeed, Leader is at his best when gently unpacking the contradictions of being Kingers. He makes you realise, for instance, that Amis's distrust of Romanticism - the subject of one of his best poems - sat mighty uneasy with his image of truth-telling toper isolated by his integrity. And what could be more Romantic than Amis's confiding to an interviewer, mere weeks before his death, that "there is no point to life, though there is a point to art"?

The point was to amuse people. Life was dreadful enough, thought Amis, without artists adding to its trials. He knew of what he spoke. Life was pretty dreadful for the private Amis, the Amis who all his life suffered panic attacks and night terrors. From his own perspective, his friend Philip Larkin wrote about "the wish to be alone". Not so Amis, who away from the typewriter went bats without company. When his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, walked out on him, his son Martin acted immediately, rallying the "Dadsitting" troops of Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Julian Barnes, and then smoothing the way for Kingsley to move back in with his first wife (whom he had abandoned) and her third husband. From here on in, the drink - long Amis's only genuine emotional crutch - began to take over.

Yet for all his own miseries and those he inflicted on other people, there is no denying Amis did well by those of us who have the fortune to know him only through his work. At one point in Ending Up, its anti-hero wonders afresh at his never having found "compensation . . . for having had to live".

Cackling through Lucky Jim again ought to be compensation enough for the rest of us. But Amis gave us That Uncertain Feeling, Girl, 20, Jake's Thing, The Old Devils, You Can't Do Both, half a dozen seriously good poems and, Leader tells us, more than 1,300 informally informative essays and reviews, too. Lucky us, especially if, as I suggest they do, Leader and Jonathan Cape make their next project collecting those last between hard covers. Satisfying though this biography is, I think they owe us some nice things.

Christopher Bray's "Michael Caine: a class act" is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Nation of fools