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The Life of Kingsley Amis Hardcover – 16 Nov 2006
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"Few literary biographies can match it for depth and intimacy" -- Sunday Times
"This is the best biography I have read for ages: deeply
researched, crisply written and beautifully judged" -- Daily Telegraph
"Unsurprisingly in a biography of this size, he really has left no
stone unturned" -- Scotsman
"awe-inspiring research" -- Seven, The Sunday Telegraph
"marvellous ... It's a pleasure to read, and the accumulation of
detail gives a real sense of a life being led" -- Independent
"this biography is in its way superb...Well-written [and]
balanced" -- Evening Standard
Books of the Year. Chosen by Andrew Marr -- The Saturday Herald
Diary Story. Julian Barnes on Kingsley Amis -- Independent on Sunday
The book I most look forward to reading is Zachary Leader's The
Life of Kingsley Amis" -- The Irish Times Books of the Year. Rev by Adam Sisman
`A detailed, intimate life of Amis as a friend, father, husband, wit, curmudgeon - and, above all, a writer'
In this authorised biography, Zachary Leader argues that Kingsley Amis was not only the finest comic novelist of his generation, but a dominant figure in post-war British writing, as novelist, poet, critic and polemicist. Drawing not only on interviews with a range of Amis' friends, relatives, fellow writers, students and colleagues, many of them never before consulted, but also on hundreds of previously unpublished letters, Leader's biography will for the first time give a full picture of Amis' childhood, school days, life as a teacher, critic, political and cultural commentator, professional author, husband, father and lover. He explores Amis' fears and phobias, and the role that drink played in his life. And of course he pays due attention to Amis' work. As the editor of "The Letters of Kingsley Amis", hailed in the "Sunday Telegraph" as 'one of the last major monuments to the epistolary art', Leader is more than qualified to be his authorised biographer. His book will surprise, entertain and illuminate.See all Product description
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Throughout his life, Amis had strong appetites, for drink, food, sex, music and literature. And in satisfying those appetites, he rarely seems to have shown much regard for the needs or feelings of others. His first wife, Hilly, was expected to tolerate his "heroic adulteries" (another M Amis phrase); friends taking holidays with the Amises found their days dictated by when Kingsley wanted to eat and drink, and by exactly what he wanted to eat and drink. He seems to have done no parenting of his children, who ran wild; he just wrote, and partied as hearty as he liked. He seems to have been, if this possible, even more selfish than his lifelong friend, Philip Larkin.
He also had an appetite for company, and especially in his earlier years, most people could overlook his selfishness because he was such a vibrant, funny, charismatic bundle of energy. Women loved him; men envied him his wit and success. Lucky Jim arrived in the early 50s as a sensation - brilliantly original, still (mostly) very funny even today, and a book which triggered that post-war phenomenon, the Angry Young Man. Success followed success, and right up to his death, Amis never really went out of fashion. Money, fame and attention poured in.
But, in the early 60s, it started to unravel. This seemed to start with his divorce from Hilly and his marriage to the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Amis switched from apolitically Left in his views to apolitically but emphatically Right. His drinking became heavier and heavier; his behaviour got worse and worse; his misogyny and racism grew ugly and vocal. He lost all interest in sex; drink and a rising hostility to women put paid to that. This hostility seems to be a reflection of his selfishness - as a young man, he seems to have liked women's company; but in his later years, as he grew more unattractive to them, his fury seems to be like that of an alcoholic towards a barman who won't serve him.
Leader charts all this brilliantly. His writing has a sly humour that makes this a very easy read ; it appears to be exhaustively researched, and makes great efforts to be fair minded to all concerned. It's a sad story. As Amis aged, it seemed like the tide went out - all the awkward, cruel and selfish parts of Amis that were mostly covered in his youth by good humour were suddenly all there was to see.
There are some very surprising things in this story. I was amazed at how seldom anyone confronted Amis, considering his revoltingly rude behaviour in his later years. Hilly's son Jaime fronted up to him once - and as he was a teenager at the time, very good luck to him. Amis was apparently also wary of getting the wrong side of his son, Martin, with his fast, nasty mouth. But mostly, people just seem to have let him get away with it.
A fascinating life, though. What else can you say about a man who employs his ex-wife and her new husband as housekeepers? Even more remarkable when you realise they were Lord and Lady Kilmarnock. A very entertaining, thought provoking biography. Very highly recommended.
In fact however Leader's style is down to a combination of academic virtuosity and prodigious research. Reading this, you get the feeling there is no-one who ever met Amis he hasn't talked to and made notes on. Consequently, during his account of any event in his life, you get references to different articles, conversations, references and asides that any number of acquaintances have come up with. Until you get used to it this makes the book very hard to read.
This is not the kind of biography where the author tells a story. Nor is it one where the author feels obliged to burden us with his opinions. But he does want to make sure we have understood the opinions of everyone who was involved at any time.
At no point is Leader analytical. When it comes to the difficulties or tragedies in Amis's life, we are spared sermons or even anything but his casual opinions. We are just told the story in unremitting - if appropriate - detail.
In the end I got enormous enjoyment, captivated by Amis's life. I got used to the style and it all flowed along. It was also easy to skip the odd page when the events discussed were not of interest without losing the rhythm.
I had read about eight of Amis's novels recently and wanted to know more about him and about his other works. This book works well for that as each book is discussed for itself and also situated in Amis's life.
The discussion of Amis's family life is rewarding and moving. You get the goods without being given the benefit of any moralising.
I don't read a lot of literary biographies, but I would have thought this a model.
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