The Anti-Egotist: Kingley Amis, Man of Letters.
By Paul Fussell
Oxford University Press. 206 pages, $23
Kingsley Amis is hard to beat at darts. His 1991 Memoirs, for example, showed a marked fondness for the pointed remark-and a rare skill at hitting the bullseye. Amis’ Memoirs targeted many of the people and places that, over the years, brought him irritation or outrage. Writing with his usual clarity and wit, Amis mocked the magnificently affected style of one of his former dons, Lord David Cecil. He captured the bullying ways of the famous children’s author Roald Dahl. He took shots at Leo Rosten, Enoch Powell, Arnold Wesker, and Malcolm Muggeridge, among others, and offered few kind words for the state of contemporary psychology-or the state of Tennessee.
Several reviewers of Amis’ Memoirs were troubled, even shocked. One, writing in the Guardian, found “strains of misogyny, dissatisfaction, sentimentality, and vengefulness” in the book; another-the American academic Joel Conarroe-thought it a sad reflection on Amis’ character. Amis, he decided, was “not a very nice fellow.”
This of course is the popular image of Kingsley Amis: the once Angry Young Man grown more bitter and Blimpish with the years. It is also rather misleading, as more careful readers of Amis’ novels, poems, and essays know. The man has a tongue, certainly, and some pretty sharp teeth. But as his Memoirs also very clearly reveal, Amis is entirely capable of self-criticism. He never displays himself as the Perfect Man, immune to the blunders and petty vanities that dog lesser mortals. He admits to dark moods and fits of conceit. And he loves as well as loathes. Amis shows affection when he writes about certain friends, like Philip Larkin, and certain places, like Swansea, Wales. Indeed he quite likes many things: science fiction, jazz, friendly pubs, good booze.
Amis also admires the work of Paul Fussell. In the Memoirs, Amis refers to Fussell in a chapter recalling several trips to the United States. Amis’ views on America, as on many subjects, cannot be reduced to a black and bitter line or two. He cannot be dismissed easily as anti-American any more than he can be fairly described as misogynistic, although both labels have, of course, stuck. Amis writes fondly of the generosity and jocularity, the natural and urban beauty, that he often found in the States. But he also doesn’t ignore the squalor, vulgarity, and violence that he has also found here-as well as the curious forms of Anglomania that tend to flourish in certain academic circles. It is on this subject and on American higher education generally that Amis defers to Fussell, whose 1983 book, Class, he singles out for special praise.
Class, controversial on publication, is now widely excerpted in college anthologies. It is still Fussell’s best-known work-perhaps an unfortunate fact. Class includes many sharp and funny insights into an American culture where, more than ever, people are identified-and identify themselves-by the clothes they wear and the products they own. But Class is also often cranky and self-congratulating, and comes to a curiously fatuous close as Fussell extols the tastes and habits of those he calls “X people”-an enlightened and detached caste that, alas, brings to mind the sort of pompous, highly self-conscious types one tends to find filling the bars and seminar rooms at national meetings of the Modern Language Association.
In fact Fussell is a superb critic, one of the best of our time. The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980) are, for example, very fine, offering scholarly rigor and critical insight as well as lively, lucid prose. Fussell is also brilliant when he writes about the Second World War; “My War,” for example, which vividly recounts his own harrowing experience of that conflict, is surely among the best essays written by any American in the past fifty years.
And Fussell’s latest book, on his now infamous friend, does not disappoint. The Anti-Egotist offers an entertaining and convincing analysis of Amis’ large body of work, emphasizing “his nonfiction and his literary learning, his performance as a critic, a learned anthologist, a memoirist, a teacher, and a poet-in short, a man of letters in the old sense, a writer conspicuous for complex literary knowledge and subtle taste as well as for vigorous views on politics and society.” Fussell focuses on works that previous commentators have largely ignored-including What Became of Jane Austen? (1970) and The Amis Collection (1990).
Fussell begins by conceding that, sometimes, Sir Kingsley does go over the top. During the final phases of the Cold War, Amis in both his writing and his talk appeared to have “lost his cool,” overblowing the lingering Soviet threat and spotting everywhere signs of the West’s decline and fall. “Amis’ catalogue of dislikes broadened alarmingly,” Fussell remembers, and came to include sandals, beards, and-it appeared-”everyone leaning toward the Labor, Liberal, and in the USA, Democratic parties.” Not only in the Memoirs, then, did critics find evidence of “these unattractive, Evelyn Waugh-like prejudices.”
But Fussell shows that those who simply comb Amis’ work in search of shocking statements cannot appreciate its full value, or understand the moral tradition from which it stems. Fussell, who has also written widely on English Augustan literature, contends that Amis is best viewed within a tradition of “moral satire” that also includes Swift and Pope, Mark Twain and Flaubert.
The great satirist needs more, obviously, than “bad temper and irrational hatred.” He needs a certain sense, tested by time, of the difference between the beautiful and the ugly, the good and bad. “Justice,” Fussell notes, quoting Aristotle, “‘consists in loving and hating aright.’ And in Amis’ word, aright means on grounds which, although on the surface social, are underneath profoundly moral.”
Amis’ moral and aesthetic values stem from his continuing concern with “social generosity.” In fact, Fussell notes, this is “one of Amis’ obsessions,” informing nearly everything he writes-be it a critical essay or a restaurant review. For Amis this means that writers should make their work “accessible to ordinary people”; that hosts and restauranteurs should not stint guests “on drink or anything else.”
As a result, the “implicit” heroes in Amis’ fiction tend to be magnanimous men, like Gore-Urquart in Lucky Jim (1954), still his most famous novel. Amis’ targets, moreover, are not themselves vulnerable, but generally those with influence or privilege who are also false, stingy, or mean. Thus Amis’ critical portrayal of Dahl, for example, in his Memoirs. And thus the presence in Amis’ fiction of such figures as Roger Micheldene in One Fat Englishman (1963) and Alun Weaver in The Old Devils (1986).
As a “a man of letters” Amis, writes Fussell, belongs to a tradition, perhaps fading, that also includes the diverse likes of Arnold Bennett, George Orwell, Robert Graves, and the late Julian Symons-all of whom published widely, in various modes, aiming for a rather wide readership without compromising their intellectual or literary values. “Any proper writer,” Amis himself has noted, “ought to be able to write about anything”-without resorting to showy displays of clever prose.
Amis, thus, never warmed to Vladimir Nabokov, as Fussell shows. Moreover, he has been consistently critical of the modernist tradition. As Fussell reminds his readers, Amis in the 1950s, writing for the Spectator and other periodicals, was “perhaps the first intelligent critic”-or at least the first non-”stuffy” one-to “bring his wide command of literature, as well as his wit, to the task of seriously exposing the critical orthodoxy of Modernism.” Amis found too much Modernist writing not only obscure, but self-righteous, and imbued with what Fussell calls “a hatred-and that is not too strong a word-of ordinary people.”
Amis’ own willingness to be accessible and welcoming as a writer is obvious. He has edited such anthologies as The Faber Popular Reciter (1978) and The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978). He continues to write for newspapers and magazines. In fact, Amis’ The Pleasure of Poetry (1990) is drawn from a series of columns that he wrote for the Daily Mirror, of all places, a publication more famous for its pin-up girls than its promotion of good verse.
But as Fussell suggests, Amis’ willingness and ability to speak to a very popular audience on the subject of poetry illustrates particularly well his continuing interests and aims. Five days a week, for more than a year, Amis discussed meter and metaphor and related matters between the TV schedule and the comics page. Moreover he did so with clear pleasure, and without a hint of arrogance. “Part of the motive,” writes Fussell, was “to see how many people would respond to poetry that was understandable and that did not humiliate them.”
This experiment, “an act unique in literary history,” was a success, Fussell writes; Amis “received thousands of letters of encouragement and praise, and he must have felt that he’d done exactly what he’d aimed at when John Mortimer told him that three years after the poetry column closed down, a London taxi driver said he missed it.”
Kingsley Amis is no saint. And some of his judgments-insisting, for example, that John D. MacDonald “is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow”-can only strike many of us as willfully perverse. But he is certainly not a monster or a philistine. As Fussell demonstrates in The Anti-Egotist, Amis is a very thoughtful and literate man devoted to the sound and sane discussion of literature at a time when much criticism reveals more the desire to obfuscate than to delight. Amis “may be thought at some distance from Conarroe’s ‘not a very nice fellow,’“ Fussell writes, “or at least much more complicated than the caricature Tory he is often taken for.”
Brian Murray is the author of Charles Dickens. He teaches at Loyola College in Baltimore.