Under my byline

Charm and hubris

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 13 July 2008

A poet writes an unusual biography of the famous Amises, father and son

Amis & Son: Two Literary Generations
Neil Powell
Macmillan
xiv + 430

“I bought your book today; I bought your daddy’s book too,” a friend told Martin Amis when his novel Money was published in 1984, at the same time as his father Kingsley’s Stanley and the Women. Kingsley was thrilled, writing to his old friend the poet Philip Larkin, “That sentence will only get said once in the history of the world.”

This anecdote illustrates the charm and hubris of this father-son literary dynasty, so strong an influence on the world of English letters since the 1950s. It occurs near the end of this new biography of the two men by Neil Powell, a well-known poet, essayist and author.

Famous as the Amises are, we must ask ā€” as Powell does in his preface ā€” why write a “life” of these two now, and why together? Kingsley is dead (in 1995) and fair game, yet a very thorough biography of him by Zachary Leader has only recently (2007) been published; and Martin is alive and writing away.

But Powell’s project is not a standard biography. Instead he is curious about how the two generations, who started writing during the 1940s and 1950s (Kingsley) and 1960s and 1970s (Martin), represent the changing face of English writing; and about the making of a writer in each period.

Kingsley’s parents were lower middle-class, not literarily inclined, not especially social, politically conservative and overprotective of their son. Powell argues that Kingsley never forgot his class origins, despite his later success, and that this class anxiety inflects everything he wrote.

The correspondence is not a direct and obvious one. Kingsley had a robust education, did well at Oxford, and made lifelong friends including Larkin; afterwards he worked as an academic, well after his literary career took off.

Yet, with the help of the amazing letters Kingsley exchanged with Larkin, Powell reveals his strong subversive, even anti-intellectual, strain. Jazz, for instance, was a shared passion, partly because of its implicit rejection of the fixed contours of “high culture”. Plus, Kingsley’s father hated jazz.

Kingsley’s letters are a great resource: encrusted with his characteristic, brilliant typos, and playful and shockingly rude: “Your trouble is that you’ve been brought up on things like the minuet from the Serenade in D and Iner Cliner, WHICH ALL THE BOOLDY SAM ARE A BOLODY SIGHT BETTER THAN YOU THINK YOUFFOOL”.

This is all very entertaining, and through the letters Powell also shows us his first major novel, Lucky Jim (1954), being critically honed, but there is also the matter of the life.

By all accounts, Kingsley was not an easy man to live with: a serial adulterer, solitary yet demanding, clueless about the household or his finances. He was a negligent parent, and his hands-off attitude permanently marked his children’s lives; Martin’s youthful misadventures are well known.

Martin, unlike Kingsley, had indulgent parents, money to spend and time to make mistakes. Smoking, drugs and sex started early. It was Kingsley’s second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who “saved” him, pushing him to read and study, and set him on the path that won him a First at Oxford like his father.

Powell’s modus operandi is unusual and makes this book valuable. The best portions are his summaries of the novels, in which he traces the echoes of their experiences and of the people who surrounded them. Kingsley, for example, happily eviscerated his first father-in-law in his prose; and difficult moments from each one’s life and memories appear fictionalised in the novels.

This strength is also a shortcoming, because the ideal reader for this book is one who has read both the Amises’ work, and knows something about their lives and the literary milieu of England in which they operated ā€” because virtually every person who crosses these pages (and there are often over 20 names to a page) is from that environment, from W H Auden to Christopher Hitchens. The newcomer will be entertained, certainly, but also left rather at a loss.

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