- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

THE LETTERS OF KINGSLEY AMIS
Edited by Zachary Leader
Talk/Miramax Books, $40, 1212 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN


On the jacket of this hefty volume (it really is the proverbial "thick, square book," far more massive than anything Kingsley Amis ever published in his lifetime), there is a photograph of Amis as a youngish man. It shows a rumpled, quizzical, good-humored-seeming individual, extending two fingers holding a cigarette, and looking rather like a benign professorial type responding indulgently to a student's question. The trouble is, there are not many letters in these 1200 pages that sound as if they were written by this amiable chap.
Like many prolific letter writers (this collection is a mere 800 letters out of many thousands available to the editor), Amis adopted a variety of tones in his correspondence. In matters of business, he was generally straightforward, wanting his due and even a little more and expressing his needs with a leavening touch of self-deprecating humor.
His letters to his longtime publisher Victor Gollancz and to writers he admired, such as W. Somerset Maugham, could be urbane. With acquaintances, he was usually a model of friendly pleasantness, rising appropriately to a higher level of amiability with real friends. His love letters, particularly to his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, are ardent and profoundly affectionate. After their divorce, his references to her could be astringently bitter or sour, but could sometimes be on a surprisingly even keel considering his understandably strong emotions.
Letters about his home life with his first wife and three young children in the 1950s are sometimes unpleasantly coarse in their depiction of domestic squalor. And there are of course other masks worn by Amis in the five and a half decades (1941-1995) covered by this collection, a period in which he makes the transition from hostile, angry, irritable young man to hostile, angry, irritable old curmudgeon.
It must be admitted that in "The Letters of Kingsley Amis," there is provided a more rounded portrait of Amis than was furnished by the acrid "Memoirs" that he published about five years before his death in 1995. His remembrances of things past revealed a man whose salient characteristic was his intense devotion to alcohol; indeed the reader was left with the impression that everyone and everything in his life paled in insignificance when compared with anything that had an alcoholic content.
Now there are letters here which have some of that same flavor, but they are interwoven with others showing rather different sides of Kingsley Amis. He is refreshingly matter-of-fact and free of self-pity when discussing his neuroses, which were numerous and varied, including an unwillingness to travel in airplanes and an apparent inability to live alone, even for the briefest periods. And even the irritable old grouch can be surprisingly sensitive about the feelings of others, viz., in this comment on his deeply troubled adult daughter Sally:
"Having broken up with her very decent boy-friend Sally is staying here, or will be till this afternoon, when I take her to the doc and try to get her into a drying-out place. It must be worse to lead her life than to have to be with her and cope with her, but that's not much consolation."
He is on the whole in these letters a rather fond father, capable of praising his elder son, Philip, as "the nicest fellow I've ever met." On the subject of his younger son and fellow novelist Martin, he can at times betray undeniable jealousy at his superior financial success and it is clear that the son's politics, as well as his literary tastes and output, are not to the senior Amis' liking. Yet the letters show an undeniable affection for his son, despite their very different viewpoints.
A number of these letters were written when Kingsley Amis was first a student of literature at Oxford, and later a teacher at Swansea and Cambridge Universities, and there are literary opinions aplenty in them. Some are commonsensical and clearheaded, but it would be hard to argue that he was possessed of great critical judgment. And just when you think he's not so bad, he's capable of coming up with something like this, in a letter to Paul Fussell:
"Yes, I did teach M[ansfield] P[ark] at Swansea, and very scathing about it I was. One never really closes with a work of literature until one has to, e.g. by teaching it, choosing it to go into a newspaper poetry column, etc., and I found out a lot in teaching MP, but I had concluded that J[ane] A[usten] was a 2nd-rate pisser while still at school."
Amis' two most frequent correspondents were the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Conquest. Both shared his conservative political views and also enjoyed some robust discussion of matters sexual. Larkin's letters were published some years ago and revealed a penchant for scatology and obscenity that is unlikely to be exceeded any time soon, and indeed Amis cannot really hold a candle to him in this regard, however much he tries. But Larkin's coarseness does seem to rub off on him, with the result that his letters to this man, who was perhaps his closest friend, make for some of the most distasteful reading in the book.
If Larkin was Amis' dark angel, then Mr.Conquest was his polar opposite. For with him the political views are aired with less resentment and more satisfaction than in the vile eruptions directed to Larkin. And with Mr. Conquest, the lubricity and scatology generally take the form of a delighted exchange of one of the finest collection of limericks ever enjoyed by two friends. It is to Zachary Leader's credit as an editor that he has provided these limericks in the footnotes even when, as is most often the case, they are written by Mr. Conquest. After all, in the sphere of limericks anyway, Kingsley Amis was clearly this master's muse.
Mr. Leader's editing is generally competent, attempting largely successfully to annotate for readers on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a high standard of accuracy and if the reader is occasionally left wanting more information, it is not often.
Fans of Kingsley Amis' writing will doubtless be interested in getting to know him better through these letters. If he is not one of the great letter writers, his epistles are all ones that anyone would have enjoyed receiving. Whether they will bring many new people to his oeuvre is more doubtful. At his best, he had a certain talent to amuse. But if this volume was intended to enhance his literary standing, it is unlikely to do so. Rather, it shows a decidedly second-rate mind at work, living a messy, but still rather dull life and making some contribution to 20th-century English writing, if not to great literature.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.



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