Saturday, May 12, 2007

Lucky conservative: musings on Kingsley Amis

It has been hard to turn around recently without running into Kingsley Amis, due to Zachary Leader’s recent biography.

It hardly seems possible that it was over 20 years ago that a British friend first slapped down a copy of Lucky Jim and said, “Headlines,” (he was in the habit of calling people by their last names) – “you need to read this book.”

Given the fact that my friend was an inveterate socialist who considered that Americans – especially backwoods Americans like yours truly – were in desperate need of enlightenment, this aroused no little suspicion. And suspicion was in order, since even though Lucky Jim was already more than 20 years old back then, it had lost none of its hilarious subversiveness regarding officious authority.

Since he hadn't (prior to me) met any backwoods American conservatives, he didn't yet know that we aren't the most likely people to put university professors on a pedestal, however much certain of us might love spending our days with noses in books -- so discovering that Amis's sendup of redbrick British university life and academic politics was a hit with me provided at least as much enlightenment in the other direction.

For conservatives, Amis is a fascinating character. Following the old pattern, he was a communist in his youth and grew more conservative as the years went by -- sort of. He was inducted into the Communist Party by Iris Murdoch while at Oxford, and early in his career he referred to Americans during the Korean war as “filthy bomb-drunk Yanks.”

The significance of a break-out novel like Lucky Jim wasn’t lost on Amis, who quickly realized that thanks to the fame and fortune it provided, he was going to be able to get by with a level of outrageousness and iconoclasm in his life that a conventional academic life wouldn’t have allowed.

Amis was also a respected poet, like his better known (as poets, that is) close friends Philip Larkin and Robert Conquest – something not widely known in America. For our benefit, David Yezzi’s New Criterion article, “The Amis Country,” considers the breadth of Amis’s work, ranging from anthologist (The New Oxford Book of Light Verse) to literary critic to cultural commentator to poet.

Most of his essay considers Amis’s poetry – no less satirical and consumed with the “messiness of life” than were his fictional works and essays. He reports Clive James’s (unprovable but intriguing) observation that “if Philip Larkin had never written, Amis’s ‘capacity to dramatize inner conflict and make it vivid through mastery of phrase and rhythm, would have made him… a contender to the title of the most accomplished and least self-satisfied poet of his generation.’”

Regarding politics, depending on one’s views, Amis either deteriorated or developed into conservatism. Christopher Hitchens, writing in The Atlantic, takes a melancholy and nuanced view:

But the closing years were gruesome, in a way that almost certainly derived from the antithesis between his two chief desires (women and drink: “You can’t do both,” as Amis phrased it in another connection,) and Leader doesn’t flinch from saying so.

It wasn’t just dreadful to see the old boy drifting into his “Shoot Mandela” twilight of curmudgeonhood. It was dreadful to see him abandon all effort to be witty – the very man who in plotting Ending Up had masterfully noted 45 different ways of “being annoying.”

In National Review, David Pryce-Jones tells an amusing story about Amis and British politics:

The Daily Telegraph gave a party on the night of the general election of 1974, which Labour was expected to win. When returns instead began to point to a Conservative victory, Amis stood on the table and did a flamenco among the plates and glasses, shouting, “Show the shaggers! Five more years without being put behind barbed wire!”

Jones attributes much of the rightward turn to Conquest:

At some point in the 1950s, Robert Conquest began to exercise his influence on Amis and Larkin. Highly original, notably witty and inventive, he too was a published poet as well as one of the most authoritative Sovietologists in the world. Like Amis, he had once been a member of the Communist party.

Musketeers as much as friends, these three behaved as though on a special anti-Communist and conservative mission.

Intellectual London of course scorned them, but rather quietly, for fear of the lethal repartee that would come boomeranging back. It’s no exaggeration to say that they shifted the climate of opinion.

Quite aware of the value of publicity, Amis truly loved baiting lefties – defending the American position in Vietnam, then praising Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher – and verbally abusing the foreigners across the Channel.

Mark Steyn, who reported the “dirty Yanks” comment in his New Criterion retrospective, has this to say, however:

I never took him terribly seriously on politics.

Among many shrewd asides sprinkled through The Life of Kingsley Amis, his second wife… offers Zachary Leader the sharp observation that he didn’t enjoy politics so much as “the company of male political journalists.”

He like to drink great quantities at lunchtime, which distressingly few fellow novelists do but a coterie of hardened hacks were always game for – British hacks, I hasten to add; the antiseptic newsrooms of the American media would have bored him utterly.

Amis seemed to conclude that the easiest way to be “conservative” was to embrace a reactionary saloon-bar persona and dispense the usual dreary provocations…

In other words, one gets the impression from Steyn that a primary attraction to being a conservative for Amis was that liberalism was the orthodoxy, and it was just no fun toeing an politically correct line. This should not take away from the role that Amis played in British conservative political life – but it is merely to acknowledge that that role was more a matter of his living out the joys of transgressing dreary liberal shibboleths -- confusing and shocking those Britons who were earnestly doing their best to keep up with and obey them.

Hitchens, while agreeing that Amis's outlook was fundamentally conservative, says that Amis was “very much his own man.” –

In order to annoy people, he may sometimes have quoted Conquest’s “First Law,” which states, “Generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about.”

But on the great subject that he himself did know about – English literature and language – he was far from being an axiomatic conservative.

Hitchens goes on to describe Amis as having a “bracing attitude toward popular culture,” citing his writings about science fiction. In a similar vein, Steyn describes him as “… more fun in areas where he was genuinely engaged.” He continues:

Whether he truly believed Beverly Hills Cop was “a flawless masterpiece,” (MH note: “who doesn’t?”) Amis certainly disdained its arthouse alternatives.

Amis drank more before lunch than most would drink in a month, and he womanized to the point of causing fatigue just reading about it – all making him a most unlikely icon of conservative probity. One can almost imagine him living the life of the lecherous lush just to prevent anyone from taking him seriously as some sort of role model – almost.

Almost, that is, because drinking and womanizing was hardly likely to shock anyone during the social revolution of the 1960s and 70s. One can thus assume that all of that bitterly compulsive behavior was pure Amis. The sadness of the end of his life, in which he had squandered and drunk away his money as fast as it had come in – and in which he was reduced to living as a boarder with his first wife and her husband, depending on them to look after him – could hardly have been done for any shock-effect it might have on a tut-tutting public.

Hitchens entitles his review, “One Fraught Englishman,” and quotes Amis as saying: “I have already written an account of myself in twenty or more volumes, most of them called novels.”

Indeed, there is a sense of personal dissipation at work in Amis that there never is in the humor and satire of writers like Waugh and Wodehouse, to whom he is sometimes compared. Pryce-Jones describes his novels as being “comedies of manners (that are) similar and rather restricted in range, because they are so many urgent dispatches from the war between the sexes, a war in which he often led the charge.”

Which is probably why nothing Amis ever wrote quite managed to displace Lucky Jim. It is a small bit of perfection that depicts the suffocating dullness of an English life gone stale -- stagnant and without either the richness of tradition or the alacrity of true innovation.

While everyone remembers and talks about the biting wickedness of its social critiques, what is easily forgotten is that the satire is immersed in a sort of melancholy for what used to be (more felt as an absence than as any sort of nostalgia – of which there is none.)

And most of all, Lucky Jim ends in hope – hope hidden behind a mask of comedic disdain – but palpable hope nonetheless.


Ed said...

I read your comments about Amis this morning (Monday) and was struck by Conquest's quote,"Generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about."

It was one of those statements that seems to be so accurate that one mistrusts it. I tried to think of exceptions all day, without much luck, and then this evening I was reading a great article in the May 14 New Yorker about a master luthier who has been building guitars that veer away from the popular forms.

It confounded him that no one would accept his revolutionary designs. He was quoted as saying, "This is rock and roll! You would think that guitar players would be open and experimental. And they are not. That guy with the purple Mohawk? He won't play anything made after 1960."

Robert Conquest, touche.

Montana Headlines said...

What a great story!

The really fun thing to do with Conquest's first principle is to turn it on its head.

If someone isn't a bit reactionary, should this raise the suspicion that maybe they don't really know as much about the matter in question as they claim?