Skip to main content

A Severe Case of Memoiritis

ISSUE:  Winter 1992
Memoirs. By Kingsley Amis. Summit Books. $25. 00.

When a man has been knighted by Mrs. Thatcher, that well-known reader of political thrillers, for services to literature; has been awarded the Booker Prize for the best novel of 1986, and is billed by his publicists as Britain’s leading comic author, what other heights are there left to climb? Surely this is the hour when writers tend to catch what the English actor, Donald Sinden, called A Touch of the Memoirs, and one of the symptoms is a belief that for the reader to know all is to forgive all. Kingsley Amis (born 1922) is the latest victim of this virus, and his Memoirs, a doughty volume of more than 300 pages with photographs and index, might be said to prove that the attack has been a severe one.

Now, we all know that recently autobiography has been getting racier and racier so that the average reader, grown hardbitten on lurid details, must sniff if the confessions appear not to be as full as he’d like. What is the point of having Let it all hang out! in pokerwork over the table where the word-processor stands if you decide early on that you will not reveal all; and that is precisely what Amis has done. And for the highest motives.

“To publish an account of my own intimate, domestic, sexual experiences would hurt a number of people who have emotional claims on me . . .and I have no desire to cause pain, or more pain, to them or myself.”

So, if you cut out emotion, intimate details, and sex (Sex! How dare he?), you’re left with precious little, one might imagine, given that Amis is not a great thinker or political activist or worker for causes, good or bad. The X factor to make his memories more exciting is to be gossip, most of it malicious, about those people who crossed Amis’s path and fell short of his high moral standards. Thus it comes about that Amis calls his book an allobiography: writing about the lives of others. Such an undertaking depends on a good memory for anecdotal detail and this, Amis claims, he has. “I have purposely invented or changed nothing of substance.”

Far into his allobiography Amis fine-tunes the sort of person he is writing about. His attention and emphasis “tend to go to those people and those characteristics of theirs, that are suitable to an anecdotal or at least narrative approach, as in a novel.” We have been warned.

In practice, what this means is that Amis ignores those people about whom we cannot tell a sour story, even his chums, and it is soon clear that the wish not to hurt his family does not extend to the rest of the world. In the 40-odd sections into which the book is divided, people take up three-quarters; the remainder cover special interests such as jazz or booze or those places that have figured in Amis’s life such as Oxford, Swansea, Cambridge, and the United States.

What kind of people get the anecdotal treatment? They appear to fall into three broad categories: fellow-novelists who have failed (by Amis’s rule-of-thumb); eminent men whose reputations Amis thinks are bloated; and those—often found in the first two groups—who have either not stood their round of drinks, shortchanged Amis, or been stingy with the liquor. The people who are admired can be listed: his mother; his first wife; the novelists Elizabeth Taylor and Iris Murdoch and Mrs. Thatcher (about whom he dreams lasciviously) since, presumably, the award of a knighthood is equivalent to several rounds of drink. He also writes touchingly, but with little insight, about Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell, but both men are shown at least once in an unfavorable light as though Amis feared they might grow vain with too much praise, even though Larkin is dead.

And what sort of reception did this anthology of mean stories receive? A harsh one. Reviewers were embarrassed and scornful. Nobody could quite understand how a person of Amis’s standing could have produced something so ill-judged and, on the whole, not very well written. One London critic thought Amis had written the book while he was half-asleep, but this is over-harsh. The tone of the memoirs, in between the scalpings and the misremembred trivia, is that of a man who is deeply ill-at-ease with himself, like someone who missed the best things in life deliberately. Once again the problem of the deep-dyed curmudgeon creates a kind of interest. As the book draws to an end, the sensitive reader will ask, “What went wrong?”

Two sections, entitled “Shrinks” and “A Peep Round the Bend,” cover what might be described as psychic disturbances. The most frightening, for Amis, was when he was a patient in a Hampstead hospital. Like Gilbert Pinfold, the hero of the Evelyn Waugh novel, Amis heard hostile voices. The most startling was that of a little girl who asked in a high, piping voice, “Mummy, haven’t they got that old fascist Kingsley Amis in here somewhere?” A little later, Amis imagined that the dying man in the bed opposite referred to him as “a vicious old man.” The adjective “vicious” is rather apt in the circumstances for, as someone said years ago, Amis would be the master of the sneer if the sneer had not mastered him.

The sneering tone Amis used to describe most of his family is disagreeable. Those who are not physically repellant are mediocre lower middle-class Puritans, uptight about sex, suspicious of the graces of life, nonmusical, philistine, limited in their self-improving, upwardly mobile way. There is a sort of subtext in these pages: Look, Amis appears to be signaling, I may be a mean, emotionally constipated shag (a favorite word) but what do you expect coming from origins like that? He does acknowledge that his father believed in education and educated his son at a series of private schools. From the City of London School Amis went to Oxford, and it was there in the streets haunted by the Brideshead generation that Amis’s philistine inferiority complex began the pressures and resentment that later produced Lucky Jim and antiheroes of this kind.

Amis joined the Communist Party in Oxford but only to shock his father. All the same, some of the people he met at party meetings have been friends for life even though Amis has changed his political point of view. It is doubtful whether Amis was ever a really political person, and one suspects that even in those activist days he had no coherent idea what he was agitating for. He would have been much surer about what he was against. High on his long list would have been inherited privilege, superior people who were really inferior, posturing academics, and the cultural establishment. Running through his life then, and to an extent now, is a strain of rancour as though someone—his father, his schoolmasters, his professors—had told him that some things were Good and Ought to be Cherished and Admired. Almost everything in Amis’s life represents an imposed value, and he, in his socially insecure way, is determined to reveal the falseness, the sheer echoing emptiness of all that put-on. This attitude takes over too much of Amis’s creative spirit when he sits down to write so that, without meaning to, he seems like a cousin of the novelist C.P. Snow; and, like Snow, many of his fictions seem a form of letter home to those dear, good people who live humble, uncorrupted lives and need to be told what fakes and self-serving hypocrites are the mighty who hold power over them. A perfect example of this return to simplicity and integrity comes in Amis’s second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, whose hero retires from the fleshpots of the wicked city to the homely virtues of his native mining village. This animosity is a matter of the heart not of the political agenda which is why, in the English context, Amis disconcerts with his right-wing, hawkish stances and his underdog’s whine and complexes.

As a life view this vision of the world as empty sham produces its own falseness. It, too, becomes an attitude and gives rise to the negative sheen in all Amis’ fiction. Here again, Amis is close to C.P. Snow, whose novels subtly deglamorize every institution and situation he describes. This fatal lack of empathy robs the fiction of any possibility of being considered first-rate.

Amis’s combativeness was, for the first time, disarmed when he left Oxford University and went to lecture in the English department of Swansea University in South Wales. Here, Amis found himself in a society that did not observe the English norms since the Welsh, especially the inhabitants of the industrialized southern counties, have a natural ease of social manner: they do not expect to be patronized, and they do not patronize others. To them, Amis was just a bright young man, a Londoner educated at Oxford who had been an officer in the Army while doing his national service. So what? He walked on two legs like everyone else; he liked his beer, and he had a charming wife. Amis was accepted as a human being and now, in portly middle age, appears on TV as an authority on things Welsh and often giving the impression that he was the first to discover any virtue in them. What’s more, in his memoirs he states that the Welsh reputation for deviousness is largely undeserved and if he were very ill he would prefer to have a Welsh nurse!

Because the Welsh were easier to get on with than the English Amis stayed in Swansea for 12 years, and he uses Swansea to put down Cambridge University. The conversation was better and involved occasional references to books.

To the ordinary Welshman there is something fake about all this, for, in the end, what does Amis know about Wales or the Welsh? What made him feel at home was a human, and, after England, class-free environment; but like any colonialist in a pith helmet he keeps for himself the right to decide how the natives should behave. Thus whenever Welsh people, as they will, adopt ways that are not very English and show enthusiasm for self-government, he is offended and says foolish things. Amis regards nationalism, whether cultural or political, as something unreal—as phony as those middle-class values about culture and learning he was expected to accept at school and university.

The novel which won the Booker Prize, The Old Devils, is, in effect, a hymn of hate to the memory of a well-known Welsh broadcaster and writer. His sin, according to Amis, is being a professional Welshman, making a living by selling Wales to the English. The character in the novel is a travesty of the model, a beast that never was on land or sea. Because of this initial misjudgment the novel is a hollow fake, and the fact that it won a prize says more about the standards of the judges than Amis’ talent as a writer.

But Amis’ most profound hatred is reserved for another Welshman, the poet Dylan Thomas, who died in 1953. Amis had probably read Thomas’s poetry before he began his university career at Swansea, Thomas’s home town. In a collection of essays and occasional pieces called What Became of Jane Austen?, published in 1970, Amis describes a Thomas reading at Swansea University College in the spring of 1951. On this occasion Amis was impressed by Thomas’s “controlled passion that communicated itself to every person in the room” but the later part of the evening, when Thomas and hangers-on went drinking, was uncomfortable, possibly because Thomas was shy and off-color.

That must be the last time Amis had a good word to say for either Thomas or his poetry or his legend, and at some point or other he wrote a three-line “A Poet’s Epitaph” that plainly referred to Thomas and was so offensive that it was left out of Amis’ Collected Poems:

They call you “drunk with words”; but when we drink And fetch it up, we sluice it down the sink. You should have stuck to spewing beer, not ink.

It can be argued that Amis’ negative reaction to Thomas is colored by his dislike of poetry that has greater power and resonance than his own. Amis would say his own plain, four-square, rather simplistic verses are the real thing; Thomas’s elaborate rhetoric and organ-music the very opposite. Amis made the point fictionally in That Uncertain Feeling in the character of Gareth Probert, clearly based on Thomas, who wrote a verse play about mediaeval Wales that was bogus and amateurish at the same time. In The Old Devils 30 years later, Thomas appears as the gaseous poetaster Brydan. Someone should tell Amis that his readers have got his point and are bored.

Yet, somehow, it becomes clear that Amis has passed the uncomfortable point where literary fastidiousness turns into a personal obsession that leads him into making statements obnoxious on grounds of taste, accuracy, and common sense. In the Memoirs Amis also makes fun of Thomas’s widow, Caitlin. It is therefore a let-down to know that plain-man Amis, despite his offensive pages about Thomas, has somehow been able to sacrifice his integrity by acting as one of the trustees of the Thomas estate which, in 1988, was reported to be worth £100,000 a year and exceeded in value only by the estates of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. Thomas’s house in Laughame— which is now a museum—was made available to Amis and family, and one of the many illustrations in the Memoirs shows Amis sitting on the terrace of The Boat House using a typewriter—possibly writing his latest lampoon of the man who made the seaside house the place of pilgrimage it is today. The poet’s daughter, Aeronwy Ellis, has called Amis a sham for serving as trustee for a man whose work and personality he despises, but Amis remains unshaken, still feeling the rage of the lesser man, yet still unable to escape from Thomas’s aura. The Memoirs shed no light on this mystery.

If Amis has been described by the Welsh journalist Byron Rogers as the “demon lover” of the Welsh nation, what should Americans call him? For Amis’ relationship with the United States is very much a replica of his feeling for Wales: he is drawn to it—again, one supposes, because it is so free of that blighting English class-consciousness—but he dislikes almost everything that makes the country what is it. He devotes two sections to his time at Princeton (1958—59) and Vanderbilt University (1967—68) in which he spells out, among the domestic details, his unease at what America offers.

At Princeton, Amis’ creative writing students were excellent—”I was bowled over by the amount of talent I encountered”—but, like the Welsh before them, these young Americans remained, well, Americans; and, my God! they actually saw the point of The Aspern Papers, one of the books Amis was asked to teach. Amis confesses this is the only novel by Henry James that he had been able to finish and seriously advances the notion that James is a “dangerous model, especially for Americans.”

Amis’ bafflement at this point eventually forced him to the conclusion that “most American literature is a disaster” and that the teaching of American writing to the virtual exclusion of British, even the British classes in American universities, has led to “that sad rift between British and American literature which has done so much to impede our common cultural heritage.” It followed that most of Amis’ relationships with American writers were testy, and he delights to repeat the old diatribes about American writers being either wrecked by success or by liquor or by both:

“The productive careers, or the public reputations of (Hemingway and O’Hara) went into serious decline . . . . This kind of thing can happen to anyone, agreed, but many people would see something typically American about those declines, set against the examples of, say, Anthony Powell or Iris Murdoch. As can be seen, whatever it is afflicts . . .the highest hopes of their time. Too much success, the old scapegoat? Perhaps the American fondness for size, for big books, for large statements, subjects, themes, a desire for greatness now rather than after a few decades of work—very demoralising and exhausting.”

Almost every American writer of consequence gets the chop— Bellow, Nabokov, Kerouac to name but three—which shows how choosy Amis is. On the other hand, he is grateful to R.P. Blackmur, who suggested that Amis should give a series of lectures on science-fiction which eventually became New Maps of Hell, a pioneering work in making sci-fi respectable.

Amis made another long stay in the States eight years later. Accompanied by his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, he went to Vanderbilt University to teach modern British writing. The head of the English department at that time was a friend, originally met at Princeton, and Amis was attracted by the idea of living in Tennessee in a region “unpolluted by the kind of Brit they think you must be pining to see but actually loathe and dread.” After a rail journey from Trenton (NJ) to Nashville, via St. Louis, Amis and wife arrived and were immediately discountenanced by the local liquor laws. For a man obsessed by drinking, these seemed an impossible barrier to the full life. Vanderbilt lost a couple of points.

It so happened that during this period Amis was making his journey through the political shallows from left wing, whatever that might mean in his circumstances, to his eventual position as a Thatcherite hardman, and in Nashville he decided to react very strongly to what he saw as the raw deal given to blacks living in the area. Such a stance is not improper, although any generous emotion coming from Amis seems vaguely suspect; the seasoned Amis watcher automatically looks for the secret agenda. Vanderbilt was soon to know because shortly after Amis and wife returned to London, his wife published an article in a conservative newspaper denouncing the university for its inbuilt racism but without naming names.

In the Memoirs Amis rejigs this article, names names; and attributes opinions such as “I can’t find it in my heart to give a negro (pron. nigra) or a Jew an A” to people who would, if given a chance, vehemently deny they ever made them. These remarks are on a par with the fictions and vicious inanities Amis has written about his friends and enemies in London but with this difference: Amis is writing about a respected institution where he was well received. Visiting Brits thereafter had to work overtime to prove that they were men of goodwill, but Amis is unaware of that (and wouldn’t care).

Amis’ harshness and cruelty pose a problem, if only a minor one: how does the person or institution traduced by him set the record straight? In a way this is an impossible task partly because the world hasn’t the time for corrections and mises au point. The remarks rankle but, in time, they get forgotten. Although a number of people have faulted Amis’ memory and deplored the ill will, there must come a point where the man-in-the-street might ask why Amis’ opinions and pseudo-memories are taken so seriously. As a comic writer, he rarely aimed to give the reader more than the occasional snigger; and, although one study of his work referred to him as “An English moralist,” the idea of Amis being an arbiter of taste or morals is absurd.

All the same, the British reviewers responded sharply to the book. Auberon Waugh wrote of Amis’ “colossal wreck” as the sole reminder of his beginnings as a member of the Angry Young Men of the 1950’s. Waugh deplored his misogyny not because it was “a crime or a sin but a terrible shame.” On the other hand, Waugh thought, Amis’ passion for Mrs. Thatcher “provides genuine cause to fear for his sanity.”

A milder response came from Amis groupie Anthony Powell, although he regretted that “a slightly diffuse” book had not been properly “sorted out.” Powell believes Amis’ antihighbrowism is an affectation like any other and stressed Amis’ neuroses: his fear of flying, his nameless anxieties, and his agoraphobia. In a poker-faced moment he wrote that the book contains “a good deal of fascinating material,” but he did not make clear whether this referred to one story about himself that Powell might not have enjoyed. According to Amis, Powell took the dance floor with a black woman psychologist who is said to have told the august author of “The Music of Time,” “I sure would like to shag with you, Tony, you old belly-rubber you.”

Powell threw doubts on the accuracy of one of the malicious stories Amis gives about Philip Toynbee, who was the literary editor of The Observer newspaper and a man of liberal, modernist sympathies. It appeared, again according to Amis, that Toynbee wanted to write a “substantial” article on Ivy Compton-Burnett, who was widely regarded during the 40’s as England’s greatest novelist. Amis has Toynbee getting an invitation to Miss C-B’s “house” for dinner. Toynbee feared the liquor would not flow freely and called in at a pub on his way to the meal in order to tank-up. This is how Amis gives it:

“She (Miss C-B) had the reputation, merited or not, of being personally formidable. To deactivate anything like that in advance, and reckoning that he had better not count on a lot or even a little to drink when he got there, not to speak of inclination and habit, Philip tanked up at the pub beforehand.”

Now that is surely a passage that needs rewriting, but let’s continue: Toynbee arrives at the C-B “house” where he is greeted by two “identical old ladies.” One was the great author, the other, according to Amis, “her paid companion.” Almost at once, “drinks of at least adequate strength and quantity were served.”

What happened next, again according to Amis, is that Toynbee began to lose control and after the soup, helped down “with some mouthfuls of dry sherry,” the fish course arrived and with it “no doubt, a Chablis or a Muscadet.” Then disaster struck: “A couple of minutes in, Philip passed out with his head in the fish and remained unconscious for some hours.” He awoke about 3 A.M. by which time his hostesses had eaten a full dinner and retired to bed.

Apart from the fact that the story, like too many in the Memoirs, is unlikely, what strikes the dispassionate reader is that the tale, as tale, is underresearched and skimped. Amis has not exploited the rich possibilities of the anecdote at all, and there are factual inaccuracies within the global whopper. In the first place, Miss C-B did not live in a house but in a gloomy apartment in an ultrarespectable block in Kensington. The building—Braemar Mansions—used to be served— and may still be—by one of those antique lifts, genus Edwardian open-cage, that creak and wobble in the shaft and fill the well of the stairs with their clankings and slammings. The building stood near a subway track so that, at intervals, the whole place thrummed with underground rumblings. Why did Amis miss out these piquant details?

He is right about the two ladies being formidable. Both looked like old-fashioned governesses, and the “paid companion” was Margaret Jourdain, a distinguished woman in her own right: an authority on antique furniture. Both ladies had piled-up hair which suggested to many observers that they used those hairpieces known as a transformation or what the French humorously call a “moumoute.” In addition, Miss Jourdain used a quizzing-glass, as often as not with one of the lenses missing. They spoke in a clipped, dated way and Miss C-B specialized in making astonishing statements matter-of-factly. In 1943, on hearing that 30 children had been killed in an air raid she maintained that the Germans had not impeded the war effort. “On the contrary, they are really helping it by making the milk ration go further.”

The eating habits of the two ladies are well known, thanks to the diaries of James Lees-Milne. In volumes such as Ancestral Voices and Caves of Ice he described time and again the women’s extraordinary appetites. Miss C-B was especially ferocious at the tea-table when she sat down with her legs splayed apart and her skirt lifted above her knees. Lees-Milne commented, “For an Edwardian spinster it is most indelicate.”

According to the same source, Miss C-B ate the more; eight cakes and half a pot of raspberry jam were not beyond her capacity. There was more home-cooked stodge for dinner in the evening, and the only drinks Lees-Milne mentions are Cidrax, a kind of pre-teen cider, and cherry brandy. Miss C-B drank a glass of the latter at one go and shocked her companion.

If Amis had to tell a disobliging story how could such background details have been left out? Imagine a Tom Wolfe version of the same story: the wacky elevator, the bangs and clangs, the stern ladies in their dark rooms, the stiff carriage and the hair which might not have been real, the quizzing-glass and the sprightly, “advanced” conversation. Imagine, too, what Wolfe would have made of the moment when Toynbee’s head met the fish. Certainly reserving the blackout for this course is a good touch, but Amis ought to have specified the fish. To receive the close attention of a fashionable, left-wing literary editor surely a lemon sole is called for: something capacious to wrap round the chin and curls. On the other hand, a salmon steak or a piece of cod would have fitted the bill provided the sauce that went with the dish had a touch of colour and/or a creamy texture. The missed possibilities are legion.

At this point, it becomes clear that the great fault of Amis’ allobiography is not that it was written but that it was not spoken. According to Amis, both his parents were vivid raconteurs. His father had a talent for “physical clowning and mimicry that made him, on his day, one of the funniest men I have ever known. Every story called for the full deployment of facial, vocal and bodily resources, and was conscientiously acted out.” Amis thought everyone told stories like this and still finds “something lacking if they are not used.”

As Amis pere is no more, our man might consider a professional comedian and issue the whole volume as a series of videos. Background noises of an English pub toward closing time with half-sozzled laughter, the tinkle of glasses and someone singing would set the scene. A professional would know how to build up the climaxes with all the tricks of the trade: eloquent pauses to gasp at a cigarette or pull on a slow pipe or swallow a “stomach-settler” after a binge the night before or orchestrate a coughing fit or a bronchial wheeze just before the coup de grace. The nudge, the wink, the sucked eyetooth, the rolling eyes and the moues and stabbing glances and fingers of the accomplished gossip would round off the performance.

Given these aids, the stories, however untrue, however exaggerated, might rise from the pages and the malice, inaccuracy, and occasional ponderous moral commentaries get subsumed in laughter. Some of the time, of course, the laughter would be against Amis, for what is more self-revealing than a man who gets into the company of people like George Steiner and complains that he allows too long a time to pass before glasses are refilled? So we might expect laughter of a kind, and this would enable the listener to forget that he is hearing parts of the life story of a man who has been knighted for services to literature and himself the self-appointed defender of traditional English virtues against the assaults of the new, the non-English, and the world that most of us live in.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading