Comic master, ardent communist, outspoken curmudgeon, gleeful womanizer, and outraged right-winger: The personalities of novelist Kingsley Amis were various and colorful. In poetry, novels, journalism, and copious letters, Amis's ability to shock, provoke, and tickle won him a spot in British literary history, if not on popular reading lists.
The only son of a business clerk, Amis was born in 1922 in London. He was educated at the City of London School and St. John's College, Oxford University, where he became acutely aware of his lower-middle-class origins. After service in the army with the Royal Corps of Signals, he completed his university studies and worked as a lecturer in English at Oxford, Swansea, and Cambridge, which provided the academic settings for many of his largely autobiographical stories.
Best known for his satiric novels, Amis burst onto London's literary scene as a poet, with the collections Bright November, (1947) and A Frame of Mind (1953). During this time, Amis was part of "The Movement," an anti-sentimentalist group of British poets whose members included Robert Conquest, Elizabeth Jennings, and Philip Larkin. Larkin and Amis became fast friends, hanging out in pubs, listening to American jazz, and mocking pretension and pomposity in all its forms. They were reacting against the clean-living intellectualism of the 1930s and the snobby aestheticism of the 1920s, known as the "Brideshead years," after Evelyn Waugh's novel. Larkin and Amis remained close throughout their lives, engaging in spirited correspondence (recently collected in The Letters of Kingsley Amis) rife with pun-filled riffs on literature, women and work.
Their ongoing dialogue, in which Amis developed his chummy, wise-cracking style, helped Amis find the tone for his classic university farce Lucky Jim (1954), his first published fiction, whose main character would reappear in That Uncertain Feeling (1956) and I Like It Here (1958). When Jim went on to be a best-seller, Amis found himself labeled one of the "Angry Young Men," a group of postwar British writers from the lower classes bent on subverting the establishment. His compatriots included John Osborne, John Wain, Colin Wilson, and John Braine. While many of these writers have been forgotten, Amis's sharp social and sexual commentary have endured.
In 1983 a jury commissioned by the British Book Marketing Council declared Take a Girl Like You one of the dozen best novels written in English since 1945. In 1986 Amis won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils. Closely mirroring his own experience of mid-life stock-taking, the story follows four married couples whose are forced to revisit their past when an old friend and semi-famous Welsh man of letters reappears in their lives. This wistful, nostalgic book is considered by many to be Amis's most sentimental work.
Over the course of his 50-year career, Amis produced more than 20 acerbic, ironic novels. He famously debunked truisms of English life and British character, often training his merciless eye on friends and family, turning them into fodder for his fiction. His skepticism skewered the haughty posturing prevalent in the university world; his honesty pulled the rug out from under upper-class traditions; and his hatred of pretension led him to discredit liberals and conservatives alike. Rounding out Amis's literary portfolio is an array of nonfiction, criticism, poetry, and anthologies that covers topics as diverse as drinking and detectives.
In 1948, while a junior lecturer at Swansea, Amis married Hilary Bardwell and had three children, including the acclaimed novelist Martin. Famously promiscuous, Amis was matched in his exploits by Hilly, who nearly ran off with a newspaper man in 1956. They divorced when Amis met and fell for novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard (The Cazalets) at a sex and literature conference in 1965. Their marriage lasted until 1983, when Amis's drinking and impotence made life with him unlivable. Unable to tolerate life on his own, Amis returned to Hilly, now inconveniently married to Lord Kilmarnock. The unlikely trio struck a bargain -- Amis would pay the bills in exchange for room and board -- and the arrangement was agreeable to all.
Amis spent his last years changing his political stripes from left to right and writing scathing criticism of nearly everything that crossed his path. He was knighted in 1990 and died in 1995 at the age of 73.
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