Blue Faces from Hell

Posted by on October 10th, 2010 at 9:44 AM

The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader is a very large book, with the result that light creeps in when you scan from it, and from this light there results a creepy blue tint that eats into three of the four pictures below. You’ll also see a lot of grain, and the picture of Amis’s future wife has been monstrously expanded to suit TCJ’s picture format.

All in all, I like these effects. Amis was a rambunctious sort, but he was also a neurotic who piled up more than his share of misery. A rambunctious, flailing misery and not a languishing, inert misery, but still enough to make his life seem warped at the base. The distortions on view here go with that feel. Look at them as poetic license instead of inefficient picture reproduction.

Anyway … aren’t English faces something? I don’t know how Anglo-Saxon faces came to be so denatured over here. Back home they look like those assertive, knobbed vegetables grown without agribusiness tampering.

Birthday party. It’s 1992 and Amis has just turned 70. Behind him we see Mavis Nicholson, Paul Fussell and Martin Amis. Paul Fussell takes the cake. He’s just standing there being a good sport, but he disproves a supposedly fundamental law of caricature, namely that a caricature must be a drawing.

The picture has a Max Beerbohm feel, what with the faces and the composition. Something I have to admit: It’s reassuring to see Martin Amis in civvies, busted down from the glamorous public figure we all know. It’s like the fellow here is his secret identity, if secret identities were all of the Clark Kent/Bruce Banner sort.

Non-smile. In the picture above you could swear that Kingsley Amis was smiling, but actually you don’t see his mouth at all. In the picture below you do see his mouth and you still think he’s smiling, but his lips aren’t going the right way. The same thing in a photo of Amis in old age that I may nerve myself to scan from Life’s flyleaf (a great picture, but the book’s spine can take only so much). He has the verve of someone with a big, cocky grin on his face, but he isn’t smiling.

The picture is from 1958. The lady on the left is Amis’s Aunt Gladys. On the right is his first wife, Hilary, a lovely woman but looking here as if she were not too happy.

Amis looks so pleased with himself. Hard to believe that he was scared to fly on airplanes and had other Woody Allen-type deficiencies. I remember that when he reviewed Portnoy’s Complaint, his main objection was that the supposedly Jewish psychic dynamics on display were the same sort of thing everyone with parents had to deal with. But here he looks like a gentile lord of the earth.

Beats me what he made of his genitals’ prominence in the photo. (That’s your aunt, mister!) Amis made a career out of pointing to things other people were too proper and right-minded to notice, or so he saw it. But let’s hope that here he was being conventional and overlooking the unsuitable.

Beautiful family. Those are some good-looking kids: Philip, Sally and Martin, going left to right. From what Martin Amis says, he and his brother were pretty typical young knuckleheads, but here they look like they’re guarding secrets for J. M. Barrie. The picture is from 1955.

Martin Green ran the same photo in his Children of the Sun, a history of decadent Brit cultural figures post-World War I. (I should say “decadent,” with scare quotes, because his book’s subtitle puts scare quotes on the concept.) Kingsley Amis was a can-the-bullshit type who drank beer and made fun of the exotics, but he had pleasing features and married a wife with similarly pleasing features and the two of them produced glamorous-looking kids. Therefore, the group wound up in the Children of the Sun photo section.

Kingsley Amis’s hair is on view beneath the blue glare. He had the hairstyle thru much of the 1950s, maybe longer, and it really was a hairstyle. Someone was paid to do the sculpting. I don’t think Green mentioned it in his book, though. The decadents were upper class, pretty much, whereas I suspect the look here was middle class or lower, possibly a look inspired by professional entertainers. At least the Amis Life refers to a similar picture (done for Vogue) as being a “matinee idol” photo.

Watch out. Amis’s wife shows up below, many sizes too large and permeated by a blue that seeped in from hell. Kind of a dynamic look, altogether. The picture is from before her marriage.

The Life says that in 1964 she took an overdose of sleeping pills, “an accidental one, she later claimed, or a half-accidental one.” Her marriage with Amis had just collapsed after a decade and a half. In later life she became Lady Kilmarnock, which I assume is not a bad way to wind up.

She died just three months ago. We have here an obit from the Telegraph, and here an obit from the Guardian, this one by the Life’s author. (Note the Telegraph photo! It appears to have been taken moments before or after the Children of the Sun photo, and here you see the kids looking like kids.)

From the Guardian obit:

When Kingsley’s second marriage, to the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, collapsed, his sons, Philip and Martin, suggested that he live with the Kilmarnocks, who had little money. To the amazement of all concerned, the arrangement worked. It was Hilly, Martin has suggested, who nursed his father back to creative health. And it was Hilly, with Ali Kilmarnock, who looked after him in his final illness.

So there you have it. From the lead: “She was funny, open, unpretentious, pretty, and liked by everyone who met her. Though her life was not always easy or orderly, she managed it bravely and originally.”

Stan Says. Make way for — The Living Bombs! The action explodes in Avengers #113!

Daily proverb. When your neck starts hurting, it’s time to do something else.

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