Kingsley Amis, random extracts from biographies about him

Posted by on October 31st, 2010 at 8:14 AM

There are two Amis bios, the Life by Zachary Leader and Kingsley Amis by Eric Jacobs. I was leafing thru them and put PostIts on the following bits.

His confession. In 1947, to Philip Larkin: “I feel as if I am on the threshold of some new and fearsome perversion that is going to bust into my conscious mind with the force of a mastodon’s fart. Do you ever feel like that?”

Dropped from Lucky Jim. Jim spars with a Tory colleague:

“If the welfare state embodies enlightenment, I’m a Dutchman.”

“For a Hollander you talk the English blooding good.”

Amis could just throw that away because he didn’t like the direction the scene was going. Try to find anything as good in his later stuff.

Shit-marsh. In 1951, to Philip Larkin: “That old winged boa-constrictor, sex, still has me in its coils, and is flying around with me looking for a good shit-marsh to drop me into.” A few years after this letter, Amis was worried that his marriage might collapse because he and his wife, Hilly, were carrying on rival affairs: he had, I think, two girlfriends, whereas she had tried out a couple of fellows and had now found one about whom she seemed serious. Amis complained to Larkin that he and Hilly weren’t having sex together until they worked all this out; he really felt the deprivation.

On Beowulf. Writing to Larkin in 1946: “the anonymous, crass, purblind, infantile, featureless HEAP OF GANGRENED ELEPHANT’S SPUTUM, ‘Barewolf.’” The really good thing here is “featureless.” It’s the mot juste for trekking across the slopes of an endless premodern epic. You look around and it’s like nothing is even supposed to make sense. (I mean sagas, eddas, Hindu sacred texts, etc.)

Cyril Connolly. He made Amis look stupid at a party during the 1950s. I don’t know if Connolly’s remembered now, but for the middle part of the 20th century he was king-boss of the London literary world’s fancier segments. Connolly was an aesthete, whereas Amis was a great advocate of beer and jazz and “can the bullshit” (Paul Fussell’s phrase; other people would say “cut the bullshit”). And Connolly had gone to Eton, whereas Amis’s father had worked for a mustard manufacturer.

At any rate, we have this. Amis was a mimic and did funny faces:

Cyril Connolly, an establishment figure in Kingsley’s youth, heard at a party that these faces were worth seeing. “Would you mind just …?” he asked in that elliptical way of theirs, leaving the rest of the question to you. Not wanting to show off but wanting to oblige, Kingsley performed as requested. “I don’t think that’s funny,” Connolly said.

“Not wanting to show off” seems like a stretch to me. Who knows what Amis wanted?

The passage is by Russell Fraser, a literary historian, who says the faces in question were things like Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh and Sex Life in Ancient Rome. (The last one I would imagine to be a round face with a maniacally grinning mouth cut like a groove; if you read coffee-table books about Rome, you’ll see this face popping up in the art photos.) Finally, for a description of an Amis routine, see Christopher Hitchens’s Hitch-22.

Daily proverb. Some guys got it, and most often they want more of it.

Stan says. The Vampire Lord teaches “The Art of Dying” in Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #4!

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