Sir Kingsley William Amis (April 16, 1922 – October 22, 1995) was an English poet, academic, novelist, and teacher. Amis was considered an anti-authority revolutionary, as well as one of the "angry young men" of the 1950s (though he denied his participation). In time some came to consider him a reactionary. His early struggle with money and education instilled in Amis the desire to create his destiny and make his life more than what others thought it could be.
He was a highly intelligent and witty man whose writings reflect his deep awareness of the complexities of human nature. His works take a humorous yet highly critical look at British society, especially of the period following the end of World War II in 1945. Amis penned over 20 novels, published three collections of poetry, and wrote short stories and scripts for radio and television. His later writings showed his maturity as a critic and consisted mainly of books concerned with purely social and literary criticism. Amis is also known for the work of his son, Martin Amis, a famous British writer.
Kingsley Amis was born in Clapham, South London, as the only son of a business man. Not much is recorded of Kingsley Amis childhood, but he completed his secondary education and went on to pursue higher education at the City of London School and St. John's College, Oxford. It was while studying at Oxford that he met Philip Larkin. The two became friends and that friendship would prove to be one of the most important of his life. During his time at Oxford, Amis was made aware of his lower-middle-class origins and he sought to better his education and made goals for improving his life. He spent a brief time away from Oxford to serve his country during World War II in the Royal Corps of Signals. Amis was determined to finish college and as soon as his service and the war were over, he returned to Oxford and graduated in 1947. That same year Amis published his first book of poetry, Bright November, but it was largely overlooked and received no critical acclaim.
In 1948, Amis fell in love with bright and sunny 17-year-old Hilary Bardwell. He lovingly called her "Hills" and the couple began their marriage with the birth of their son Martin in 1949. Martin would grow up to be a famous author himself and even wrote an autobiographical account of his life as Amis son. He called it Experience; it was a very straightforward novel written with a similar humor as his father and many compared the quality of his descriptions to those of Charles Dickens.
I slept in a drawer and had my baths in an outdoor sink. My nappies bore triangular singe marks where they had been dried on the fireguard. It was tough. My father's dinner would often consist of the contents of the doggybag that my mother brought back from the cinema café (the Tivoli) where she worked.
– Martin Amis, Experience
Amis, now needing to support a growing family, went on to work as an English lecturer at the University of Wales Swansea (1948–1961), and followed that with teaching at Cambridge (1961–1963), where he distinguished himself as a fellow of Peterhouse. Although money was tight things changed for the better with the publication of Amis' first novel, Lucky Jim. The novel was published in 1954 and became an immediate success in the literary world. Lucky Jim was an innovative work for several reasons, foremost among them is the fact that Amis featured a simple and ordinary man as an anti-hero. The novel centers around Jim Dixon, a junior university teacher who consistently faces problems with his girlfriend and his supervising professor. He tries to reconcile himself to his occupation, only to realize that he despises anything dealing with the pretensions of "academic life." Constantly spurred on by ambition for a better place in life, Jim finds himself unable to break the bonds of social classes and he finds himself in constant peril of losing his job. The story was considered exemplary of the 1950s era in Britain. It went on to win the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction. During his time of popularity, Amis was reported to have had associations with the group of writers who called themselves the Angry Young Men.
Although Amis found great success as a novelist, he did not stop writing poetry. He joined the poetic group, The Movement, which consisted of his dear friend Philip Larkin, as well as Robert Conquest and Elizabeth Jennings. The group helped to encourage Amis' poetry and he published his second collection of poems, A Frame of Mind in 1953, followed by Poems: Fantasy Portraits in 1954. Both Amis and Larkin shared a passion for jazz and politics. Amis was a noted atheist and, as a young man, a vocal member of the Communist Party. His stint with Communism began to wane when the USSR invaded Hungary in 1956. After the events of 1956 Amis became very anti-communist and very conservative. He inserted his newfound ideals in his writings, beginning with his essay, "Why Lucky Jim Turned Right" (1967). These same sentiments can be felt in his later novel Russian Hide and Seek (1980).
As Amis political life turned conservative, his personal life was anything but. He ended his 15–year marriage to Hilary Bardwell when he left her for fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard in 1965. Amis married Jane (as she was called), but was given a taste of his own medicine when she walked out on him in 1983, declaring that he was impossible to live with. The couple had one daughter. Amis made it no secret that he regretted leaving Hilary. In an odd and extraordinary turn of events, Amis arranged to live with Hilary, their two children, Martin and Philip, as well as her new husband. Hilary and her husband Alistair had one son together, James. The group lived together for the next 15 years until Amis death in 1995. Hilary nursed Amis during his last years, caring for all of his needs.
In 1990, Amis was knighted and according to his son Martin he got it partly for being "audibly and visibly right-wing, or conservative/monarchist." Martin Amis in his memoir, Experience, wrote of losing his father: "The intercessory figure, the father, the man who stands between the son and death, is no longer here; and it won't ever be the same. He is missing. But I know it is common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity. My father lost his father, and my children will lose theirs, and their children (this is immensely onerous to contemplate) will lose theirs."
You'll find that marriage is a good short cut to the truth. No, not quite that. A way of doubling back to the truth. Another thing you'll find is that the years of illusion aren't those of adolescence, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they're the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head. Your age, by the way, Jim. That's when you first realize that sex is important to other people besides yourself. A discovery like that can't help knocking you off balance for a time.
– Kingsley Amis, from Lucky Jim, 1954
In 1960, Kingsley Amis wrote New Maps of Hell and his critical interest in the science fiction genre began. It was in this novel that one of Amis most popular phrases, "comic inferno" was coined. The phrase describes a humorous dystopia (a society characterized by human misery and squalor). Amis differed from other writers in his depiction of such a world because of such humor. In particular, Amis found inspiration in the works of Frederick Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, and Robert Sheckley. His next try at science fiction was a production of a popular anthology series, Spectrum I-IV. Amis found his main source of inspiration in the 1950s magazine, Astounding Science Fiction. He co-wrote the series with Robert Conquest, a prominent Sovietologist. Shortly after the successful series, Amis wrote three novels in quick succession, The Alteration, which is an alternate history novel set in a futuristic Britain where the Reformation never took place; Russian Hide-and-Seek, another alternate history that explores a world where Russia conquered Britain at the end of World War II; and finally, the very popular supernatural-horror novel The Green Man, which was eventually adapted by the BBC for television.
Amis was a great conversationalist, and he loved to discuss ideas and stories with others. One such event transpired with C. S. Lewis and Brian Aldiss in Lewis's Cambridge office in 1962. The three maintain a purely science-fiction dialogue and the conversation was recorded. Later, Lewis transcribed the event and titled it "Unreal Estates" and put it in one of his final collections, On Stories.
In the 1960s, Kingsley Amis broke from his science-fiction work when he began writing for the popular James Bond series created by Ian Fleming. Amis did much of this writing without credit as he worked under a pseudonym, sometimes with no credit at all. In 1965, Amis wrote a Bond novel under his own name. The novel, The James Bond Dossier was very successful so he wrote another the very same year. The Book of Bond, or Every Man His Own 007 was a manual about how to be a sophisticated spy. This spy uses the pseudonym Bill Tanner, Tanner being "M," Bond's Chief of Staff in many of Fleming's Bond novels.
After Fleming's death in 1964, there was a rumor that is was Amis who completed the draft of The Man with the Golden Gun, but in recent years this story was proven false, although Amis did offer suggestions on the improvement of the manuscript.
In 1968, the owners of the James Bond property, Glidrose Publications, desired to continue the publication of the popular series under the pseudonym "Robert Markham." Amis was the very first to write under this name. He produced, Colonel Sun, but that was the last book ever published by "Markham." Colonel Sun, which was very successful, was later adapted as a comic strip and appeared in the Daily Express in 1969. Although Colonel Sun was never made into a Bond film (because of producer problems), it was clearly referenced in 2002's Die Another Day, starring Pierce Brosnan, where the villain was named Colonel Tan-Sun Moon.
The empty room gazed bleakly at Bond. As always, everything was meticulously in its place, the lines of naval prints exactly horizontal on the walls, water-colour materials laid out as if for inspection on the painting-table up against the window. It all had a weirdly artificial, detached air, like part of a museum where the furniture and effects of some historical figure are preserved just as they were in his lifetime.
– Kingsley Amis, Colonel Sun
Amis also produced anthologies like The New Oxford Book of Light (1978) and The Popular Reciter (1978).) The first The Oxford Book of Light Verse was published in 1938 with W.H. Auden selections. Amis' collection—which includes familiar favorites as well as previously unpublished masterpieces—is lighter in heart than Auden's and closer to a modern understanding of the meaning of "light." He also wrote works on drink, columns on food for Harper's and Queen, detective books, critical studies—Rudyard Kipling and His World (1975), Memoirs(1990), The King's English (1998), and mini-essays on the craft of writing well.
His last, unfinished, novel was Black and White, about an attraction between a white homosexual man and a black heterosexual girl.
In addition to the Somerset Maugham Award he won for Lucky Jim, 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. He also won the Campbell Award for the year's best science-fiction with The Alteration in 1976.
His son, Martin Amis, was also awarded the Somerset Maugham Award, in addition to the National Book League Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
All links retrieved September 28, 2012.
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