Kingsley Amis has been interrupted this afternoon, an otherwise quiet Sunday at home and not normally a time he’d be discussing the events of his life with a stranger. His face, pale and jowly, offers the appropriate look of vague suspicion.
The novelist has allowed this intrusion to discuss his “Memoirs,” a collection of essays, sketches and anecdotes that chronicles, after a fashion, Amis’ experiences as a key figure in Britain’s literary Establishment.
“I wasn’t going to sit down and write an ordinary story of my life,” he says, resting fitfully in slippers and a soft chair. “It didn’t attract me, particularly.”
His intention with the book, a bestseller in England and due for American release from Summit Books next month, was instead to simply “throw some light on the cultural history of a time and place.” It’s organized by subject matter, from chapters on “Booze” and “Family,” to “Shrinks” and “Anthony Burgess.” Post-war Britain is the book’s central focus, with wry discussion of the machinations of literature, politics, sex and pop culture that have happened along the way.
Amis’ part in all this began with much critical fanfare with the publication of his first novel, “Lucky Jim,” in 1953. It told the story of a young university instructor’s comical struggles to hold onto his job and survive a treacherous romance. “Lucky Jim” was also part of a fresh crop of fictional works that broke with English convention by focusing on characters not from the upper-class and their small, often hopeless, battles in the workplace.
That first novel, and its subtle criticisms of the Establishment, cast him among a group of contemporaries critics began calling the “Angry Young Men.” To Amis, it was a ludicrous and wholly inaccurate categorization that put him in league with such writers as John Wain, J. P. Donleavy, John Osbourne and Colin Wilson.
The mere mention of the old label, which still haunts Amis at 69, prompts him to laugh loudly and suddenly. “I suppose it was a good thing at the time for publicity, but misleading and not to the purpose at all,” he says. “It made people expect the wrong things from me and other writers: Where’s the anger? What’s all this about anger?”
If Amis was viewed then as vigorously anti-Establishment, the writer is solidly a part of it today. He was knighted last year, although he tries to ignore all the “Sir” business. And in 1986 he was awarded the Booker Prize, England’s most coveted literary honor, for “The Old Devils,” a novel of age, alcohol and lingering emotions in South Wales.
In the years after the “Angry Young Men” period, Amis grew disenchanted with Britain’s left wing and is now a loud supporter of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A chapter in his “Memoirs” recounting his few encounters with the politician praises her political accomplishments but concerns itself mostly with what Amis says is a misunderstood personality.
Although criticizing her education policies, Amis writes a human portrait of Thatcher, going so far as to call her his “dream girl,” drawing new and unprecedented attention to what he sees as her sexual allure and power.
In what might come as a surprise to the critics who have attacked Amis for misogynistic themes in “Stanley and the Women” and other books, Amis talks in somber tones of the events that led to Thatcher’s sudden retirement this year, saying she was unduly despised by the left, and others, in large part because of her gender.
“You can’t transcend it in people’s minds,” he says of Britain’s first woman prime minister. “You can’t stop people from being holy-holy about all those attitudes. Personally, I’m a fan of hers and thought she behaved very well, had a good record. But no matter how well you behave as a woman, you’re still a woman.”
Such talk from Amis would probably have confused his late father, who found reading rude and anti-social and was horrified when the younger Amis joined a Communist club while studying at Oxford. Those old political disagreements between Amis and his father are, with some irony, mirrored by Amis’ political discussions with his youngest son, Martin, a liberal and one of England’s most prominent authors and journalists.
Amis appears a bit uncomfortable with this suggestion, despite the evidence, even as he sneers good-naturedly at his son as “a rich socialist.”
“He has what I would describe as idiotic notions about greenery and so on, global warming and all that kind of stuff,” Amis says of Martin. “And he didn’t think we should be in the Gulf.”
Both have described these disagreements as a mostly amusing father-son feud, earning them both some publicity beyond the literary journals. “Martin and I have had our disagreements, a few shots from time to time,” Amis says. “But nothing on any great scale.”
It was Martin and his older brother, Philip, who helped Amis get set up in this house, an old two-level home on Primrose Hill on the edge of London. The author lives there with his former wife, Hilly, and her current husband, in a situation that has lasted without incident for nearly a decade.
Before this interview, Amis moved slowly up a curved staircase leading to a large sitting room. Inside, the room is scattered with books, framed drawings, a television and colorful toys, the residue of a recent visit from grandchildren. Later, Amis posed warily for pictures, worried about his lazy eye and still annoyed with an earlier photographer who had planted Amis in unlikely positions with a newspaper on the staircase for almost an hour.
Critics are a problem as well. They insist that by the mid-1960s, Amis’ work had taken a darker turn, signaling the beginning of a period of grim reality in such works as “Girl 20" and “The Green Man,” sometimes dropping the humor almost entirely. Amis ignores such talk.
“ ‘Periods’ happen in writers’ careers because of the universities,” says Amis. “Most writers would tell you this, unless they were hopelessly sunk in pretentiousness and self-deception, that they only write the book they can write.
“You can’t tell the truth about ‘modern marriage,’ say. All you can do is tell the truth about Bill and Emily. And with a great deal of luck, if you’ve done it properly, well, perhaps you have told the truth about modern marriage.”
Amis still writes about a book a year. He is well into a novel about a Russian poet whose poetry is no good and who is in London seeking help for her imprisoned brother. It will be his 22nd novel; he has written almost 50 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry since “Lucky Jim.”
Certain genre styles have always interested him. Mixed among the other works have been a science fiction novel, a crime novel and a James Bond thriller. But, for Amis, something terrible has happened to those genres since then.
“When science fiction became respectable, it was ruined,” he says sadly. “When academics, critics and people like me start to take an interest in it, it was death, really. We didn’t know that at the time.”