Kingsley and the Women
Last year marked the centenary of the birth of Kingsley Amis, the finest British comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century. Some readers will argue that he peaked early in his career with his 1954 debut Lucky Jim, a scabrous black comedy which mocked the pretensions and illusions, the stuffiness and starchiness, of academic life. The rest of us will claim he started as he meant to go on by sourcing rich strains of humour from messy affairs of the heart – in this case tracing Jim’s efforts to fend off neurotic Margaret and win round delectable Christine.
Amis’ witty depictions of relationships powered his novels. There is Take a Girl Like You (1960), in which Patrick Standish, “a veritable king of shaft”, falls for Jenny Bunn, “an absolute little smasher”, only to learn the hard way that she is no pushover like his previous conquests and that any romance will play out on her terms. In I Want It Now (1968), Ronnie, who has simple needs (“Fame and money, with a giant’s helping of sex thrown in”), gives up on Simona after one amorous encounter, but then abruptly change his mind when he discovers her mother has a penthouse in Eaton Square. And in Girl, 20 (1971), renowned conductor Sir Roy Vandervane enlists critic Douglas Yandell to cover his tracks while he makes sweet music with his latest “bit of stuff”.
Stripped down to their bare essentials, all these books seem like nothing more than lightweight romps about oversexed men running wild and trying to get their leg over. In a lesser writer’s hands, they could well have been just that. But Amis offers so much more by fully fleshing out his characters, revealing what makes them tick and exposing their faults and their weaknesses.
Some have more than their fair share of faults. The eponymous protagonist of One Fat Englishman (1963) exhibits his flaws with pride: “Of the seven deadly sins, Roger considered himself qualified in gluttony, sloth and lust but distinguished in anger.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is one of the septuagenarians at the centre of Ending Up (1974): “Finding somebody she could love had been the main quest of Adela’s life until about the time of her fiftieth birthday, when its impracticability had become clear to her.” Amis then fells his reader with a killer blow: “The prospect of receiving love she had abandoned much earlier.”
But Adela is a rare exception because most of Amis’ characters receive love in some shape or form, often through illicit extramarital entanglements – or “goes”, as Kitty Vandervane calls her husband’s affairs. Of course, Amis knew whereof he wrote. Throughout his life he enjoyed many dalliances, both before his two marriages and during them. In a letter to his friend and confidant Philip Larkin in 1952 he relayed a routine set of circumstances: “That old winged boa-constrictor, sex, still has me in his coils, and is flying around with me looking for a good shit-marsh to drop me into.”
Amis first found himself in the grip of those coils during his time in the war as a signals officer. He had several sexual flings with nurses, Auxiliary Territorial Service personnel and girls from Belgium and France. But he also embarked on a serious love affair with a married woman, one Elisabeth Anne Simpson. They met in August 1943 on an advanced wireless course in Yorkshire. The affair lasted two years and spawned some of Amis’ most heartfelt poems from this period. In ‘Letter to Elisabeth’ he writes “At last, love, love has taught me to speak straight, / To make my body walk without a strut.”
After the war, and at the end of the affair, Amis went back to strutting his stuff. He met seventeen-year-old Hilary (Hilly) Bardwell in Oxford in 1946, married her two years later but continued to live like a footloose bachelor behind her back – and sometimes in plain sight – till divorce did them part.
A trawl through the rest of Amis’ life brings into focus a man who, when away from his desk, seemed to be propelled forward by his sexual appetite and his roving eye. At the parties he and Hilly threw, he would pluck female guests away from the throng and invite them to his greenhouse in the garden. As a lecturer in English at the University College of Swansea he made passes at attractive students. As a Visiting Fellow at Princeton University he is reported to have “cut a swath a mile wide through the faculty wives.” He hit on Hilly’s friends and his own friends’ partners. When one friend upbraided him for propositioning his wife, Amis shrugged it off with a breezy “Nothing personal, Old Man.”
At one point in Take a Girl Like You, Jenny tells an increasingly sex-starved Patrick, “When I say no I mean no.” Her creator could take no for an answer and backed off when turned down. But by the sounds of things, Amis had a healthy success rate with women, particularly in Princeton. “I found myself at it practically full-time,” he told Larkin on his return. “When you get to my time of life you have to take what you can get when you can get it.”
What he got three years later, in 1962, was the love of another good woman. He met Elizabeth Jane Howard at the Cheltenham Literary Festival – at a seminar somewhat fittingly entitled ‘Sex in Literature’. A post-event nightcap led to an affair which in turn led to a second marriage. Amis’ waning libido wounded it and his heavy drinking – or “piss-artistry” – eventually killed it, but until these crises the pair enjoyed many happy years together. Perhaps the main proof that the marriage worked was the fact that, to the best of Jane’s knowledge, Amis had only two flings during it – two more than is deemed proper but a marked turnaround from the unbridled promiscuousness of his years with Hilly.
Looking back on her courtship with Amis from the safe vantage-point of separation, Hilly revealed that he was clearly attracted to her “but I could tell he would also go for almost anyone.” She expressed this belief more explicitly when their marriage reached rock bottom: while Amis lay asleep on a beach in Yugoslavia she wrote ‘1 FAT ENGLISHMAN. I FUCK ANYTHING’ on his back in lipstick.
Hilly’s graffito might not have given Amis the impetus to change his ways but it did give him the title for a novel. He wasn’t especially fat when he wrote One Fat Englishman but he did share his character’s love of boozing and womanising. Roger Micheldene is also arrogant, boorish, self-centred, lecherous and prone to airing offensive views about women, homosexuals and other races. David Lodge has argued that “Amis was projecting an extreme version of the man he would turn into.”
It’s lazy to assume that a character is an extension, or a flesh-and-blood incarnation, of the author. Indeed, Amis rejected the concept of fiction as being “experience with style sauce” and made it known that he invented all his characters. But he also stated the opposite. In his essay ‘Real and Made-up People’ he wrote that “all my heroes start from me and in a sense stay with me.” In his story “Who or What Was It?” a character called Kingsley Amis muses on his craft: “Now none of my heroes, not even old Lucky Jim, are me, but they can’t help having pretty fair chunks of me in them.”
Those chunks are easy to pinpoint. They crop up in his randy young men and in his irascible Old Devils. They materialise in characters who need a stiff midday drink or two, who are obsessed with breasts, and who scorn foreign food. (“I don’t want any of that filthy goat cheese of theirs,” says Ronnie in Greece in I Want It Now. “Foetor or some such word.”) They even appear in lustful female characters, such as Lady Hazell in The Anti-Death League (1966), an aristocratic nymphomaniac against whose principles it is “to refuse to accommodate any man who had been properly introduced to her.”
Unfortunately, less appealing aspects of Amis’ personality rear their ugly heads in some of his later, more problematic novels. Jake’s Thing (1978) taps into Amis’ lost potency and deteriorating relations with Jane – in his view, “a wife who puts herself first and the rest nowhere.” It ends with Jake’s rant – or Amis’ harangue – about women and their myriad faults: “…their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong…” And so on ad nauseam.
And then there is Amis’ 1984 work, Stanley and the Women, which son Martin called “a mean little novel in every sense.” Scouring it for examples of political incorrectness is like shooting fish in a barrel. Amis lets rip against the usual suspects (Germans, “queers”, “Pakis”) but saves the bulk of his ire for women, or “females”. In an interview with the Observer, Amis reassured readers that Stanley’s thoughts on women weren’t identical to his own. “But,” he added, “they’re certainly my thoughts up to a point, enough for me to be able to present a man thinking them.”
In the book, a doctor declares women mad, but then changes his diagnosis at the book’s bitter end in a spittle-flecked tirade: “They’re not mad. They’re all too monstrously, sickeningly, terrifyingly sane. That’s the whole trouble.” The titular Stanley spouts toxic views of his own. His wife Susan, at the end of her tether, deals him some harsh home truths prior to walking out on him. But then, in a cop-out move, Amis has her slink back into Stanley’s life and grovellingly apologise for the terrible things she said.
This is no isolated instance of men coming out on top in Amis’ fiction. Patrick and Jenny return in Difficulties with Girls (1988), older and supposedly wiser. But when he plays away with “the neglected wife of a satyromaniac” and owns up, Jenny, like Susan, is the one who shows contrition for cruelly branding him a selfish pig. Off the hook, a triumphant Patrick rewards his forgiving wife by making her a gin and tonic. “So now everything was all right,” Amis writes, “until next time of course.”
For there is always a next time. Sex grips Amis’ men too tightly in its coils. Again and again, long-suffering women let their worse halves off for their compulsive philandering. Only on a couple of occasions do we come across wives who have had enough of their husbands’ serial adultery and weasel-worded apologies. In That Uncertain Feeling (1955) John Lewis returns home feeling like “a tremendous rakehell” and tries to get his excuses in quick: “All I can do is tell you…” But Jean Lewis cuts him off. “And when you’ve told me you’ll feel all right about it until the next time, and then we have this again?” In You Can’t Do Both (1994) Robin’s wife echoes the book’s title in threatening to take off with her two daughters: “You can have the three of us, or you can have everyone else. Not both.”
Women as doormats. Women as battle-axes. Women that turn a blind eye. Women who pick up the pieces. Women like Jenny’s colleague Mrs Carter who divides her time between “trying to get her husband to leave her alone, and baking steak-and-kidney pies for him.” (Susan’s outburst to Stanley is a broader, blunter variation on this theme: “You’ve no breeding and so you’ve no respect for women. They’re there to cook your breakfast and be fucked and that’s it.”) Women who, according to one entry in Amis’ posthumous primer on language use, The King’s English (1997), speak in a different tongue – “womanese”.
With all this in mind, it may not be long before Amis’ books come with trigger warnings. Either that or he will be cancelled. Granted, the sour, jaundiced vision that permeates his later books can be hard to deal with and harder still to defend. Certain passages within these books are liable to rub some readers up the wrong way to the point of abrasion.
However, it would be wrong to write Amis’ books off as misogynistic. Sometimes he is simply misanthropic. And all too often his men are held up as objects of ridicule. This is especially true during those ickier moments in his novels: Roger, his grotesque fat Englishman, declaring that “a lap was a good place to put a girl. She felt safer there for some reason, but was not”; or a man telling Jenny she is “exactly the right kind of girl for some figure like me to set up in a handy maisonette somewhere in the wen”; or Sir Roy Vandervane’s penchant for lovers of a tender age in Girl, 20 (“Getting younger at something like half the rate he gets older,” muses Kitty. “When he’s seventy-three they’ll be ten”). In each case the joke is on the pathetic man.
Criticism of Amis’ male characters can also be a matter of perspective. Some are despicable cads, others are loveable rogues. We encounter a few who at first seem like two sides of the same coin but on closer inspection are different. Take these two male gazes: Patrick desiring Jenny, “wanting more than his share of her before anybody else had any”; Malcolm in The Old Devils noticing a young girl who is “fresh, new, scarcely out of the wrapping-paper with no time for anything to have got at her and started using her up.” Patrick comes across as crudely possessive, Malcolm as quietly reflective.
One woman, Betty Fussell, described getting to know Amis during his year abroad in Princeton. “I tried to imagine resisting Kingsley’s irresistible combination of comedy and sex, as he single-mindedly put one in the service of the other.” The best of Amis’ novels still stand up as sharp social satires, excoriating character studies and riotous capers, each of them imbued with that selfsame irresistible combination which so distinguished the man who created them.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer and reviewer.
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