Life: loser edition, courtesy of Lucky Jim

“Your attitude measures up to the two requirements of love. You want to go to bed with her and can’t, and you don’t know her very well. Ignorance of the other person topped with deprivation, Jim. You fit the formula all right, and what’s more you want to go on fitting it. The old hopeless passion, isn’t it?”

—Kinglsey Amis, Lucky Jim

The Amis Inheritance

The New York Times Magazine from yesterday ran a long article on “the curious writerly firm of Amis & Amis, founded by Kingsley, who died in 1995, and now run by his son Martin.” It deals with an obvious question in the lives of both writers, but one that hasn’t often been seriously examined because Martin is equally often hostile and dismissive of those who ask one-off questions about how Kingsley affected his writing. Take this response from January titled Martin Amis: You Ask The Questions; The novelist writes in answer to ‘Independent’ readers about misogyny, Islamism, Iran’s nuclear threat and Kirk Douglas’s naked body:

How do you think you might have ended up spending your working life if your father hadn’t been a famous writer? JOHN GORDON, Eastleigh

Well, John, that would depend on what my father had chosen to do instead. If he had been a postman, then I would have been a postman. If he had been a travel agent, then I would have been a travel agent. Do you get the idea?

That echoes dialog between John Self and a character named Martin Amis in Martin’s novel, Money:

‘Hey,’ I said, ‘Your dad’s a writer too, isn’t he? Bet that made it easier.’
‘Oh sure. It’s just like taking over the family pub[,]’ [Martin said.]

Money also tempts an autobiographical reading into aspects of the protagonist, John Self, as he also has an overbearing, promiscuous father and other similarities to Martin. To be sure, I doubt even people inclined towards biographical readings would argue that the Self’s excesses reflect Martin’s lifestyle, but there are certainly parallel elements.

The father figure issue is a subject Martin must get far too many questions about—perhaps his equivalent of “where do you get your ideas?” or like John Banville being asked about Benjamin Black. As a result, the article from The New York Times provides as good a summary as one’s likely to find about them in particular and literary progeny (in a literal sense) in general.

This Amis mania—the links above are just a smattering of recent press coverage—probably comes in part from Martin’s new novel, House of Meetings, and from Zachary Leader’s new biography, The Life of Kingsley Amis. Christopher Hitchens reviewed it favorably in The Atlantic. “Favorably” probably isn’t a strong enough word, as Hitchens says: “In this astonishingly fine and serious book, which by no means skips the elements of scandal and salacity, Zachary Leader has struck a near-ideal balance between the life and the work, and has traced the filiations between the two without any strain or pretension.” The rest of the article discusses little about the book but much about Hitchens’ recollection of Kingsley, as Hitchens knew the father and knows the son, and so complements the larger work.

Like Hitchens, I loved Lucky Jim when I read it, but I didn’t care for Girl, 20 the first time through. I recently gave it another shot, though, and changed my opinion, making posting the previous link a tad embarrassing to post. Regardless, “The Amis Inheritance” is worth reading, as are the books of Amis & Amis.

An update: The New Yorker also has a piece on The Life of Kingsley Amis available online.

Update # 2: Terry Teachout writes more on Kingsley in Commentary magazine.

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