callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

The Old Devil

Considering how much I like the man’s writing, it’s taken me long enough to get hold of and read a copy of Eric Jacobs' biography of Kingsley Amis. TBH I didn’t learn much from it which I hadn’t already gleaned from the Memoirs and various interviews. I probably would not be writing about it separately from other January books if this reading hadn’t coincided with reading an article about novel writing by Zadie Smith, printed in The Guardian. I was directed there by the literary blog of Dove Grey Reader, who has some pretty trenchant comments on the piece.

Here are a couple of Zadie’s gems:
“7. Do writers have duties?”
“These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader's perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear; to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure; to write with the average reader in mind; to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule.”
But also
“What I'm saying is, a reader must have talent. … Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers.”

I am quite sure that Amis would have been infuriated by the idea of a failed reader. He believed that the novelist had a duty to communicate directly with the reader and abhorred what he thought of as the snobbery of coteries of authors who wrote only for themselves, each other and the critics. “’A shot rang out’. That’s the kind of book I like”, he would say. That is why he liked Ian Fleming and wrote The James Bond Dossier, a critical analysis of the Bond books which will tell you, for instance, exactly how many people Bond killed. Also why, in later life, he never missed The Bill.

I get the impression that Amis is completely out of fashion now: not much read, especially by women, probably for the wrong reasons. He is seen as a right wing misogynist and that puts people off. It’s true that there are scheming, manipulative women in the novels, from Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim onwards but there are also plenty of nice women and plenty of men who can only be described as shits. I am an admirer of his prose style and of his versatility. Like a poet trying every verse form, he wrote books in several different genres. The Riverside Villas Murder is a 1930s-style detective story; The Green Man (very frightening) a ghost/horror story; Colonel Sun a Bond pastiche; The Alteration a novel set in a present in which the Reformation has never taken place.
Any of these is worth reading.

For people new to Amis I would say, avoid the later books. Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women seem bitter. His last book The Biographer’s Moustache is just bad and should not, in my opinion, have been published. The one aspect of his novels I find wearisome is the endless drinking. Not that I’m against drink, just against reading about it and its effects. Anyone interested in the post war novel really has to read Lucky Jim sometime. His second book, That Uncertain Feeling (filmed starring Peter Sellers as Only Two Can Play) is full of felicities. If I have a favourite though it is I Like It Here*, which is both funny and cheerful in tone.

I was intrigued when Wendy Cope brought out her poetry collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis as I, too, had had a strange dream in which he featured. I think this has something to do with the fact that Amis had read absolutely everything and would have been a fascinating person to talk to about books. Sadly, he would never have done so, I’m sure, with me or indeed with Wendy Cope.

*Amis later described this book as 'by common consent my worst novel'!
Tags: kingsley amis, novels, reading, zadie smith

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