A novelist, poet, critic, essayist, and short-story writer, Kingsley Amis (AY-mihs) was best known as one of England’s foremost comic moralists, in the tradition of Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, and Evelyn Waugh. The only child of William Robert Amis, an office clerk, and Rosa Annie (Lucas) Amis, Amis learned the Protestant virtues of thrift, hard work, and patience from his conservative, lower-middle-class Baptist parents. He considered himself a timid and lonely boy and did not gain confidence in himself until he began attending school, first at St. Hilda’s College, then at Norbury College, where at the age of eleven he saw his first story, “The Sacred Rhino of Uganda,” published in the school magazine. William Amis, to help cultivate his son’s abilities, sent Kingsley to a top private preparatory school, the City of London School. In 1941, Kingsley Amis went to the University of Oxford, where he flirted briefly with communism, but after one year he was drafted and commissioned as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals. After three and a half years in Belgium, France, and Germany, during which time he became a lieutenant, Amis returned to St. John’s College. In 1947, he earned his B.A. with first-class honors in English. He had two sons (one the distinguished author Martin Amis) and a daughter from his marriage to Hilary Ann Bardwell, which ended in divorce in 1965. His second marriage, to Elizabeth Jane Howard, a writer, also ended in divorce, in 1983. Amis was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1981 and knighted in 1990.
Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim, not only attracted favorable attention but also identified Amis with the “Angry Young Men” movement of British working-class writers of the 1950’s. The novel’s satire and sardonic style impressed reviewers, and the protagonist, Jim Dixon, became a symbol of rebellion against the establishment and one of the most popular antiheroes of modern literature. Though appearing to be a young man’s novel, Lucky Jim is an extremely humorous and socially significant book that caught the general mood of unrest in England after World War II. Amis denied any affiliation with the emergent group of angry novelists and playwrights; indeed, as his career evolved he began to shock his liberal admirers with his increasing conservatism in politics and social affairs.
The three comic novels that followed Lucky Jim–That Uncertain Feeling, I Like It Here, and Take a Girl Like You–are considered by critics as variations on the same theme of rebellious adjustment to established society. Amis spent the year 1958-1959 teaching creative writing at Princeton University, where he delivered a series of lectures on science fiction that was published as New Maps of Hell. Over the next five years, he coedited the science-fiction anthology series Spectrum with Robert Conquest. In 1961, Amis accepted the post as the director of English studies at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. After two years there, Amis devoted himself entirely to writing, though without immediately producing a work of popular success. Unlike his previous work, The Anti-Death League was part espionage thriller and part love story, its mood somber and fatalistic. By the late 1960’s, Amis had alienated the liberal-cultural following of Lucky Jim.
In I Want It Now, Amis satirized the “trendy Lefty” through its hedonistic hero, a television talk-show host opportunist. An admirer of the James Bond series, Amis wrote Colonel Sun under the pseudonym Robert Markham, but it suffered in comparison to the earlier Bond books because it “humanized” the hero’s macho image. Amis’s subject matter varies widely, as evidenced by The Riverside Villas Murder, a meticulous period mystery set in the 1930’s and portraying an adolescent hero. Critics charged that the book was inconsistent with his earlier work, and they could not determine whether it was a straight detective story or a parody.
Throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, Amis wrote six more novels that the critics often compared to Lucky Jim. Jake’s Thing portrays an Oxford don undergoing sex therapy to revive his flagging libido, and Stanley and the Women portrays a cynical, mid-level executive surrounded by women who undermine his sense of self. Some critics consider both novels to be misogynistic. In The Alteration and Russian Hide-and-Seek, Amis experiments with the science-fiction subgenre of creating alternate worlds, an expression of his growing interest in historical and political fiction. For The Alteration, which revises history such that the Protestant Reformation never occurred, Amis won the John W. Campbell Award for science fiction.
Amis has been praised for the compassion he shows for the main characters in two novels about the trials of growing old, Ending Up and The Old Devils. The Old Devils, which won for Amis the 1986 Booker Prize, Great Britain’s highest honor for fiction, is a humane comedy of manners about the relationships of four semiretired couples who are dedicated to drinking as though it were a national pastime. A technical masterpiece, the novel engages the reader with its impressive prose, witty dialogue, and surprising paradoxes. Difficulties with Girls, a sequel to Take a Girl Like You, is not considered as successful.
Amis’s work published in the 1990’s showed little diminution of energy. The Folks That Live on the Hill is another thoughtful exploration of the problems of old age and social relationships. The Russian Girl is a sexual comedy along the lines of Jake’s Thing and Stanley and the Women without their bitterness, and You Can’t Do Both returns to the scenes of Amis’s youth; some consider it to be almost an apologia. The Biographer’s Moustache was published in 1995, the year Amis died.
While Amis wrote poetry throughout his career, he attracted his greatest following with his humorous novels. Lucky Jim remains the best-known example of the neopicaresque comic form. Though some critics find in Amis a creative self-destructiveness, his vitality and comic talent as a satirical writer remain undisputed. He considered himself to be writing novels in the main tradition of English literature, telling believable stories in a straightforward style, using no modernist tricks. His goal was always to portray human nature and universal truth.