The Amis Phenomenon

By Bradford, Richard | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Amis Phenomenon


Bradford, Richard, The Spectator


Never before have a father and son achieved literary eminence comparable with that of the Amises. Last month two books were published, Kingsley's Letters and Martin's Experience, which told us a great deal about both of them, generated an unprecedented amount of publicity and functioned as an index to the mindset of the British literati, anxieties and prejudices included.

Many of the reviews of Experience and interviews with Martin Amis carried photographs of the author looking characteristically pensive, rebellious or rueful, but surprisingly none of the commentators noted Kingsley's remark on this: `Martin is really extraordinary - one of the most protesting faces I ever saw.' True, Amis junior was only three weeks old at the time but full marks to his father for prescience.

Kingsley Amiss Letters and Martin's autobiography have been thoughtfully, impartially dealt with by most reviewers, with some very notable exceptions. On the Letters John Carey (the Sunday Times) spent a long time censuring Amis (his letters to Larkin of course) for his `relentless, puerile obscenity', his `vulgar abuse of great literature'. `Why stay any longer in the company of this booty, foul-mouthed, sneering know-all?' Carey does so in order to take pleasure in the apparent disclosure that Amis `doubted his masculinity' and was actually `in love with Larkin'. Julie Burchill was obviously commissioned by the Guardian to do damage and she too, while enjoying the letters, diagnosed Amis as `at heart, a bit of a bender'. Burchill compares the `private baby talk' of the Larkin letters with listening to a couple having sex in the next room. Amiss `heterosexuality was something of a curse to him', but, she argues, `repression is the mother of the metaphor' and without it Amis would not have produced such excellent work - and one wonders if she is still thinking about Kingsley Amis.

Katherine Whitehorn (the Observer) recommended the Letters, with qualification: `I didn't know Amis well, and nothing in the letters makes me wish I'd known him better.' And here, for some, is the dilemma. Like them or loathe them, Kingsley Amiss novels could always get under your skin, but they were still novels and to have taken them too personally would have seemed churlish, even childish. With his letters, however, the fictional mask came off, as have the gloves of his belittlers; which is why Carey and Burchill personalise their accounts, enjoy so much their satisfying (and preposterous) conclusions that the prodigious rake and famous misogynist was really queer.

Kingsley-hating goes back a long way. In 1954 W. Somerset Maugham contributed a bizarre piece to the Sunday Times `Books of the Year' supplement in which he predicted the imminent apocalyptic destruction of culture and decency, including details of the lifestyle and activities of the very real and frighteningly unnamed figure who was engineering it all. He was in fact summarising the plot of Lucky Jim; it seems as though Jim Dixon, aka K. Amis, had walked out of the novel and personally unnerved Maugham. Four decades later Tom Paulin has taken on Maugham's role. In a Guardian piece about his recent Lottery award Paulin couldn't stop himself fuming about the Letters, which are `absolutely awful'. `Jesus Christ, what an overrated talent Kingsley Amis was.' There are `wonderful passages in Larkin's letters; they are real letters, whereas Amiss are just like

watching some drunkard hit his head against a gas fire'. Twenty years ago Paulin reviewed Jake's Thing, which according to him had been dictated by

a bloody-minded, beer-swilling, xenophobic philistine with a thick neck and a truculent manner. He hates wogs, he hates the young and he wishes women would disappear as soon as it's over.

Mr Paulin clearly has a thing about Amis; perhaps, unlike poor Jake, he might benefit from the ministrations of a shrink.

The other Amis book, Martin's Experience, has been widely praised: honest, elegant, moving and often very funny. …

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