This picture shows up in both Lucky Him and in the Letters of Philip Larkin. It just makes me laugh. The goofy expression of someone caught by surprise and making a funny face to cover it up. The two of them, Amis and Larkin, were close friends and correspondents, as I’ve mentioned before. A wonderful CD of Robin Hardy and Alan Bennett reading some of the letters remains criminally out of print.
I got Lucky Him: The Biography of Kingsley Amis
as a gift recently because I have been muttering about a story idea inspired by Amis and Angela Carter (yeah, Angela Carter: A Literary Life will probably be next); it was a nice surprise.
The book is a bit different as a biography, because Bradford mixes together fact and Amis’ fiction to show how his novels were often more truthful — and illuminating — than his memoirs. While it may seem counterintuitive at first, it does make sense to me. Fiction has to fit together, whereas memoir rests on the very poor faculty of memory. And when it comes to our lives, metaphor will tell truly what we wish to disguise, particularly when it comes to protecting the feelings of others. Not only to we tend to shape our memories (consciously and unconsciously) but we may not even be aware of the effects events are having on us as they unfold. Bradford shows how even when Amis sought deliberately non-representative narratives, he gave telling clues about the real events of his life that seem clear in retrospect.
Having finished the book, I find I miss Amis. The latter part of the book was sad, watching his descent not only into a physical frailty enhanced by his drinking, but also into a rigid dismissal of many of the things he once celebrated. But for so much of his life Amis was a funny and shrewd observer of human behavior. Long after his politics veered into reactionary territory, he still maintained the ability to make readers laugh at his blackly humorous observations. Lucky Jim remains a book that will make me laugh out loud and Ending Up, while cruel in its ruthlessness (as only one can be to one’s peers), is also impeccable in its timing.
I envy his wit — and I’m not alone in envying Amis. And I miss him. He’s not known for his poetry, but here’s one that will amuse (as opposed to the late one, never published, that might make you weep) and features that double-edged view of both writing and women.
SOMETHING NASTY IN THE BOOKSHOP
by Kingsley Amis
Between the Gardening and the Cookery
Comes the brief Poetry shelf;
By the Nonesuch Donne, a thin anthology
Critical, and with nothing else to do,
I scan the Contents page,
Relieved to find the names are mostly new;
No one my age.
Like all strangers, they divide by sex:
Landscape Near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.
“I travel, you see”, “I think” and “I can read”
These titles seem to say;
But I Remember You, Love is my Creed,
Poem for J.,
The ladies’ choice, discountenance my patter
For several seconds;
From somewhere in this (as in any) matter
A moral beckons.
Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Girls aren’t like that.
We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff
Can get by without it.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.
And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.
Deciding this, we can forget those times
We stay up half the night
Chock-full of love, crammed with bright thoughts, names, rhymes,
And couldn’t write.
[I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “Forgotten Book” but stop by Patti Abbott’s blog for a wide range of recommendations of books that you may have forgotten, or never known at all, but will like!]