Friday, April 23, 2010

Review: Lucky Him

Oh, Mr Amis...

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.

by Kingsley Amis

Between the Gardening and the Cookery
Comes the brief Poetry shelf;
By the Nonesuch Donne, a thin anthology
Offers itself.

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 YouLove 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!]


pattinase (abbott) said...

I'll add it in. I so remember reading Kingsley Amis. Sometimes he seemed like a terrible misogynist, but those were the times and English men do it very wittily at least.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Oh, incredibly misogynist! But not all the time -- and it grew out of his horror of dependence on women, and as time went by, his overarching misanthropy, too.

Todd Mason said...

Though by the relatively late A GIRL OF THIRTY he could particularly pick on the women (koff "girls") when he chose to.

But a consistently interesting writer.

Jack C. Young said...

This type of sarcasm is as old as Juvenal. Dorothy Parker was another incredibly accomplished port with a rapier (or is that a dagger) like wit.
Poets seem able to undercut our sometimes foolish notions, sometimes at the cost of revealing their own. Still they have much to tell us ifwe are willing to listen.
Very insightful post today.

C. Margery Kempe said...

@Jack -- yes! Parker is a big fave of mine as well, though she as often turned her rapier on herself, more's the pity. On Facebook, a number of friends have been passing along a link to a blog site with lists of writers' insults about other writers.

@Todd -- definitely. The first thing I read after Lucky Jim was One Fat Englishman (the picture that inspired that title is in the book too...) which was a bit of a disappointment because the main character is so loathsome -- on purpose, but I find it harder to enjoy a book where that's the case. I can enjoy a character being evil -- why not have those vicarious thrills we deny ourselves in real life? -- but they have to be compelling in some way, too.

Todd Mason said...

Yes, it's not a great (nor a bad) list of bad cess examples from one writer to another, but worth a look--both Bill Crider and Ed Gorman have posted it on their blogs, too..

John Irving's condemnation of Tom Wolfe is perhaps the most telling example of a pot calling the kettle a kitchen implement.

I never finished ENGLISHMAN nor GIRL, after a couple of tries, though I usually don't worry too much about the evil of the character so much as the bile of the writer and how well applied...let's put it this way: I certainly got farther with the two Amises just cited than I did with (unfair comparison given their lesser talent) several works of Ayn Rand, Heinlein, Tom Wolfe and John irving...

C. Margery Kempe said...

LOL -- humour counts for a LOT with me. If a writer makes me laugh I'll stick with them far longer than one who doesn't when facing a less than stellar book.

Humour and horror: both hard to do at the novel length. But so worth it when they do work.