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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

HOW de­voted are you to the lives of your favourite writ­ers? I am re­ally very de­voted to them, and the rea­son is only partly in­tel­lec­tual. The high­fa­lutin’ rea­son for read­ing lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy is to see what light the life casts on the work. But in truth the plea­sure is much more per­sonal and in­ti­mate than that.

When you have read many nov­els by a sin­gle au­thor, that au­thor has to some ex­tent be­come your friend. They have been in con­ver­sa­tion with you, some­times for many years, and you feel you know some­thing of their minds. Some­times this even hap­pens to a news­pa­per colum­nist. Some­one has paid you the com­pli­ment of read­ing you se­ri­ously and knows some­thing of the way you think, what you’ve done, who you are.

Over Christ­mas I read Zachary Leader’s bi­og­ra­phy of Kings­ley Amis. This bulging tome — a colos­sal 1000 pages, al­beit with plenty of end notes — was pub­lished four or five years ago and when I saw it in a sec­ond­hand book store I couldn’t re­sist it. It’s a bril­liant bi­og­ra­phy. With the ex­cep­tion only of two pas­sages de­tail­ing some of Amis’s tem­po­rary ac­quain­tances made on vis­its to the US, I cher­ished ev­ery sin­gle sen­tence.

I have never been one for speed read­ing. You can cheat with cer­tain types of non­fic­tion books. You can get the main ideas by read­ing the first chap­ter, the lead para­graphs of the other chap­ters and check­ing some key ref­er­ences in the in­dex. But if a novel, or a bi­og­ra­phy, is worth read­ing at all, then you need to read ev­ery word and ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery sen­tence. That meant I spent 30 or 40 hours learn­ing about Amis’s life. In re­al­ity, that was too much.

This is a hard cal­cu­la­tion to make. I have read mil­lions of Amis’s words. As a young man I read his nov­els one af­ter the other. The best, and fun­ni­est, was his first, Lucky Jim. Al­most as funny was a much later book, Stan­ley and the Women, although even I find some of its pol­i­tics wickedly re­ac­tionary. The Old Devils, for which Amis won the Booker Prize, was prob­a­bly the ripest, most com­plete of his works. Those three nov­els I have been happy to re-read from time to time.

Read­ing a novel a sec­ond time is a sure sign of the com­fort and en­joy­ment you de­rive from the novelist’s com­pany. You get the same kind of plea­sure from a wellex­e­cuted lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy, which is in­evitably full of the sub­ject’s voice more than the bi­og­ra­pher’s. Nonethe­less, my de­vo­tion to Amis would have ac­corded more with a 300-page, than a 1000-page, bi­og­ra­phy.

I don’t think Amis was truly a great novelist: I would put him right at the top of the sec­ond di­vi­sion. He was ter­ri­bly in­con­sis­tent. The Anti-death League was rub­bish. One Fat English­man was funny in parts but wholly failed to gain any sym­pa­thy, cer­tainly from me, for any of its char­ac­ters. The River­side Vil­las Mur­der was a good, straight­for­ward mix­ture of de­tec­tive story, pe­riod so­cial re­al­ism, and ado­les­cent un­cer­tainty, but it was pretty mod­est. The best of Amis was bril­liant, the worst not wholly un­read­able and there was a lot in the mid­dle.

A plea­sure of lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy is how it il­lu­mi­nates the tech­niques of good writ­ers. Like most of these, Amis did a cer­tain amount of writ­ing: in the morn­ing, ev­ery day, no mat­ter how hun­gover he was. Sec­ond, he made a prodi­gious for­mal study of lit­er­a­ture, through two shots at his final year at school, a first at Ox­ford, an­other de­gree in lit­er­a­ture straight af­ter that, an aca­demic ap­point­ment at a Welsh univer­sity and later at a Cam­bridge col­lege, and through edit­ing var­i­ous an­tholo­gies.

A per­son­al­ity quirk he ex­plored in his nov­els was his life-long mar­tyr­dom to neu­roses and irrational fears, so that even as a young man he had girl­friends walk him home be­cause he was afraid of the dark. Then there was the booze.

Most fas­ci­nat­ing is Amis’s prose style. He had a patho­log­i­cal ha­tred of flow­ery prose. His style re­flected his ethos — col­lo­quial, blokeish, de­motic, but also gram­mat­i­cally per­fect, struc­turally strong, sinewy. As he got older he tended to ex­plain the nu­ances in ever more de­tail, still in his col­lo­quial, blokeish voice, so that he be­came a kind of Henry James ren­dered in the voice of Sergeant Bob Cryer of The Bill.

Amis led a life of ded­i­cated and frus­trated he­do­nism. His sybaritic ap­proach was dam­ag­ing and self-de­feat­ing. His self-in­dul­gence was matched, though, by self-re­proach, his bit­ter per­sonal dis­putes mixed with sus­tained ef­forts of gen­eros­ity. A con­sci­en­tious athe­ist, he wrote that ‘‘ hu­man be­ings with­out faith are the poorer for it in ev­ery part of their lives’’. Sim­ple at the sur­face, in­fin­itely com­plex be­neath, and hugely en­ter­tain­ing, Amis, or at least his readers, nonethe­less de­served a shorter bi­og­ra­phy.

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