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.