Kingsley Amis

[An obituary by CP of the writer, Kingsley Amis, first published in David Langford’s monthly newszine, Ansible. This article may be downloaded, but may not be uploaded or printed elsewhere.]

I discovered Kingsley Amis’s work through New Maps of Hell, a book about science fiction which in 1962 was a revelation to me and (as it turned out) to many other people too. In particular, it had a great impact on the book’s own British publisher, Gollancz. Hilary Rubinstein, then editor at Gollancz, realized how few of the books Amis mentioned were available in the UK, and set about acquiring and publishing them. This was the beginning of what was for years unquestionably the most influential sf list in Britain.

New Maps of Hell is still one of the greatest of all books on the subject, but it is of course now dated. Many years later, when I knew Kingsley, I asked him if he had ever thought about writing a revised version, for instance to discuss Ballard, who is not even mentioned in passing in the original, or the New Wave movement of the 1960s, or anything else since. Characteristically, Amis launched into an extremely amusing tirade against bloody secondrate American writers, who had read his book and, sensing a good thing, had moved in and ruined everything. Anyway, he said, he didn’t want to have to read all that stuff to catch up, only to see it start slipping out of date again.

Amis’s own attempts at writing sf are not his best work, although The Alteration is a good genre novel (and nods gratefully to Keith Roberts and Harry Harrison, whose own alternate- worlds novels had impressed him). Amis often experimented with genre fiction, and his other sf novel, not as good, was Russian Hide and Seek. He also wrote Colonel Sun (a James Bond novel), The Riverside Villas Mystery (a murder mystery), and The Green Man (a superb book: a modern ghost story with a truly frightening climax). What he excelled at, though, were his social comedies.

Lucky Jim was the first of these, the novel which made him famous, and the one sensed by people who never really liked Amis to be possibly his best. It was a long way from this. His writing got better as time went by, and as he grew older, more right-wing, more intemperate, more politically incorrect, his comedies became increasingly funny and ideologically unsound. My own favourites are One Fat Englishman, Girl 20, Take a Girl Like You, Jake’s Thing and The Old Devils, but I can also say that I never read an Amis book I didn’t enjoy for one reason or another. His essays are required reading, in my view, even the slightest of them. One of the best, “Sod the Public: a Consumer’s Guide”, is quintessential Amis.

I was not a close personal friend, but I treasure my memories of my meetings with him. He was the best of company: a wonderful mimic, a storyteller, a boozer, a sharp-eyed observer. Men loved his company, but so too did a lot of women — he was not a sexist, as I’ve heard him described since his death, but a misogynist, an altogether trickier proposition for feminists to deal with. He went on about things, but never tediously, and was sharpest of all about people who went on about things too long. I thought of him as our best contemporary writer, and I was distressed when I heard he had died.

Currently available books by Kingsley Amis include all those highlighted above, and a book he worked on most of his life but which wasn’t published until after his death, The King’s English. Intriguingly, an untitled new novel from Amis is expected in 2004.