- Kingsley Amis: Modern Novelist
Dale Salwak has skillfully and intelligently managed difficult terrain in his biographical treatment of Kingsley Amis. Salwak previously edited and collected biographical and critical essays on Amis. Now, with interviews with friends and associates, as well as knowledge of all the controversies over Amis as novelist and public figure, Salwak has attempted a comprehensive, interlocking view of the man and his art. He also interviewed Amis six times and corresponded with him frequently between 1973 and 1990.
Salwak's dedication to the study of a writer so contentious might easily have led to the role of sycophant, or the alternate role of biographer who knows the subject better than the subject knows himself. Salwak never falls into either simplicity; he never sensationalizes or intrudes with his own political, social, or moral commitments as he tries to reconstruct Amis's constant and shifting perspectives. Amis has, at various times, been charged with cultural guerrilla warfare, the role of rampant reactionary, opportunism, and misogyny. Salwak is able legitimately to complicate Amis's concerns and perspectives, to offer cogent defenses from Amis's point of view. At the same time, Salwak recognizes what the charges might or might not reveal about the fiction.
Salwak's first three chapters, dealing with Amis's life before he began to publish fiction in 1954, are most explicitly biographical. Never relying on [End Page 402] a social simplicity like lower-middle class Londoner or a psychological one like cosseted only child, Salwak details Amis's rebellion from and internalization of his father, which led to the author's development of a set of moral judgments, the ethics of hard work and common decency through which Amis observes the world. Later chapters follow the chronology of Amis's fiction, adding biographical material to sustain or complicate the perspectives of the fiction. Salwak uses chapter titles to chart the changes in Amis's perspective from "A Comic World (1954-58)" through disillusionment, in which what had been folly and hypocrisy becomes actively evil in "A Nightmare World (1969-74)," to the complicated isolation and sense of loss in "The Perspective of Years (1981-90)."
The framework leaves room for Salwak's accounts of social and literary contexts relevant to Amis's art. He supplies a great deal of context, although I find a few omissions. For example, Salwak never mentions Amis's close friend, Cecil Day Lewis, as Nicholas Blake the author of 1930s detective fiction far from "the cosy world" that restores optimism and order that Salwak claims represents the genre at that time. Day Lewis died, nursed finally at Amis's house, the year before Amis's The Riverside Villa Murders, his one detective novel, was published. Salwak sometimes inflates Amis's moral stance to a transcendent "moral vision," adding an earnestness Amis's prose itself might puncture. This is an insoluble problem for almost anyone who writes with deserved seriousness about Amis. The line between serious and earnest wavers and attenuates, as it would in dealing with any mimic who, like Amis (as Salwak demonstrates), writes for both a literary audience and a common reader simultaneously. Lapses into earnestness in no way undercut informed, well-focused and discerning biographical criticism.