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Kingsley Amis | Biography

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Early Life

Kingsley Amis was born April 16, 1922. He was the only child of a clerk at Colman's Mustard and a housewife. The family lived in Clapham, a lower-middle-class suburb of London. From childhood, Amis loved to make people laugh. An avid reader, he not only absorbed the literary lessons of English writers Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare but he also loved science fiction, adventure stories, and satire. Amis attended Oxford University with the aim of becoming a poet. At Oxford, he met future British poet laureate Philip Larkin, who became Amis's lifelong best friend. However, World War II (1939–45) interrupted Amis's Oxford years, and he left school to serve in the Royal Signal Corp in Normandy, Belgium, and Germany. After the war he returned to Oxford to finish his degree. During this time he met Hilary Bardwell, known as Hilly. The couple married in 1946.

Amis went on to teach at University College of Wales, Swansea, but he was restless in both his academic and home life. He wrote Lucky Jim, his first novel, after a visit to Larkin at University College, Leicester. Larkin was not as successful a ladies' man as Amis—who had a famously roving eye even early in his marriage—and he was unhappier in general. Still, the writers famously relished their misery, describing it at hilarious length in letters to each other. Lucky Jim's antihero bears a strong resemblance to Larkin during this period.

From Angry Young Man to Fame and Fortune

Upon its publication in 1954, Lucky Jim made Amis a star, winning fans with its mixture of disenchantment and satirical humor. It would remain his most famous work. Not long after this success, he quit teaching for a time and moved with his family to London. His second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, was published in 1955 and has a similarly disgruntled protagonist. In 1958 he published I Like It Here, a novel inspired by a trip to Portugal, and in 1963 came the novel One Fat Englishman based on Amis's experiences teaching in the United States.

The Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens described Amis's early career in an article for the Atlantic, noting Amis belonged to a group of post–World War II writers known as the Angry Young Men. This group was "bored by the despair of the Forties, not much interested in suffering, and extremely impatient of poetic sensibility." Zachary Leader, American author of The Life of Kingsley Amis (2006), told London's Telegraph newspaper that after Lucky Jim, "Amis was a dominant figure in the writing of his age" and "the most prominent literary figure among political, cultural and social polemicists"—those who attack one another with the written word. His work appealed to highbrow and middlebrow readers alike.

In 1965, after nearly 20 years of marriage and three children—including Martin Amis, who would go on to his own brilliant career as a novelist—Kingsley and Hilary Amis divorced. That same year he married Elizabeth Jane Howard, herself an acclaimed novelist. They divorced in 1983. Three years later—when many considered him well past his literary prime—Amis published the novel The Old Devils, which would go on to win the Man Booker Prize. The novel explores a group of couples in their "golden years." Martin Amis has said the novel is his father's masterpiece.

Throughout his life, Amis was famous for his conversational wit, his spot-on imitations, and a variety of vices. He was a prodigious smoker and drinker, and he served as "drink correspondent" for Penthouse Magazine in the 1970s. He also remained, in the words of his son, Martin, "a heroic adulterer."

A liberal in his early years, Amis became considerably more conservative—both politically and socially—over time. He took a right-wing stance on issues ranging from the Vietnam War (1955–75) to women's equality. The British writer Julian Barnes, one of Amis's dear friends, explained, "The price you had to pay for his company got higher" over time, as Amis set off on diatribes about everyone from Jews to women to homosexuals. In later years he was generously referred to as a curmudgeon.

Later Life and Death

In 1990 Amis received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth and became Sir Kingsley Amis. His children arranged for him to move into a house in Hampstead, London, with his ex-wife Hilary and her new husband.

Amis died on October 22, 1995, at age 73. His official cause of death was a stroke, but his copious smoking and drinking also may have played a role in his failing health. He left behind an imposing literary legacy including more than 40 books: 20 novels, numerous poetry collections, and several essay collections.

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