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Sir Kingsley Amis Biography

(1922–95), Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling, I Like It Here, Take a Girl Like You

British novelist and poet, born in South London, educated at the City of London School and St John's College, Oxford. He was the father of Martin Amis. Between 1949 and 1963 he taught at the University College of Swansea, Princeton University, and Peterhouse, Cambridge. Amis won immediate fame with his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954); in its portrayal of the ‘Angry Young Man’, Jim Dixon, a lecturer in a provincial university, the novel displayed an irreverence towards the establishment and a satirical humour which were to characterize his work as a whole. That Uncertain Feeling (1955), also with a university setting, confirmed Amis as an iconoclast whose dislike of all forms of dogma allied him as much with satirists on the Left as on the Right. Other novels of the period include I Like It Here (1958), set in Portugal; Take a Girl Like You (1960), which dealt with the relationship between Jenny Bunn, one of his more sympathetic female characters, and her philandering suitor Patrick Standish, to which he wrote a sequel (Difficulties with Girls, 1988); One Fat Englishman (1963), about an English academic on sabbatical in America; and I Want It Now (1968), which satirizes the heartless amorality of the 1960s, a theme also explored in Girl, 20 (1971) which deals with a middle-aged man's infatuation with a much younger woman.

Throughout his career, Amis interspersed his comic novels of manners with exercises in a wide variety of fictional genres. The Anti-Death League (1966) incorporated metaphysical speculation about the existence of God into a conventional spy story; The Green Man (1969) is a ghost story; The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) a murder mystery; Russian Hide and Seek (1980) an offbeat thriller about the Cold War. Perhaps his most ambitious experiment is The Alteration (1976), a dystopian fantasy describing Europe as it might have been if the Reformation had not taken place. Other works of fiction include the blackly comic Ending Up (1974), which casts a cold eye on the indignities of ageing and death; Jake's Thing (1978), which treats the central character's impotence as a subject for farce; and Stanley and the Women (1984), which displays a certain ambivalence towards its hero's misogynistic attitudes. Altogether darker in mood than his earlier work is The Old Devils (1986; Booker Prize); set in an imaginary town in South Wales, the novel concerns the relationships between a group of friends who have known each other since their college days in the 1950s, and casts a sardonic eye on a whole range of topics: the problems of ageing, the Welsh character, artistic integrity, alcoholism, and death. The Folks That Live on the Hill (1990), set in London, exhibits the hostility towards aspects of life—in particular, changes in sexual mores—and the preoccupation with the decline of Britain which is characteristic of his later novels. The pessimistic and reactionary tone of the work is alleviated, as in most of his novels, by the brilliance of his comic invective. In The Russian Girl (1992) Amis returns to the theme of artistic integrity which is contrasted with personal sincerity in its portrayal of the relationship between Richard Vaisey, a married lecturer, and Anna Danilova, the beautiful Russian girl with whom he falls in love. Other less attractive motifs, such as the author's tendency to portray women as selfish and manipulative, also recur. You Can't Do Both (1994) attempts to show, in its account of its central character's progression from childhood to disillusioned adulthood, the way that people are shaped by their upbringing. The Biographer's Moustache (1995) is a comic work about a snobbish mediocre novelist, and his pretentious chums, who becomes the subject of a biography by a second-rate journalist with a moustache.

Although renowned for his fiction, which also includes several volumes of short stories (including Mrs Barrett's Secret, 1993, and Collected Short Stories, 1980), Amis was also a poet of considerable repute. His early collections, Bright November (1947) and A Frame of Mind (1953), indicated his skill in the manipulation of traditional forms and established the dry individuality of tone characteristic of A Case of Samples (1956). The latter collection appeared in the same year as Robert Conquest's New Lines anthology, in which Amis was represented; the combination of colloquial directness and a scrupulously sceptical intelligence in much of his work of the time identified him firmly as a poet of the Movement. Later volumes include A Look Around the Estate (1967) and Collected Poems: 1944–1979 (1980); he also edited The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978) and The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse (1988). Amongst other nonfiction works are a study of Rudyard Kipling (1975), New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960); The James Bond Dossier (1965); and The Golden Age of Science Fiction (1981). His Memoirs (1991), a collection of autobiographical essays, are notable for their frankness concerning the author's friends and enemies. Amis was formerly married to Elizabeth Jane Howard. He was awarded the CBE in 1981 and was knighted in 1990.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Agha Shahid Ali Biography to Ardoch Perth and Kinross