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The Life of Kingsley Amis

The Life of Kingsley Amis

by Zachary Leader

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Kingsley Amis was not only the finest comic novelist of his generation, but also a dominant figure in post–World War II British writing as a novelist, poet, critic, and polemicist. Zachary Leader’s definitive, authorized biography conjures in vivid detail the life of one of the most controversial figures of twentieth-century literature, renowned for his


Kingsley Amis was not only the finest comic novelist of his generation, but also a dominant figure in post–World War II British writing as a novelist, poet, critic, and polemicist. Zachary Leader’s definitive, authorized biography conjures in vivid detail the life of one of the most controversial figures of twentieth-century literature, renowned for his blistering intelligence, savage wit, and belligerent fierceness of opinion. 

In The Life of Kingsley Amis, Leader, the acclaimed editor of The Letters of Kingsley Amis, draws not only on published and unpublished works and correspondence, but also on interviews with a wide range of Amis’s friends, relatives, fellow writers, students, and colleagues, many of whom have never spoken publicly before. The result is a compulsively readable account of Amis’s childhood, school days, and life as a student at Oxford, teacher, critic, political and cultural commentator, professional author, husband, father, and lover. Neither evading nor sensationalizing the more salacious aspects of Amis’s life, Leader explores the writer’s phobias, self-doubts, and ambitions; the controversies in which he was embroiled; and the role that drink played in a life bedeviled by erotic entanglements, domestic turbulence, and personal disaster. 

Here is the biography that its subject deserves. Like Amis himself, it is incisive and unsentimental, deeply appreciative of aesthetic achievement, and a great source of amusing anecdotes. Dazzling for its thoroughness, psychological acuity, and elegant style, The Life of Kingsley Amis is exemplary: literary biography at its very best.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Leader delivers a scrupulously researched and unfailingly entertaining account of the life of one of postwar Britain's funniest and most famous writers. Amis (1922–1995) asserted that many writers lead dull lives, but his was especially high-spirited, particularly once he left his restrictive parents for Oxford and beyond. Known first as a poet, Amis began an academic career in Wales at University College of Swansea after marrying Hilary Bardwell (mother of his three children, including contemporary British writer Martin Amis), but his springboard to literary celebrity was the 1954 publication of the comic classic Lucky Jim. Leader (editor, 2001's The Letters of Kingsley Amis) combines exhaustive biographical detail with trenchant literary analysis for a complex, remarkable portrait of Amis and his work: his prodigious output (more than 40 books, including novels, poetry, anthologies and nonfiction), his notorious womanizing and boozing as well as his friendships, including his central relationship (illuminated by lively excerpts of correspondence) with poet Philip Larkin. This massive, splendid biography bears out Leader's contention that Amis was "a compelling person, a man of alarming appetites and energies, the funniest man most people had ever met, or the cleverest, or the rudest." 24 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

Leader's (English, Univ. of Roehampton, U.K.; editor, The Letters of Kingsley Amis) biography of novelist, poet, essayist, and journalist Kingsley Amis (1922-95) was authorized by the subject's son, Martin Amis, an acclaimed novelist in his own right. It considerably expands on Eric Jacobs's Kingsley Amis(1995), which was authorized by the writer himself. Leader examines chronologically the life and works of this major British novelist, emphasizing how Amis incorporated episodes from his life and aspects of his family and friends' personalities into his writing. Amis lived his life with gusto, and Leader details the author's excesses in regard to alcohol and sex. The biographer shows his appreciation of the writer's achievements and outsized personality, but he does not hesitate to show Amis's less admirable traits, reflected in the racist and sexist quotes he enunciated throughout his life (though these may have been part of the curmudgeon persona Amis assumed before friends and strangers). Its long length may deter casual readers, but this is an essential biography for Amis admirers. For larger academic and public libraries. (Photographs, notes, bibliography, and index not seen.)
—Morris Hounion

Kirkus Reviews
Latest of several biographies of the British comic novelist, written by the editor of his letters and sanctioned by his son, the novelist Martin Amis. This capacious, cluttered life of big-living Kingsley Amis (1922-95) emphasizes the craftsmanship of his fiction and the importance of his frequently overlooked poetry. Leader (English Literature/Roehampton Univ., London) aims to show "what it was like to meet Amis and to be him." The facts don't differ from those documented by Eric Jacobs in Kingsley Amis (1995) and Richard Bradford in Lucky Him (2001). Amis's father was an office worker; the family lived in a drab London suburb. Kingsley attended City of London School and in 1940 went up to Oxford, where he formed seminal friendships with Philip Larkin and "The Seven," who all loved jazz and wrote poetry influenced by Auden. He served in the Royal Signals Corps, then returned to Oxford and took up with art student Hilary Bardwell. Hilly got pregnant, and they got married in 1948, shortly after Amis's first book of poetry, Bright November, appeared. A legacy from Hilly's mother allowed the growing family to live comfortably while Kingsley lectured in English at University College of Swansea. Aided by Larkin's critical suggestions, Lucky Jim emerged in 1954 and made Amis's reputation. That Uncertain Feeling, I Like It Here, Take a Girl Like You and other succeeding novels increased his fame and added him to the ranks of the Angry Young Men, a label he repudiated. He'd always been an inveterate drinker and philanderer, but his more serious affair with Jane Howard prompted Hilly to break up the marriage in 1963. (Leader takes care to show Amis's tenderness toward his children.) Moving fromdocumentary realism into such genre efforts as Colonel Sun and The Green Man, the increasingly dissolute and aggressively self-interested author never lost his literary powers; The Old Devils won the Booker in 1986. A fastidious effort to portray the mighty Kingsley in his full glory.
From the Publisher

“Zachary Leader … did his work very well, combining diligent scholarship with an attractively unflinching response to ‘old devilry’… The Life of Kingsley Amis is very long, very thorough and very straight-talking.” —Andrew Motion, The Guardian

“The overriding impression left by Zachary Leader’s marvelous new biography is that of a comic talent best enjoyed in aphoristic vein, or when seeking to annoy, and of a curmudgeon who could be both endearing and appalling… It’s a pleasure to read, and the accumulation of detail gives a real sense of a life being led.” —Jeremy Lewis, The Independent

“Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis is a better biography than many bigger writers have had: detailed, sympathetic, unsparing without being unkind.” —Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.37(w) x 9.56(h) x 2.02(d)

Meet the Author

Zachary Leader is a professor of English literature at Roehampton University in London. Among his books are studies of Romantic poetry and modern British fiction. Leader edited The Letters of Kingsley Amis.

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