three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Life of Kingsley AmisKingsley Amis (1922–1995) "was not only the finest British comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century but a dominant force in the writing of the age." So asserts Zachary Leader in his biography of the notorious British writer (and father of very bankable novelist Martin). The author’s meteoric rise began with the academic satire Lucky Jim (1954), and he was prolific up until his death in 1995. Still, attention to Amis’s impressive body of work often took a back seat to ubiquitous tales of sexual escapades, heroic bouts of drinking, and an extraordinary social life that cemented his reputation as a larger-than-life figure. In clinical detail, Leader examines Amis the bon vivant and Amis the writer. Often, he points out, the two were inseparable.
Pantheon. 1008 pages. $39.95. ISBN: 0375424989

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] masterly biography. … In a judicious and imaginative way, the biographer moves between Amis the man’s insatiable appetite for sex, drink and good jokes, and the novels that transform those lively appetites into fictional representations." William Pritchard

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Do not be put off by the sheer bulk of Zachary Leader’s massive new biography. … [T]he great virtue of Leader’s biography of Amis is that you do not have to share his high opinion of the subject to benefit from the book’s prodigious research and the wealth of information so well presented." Martin Rubin

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Extremely well told, The Life of Kingsley Amis will meet the expectations and probably exceed the ambitions of most readers. … Detail and diversion are especially distracting when you want to get to more of the funny, clever and rude parts." John Barron

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Leader edited Amis’s Letters (2000), a huge volume throughout which Amis unburdens himself of all sorts of prejudices (often about the folly of modern literature, including that of his son, Martin), complaints, anecdotes and comic commentary. … Respectful of Amis and of all who became part of the story through their association with him, Mr. Leader fulfills his mission: honestly telling the history that explains the books." Jack L. B. Gohn

Washington Post 1.5 of 5 Stars
"All these recitals of Amis’s two marriages and compulsive womanizing, his astonishing drinking, his gregariousness and selfishness, his successes and occasional failures, his incredible productivity—all this stuff doesn’t give us nearly as much of Amis as Leader obviously imagines. The inner man is as much a mystery at the end of this slog as he was at the beginning; the accumulation of meaningless detail … is a poor substitute for deeply informed, genuinely sympathetic speculation." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Zachary Leader determined to have the final word on the life and work of one of Britain’s most interesting and controversial literary figures, and his earlier edition of Kingsley Amis’s correspondence gives him ample credentials. Despite the book’s imposing heft, The Life of Kingsley Amis can be engaging and readable. Fans of Amis will appreciate Leader’s comprehensive coverage, though some lengthy literary discussions can be heavy sledding. Jonathan Yardley points out that Eric Jacobs published a similar (albeit much briefer) book shortly after Amis’s death, and he wonders if Leader’s obsessive attention to detail somehow undermines the very goal of literary biography: to provide insight into a life that leads, ultimately, to a better understanding of a writer’s work.