Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters
Fussell (Bad, 1991, etc.) certainly has come a long way from his early work as a conventional literary scholar. This breezy account of Kingsley Amis's career smartly adopts its subject's "no-nonsense, can-the-bullshit tone." More important, Fussell understands the guiding principles that link all of Amis's work as critic, poet, anthologist, restaurant reviewer, and, of course, novelist. Primarily about Amis's nonfiction writing, Fussell's jaunty and anecdotal study establishes Amis as a consummate man of letters, skilled in a variety of genres. Fussell sees beyond the popular notion of Amis as a mean-spirited reactionary, though he's still troubled by Amis's illiberal opinions. A "cultural democrat," Amis values honesty, civility, and lack of pretense. He distrusts egotists and is suspicious of most literary modernism, a predilection he shares with his college chum and compatriot Philip Larkin. Trained as a teacher of literature, Amis grew disillusioned with academic approaches to texts, preferring to take his case directly to common readers through the popular press. In the '80s, he even edited a poetry column for the tabloid Daily Mirror. If Amis seems ungenerous to American literature, says Fussell, it's only for its lack of modesty (in pursuit of "the masterpiece") and its cult of authenticity. Amis's antimodern aesthetic emerges fully in his literary criticism -- celebrations of plain-speaking poets such as Tennyson, Kipling, and Housman -- and in his work as an anthologist. As a poet, Amis, like Larkin, shook off the early Auden influence for a more demotic idiom and a more accessible style. Fussell, who counts Amis an acquaintance of some 40 years, indulges his own anglophilia at times, affecting British slang and extolling what he sees as their superior wit. Despite the oddities in diction and tone, Fussell is the perfect match for his subject -- witty, thoughtful, brief, and, not least of it, accurate.