The Professor of Desire
THE LIFE OF KINGSLEY AMIS.By Zachary Leader.Pantheon.996 pp. $39.95
The chief impression one takes from The Life of Kingsley Amis is of a man who loved pleasure. Indeed, few men have matched Amis’s enormous appetite for enjoyment—of music, laughter, booze, and especially sex—or his capacity for stirring delight in others. With the publication in 1954 of the comic novel Lucky Jim, Amis (1922–95) burst onto the British literary scene as one of the isles’ Angry Young Men. But from the start, his obsession was not rage but desire. “There was no end,” concludes the reluctant academic of that novel’s title, “to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.”
The trouble, as Amis’s next 40 years proved and as Zachary Leader documents in this meticulous yet surprisingly jaunty biography, is that nice things can’t dispel the nasty ones, and the single-minded pursuit of nice things might turn you more than a little nasty yourself. Amis’s cocktail of neuroses was a strong blend—he was afraid of loneliness, madness, and above all death—and to cope he became a first-class heel.