Amis (Pronounced “Ames”) Centenary

The Daily Telegraph has posted an article by Jake Kerridge marking the centenary of Kingsley Amis. This will occur later this month. The article is entitled “Why misogynist Kingsley Amis is too good to cancel” and opens with this:

In Jonathan Coe’s recent novel Mr Wilder and Me, a film-maker mocks an ageing, out-of-touch colleague for wanting to adapt one ofĀ Kingsley Amis’sĀ novels. Amis is dismissed as “someone nobody ever talked about any more and … now so out of fashionĀ that you might as well try to get an adaptation of the Yellow Pages onto the screen.”

Is it only the ageing and out-of-touch who will be raising a glass to Amis on his centenary on April 16? Actually, no. His reputation seems to be holding up better than all but a couple of the British novelistsĀ of his generation; I don’t think he’s read much less than Doris Lessing or Muriel Spark, and certainly more than Iris Murdoch and Anthony Burgess. And with the publication this week of his collected poems and essays by Penguin Modern Classics, we now have far more of his books in print than at any time since his death in 1995.

But it is true he gives the impression of having nosedived further than his contemporaries, simply because he was once such a household name. Of all the novelists to have won the Booker Prize, Amis was the one best-known to the general public (excepting, for very different reasons, Salman Rushdie). He was a bestseller for decades, with the magical gift of appealing equally to “literary” and “non-literary” readers.

After discussing Amis’s views on women and the several adaptations of his novels, Kerridge comes back to this:

It was this deep engagement with language, this feeling for words, that was Amis’s greatest gift, and it reached its zenith in his two dozen novels.

He loathed experimental fiction (he would have been furious, but unsurprised, that the centenary of Ulysses has overshadowed his own), prompting his sonĀ Martin Amis to express puzzlement that “someone…as linguistically aware as my father should never have sought to experiment in prose at all.”

But such is Amis pere’s command of English that his prose carries the same kind of charge and invigorating freshness as that of the great Modernists. He is straightforward but always surprising.

Among the books Kerridge recommends is Penguin’s The Amis Collection: Selected Non-Fiction 1954-1990, originally published in 1990 and now reissued as a Penguin Classic. This contains several reviews by Amis of books by and about Waugh: Decline and Fall, the war trilogy, the Sykes biography, Jacqueline McDonnell’s critical analysis, and the 1981 Brideshead TV adaptation.Ā  He liked Decline and Fall and Sykes but had serious reservations about the others.

Waugh was dismissive of Amis and was known at times to mispronounce and misspell his name as “Ames”.Ā  In another Amis prose collection (What Became of Jane Austen ?, 1970) Amis wrote (p. 147):

…An acquaintance told me how he once asked Waugh: ‘What do you think of Kingsley Amis?’

‘Ames,’ said Waugh

‘Amis, actually.’

‘You mean, Ames.’

‘Look, I happen to know him, and he pronounces it Amis.’

‘The man’s name is Ames,’ said Waugh, so firmly that the discussion of my works was broken off at that point.

See also letter dated 15 July 1955 to Christopher Sykes (Letters, 445). There is no record that Waugh ever reviewed anything by Amis, and Amis says that the two of them never met. But there is much about Amis that reminds one of Waugh, in particular their humor and love of the English language, as well as, not to put too fine a point upon it, more consumption of alcoholic beverages than was good for them.

It should be noted that the newly issued Penguin Classics edition of The Amis Collection available in the UK, according to the pages posted on, seems to have the same selection of reviews of Waugh-related books as does the 1990 version, but it also has more pages, so care should be taken to assure you are getting the content you want. There is also a Kindle version entitled Raising a Smile: Selected Nonfiction. That may also have different content.



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