How to build a Kingsley Amis sentence

I find it mind boggling that the blurbs on the Penguin paperbacks routinely describe Amis as the premier serious novelist in Britain (in the late 1980s, early 1990s). Surely not for the originality of his subject matter (middle-aged white people having dinner parties in north London). Nor for his attitude (a perceptive but consistently grumpy old so-and-so). And emphatically not for his style, which is one of the weirdest I know. It seems normal at first, and many paragraphs start perfectly normally, but then regularly twist and contort themselves into his peculiar attitude and phraseology. Having read nearly all his novels, I think I have a good feel for what constitutes the Kingsley Amis style, a good understanding of How To Build A Kingsley Amis Sentence.

You start by taking an event, the simpler the better:

‘He had been waiting a long time’.

Well, Amis’s sentences are generally long, sometimes very long, so let’s make the verb into a noun phrase:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting a long time…’

Too repetitive; let’s use one of Amis’s favourite words to describe an element of a performance or routine, that word being ‘bit’:

‘He had been waiting a long time and the waiting bit…’

Too clear, too declarative and certain; need to add in Amis’s characteristic uncertainty, the wobbling or wavering which is a crucial ingredient of his style:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit…’

Add a tag, one of those little sentence fillers which also water down the meaning and make it seem somehow doubtful:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause…’

Well it needs an ending now, so let’s give the waiting man an irritated look:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of Richard’s expression of irritation…’

‘Expression of irritation’ is a little straightforward, isn’t it? A little obvious. We must add style, darlings i.e. some periphrasis, some circumlocution, to make it seem as if the thing – the event, person, object or expression – is being observed by a knowing and long-winded old buffer:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known was Richard’s expression of irritation…’

I think we can still pad that out a bit:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation…’

Except that we mustn’t forget the other prime ingredient of an Amis sentence – already knocked about by a the insertion of a ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’, and the insertion of at least one colloquial tag – ‘sort of’, ‘in a way’, ‘after all’, ‘in the end’, that kind of thing – that prime ingredient being the little word ‘OR’, which comes in so handy to add another interpretation, or two, or three, to absolutely anything. Thus:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation.’

And then, the cherry on the cake, the sprig of garnish which brings the whole thing to perfection – the follow-up sentence which undermines everything you’ve just said:

‘He had been waiting a long time and maybe it was the waiting bit that, after all, was the cause of what those not unfamiliar with him would have known to be almost Richard’s most characteristic expression of irritation, or pique, or exasperation. Or something.’

Serve piping hot, accompanied by several hundred others of the same vintage.

Examples of the real thing

All these quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition of Amis’s 1992 novel, The Russian Girl. 

Reflecting on Anna Danilova’s poetry, Richard thinks:

Without any abatement of its horribleness in memory it was more easily borne there, becoming at that distance the almost funny phenomenon it very much was not when seen from closer. (p.103)

Later he contemplates what will happen if his wife meets his mistress.

More important, when and if the dread confrontation took place, then if he was present, which he unquestionably would have to be, whatever he said or did or failed to do or say, Cordelia would only have to see him looking or not looking at Anna and something awful but unforeseeable, but still awful and uncontrollable, would happen and oh God. (p.104)

Here’s an example of taking a perfectly everyday phrase and turning it into the subject of the sentence (there must be technical term for this in linguistics):

For the rest of that day and for the whole of the next, Richard saw nothing of his wife.

This is innocuous enough. But with Amis, the innocuous is only there to lull you into a false sense of normality. The next sentence is:

None of the individual bits of seeing nothing of her meant anything much in itself.

The Amis touch! ‘Saw nothing’ is turned into a noun phrase – ‘seeing nothing of her’ – which can then be picked apart and played with: first it turns out to have ‘bits’ [as previously mentioned, this is a favourite Amis word and concept] implying more complexity than is maybe justified; there’s an accidental but handy chime between ‘None’ and ‘nothing’, which introduces a momentary flicker of confusion, and there’s a characteristic dismissive ‘hedging’ phrase – ‘anything much’. From being clear and declarative, the paragraph has quickly become blurry, unfocused, dismissive, vague and woolly.

Afterwards Richard could not remember telling the chauffeur he could or must go, though obviously something of the kind must have occurred, nor was he at all sure where he had got the idea of telling him that, though he felt he knew he would never have done so without some sign coming or not coming from Anna. (p.137)

Is this the fine English style which the reviewers and blurb writers praise so highly?

I can’t believe so. But it is a striking and peculiar achievement, so consistently, over so many hundreds of pages, to keep cooking up from such plain English ingredients so many bewilderingly contorted, broken-backed, baffling and sometimes very funny sentences. Somewhere in Amis’s novels are plots and characters but, for me, their adventures are overshadowed and often obscured by the continual blind-siding of his convoluted and perplexing periods.

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

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