Phyllis Richardson on Amis at the Garrick Club & the Huntington
[excerpted from the Los Angeles Times Book Review, 4 June 2000]
I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation to attend a party at the Garrick club, near Covent Garden in London; surprised because the Garrick, founded in 1831 by "a group of literary gentlemen," is renowned for its refusal to allow women members and, as an American woman, I have to confess to feeling a certain amount of frisson at being admitted into the sanctuary of that curious anachronism, the Upper Class British Male club.
The event was the launch party for the publication of the letters of the late Sir Kingsley Amis, and I found myself in good company, among such formidable women as Lady Kilmarnock and the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, Kingsley's first and second wives, respectively, as well as a number of fairly reputable male writers. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and William Boyd all turned up in jacket and tie (required at the Garrick) to toast the efforts of Professor Zachary Leader in bringing the epistolary collection of one of England's most influential postwar novelists into print.
A professor of English at the University of Surrey Roehampton, England, Leader is an American who has lived and taught in the United Kingdom for the last 30 years (and still no trace of a British accent). . . .
As we sipped white wine in the Morning Room, talk was not only of this achievement but of another resounding success: Leader's organization of the recent conference on the British novel which was held not in the fold of Kingsley's favorite dimly lit club but in the airy halls of the Huntington Library in Pasadena. Like many students of British literature, Leader was compelled during his own research to take up residence near the Huntington to complete his study of the Amis papers, for the Huntington has in its collections not only the 600-year-old Ellesmere Chaucer and several priceless editions of Shakespeare but also the letters and, as of three years ago, the library of Kingsley Amis. . . .
So it was no accident that "The Novel in Britain, 1950-2000" took place in Pasadena and that some of the biggest names in British fiction and criticism were there to discuss the achievements and the fate of the genre. What was somewhat unusual for this scholarly conference, according to Robert Ritchie, director of research at the Huntington, was the participation of the authors themselves. Martin Amis, McEwan and Hilary Mantel all read from works in progress. Mantel's reading was dubbed "electrifying" by one panelist; her work, "Fludd: A Novel," is just now being published in the United States by Henry Holt to excellent reviews.
Talks ranged from Christopher Hitchens' "Reactionary Humor" and Christopher Ricks' "The Shakespeare Inheritance" to the more modern theme of "Lad Lit," as discussed by Elaine Showalter. John Sutherland, professor of English at Caltech and University College London, and Lindsay Duguid, fiction editor of the (London) Times Literary Supplement, spoke on the current British fiction market. As Duguid pointed out, the range of topics has to do with the varied nature of the British novel itself. "There is no consensus about it, unlike with the American novel. I'm quite patriotic about it, that it comes from a small place and does not attempt to encompass the world and yet has an appeal to people on the other side of the world."
It was probably no surprise that a much different point of view and some of the most pot-stirring comments came from Kingsley's son, whose memoir, Experience, was published in the U.K. within a few weeks of the 1,200-page volume of his father's correspondence. No stranger to controversy, Amis has commented that as a writer in the current multicultural, sexually revolutionized, globalized climate, "The project is to become an American novelist." He has not, of course, but he continued the theme to general amusement by declaring "the dying out of the Jewish American novel" as written by the likes of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and seeing for himself a career opportunity in the void. . . .