A few years ago, before I had read a single Kingsley Amis book, I thought I knew what he was about. Such is my arrogance, but also such is the nature of fame, I’d say especially for an author: once they become famous as an individual, many people think they know their work without having read it, and we talk and talk and just built up the misconceptions until an author’s work might be forgotten while our notions stand the test of time. Kingsley Amis: irreverent, boozer, cynical, British upper-middle-class misanthropic bad-boy who got old and out-moded. I’ve read enough books that fit fall under whatever ill-conceived penumbra I’ve erected in my nearly subconscious cataloging that I probably would never have read a Kingsley Amis book if it weren’t for NYRB Classics.
But a few years ago, NYRB Classics acquired the rights to publish ten books of Kingsley Amis’s work. I love NYRB Classics, as I believe is known around these parts, and I trust them as curators, so I dove in, and while I note that my preconceived notions are spot on, they are woefully inadequate, embarrassingly reductive. I’ve found his work to be incredibly varied, filled with as much heart as vice and often more experimental than conventional. This was emphasized particularly when NYRB Classics released The Alteration, a kind of medieval/science fiction/alternative history novel, and The Green Man, a religious horror story. This week, NYRB Classics published their ninth book by Amis, Dear Illusion, a collection of short stories that further highlights just how varied and interesting Amis, the author, was.
First things first: Dear Illusion is a huge collection, coming in at just over 500 pages, containing twenty-four stories. Though Amis called them “woodchips from a novelist’s workshop,” which upsets me as a defender of the short story as a distinct and venerable form of literature (but oh well), these stories are fully realized explorations of a variety of forms and genres.
Yes, there are still stories that fit perfectly in my now old and hopefully discarded conceptions of Kingsley Amis (the cover, once again designed by Eric Hanson, shows that some of those elements of mundane British life are here), but they are the exception in Dear Illusion. Furthermore, they are some of the best pieces in here. “All the Blood Within Me” begins:
That morning Alec Mackenzie had been unable to eat even his usual small breakfast, so when, some minutes out of Euston, coffee and light refreshments were announced, he went along to the dining car. He felt that, in view of what lay ahead, he should have something inside him, however nasty it or the task of getting it down might prove.
Alec is going to a funeral, the funeral of a woman with whom he’s had an open affair for decades. He and the woman’s husband are friends and are thinking about their friendship and individual futures now that she’s dead. This story is touching and effective — far from a stray woodchip created in the process of making something else.
But even the experimental pieces, the ones I can see as woodchips only because I think Amis was testing his abilities, are fascinating and varied beasts: we have science fiction (“Something Strange,” “Hemingway in Space”), horrific fiction (“To See the Sun,” “The House on the Headland”) and spooky fiction (“Who or What Was It?” told as it’s Amis himself relating his past), military fiction (“My Enemy’s Enemy,” “I Spy Strangers,” “Court of Inquiry”), detective fiction (“The Darkwater Hall Mystery,” a Sherlock Holmes story with no Holmes), and historical fiction about past authors (“Mr Barrett’s Secret”).
These are fun stories that often contain unanticipated depths of feeling. Though no one will use to claim Amis is a master of short fiction, I will use them to claim that Amis’s short fiction is interesting and well worth the time.