Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2111
From the start of his career—launched surprisingly early and with great success—Martin Amis has occupied a central position within his generation of English writers. He began as a tricky prose stylist, displaying in his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), all the smarty-boots flair of an exceedingly clever Oxford undergraduate, which in fact he was at the time. There was more than a touch of his father, Kingsley Amis, in the comic high jinks and linguistic virtuosity of this early work. (Fittingly, father and son both won the Somerset Maugham Award for their literary debuts.) Amis père, whose notoriously famous first novel,Lucky Jim (1954), was partly responsible for putting the “Angry Young Man” on the literary map of postwar England, made a reputation for himself out of puncturing pomposity with a lethally irreverent wit that bubbled up through his precisely inscribed sentences. When it came time for Amis fils to take over the family pub, as he put it, he seemed more than up to the task, being similarly gifted with a pitch-perfect ear for the music of black comedy. However, whereas Kingsley, his scathing satiric sense intact, lumbered further and further to the right over the course of his career, Martin, no less scabrously witty, made a concerted dash to the left. Their differences were not just political, either: Kingsley remained a committed realist who worked and reworked the territory of comedy staked out by Henry Fielding in the eighteenth century, while Martin, a galloping postmodernist, mined the grotesque ironies of late twentieth century history and culture with a cool relish his father could not always understand or sanction. These divergences of style and intent obviously left a gap that provided plenty of room for edgy but, on the whole, affectionate sniping over the years. There they stood for the better part of two decades: Kingsley, the Colonel Blimp of English letters, a bloated Thatcherite teetering perilously on the brink of an outright misogyny that soured his comic vision; and Martin, the modish bad boy of literature, a pyrotechnical wizard slashing and burning his way through literary genres and onto the best-seller lists. However, as this memoir makes clear, their political and professional differences aside, father and son maintained a close and rewarding personal relationship throughout the twists and turns of their complicatedly interconnected lives.
One turn in Martin’s path was the runaway success of Money: A Suicide Note (1984), a novel that, in giving a distinctively acerbic voice to the times, signaled the fulfillment of his early promise and spawned a host of word-crazed “New Lad” imitators. Martin Amis had unquestionably arrived. From that point he went on to write the brace of complex and innovative novels that have ensured his position as a literary risk taker and a wordsmith in the Vladimir Nabokov mold. London Fields (1989), an apocalyptic murder mystery of startling intensity and positively Dickensian vitality, was followed by Time’s Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offense (1991), a dizzyingly original Holocaust novel in which Amis dared to run the narrative of Nazism backward, an imaginative coup that won him a Booker Prize nomination. This string of triumphs brought not only celebrity but also its predictable accompaniment, celebrity bashing. What the media giveth, the media taketh away, and at a certain point they began to take away with a vengeance. For a good ten years the press had a field day with Amis, tut-tutting his seemingly ubiquitous presence, mocking his madly competitive passion for tennis, chronicling the comings and goings of his chums Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens, and Clive James—London’s new young literary mafiosi. However, nothing the media wrote before 1994 amounted to much more than mildly bitchy literary gossip compared to the all-out assault it launched over the next two years. In that brief period Amis left his wife and two young sons, quickly remarrying and starting a new family; he began a painful and painfully expensive series of dental surgeries characterized in the press as purely cosmetic; he brokered a huge advance, denounced in the press as unseemly, which effectively ended his relationship with longtime agent Pat Kavanagh and her husband, longtime friend Julian Barnes; he discovered that he was the father of a teenage daughter from an earlier affair; he learned that his cousin Lucy, who had disappeared in 1973, was in fact one of the victims of England’s infamous serial killer Frederick West. On top of all that, he commenced the long, messy process of watching his father die. It was not a good time, obviously, and it did not help that he was widely portrayed during this grueling interval as a vain, unfeeling, ruthlessly ambitious, money-grubbing little ingrate who had turned his back on family and country.
After all this, one might have expected the reflections in Experience to be shot through with a sense of score-settling: A much-traduced writer finally gets to savage the critics who had for so long gleefully attacked his life and work. However, one of the many agreeable surprises of Amis’s book is his refusal to take on that retributive task. In fact, he is remarkably free of animus, writing calmly and carefully throughout, and refusing to be drawn by his detractors. Certainly, he uses the memoir to tell his side of the story, “to set the record straight”: His father’s official biographer is expertly flayed for his self-serving and false account of Kingsley’s death and funeral; the press is lambasted for its intrusiveness, vulgarity, and negligence. However, in spite of these sharp attacks on mean-spirited pettiness (placed, it should be said, in one of three appendices), the memoir ends up having the feel of a tale told with clear-eyed honesty, one in which the writer spares himself none of the pain or embarrassment he has managed to bring on himself and exacts no undue pound of flesh from those who, with less reason, have made him suffer.
There is real suffering here, physical, emotional, spiritual. The dental ordeal—the twenty-thousand-dollar, months-long removal of all his teeth and implantation of a new set, the excising of a tumor, and the reconstruction of his lower jaw—is both moving and hugely funny to read about, but had to have been dreadful to live through. This was no mere cosmetic touch-up job. His psychic distress at being disfigured and unrecognizable to his children blossoms naturally into larger meditations on the guilty defection from his family’s circle, the sadistic dismemberment of his cousin’s body, the systematic disintegration of his father’s mind. He just skirts sentimentality here and there—particularly in those sections about his murdered cousin—but escapes in the end, having managed to intimate in all of this a haunting sense of how varied yet how eerily related are the forms of suffering all humans are heir to. The very word “suffering,” however, conjures up an oft-repeated anecdote about Amis: In a 1980’s New Statesman competition for most improbable book titles, the hands-down winner was “My Struggle,” by Martin Amis. The assumption was clearly that he got more than a leg up from Daddy and Daddy’s well-placed literary friends. However, Amis wants readers of Experience to see it otherwise: It was not all easy, was not all glitter and glory straight out of the chute. Professional success has not meant personal happiness.
Experience is designed to “give a clear view of the geography of a writer’s mind.” In Amis’s case that means, as readers of his novels might expect, a design that is anything but tidy and linear. The narrative weaves in and out of the past, fastening on an image, a letter, a dream, a photograph, an idea, an emotion, and letting that detail be swept up in a current of associations until it bumps into another image or idea and skims off in a new direction. Though he warns of this method producing a “staccato, tangential, stop-go” effect, in fact, despite the abrupt transitions and wrenching time shifts, this is among the most easy to read of Amis’s books. Seemingly random topics accumulate a richness and density of meaning along the way, and recurrent themes emerge with subtle power and surprising sharpness. His writing, his family, his teeth, his cousin, his father—these he circles back to again and again. In one sense, the deceptively digressive exploration of these topics constitutes a sort of classic narrative of midlife: an account of the losses one has experienced and the losses one anticipates, a summing up at midpoint of one’s worth against the backdrop of opportunities taken and opportunities missed, time spent and time left.
Amis covers a remarkably wide swath of history in this book, from boyhood adventures in Portugal with his parents to adult encounters in Vermont with his literary godfather, Saul Bellow. However, for all the freshly minted memories and finely etched portraits, for all the pithy anecdotes about the intersections of art, sex, and commerce, it would not be far off the mark to say that this memoir is largely an attempt to pay tribute to Amis’s famous father. He clearly means to come to terms with his father’s life and death, and particularly with Kingsley’s abandonment of his family for novelist Elizabeth Janeway—an experience which, in a neatly poignant parallel, Martin replicates when he leaves his family for novelist Isabel Fonseca. Amis writes:
Why should I tell the story of my life?
I do it because my father is dead now, and I always knew I would have to commemorate him. He was a writer and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case—a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son.
It is that last clause that touches the heart, because this finally is a story of fathers and sons, of the forgiveness that eases the hurt, of the love that survives misunderstanding.
In many respects Kingsley Amis was not an easy figure to love. He was compulsively promiscuous and was absurdly fearful (the list of his many phobias is as hilarious as it is terrifying—can any man seriously suffer paralytic fear at the prospect of being left alone in a taxi?). To meet his needs, the feelings of others were regularly, blithely sacrificed. He was also a world-class alcoholic, drinking not so much for the pleasure of the journey as for the thrill of arrival: He was intoxicated nearly every night for the better part of his life. An adulterer, an anti-Semite, a sexist, a drunk, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a four-star curmudgeon—it is a wonder that he kept his friends or maintained his two marriages for as long as he did or that in the face of his many infidelities he could miraculously manage to move back in with his first wife—Martin’s mother—and her husband in a curious ménage that would last for the final fifteen years of his life. Still, there was another side to him as well, and this is what his son so warmly memorializes: the outrageously funny and tenderhearted father, the generous and high-spirited man, the dedicated and disciplined writer. He may not have provided his son with a sound model of a husband, but he did supply him with a rigorous model of a hard-working—not just hard-drinking—author, the model of a man carrying on the daily solitary struggle to sculpt language into meaningful and funny phrases. Kingsley’s regular battle/love affair with the word meant he produced forty-odd books over forty-odd years. So when after a stroke he was reduced to typing the word “seagull” over and over again, and when after further deterioration he could no longer even manage to do that, the son was left with the legacy of all that work, confronted with what to make of the complex but indissoluble bond between them, a bond of blood and ink. Experience is no doubt the book Martin Amis needed to write to “set the record straight” about his own life, but it is also, and overwhelmingly, the book he needed to write to set the record straight about his father’s life and his father’s death. By charting the sad, slow extinction of an inimitable literary voice, the son has paid loving tribute to both man and writer, and in the process produced a book that testifies to the power and reach and uniqueness of his own voice as well.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly 286 (September, 2000): 110.
Booklist 96 (June 1, 2000): 1795.
Library Journal 125 (July, 2000): 89.
The New Yorker 76 (June 19, 2000): 182.
Vanity Fair, July, 2000, p. 142.