A number of things have, until now, put me off reading the novels of Martin Amis.
There was the infamous and justified criticism that his father Kingsley voiced, declaring that his novels had “that constant demonstrating of his command of English”.
There was that poor introduction to his work that was Time’s Arrow – perhaps the longest drawn-out short novel in existence, whose clever premise would have been better suited to a Borges style aside.
And in a world crowded with brilliant books by talented authors, and with so little time, his knee-JERK comments on Islam and the war on terror made it a simple enough choice to add his titles to the ‘probably should read, but can’t be bothered to’ pile.
As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s his voice to contend with. Not his authorial voice crafted cleverly, no-doubt, onto the pages of his numerous novels, but his actual physical voice, which seems in radio and television interviews to ooze self-satisfied from a mind aristocratically convinced of its own entitlement. Unfair, of course, as few of us are able to control to any great degree our voices – but fairness rarely comes into it when choosing what authors to read.
I am severely humbled then, having read his superb memoir Experience, particularly given that I’m no fan of memoirs in general – but then this is no ordinary memoir.
The first thing to say about the book is that it is superbly written. It would, perhaps, be hard to make a completely uninteresting book whose main characters include Kingsley Amis, Saul Bellow, and Vladimir Nabokov, with a supporting cast of Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, John Updike, Philip Larkin, Salman Rushdie, and Elizabeth Jane Howard, but this biography is both engaging and a sophisticated literary construct.
In his short, snappy, and intriguing introduction Amis lays out the scope:
Louis and I were in the car – the locus of so many parental dealings, after a while, when the Chauffeuring Years being to stretch ahead of you like an autobahn.
-If nothing else was changed by you not being famous, would you still want to be famous?
A well executed question, I thought. He knew that fame was a necessary by-product of acquiring a readership. But apart from that? What? Fame is a worthless commodity. It will occasionaly earn you some special treatment, if that is what you’re interested in getting. It will also earn you a far more noticeable amount of hostile curiosity. I don’t mind that – but then I’m a special case. What tends to single me out for it also tends to inure me to it. In a word – Kingsley.
– I don’t think so, I answered.
– Because it messes with the head.
And he took this in nodding.
It used to be said that everyone had a novel in them. And I used to believe it, and still do in a way. If you’re a novelist you must believe it, because that’s part of your job: much of the time you are writing the fiction that other people have in them. Just now, though, in 1999, you would probably be obliged to doubt the basic proposition: what everyone has in them, these days, is not a novel but a memor.
We live in the age of mass loquacity. We are all writing it or at any rate talking it: the memoir, the apologia, the c.v., the cri de coeur. Nothing, for now, can compete with experience – so unanswerably authentic, and so liberally and democratically dispensed. Experience is the only thing we share equally, and everyone senses this. We are surrounded by special cases, by special pleadings, in an atmosphere of universal celebrity. I am a novelist, trained to use experience for other ends. 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 son. This will involve me in the indulgence of certain bad habits. Namedropping is unavoidably one of them. But I’ve been indulging that habit, in a way, ever since I first said, ‘Dad.’
I do it because I feel the same stirrings that everyone else feels. I want to set the record straight (so much of this is already public), and to speak, for once, without artifice. Though not without formality. The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending … My organisational principles, therefore, derive from an inner urgency, and from the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections. The method, plus the use of footnotes (to preserve the collateral thought), should give a clear view of the geography of a writer’s mind. If the effect sometimes seems staccato, tangential, stop-go, etc, then I can only say that that’s what it’s like, on my side of the desk.
And I do it because it has been forced on me. I have seen what perhaps no writer should ever see: the place in the unconscious where my novels come from. I couldn’t have stumbled on it unassisted. Nor did I. I read it in the newspaper…”
And he delivers all that is set out, and more. As any well-written memoir would, it portrays both Kingsley and Martin (because, it’s debatable who is the central character here) in a complex light – amidst literary success, criticism, divorces, and alcohol – but in the choice of moments Amis includes, and with the rhythm their careful juxtaposition beats out, the book admits the very things that usually differentiate a memoir from a novel – questions and doubts. It’s self-assuredly written, but anything but self-assured. It brings the author and reader to some very dark places, and resists the temptation to extract a neat lesson from the experience.
Time to go back and dig out those skipped-over novels.