May 26, 2000
Experienceby Martin Amis
The son of the great comic novelist Kingsley Amis,
Perhaps the most gifted and innovative novelist of his generation, Martin Amis has been the object of obsessive media scrutiny for much of his career. In this much anticipated memoir, he writes with striking candor about his life and, in the process, gives us a clear view of the 'geography of the writer's mind'.
The son of the great comic novelist Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis explores his relationship with his father and writes about the various crises of Kingsley's life, including the final crisis of his death. Amis also reflects on the life and legacy of his cousin, Lucy Partington, who disappeared without trace in 1973 and was exhumed nearly twenty years later from the back garden of Frederick West, Britain's most prolific serial murderers.
Inevitably, too, the memoir records the changing literary scene in Britain and the United States, including a wealth of anecdotes along with memorable pen-portraits of Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, Allan Bloom, Philip Larkin, Robert Graves, and Elizabeth Jane Howard, among others.
The result is a remarkable work of autobiography -- profound, witty, and ruthlessly honest. As a writer's self-portrait, it is destined to become a classic of its kind.
May 26, 2000
May 26, 2000
May 20, 2000
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Read an Excerpt
Introductory: My Missing
This was my older son, Louis, then aged eleven.
My dad would have said, `... Yeeesss?' with a dip in it, to signal mild but invariable irritation. I once asked him why he did this and he said, `Well I'm already here, aren't I?' For him, the Dad-Yes? interlude was a clear redundancy, because we were in the same room together and established as having some kind of conversation, however desultory (and unenlivening, from his point of view). I saw what he meant; but five minutes later I would find myself saying, `Dad.' And then I would brace myself for an especially vehement affirmative. I was a teenager before I broke the habit. Children need a beat of time, to secure attention while the thought is framed.
This is from I Like It Here (1958), Kingsley's third and most close-to-life novel:
`How big's the boat that's taking us to Portugal?'
`I don't know really. Pretty big, I should think.'
`As big as a killer whale?'
`What? Oh yes, easily.'
`As big as a blue whale?'
`Yes, of course, as big as any kind of whale.'
`Yes, much bigger.'
`How much bigger?'
`Never you mind how much bigger. Just bigger is all I can tell you.'
There is a break, and the discussion resumes:
`If two tigers jumped on a blue whale, could they kill it?'
`Ah, but that couldn't happen, you see. If the whale was in the sea the tigers would drown straight away, and if the whale was ...'
`But supposing they did jump on the whale?'
... `Oh, God. Well, I suppose the tigers'd kill the whale eventually, but it'd take a long time.'
`How long would it take one tiger?'
`Even longer. Now I'm not answering any more questions about whales or tigers.'
`Oh, what is it now, David?'
`If two sea-serpents ...'
How well I remember those vastly stimulating chats. My tigers weren't just ordinary tigers, either: they were sabre-toothed tigers. And the gladiatorial bouts I dreamed up were far more elaborate than I Like It Here allows. If two boa constrictors, four barracuda, three anacondas and a giant squid ... I must have been five or six at the time.
In retrospect I can see that these questions would have played on my father's deepest fears. Kingsley, who refused to drive and refused to fly, who couldn't easily be alone in a bus, a train or a lift (or in a house, after dark), wasn't exactly keen on boats or sea-serpents. Besides, he didn't want to go to Portugal, or anywhere else. The trip was forced on him by the terms and conditions of the Somerset Maugham Award a `deportation order' he called it in a letter to Philip Larkin (`forced to go abroad, bloody forced mun'). He won the prize for his first novel, Lucky Jim, published in 1954. Twenty years later I would win it too.
The Rachel Papers appeared in mid-November, 1973. On the night of 27 December my cousin, Lucy Partington, who was staying with her mother in Gloucestershire, was driven into Cheltenham to visit an old friend, Helen Render. Lucy and Helen spent the evening talking about their future; they put together a letter of application to the Courtauld Institute in London, where Lucy hoped to continue studying medieval art. They parted at 10.15. It was a three-minute walk to the bus stop. She never posted the letter and she never boarded the bus. She was twenty-one. And it was another twenty-one years before the world found out what happened to her.
Louis and I were in the car the locus of so many parental dealings, after a while, when the Chauffeuring Years begin to stretch out 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 occasionally 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 memoir.
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 a 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 about it in the newspaper ...
Someone is no longer here. The intercessionary figure, the father, the man who stands between the son and death, is no longer here; and it won't ever be the same. He is missing. But I know it is common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity. My father lost his father, and my children will lose theirs, and their children (this is immensely onerous to contemplate) will lose theirs.
On the shelf by my desk I have a small double-sided picture-stand which contains two photographs. One is black-and-white and of passport size: it shows a teenage schoolgirl in a V-necked sweater, shirtsleeves and tie. Long brown hair parted at the centre, spectacles, the beginnings of a smile. Above her head she has written, in block capitals: undesirable alien. This is Lucy Partington ... The second photograph is in colour: it shows a toddler in a dark flower dress, smocked at the chest, with short puffed sleeves and pink trim. She has fine blonde hair. Her smile is demure: pleased, but quietly pleased. This is Delilah Seale.
The photographs are kept together, and for almost twenty years their subjects lived together in the back of my mind. Because these are, or were, my missing.
Letter from School
55 Marine Parade,
23rd Oct. 
Dearest Dad and Jane,
Thanks awfully for your letter. So we all appear to be working like fucking fools. I seem to be flitting manically from brash self-confidence to whimpering depression; the English is all very fine, but the Latin I find difficult, tedious, and elaborately unrewarding. It would be so boring if it buggered up my Oxford Entrance paper. I spend about 2-3 hours per day on it, but I feel a painful lack of basic knowledge not being one of those little sods who has been chanting `amo, amas, amat', from the age of eighteen months. Anyway, the set book (Aeneid Bk. II) is pretty splendid, and if I slog through that with sufficient rigour I should be O.K. on that part of the `O' level paper.
Mr Ardagh decided that the best plan for Ox. Ent. is to choose about 6 chaps and know them pretty thoroughly, rather than farting about with a bit of everyone. I have chosen: Shakespeare; Donne and Marvell, Coleridge and Keats; Jane Austen; [Wilfred] Owen; Greene; and possibly old Yeats as well. I do enjoy the English but I must say that I get periods of desperately wanting something else to occupy myself with. The prospect of teaching has lost its glow because it means that I will be dealing with the same sort of thing for the next 4 years without much of a break. I hope you don't think I'm off the idea of Eng. Lit., because I find myself suffused with an ardour for sheer quantity of consumption. In my last few days in London I read `Middlemarch' (in 3 days), `The Trial' (Kafka is a fucking fool in 1 day) and `The Heart of the Matter' (in 1 day), and even here I manage a couple of novels a week (plus lots of poetry). Its [sic] just that I'm a bit cheesed off with applying myself to the same ideas all the time but I shouldn't think its [sic] anything that a paternal or step-maternal harangue won't correct. I'm sorry to be a bore, and it's probably merely a phase might even be character-building, who knows.
I thought it very representative of your integrity, Jane, to warn me of the defficiencies [sic] of Nashville. Much as I'd love to see you both, it does seem that I'll be doing too much fire-ironing and pie-fingering (I'm sure Jane could adapt that to one of her swirling mixed metaphors), to be able to get away for a full 2-3 weeks. I might have an interview at Oxford as late as the 20th of Dec. and various replies could start coming in as early as Jan 1st. This, coupled with the dire deterrent of U.S. T.V. being lousy, will, I fear, prevent me from coming over. It is a pity because I would dearly love to see you both.
I see young Bruce pretty regularly, but not regularly enough, it seems, for him to contrive to secure adequate stocks of fish-cakes for my visits. However he seems in fine form ... Predictably enough the very word is like a bell to toll me back to Latin Unseens, prose constructions, and like trivia.
Please write soon, I miss you both terribly,
All my love,
Mart x x x
P.S. Convey my cordial regards to Karen there are no doleful regrets there because, as far as I can remember, she should be about 9' 6" tall by now.
P.P.S. On [sic] retrospect I consider `Middlemarch' to be FUCKING good - Jane Austen + passion + dimension. Very fine. Love Mart.
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If you are a reader with a capital "R", this book is a must read. Martin Amis' gift with language, his sense of humor, and the rich material of his family life come together to make the reading of the book an experience in itself. I've literally read and re-read this book so many times the cover has fallen off. I like Mr. Amis' fiction writing but this book is, in my opinion, his best, and easily one of my alltime favorites.
I have three pages remaining before I complete this overwhelming story. I am hating to finish, I will have lost a marvelous companion. I reluctantly will close it; yes, yes I will. Replacing it with W H A T???I will read it again and wonder and wonder about your life as the adult child of an alcoholic. Your Dad was absolutely a master of black, dark humor and much strength it would take to deal with the man -- alive as well as dead. He simply expired and knew well what he was doing. There is such sadness that he left you with just a minute awareness of himself as a person. I love this book because it enabled me to look at my parent, also an alcoholic, and wonder more about myself and the being of myself. I am done now. Please do a United States tour---PLEASE
Interesting family insights