Experience: A Memoir

Experience: A Memoir

4.8 5
by Martin Amis

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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,


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.

Editorial Reviews

LA Times
Holden Caulfield meets Herzog, and it is good
SF Examiner
...discover not only the expected literary brilliance, but also a wholly unanticipated portion of warmth, humanity, friendship - and, yes, love - all without an iota of sentimentality...has the satisfactions of a superior novel...Martin Amis has given us a memoir for the ages.
New Yorker
Experience is not ordered chronologically. The technique works wonderfully.
Time Magazine
..riveting memoir...The portrait of his father... is fascinating and moving...a splendid writer.
The acerbic novelist rewards his fans with this highly entertaining memoir ..Amis novices may be surprised by the compassion he's found.
— June 13, 2000
Andrew Roe
...a balanced, haunting work of memory and memorial, a surprisingly gentle meditation on fathers and sons, mortality, the loss of innocence, divorce, friendship, love -- what Amis calls "the main events," those "ordinary miracles and ordinary disasters" that shape you and define you and remain forever in your blood and being.
A lovely and gossip-rich tour of his life. As a literary performer, he is still close to peerless.
—May 26, 2000
An openhearted remembrance, which...divulges neither too much or too little.
—May 26, 2000
The Independent
Amis has written an utterly fascinating self-portrait...and an enthralling account of the fragility of life.
—May 20, 2000
The Guardian
Experience is a beautiful, and beautifully strange book, and it is unlike anything one expected.
—May 2000
The Daily Telegraph
Funny, sad, moving and absolutely riveting. Amis is a seriously good writer, and never on better form than now. Experience, the book of his life, may be the book of his life.
—May 2000
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The big book on this new publisher's first list is an occasionally combative but more often sweet-natured account of a literary life with an extraordinary father. Even by English standards Kingsley Amis, whom his son rightly sees as the finest comic novelist of his generation, was a highly eccentric figure: a man who loved women in the flesh as much as he appeared to disapprove of them in principle, an alcoholic who managed to create a large body of clear-headed work, a man who couldn't bear to be alone in a house at night, but whose mastery of invective was second to none--a difficult man to live with, it would seem, yet here recalled by Martin in the most fond and generous terms. The book revolves around a small group of seminal figures in Amis's life: his father; Saul Bellow, whom he seems to have adopted as a father figure; his young cousin Lucy Partington, who disappeared in 1973 and was later found to have been a victim of child-killer Frederick West; and longtime friend Christopher Hitchens. The controversial elements in his life aren't glossed over: the so-called cosmetic dentistry, about which the press so gloated at the time of Amis's parting from his previous agent for a larger book deal through Andrew Wylie, is shown to have been an attempt to correct, with extensive and painful surgery, a long-neglected condition of his teeth and jaw. His belated discovery of a previously unknown daughter is described with eloquent sweetness, and the account of the squabble with Kingsley's biographer, Eric Jacobs, over an account of the novelist's last days he gave to English newspapers is rendered more in sorrow than anger. There seems no doubt that a certain pugnaciousness in Amis has led to perplexingly hostile behavior toward him by the English press; it will be interesting to see how this candid, often funny and far from arrogant book will be treated there. B&W photos. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Following in the steps of Christopher Dickey (Summer of Deliverance; LJ 7/98) and V.S. Naipaul (Between Father and Son, LJ 1/00), Amis offers another portrait of the sometimes troubled, often poignant relationship between a writer son and his writer father. The younger Amis (The Information) chronicles father Kingsley s (Lucky Jim) drunken debauches, his parents marriage and subsequent remarriages, and the grimness of Kingsley s final days. But Amis also weaves into his narrative accounts of his own failed first marriage, relationships with his children, friendship with Saul Bellow, and coming to terms with the disappearance and death of his cousin. In addition, Amis details his well-publicized dental nightmares and his falling out with novelist Julian Barnes. Though passages describing his relationship with his father are very moving, the rest of the book descends into a sophomoric and sometimes self-important exercise in namedropping and name calling. The book will appeal to fans of father and son and is recommended for large libraries and libraries where the two are popular. Henry Carrigan, Lancaster, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
David Lodge
...a major literary event...The book is full of delectable humor at the author's expense, by which he avoids the danger that this kind of writing always courts, of seeming narcissistic, self-justifying and egocentric...There is a great deal of art in Experience, not only in the style, as you would expect from this writer...
Times Literary Supplement
Michiko Kakutani
...Amis' remarkable new memoir... Amis' most fully realized book yet -- a book that fuses his humor, intellect and daring with a new gravitas and warmth, a book that stands, at once, as a loving tribute to his father and as a fulfillment of his own abundant talents as a writer.
The New York Times
Joyce Hackett
Amis's portrait of a complex father-son relationship lit by floodlights is solidly real and well worth reading.
The National Review
From the Publisher
"Fuses humor, intellect and daring with a new gravitas and warmth." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Hums with the same antic prose and looping comic riffs that characterize Amis' fiction.... [Amis is] a splendid writer." —Time

“With its recurrent themes and nimble shifts from one period to another, Experience is well made and ingeniously stitched together. It’s also extremely well written.” —The Globe and Mail

“[Experience is] a sublime essay giving shape and meaning to [Amis’s] chaotic life…. Experience is an unexpectedly emotional odyssey. Experience is a novelist’s memoir in which events are cunningly cross-threaded and intercut like a plot.” —National Post, May 18, 2000 (profile)

“Like only a handful of other literary memoirs, Experience is more than the mere facts of the author’s life collected in neat chronological order. Experience succeeds where most other memoirs fail because it’s really a superbly written novel — starring Martin Amis as its amusingly self-deprecating central protagonist, his crotchety but ultimately loveable father and fellow novelist, Kingsley Amis, as his foil, and with the difficulties and joys of family life firmly in place as its central theme…. Experience is a long, wise poem in typically ebullient Amis prose in praise of all that endures: creativity, friendship and love. Most novels should be so richly fulfilling.” —The Toronto Star

“What mustn’t get lost is that the rest can be wonderfully, wryly funny. Adolescent torpor is sleepily reimagined.” —The Hamilton Spectator

“Striking and satisfying. It’s an edgy and electrifying read. [Amis’s world is] a wonderful place of privilege, celebrity and intellectual intrigue on the one hand, and a dark, woeful realm of emotional tragedy, physical pain and public persecution of the other.” —NOW Magazine

“His unflinching portrayal of his fraught but ultimately loving relationship with the father gives Experience a dimension that the Martin Amis oeuvre, for all its acid brilliance, has too often lacked. This is a compassionate book, and a very moving one…. He ends up with a book that’s true to the way memory really works–obsessive, elliptical, incomplete, maddeningly non-linear, but deeply revealing.” —Calgary Herald and The Gazette (Montreal)

“Rather than focus extensively on the literary high life, Martin Amis uses his formidable skills to dissect the more troubling aspects of a life very much in progress. The result is an unusually skillful and unconventional memoir with the tension and release of great fiction.” —Ottawa X Press

“[A] tender, funny…sometimes gut-wrenching memoir…. Fans of the brilliant and eccentric Amises–moral satirist father and satiric misanthropist son–will be amply gratified by the sheer energetic range and depth and human circumstance, of the experience that heaves itself up from these pages…. His book thrills and breaks the heart.” —London Free Press

“Rather than focus extensively on the literary high life, Martin Amis uses his formidable skills to dissect the more troubling aspects of a life very much in progress. The result is an unusually skillful and unconventional memoir with the tension and release of great fiction.” —Ottawa Free Press

“Those who have marvelled at the wry and unforgiving fiction — its prose like a strobe light dancing over vistas of urban sleaze and greed — will likely be taken aback. They may be compelled to tears by a book which is the most touching Amis has written.” —Noel Rieder, Hour June 16, 2000

“This memoir engagingly reads like a novel where the literary gifts of the son’s sardonic wit, linguistic candour are shown off in the eulogizing of the father, Sir Kingsley Amis, as a womanizer, alcoholic and storyteller whose footsteps Amis traces in his own coming of age as a writer.” —The New Brunswick Reader

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.03(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Introductory: My Missing

— Dad.

    This was my older son, Louis, then aged eleven.

    — Yes?

    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:

    ... `Dad.'


    `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.

— Dad.

    — Yes?

    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.

    — Why?

    — 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

Sussex Tutors,
55 Marine Parade,
Brighton, Sussex.
23rd Oct. [1967]

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.

What People are saying about this

Marianne Wiggins
As a portrait of sustaining love between a father and a son, Experience stands alone among the testaments. (could be a great headline)
—May 2000

Meet the Author

Martin Amis is the author of nine novels, a collection of stories, and three works of non-fiction. He lives in London.

Brief Biography

Oxford, England
Date of Birth:
August 25, 1949
Place of Birth:
Oxford, England
B.A., Exeter College, Oxford

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Experience 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
DearReader More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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
jmfkb More than 1 year ago
Interesting family insights