F.R.'s Reviews > Experience

Experience by Martin Amis
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Aug 01, 09


To be honest I’ve always preferred the novels of Amis Sr to Amis Jr. Although I haven’t dipped as extensively into Martin’s work as some of my contemporaries, nothing I’ve read so far has matched – say – ‘Lucky Jim’. Indeed I think the younger Amis’s books would benefit from him taking a page at the beginning to write: “My name is Martin Amis and I am very clever.” Once those two facts have been clearly established he wouldn’t need to bang on about them in the prose and we’d no doubt have much more insightful novels.

But I digress.

Having taken KA’s ‘Memoirs’ from the library, I thought that, in the interest of fairness, it was only right I also borrowed MA’s ‘Experience’. Reading them back to back has been an interesting diversion (not least because father and son have vastly different styles), but one which shows the strengths and limitations of both men.

Kingsley Amis’s book is a collection of essays, wherein our author looks back over various periods of life and reminisces about various writers he’d met. As such we learn about his time in Oxford, Swansea and America; he talks about his friendships with Philip Larkin and Anthony Powell; and gets to settle scores with the likes of John Wain and Roald Dahl. The format of the book might make it a volume to dip into rather than read all at once, but all his hallmarks are here – pomposity, booze, a fear of the modern and – cringingly at times – sexism.

Reading it I imagine that to have a drink with the older Amis would be to enter a world where the cantankerous had been made flesh. However, it’s impossible to deny that he was a witty old bugger and there are some genuinely laugh out loud lines.

The problem with it as an actual book is that it’s a collection rather than an actual book. There are themes that reoccur, there are dramatis personae who reappear, but in the main it’s a series of vignettes – some more comic than others. Furthermore, as the author makes clear in the preface, he is trying to focus on others rather than himself, so we end up with this odd affair where KA as a narrator remains somewhat unknowable (and certainly unexamined). As such I can’t help thinking that it would have been better to frame a lot of these incidents as fiction and let the author run wild with a narrator who is present for the reader. Yes, there are a lot of good things in this book, but as a whole it’s not the enjoyable read his best novels are.

Now focusing on one’s self is something that Martin has never had a problem with. As such I was expecting a more personally welcoming affair, and for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. We find out about Martin’s family in these pages, and as such more about Kingsley Amis’s family than we do in Kingsley’s Amis’s book. Martin does provide some very touching and real moments, and it is the more emotional of the two, but the flaws I’ve always found in Martin’s writing are still in evidence.

Firstly, the self absorption. Okay, this is an autobiography and so the writer is allowed to bang on about himself. Perfectly true. Martin writes really well on the death of his father and the disappearance of his cousin Lucy Partingdon (who fell victim to serial killer Fred West) but we also get pages of prose given over to the author’s dental problems. Yes, toothache is painful and the dental procedures MA went through sound horrific even to someone whose read a lot of horror, but does anyone really need a 100 pages on it?

Secondly, there’s the style. At one point Phillip Larkin accuses Martin of “over-writing” one of his novels. This is strikes me as a perfectly valid criticism and one that holds true for this book too. It is frustrating that this autobiography can veer from tender descriptions of family and loss, to lengthy – and wordy – paragraphs of po-faced pretension. (The young MA is quoted describing Keats thus: “All right when he’s not saying ‘I’m a Poet. Got that?’” The same criticism can be levelled at him as a writer.) The format also lacks focus, and veers off in some quite odd directions – for example, an interview the author did with John Travolta is mentioned again and again for no discernable reason. This is certainly an area where KA wins out, as his book is designed to concentrate on one individual – and sometimes one anecdote – at a time.

Martin is something of a ghost in the text of his father’s book. For the most part he is fleetingly mentioned, so if you didn’t already know that he was a novelist you might just mistake him for an enthusiastic literary reviewer. (Although Kingsley does take the time to administer a kick to two of his son’s literary idols – Saul Bellow and John Updike.) His father however looms large in Martin’s book, and is far more of a real person than he is in his own volume.

I have given both books three stars. Kingsley’s book is fragmentary and episodic in design, but the prose is crisp and the text is genuinely funny; while Martin’s is incredibly touching in parts and more emotionally honest, does contain the same literary ticks that disturb me in his fiction. However, if you have an interest in either man and want a book to read from start to finish, then the son’s is the one to go for.
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