The Pequod Review:
Martin Amis's memoir Experience has an oddly distant and reticent tone; the wit and intelligence that serve him so well in his other work seem to produce a form of circumspection, and it leads to a book where he doesn't actually reveal very much about himself. That being said, Amis's memoir is highly entertaining and extraordinarily well-written, and he provides perceptive recollections of several close family members — especially his father, the neurotic but talented author Kingsley Amis:
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.
When Amis was about to leave his second wife, his father was one of the few people he could confide in:
"Stopping being married to someone," [Kingsley] had written, ten years earlier, "is an incredibly violent thing to happen to you, not easy to take in completely, ever." He knew I was now absorbing the truth and the force of this. And he knew also that the process could not be softened or hastened. All you could do was survive it. That surviving was a possibility he showed me, by example. But he did more. He roused himself and did more. "Talk as much as you want about it or as little as you want": these words sounded like civilization to me, in my barbarous state, so disheveled in body and mind. Talk as much or as little … I talked much. Only to him could I confess how terrible I felt, how physically terrible, bemused, subnormalised, stupefied from within, and always about to flinch or tremble from the effort of making my face look honest, kind, sane. Only to him could I talk about what I was doing to my children. Because he had done it to me.
And he responded, and he closed that circle: his last fatherly duty.
Some of Amis's sharpest gems are buried in the footnotes:
Hemingway argued that the bull fight was not a sport but a ritual, a tragedy, in fact, because the bull can never win. What, then, is the bull's tragic flaw? That he's a bull?
The reviewer was James Buchan, a fellow novelist, and a humorless worthy. And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo. (Incidentally, I know know if Mr Buchan is a parent, but I often wonder how the humorless raise their children. How does it done without humor?)
Sally was born on 17 January 1954, at 24 The Grove. I was allowed on the scene soon afterwards, and I have an utterly radiant – and utterly false – memory of my hour-old sister, her features angelically formed, her blonde tresses curling down over her shoulders. In fact, of course, she was just like the other Amis babies: a howling pizza. Larkin celebrated her arrival with "Born Yesterday," a poem that Sally, over the course of her life, often rewrote, its opening line, "Tightly-folded bud…," becoming, at one point, the no-nonsense "Fat pod…," and so on.
All in all, the book's strengths make it far superior to most other modern memoirs. Highly recommended.