Thursday, March 06, 2008


Two from Amis

The experience of reading Experience never fails to surprise me. Martin Amis's fiction remains a mixed bag--his brilliant, buoyant comic novels are consistently dragged down by their ballast of Big Ideas. But his autobiography is sui generis: reflexive, fragmentary, self-mocking, and poignant in exactly the way his novels are not. Here are two bits that have stuck in my brain. The first is about Saul Bellow, a father figure he could emulate with any Oedipal entanglements--but about something more, too. Amis writes:
I see Bellow perhaps twice a year, and we call, and we write. But that accounts for only a fraction of the time I spend in his company. He is on the shelves, on the desk, he is all over the house, and always in the mood to talk. That's what writing is, not communication but a means of communion. And here are the other writers who swirl around you, like friends, patient, intimate, sleeplessly accessible, over centuries. This is the definition of literature.
That does it very nicely. Literature is a device for attaining (relative) immortality. But further down the same page, Amis is feeling all too mortal. He and Christopher Hitchens, returning from a tense visit with Bellow in his New England fastness, have a laughing jag in the car. Their hysterical mirth is clearly a cover for high anxiety. About what? Amis figures it out:
But feelings were being mourned: feelings about the first half of life. Youth can perhaps be defined as the illusion of your own durability. The final evaporation of this illusion parches the skin beneath the eyes and makes your hair crackle to the brush. It was over. There would be hell to pay. Dying suns of a certain size perform the alchemist's nightmare: they turn gold into lead. And there we were, in 1989, heading towards base metal. Transmutation had come to him, and would soon come to me.

I'm leaving this comment here but I must say--your comments on Baxter's new book are spot on...and, as a fan of both Nathaniel West and N. Hawthorne, I was tickled by the references!
Many thanks for stopping by, mcfawn, and I'm glad you enjoyed my thoughts on Charles Baxter. Love his work, but couldn't make myself swallow the metafictional pill at the end. I do think those other Nathaniels must have been in the back of Baxter's mind.
I, too, find Amis's fiction a mixed bag, therefore, I approached Experiences with a dose of scepticism. “The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity,” Amis says, by way of apology for the staccato, tangential style of his memoir. I accept his apology because he writes well (though not as seductively as I’d hoped); nevertheless he assumes that if one is familiar with the work of both he and his father (which I am) then one is also familiar with their various love affairs, scandals, and bickerings with the press (which I am not). A little more factual background about the events to which he refers, and a lot less bone-chilling details about his teeth would have helped me out no end. He comments that “writers write far more penetratingly than they live. Their novels show them at their very best, making a huge effort: stretched until they twang.” A pertinent observation, given that most memoirs by great writers show that they bumble through life making the same messy mistakes as the rest of us, despite any searing insights about the human condition we find in their prose.
“At the birth of your child you forgive your parents everything, without a second thought, like a velvet revolution,” Amis says, explaining how his relationship with Kingsley evolved once he had a child of his own, “This is part of the cunning of babies.” Kingsley’s fear of being alone, his alcoholism, his skepticism about awards but his glee over his knighthood (“My father said the only sayable thing about literary prizes: they’re obviously all right if you win them.”), his old-fashioned tweeds-and-pipe sexism, his regrets over the failure of his marriage to Martin’s mother, his descent into a doddering senility, all are treated with a sensitivity and frankness that I suspect Kingsley would have admired.
Amis’s thoughts about the death of his cousin, Lucy Partington, at the hands of the mass murderer Frederick West, were extremely moving. I remember vividly the trials of Frederick and Rosemary West in Britain in the 1990’s; each new revelation about their macabre depravity splattered across the British tabloids until the whole story began to stink of ludicrous farce. To read Amis’s account of the family’s attempts to try and ascertain the exact moment Lucy died is heart-wrenching – their hope that she died swiftly is besieged by mounting evidence that she may have endured several days of unspeakable abuse.
Both my husband and I turned forty this year. On my husband's birthday, he looked at me and said, “This is shite and onions squared.” We find ourselves living the mid-life cliché. How many years do you think we have left? What should we do with them? He worries he may never earn enough to realize his dream of buying a crap, bottom-division Scottish football team and living in some dank grey-granite town like Arbroath (please God, no); I worry about never publishing a single solitary word. “The Mid-Life crisis compels corniness and indignity upon you,” Amis says, “A realignment taking place, something irresistible and universal, to do with your changing views about death … it becomes a full-time job looking the other way.” It does, indeed, and being philosophical about it doesn’t help. Socrates defines the task of philosophy as “learning how to die.” Shite and onions squared doesn’t begin to cover it.
I liked Amis by the end of this book; I liked his respect for his family, and his vulnerability about his work and his antsiness about getting old. He had the good fortune of having remarkable friends like Salman Rushdie and Saul Bellow, and even though he didn’t see them often, they are often with him because “that is what writing is, not communication but a means of communication.” He gives the best excuse I know for surrounding ourselves with books, for “here are the other writers who swirl around you, like friends, patient, intimate, sleeplessly accessible, over centuries.” With books, we are never alone.
Dear belletriste,

Shite and onions indeed. I just turned 49 (ouch, ouch, ouch) and am already tenderly nostalgic for 47--to be young was very heaven, etc. So enjoy it while you can. As for Amis, I had the same initial objections to the book. Too much junk about his teeth, his quarrels with the press, and so forth. But I was won over. His book, too, makes me feel a little less alone.
For this reader, "The Information" and "Experience" are a great combination (they are, in a sense, keyed to each other), and *seemed*, at the time, to augur a G-force-inflicting climb to the top for Amis...

I keep returning to "Experience" for the great writing *and* my nostalgia for the writer I thought Amis was about to become. Even more frustrating, I bought a paperback of it for reading and a hardcover for keeping and it's the *hardcover* that's falling apart! The binding glue... !

Nice surprise, anyway, JM, that someone, somewhere is actually still writing about "Experience". Thanks for that and Happy B'day!
Hi Steve. We've discussed "The Information" before--I admire it greatly but am less tolerant of the author's metaphysical colloquies with that dwarf at the playground, etc. But yes, the novel plus "Experience" did seem to bump Amis up to the higher slopes. And there have been some disappointing books since then. Maybe his current project--about the Sexual Revolution and its discontents--will be the Big Bang (ahem) we've been waiting for. Thanks, of course, for the birthday wishes.
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