on July 30, 2001
This is a memoir structured like none you have ever read. You don't read about Martin Amis' life, you "experience" it. The occasional letters home written while he was in school anchor the structure. The letters are bracketed by his fierce criticisms of his own past writing styles.
Mr. Amis has brilliance, humor and intellect, all bursting like fireworks off the page. He also has quirks that he freely indulges. You have to get past his obsession with his teeth. (Yes, teeth.) He can start on any subject and get waylaid by dental experiences he has had. You almost forgive him these tirades, as he describes them so vividly. No one who has served a sentence or two in a dentist's chair can help but agree "the drill, capable of making your vision shudder." Then there is the issue of his phantom obesity. He continually worries about the past, present and future size of his "bum," yet every single photo in the book depicts a slim boy/youth/man called Martin Amis.
One of the strongest areas in the book is his loving tribute to his family, particularly his father, the renowned Kingsley Amis. The family is eccentric-twenty years after his parents' divorce, Kingsley moves in to the upper story of his happily remarried ex-wife's residence where she cares for him the rest of his life. The reason for this move is Kingsley does not and will not stay alone at night. His sons take this as an absolute given and grown up Martin and brother Philip discuss whether they will have to move in with Dad to quell the night frights.
Mr. Amis' descriptive powers are a marvel as they drop effortlessly through his narrative, such as, "There is a slushy crush outside the British Airways terminal. Everyone is enlarged, fattened, baggy with impedimenta, with winter coats, padded, air-bubbled, taking up a lot of space, and bumping into one another." He gives you instant mental snapshots and then races off to something new. Some parts of his life he takes for granted you must know and never bothers to enlighten the reader. A photo of Saul Bellow, the author holding a baby and an attractive woman standing by his side is captioned "---For structural reasons, the baby I am wielding cannot be named." Mr. Amis never sheds any light on who this baby is or what the "structural" reasons are.
Though the author can be a cynic, waspish and impatient; his best portraits are of those people he admires and loves. His mentor Saul Bellow and close family friend, poet Philip Larkin, are marvelously well drawn and prescient. Martin feels Larkin was horribly maligned by his biographer, Andrew Motion and does what he can by drawing a poignant portrait of his father's dearest friend.
This book draws you in until you are completely absorbed and involved in Martin's usually frenetic, but always interesting life. Highly recommended, particularly for anyone interested in modern English literature.
on June 13, 2000
I think that Martin Amis has never written more beautifully than he does in `Experience'. This is saying a lot. In the last twenty years no other writer -- not even John Updike -- has displayed a comparable love of language: what Sebastian Faulks calls Amis's 'disciplined literary exuberance'. I think the 'disciplined' part is something a lot of people overlook in talking about Amis's linguistic acrobatics. Amis never eschews lucidity in his writing; every word is carefully chosen, every adverb and adjective absolutely spot-on.
'Experience' shows Amis turning his prose on himself, and his family, particularly his father; yet the book isn't a conventional memoir. James Wood, in an insightful review, wrote of the book as `an escape from memoir...an escape into privacy.' Rather than trace in detail the life of a successful writer in the post-WW2 world, the advances and the interviews, Amis has tackled the universal theme of innocence becoming experience; of Youth becoming Age and ultimately Death. This is not to say that Amis has gone super-solemn. `Experience' is full of wonderful set-pieces (including a wonderfully funny account of Christopher Hitchens laying into Saul Bellow over Israel's foreign policy) and his father's tidal-wave wit is everywhere. But at the heart of `Experience' sits the understanding that Death is inescapable, yet not impossible to accept. Kingsley's death - the most moving part of the book - removes the intercessionary figure that stands between Martin and Death; yet it also makes him realise how precious and important life is, and how lucky writers are in being able to leave their best work behind them. I should say that `Experience' does have its annoyances. There are too many footnotes, interesting though some of them are; and Amis appears to be leaning more and more on the ellipsis as a literary device, and diminishing returns are starting to creep in. But these are minor cavils. `Experience', I believe, will pass the sternest test of literary value: it will reward re-readings in the years to come.
on July 23, 2001
I am probably a bigger fan of Martin Amis than I am of his brilliant and too-imitated father. I often wish more writers, particularly American writers, took his verbal verve as inspiration. I've always loved the way MA broke all the rules of the "how to write" school -- his brazen use of adverbs, etc. When I started reading Amis in my early twenties, he gave me hope.
I devoured book after book. But as I grew up (i.e., entered my thirties) it began to dawn on me that he had a brilliant style, with nothing to say. I kept thinking -- God, he ought to be writing copy for Mercedes or something, what a waste of talent to the advertising community. Because despite advancing age, he clearly lacked the insight and maturity to write about women, violence, nuclear fear, the Holocaust.
The early books, I thought, were about something. The Rachel Papers was about self-regarding first love, Success about growing up and putting our childhood heartbreaks behind us, though it might mean losing our souls in the process. Other People fascinated because I lived through something like the protagonist. How did this guy tap into my experience? I was deeply impressed.
Then came the big books that made him famous and rich: Money, London Fields, The Information. In which characters became less real, too cartoonlike, too cliched to move the reader to indentification, the books themselves too long, wearing out attention span and killing their own too-grand themes. Night Train and Time's Arrow brief, merely clever style exercises full of what we already know. The world is bad and scary. So what else is new?
It's amazing that Amis's next book is called Against Cliche, because for all his brilliant word combinations, his characters and situations are nothing but cliche.
I can always bank on being entertained by Amis, but in the mode of illicit, glossy magazines. I no longer get the sense that his books are deeply felt, that they do what real literature ought to do. He can't enlighten, because he only states the obvious, he's afraid of approaching the tough stuff. It's a shame, because he's got to be in possession of the best set of technical skills out there.
After reading all but one of his novels, and then this memoir, I almost feel like I know too much about the guy, and I'm liking him less and less. To wit: This Lucy Parkington business. Amis has written, over and over again, of suicidal, self-destructive women who bring on their own murders. Fair enough, until I found out he had a young woman in his own family on the missing persons list as he scribbled away. I don't blame him for answering the call to write about it, but why, in his books, are they always asking for it? Was it too painful for him to contemplate the truth -- that innocent girls do get done in for no good reason? I guess it makes libertine boomer males like him feel better to think so. Why didn't he even try to imagine it, fictionally, as it probably occured? And then all this self-righteous finger pointing when the killer confesses.
A likewise fascinating and unexpected parallel was this lost love child of his, this girl who surfaced at eighteen, her mother having committed suicide when the daughter was only two. Heartbreaking stuff, but was that before or after MA wrote about female suicide in Success? Enquiring readers want to know. We also want to know about the girl's mother, her relationship with Martin, who was told about the baby's existence. Did he feel responsible when his ex-lover died? His thoughts on adultery? Saying nothing, he tends to incriminate himself. Where is the story? Juicy, poignant, anticlimactic. It's not here.
There is lots here for people who like literary gossip, but it's pretty smarmy and unrevealining. Supposedly he didn't want to drag up too much mud, hurt anyone's feelings further, vis a vis the ex-wife, Julain Barnes, etc. But the reader's peaked interest is unfulfilled. Maybe when he's seventy, he'll tell all.
He likewise fails to take responsibility for his teeth. In the childhood photo on the cover, and in nearly every adult photo inside, Martin is shown sucking on a cigarette. This can't be good for his gums, I feel.
Next to the structural outline of his real life as revealed here, his recent novels seem more empty and parodic than ever. That's too bad. He's a highly talented writer, who could be a great, classic writer. When you next sit down, Martin, tell us the real story: the messy love life, the real people. I'm not saying expose everyone, but you have to know more about life than you're letting on.
on June 2, 2000
This is a great read but it jars as a self-portrait. There are no nasty bits of self-examination to give the nice bits credibility. We hear little of his broken first marriage or his relationships with his brother and sister. He reveals that he tried to patch up his friendship with Julian Barnes without revealing the details of their break-up. But we do hear a lot about his feelings. The Amis portrayed is compassionate, loyal, put-upon, witty - and a bit of a caricature.
But it doesn't matter (that much). It is worth reading for the observations about life - grief, love, divorce, age - and the extraordinary structure. I also just love the way he writes. It's also a great insight into how authors work and think. And of course the best portrait to emerge is of his father Kingsley. It is warts-and-all mixed with biting anecdotes and judgements. Whereas Martin emerges with barely a pimple.
on June 17, 2000
Amis's memoir is a major departure from his usual hard-boiled writing style. At its heart is an emotional portrait of his father, Kingsley, who despite his drunkenness, misogyny and emotional constipation is treated with shocking kindness by Martin, who had good reason to be harsher. After all, Kingsley never missed a chance to publicly lambaste Martin's writing, bragging in print that he never finished any of his son's books. In spite of such insults, Martin was an extremely devoted son, and paints an affectionate, warts-and-all picture of Kingsley and his literary legacy.
Martin Amis also describes his own crucible of the last decade--dental crises, marital break-up and remarriage, literary feuds, and discovery of his cousin's fate at the hands of Britain's most notorious serial killer. All of this is fascinating, yet doesn't quite make up for the book's omissions. Despite his unflinching criticism of others in the past (particularly in The Moronic Inferno), Amis is extremely coy about his own sins. For example, what WAS the cause of the marital breakup that is a recurring theme in Experience? We never find out: Amis dances around the subject, never addressing his apparent role as instigator. He also barely mentions his sister and brother, as if their careers and lives are off-limits. His sister, Sally, is a particularly shadowy character, emerging only as chief mourner at Kingsley's death; his brother Phillip is discussed only in view of his youthful rebellion and later role in reuniting Kingsley with Hilly (Phillip, Martin and Sally's mother), in a bizarre rent-for-caretaking arrangement.
Nevertheless, the book is valuable as a key to Martin Amis's writing. It illuminates his novels as nothing else has; in fact, I plan to re-read the novels in hopes that I'll finally understand the baffling parts of The Information and Money, and perhaps even make it through the hitherto unreadable Other People. I don't, however, recommend Experience for readers not familiar with Martin Amis's books. It's not gossip-laden enough for those who want juicy bits about Kingsley Amis and Phillip Larkin; it's also disappointingly short on information about the A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes feuds. Mainly, it whets the appetite for Amis's next novel--which at the very least should be free of the pain-induced (or painkiller-induced) confusion that marred so many of its predecessors.
on August 21, 2002
I used to have Martin Amis down as both a brilliant writer and an honest one. Now I think of him only as brilliant. 'Experience' is superbly written, but it is, ultimately, evasive. Dirt is not required, not by any means, but what is very clear from Amis's life, and let us believe only a fraction of what the newspapers report, is that there have been times when he has caught himself in very painful (and therefore interesting) situations. The problem with 'Experience' is that Amis expends so much candid energy (and his stamina for high style remains astonishing) discussing the effect that other peoples pain has had on him. His old man, his cousin, various deceased dogs. Amis deals with the anger and grief inflicted upon himself by others suffering beautifully. In short, the pifalls of those he loves are Martin Amis's grief. This however, is all noble pain, it's things we can't help, life, luck. We have no real obligation to feel grief over the death of a father, or a murdered cousin (we may hate them) but it serves to remind us of our own humanity when we do. Amis spends nearly the whole of Experience plugging a simple underlying theme, no more complicated or unpretentious then this; 'I am a humane man.' This is a believable theme and evidence abounds for it in all his novels. But his novels also abound with a certain beady-eyed blackness, an eye for the exquistely pathetic and the hilarity and range of human weakness. To write 'Experience' Amis dropped his most wicked tools, and if your going to write something about YOURSELF, and you want it to be honest and complete, as well as effective and excellent (which 'Experience' unquestionably is), you cannot do this.
I need some examples. Heres two. Amis's sister Sally, seems to have literally expired out of existence. She was 46 and died of an 'infection' after a long depression related illness. Unlike Lucy Partington, Amis's cousin, Sally barely merits a mention after childhood in "Experience." (Amis's brother is also a peculiarly hollow figure.) Granted, Lucy Partington was murdered by Fred West, simaeltaneously unique, sensational, horrific, fully worthy of extensive comment. But Sally Amis, is also dead, also a little tragic, also worty of extensive comment, and she is Martin Amis's sister.
Martin Amis parted from his wife and children to start a new life with another woman. All we get from 'Experience' about these events is that they made him cry on a plane. Discretion is understandable, this fact is NOT missed. But Martin Amis left his wife and children for another woman, a happening that in other writings he has suggested is THE life event, and all he tells the reader about it is that he cried on a plane. Even if this is an indicator of a larger remorse and grief, it is NOT enough. Tragic as it is, writing about a murdered cousin is NOT the hard stuff, writing about self-inflicted family fracture IS.
Actually maybe dishonesty is a misguided accusation, maybe there is a second underlying theme that runs through 'Experience' along these lines. ' No I am not going to go to close to home because it is A. too painful and B.(perhaps a sub-theme of A) just TOO private.
No autobiography (except perhaps those ghost written on behalf of single-celled lock forwards) tells the WHOLE story. But, by my reckoning, Martin Amis's 'Experience' won't shed a light on so much as half. It is an effective and excellent BOOK, it is also a wholly incomplete AUTOBIOGRAPHY. All the superlatives (brilliant, excellent, superb) are well deserved, but they are wierdly offset by what some people may call 'Englishness' and there is something of a the stiff upper lip about the finished product. But if there's one thing that the body of Amis's work, considered as a whole will tell you, its that Amis knows BETTER then that, and that at the heart of the books agile evasiveness, lies, not just a want of privacy but a lack of real courage.
Like many of his novels, Martin Amis's memoir is unconventional. It also is moving, it has many moments of literary brilliance, and it often is quite interesting. But, for me, Amis is too full of himself, he shares too much information (rather like peeing in public), and there is too much flash. In short, EXPERIENCE is over the top. Still, I enjoyed it.
EXPERIENCE is not written in traditional chronological or linear fashion. For me, that's a plus. (Actually, the book is cleverly structured, and it should be of interest to those studying the genre of memoirs or, more broadly, non-fiction writing in general.) Instead, EXPERIENCE -- written by Amis at age fifty -- is organized more around what he has learned in life (hence the title?), three of the more unusual events of his life, and some of the exceptional people he has known.
The unusual events are the vile murder of his cousin Lucy Partington by the serial murderer Frederick West, Amis's serious dental problems (this motif becomes tiresome), and the sudden appearance around the age of forty of a daughter, then nearly twenty, whom he had fathered out-of-wedlock. The exceptional people include Philip Larkin, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow (who, along with Nabokov, Amis deems the "novelist of the century"), and of course his father Kingsley. Indeed, the book is almost as much about Kingsley Amis as it is about Martin. It ends up being a touching tribute to a complex and difficult man. (EXPERIENCE also is a tribute to Martin's mother Hilly.)
One of the unconventional characteristics of the book is that it is heavily footnoted. That no doubt will exasperate some readers, but I found that the footnotes contain a lot of good stuff. The first half of the book Amis loosely organizes around letters he sent as a young man to his father and stepmother. (In an excess of pedantry, these letters are presented with a pestilence of "sic"s.) There is an insert of about two dozen photographs -- quite welcome.
EXPERIENCE was perhaps more interesting to me than it would be to most American readers, first because I came to it with a high regard for both Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, and second for the more personal reason that I happen to have been born one day before Martin Amis. Thus, I found myself, as presumptuous as this may seem, comparing lives. A small example: for Amis, the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) was a much more traumatic, psychically scarring event than it was for me, even though I was living close to one of the putative principal targets for the Soviet ballistic missiles. Amis writes: "The children of the nuclear age, I think, were weakened in their capacity to love. Hard to love, when you're bracing yourself for impact." To me, that's silly.
There is much, however, that is far from silly. Here are a few of the many worthwhile observations I encountered:
* "It's not the case that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. In the future everyone will be famous all the time -- but only in their own minds. It is lookalike fame, karaoke fame."
* "This is where we really go when we die: into the hearts of those who remember us."
* "Kingsley and I agreed * * * that the last forty-odd lines of 'Paradise Lost' were incomparably the greatest thing in non-dramatic poetry in English."
* "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 * * *. 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."
Although far from a perfect book, with EXPERIENCE Martin Amis enters that communion of literature.
on June 29, 2000
It's always exciting when a new Martin Amis book appears and I'd been looking forward to the memoirs. It seems strange to write what's essentially an autobiography at the tender age of 50 but with all the smoking and hacking and cigarettes described in Experience, Amis might be closer to keeling over with lung cancer or angina than he and anyone wants. Perhaps he senses this and wanted to get Experience out there as literary insurance against a coronary. Amis fans know his journalism and wide ranging fiction but the memoir is new territory. It's a weird book in a way - completely un-choreographed and even disorganized. It starts in the middle and ends in the middle and frequents the beginning and the end...in the middle. Amis bounces from subject to subject; he adds to the confusion with all those bleeping footnotes. But these are merely technical points. The writing is superb and even - get this - touching. The peep into the world of literary superstardom is fun. But the surprising star in Experience is Kingsley Amis and the father-son relationship is essentially the only one that's fleshed out. What a relationship that must have been: it seems strangely odd that Martin should have so much affection for Kingsley when they were different in so many ways. It must have been difficult to love someone who publicly decried your work and drank to the point that AA or any number of treatment centers would have welcomed him with a great big hug and a "where have you BEEN Kingsley? We've been looking forward to seeing you." While some might complain that there's not enough dirt about the dirt in Martin's life (the breakup with the absolutely stunning wife #1 for the absolutely stunning wife #2 and the punch ups with various writers) I would have enjoyed more about the making of some of my favorite books - like London Fields, Money, the Moronic Inferno. I guess we'll have to hope that Martin packs in the fags and lives long enough to write Experience II - THE SEQUEL!
on June 28, 2000
Amis has often been criticized for putting words before feeling or emotion, and to some extent that has been true in his fiction. It has been observed by others (e.g. Michiko Kakutani in the NY Times) that this memoir is Amis's "most fully realized book yet." While I do not necessarily agree with that sentiment, it is certainly true that this book is more heartfelt and emotionally honest than Amis's prior fiction. There were points where I was practically moved to tears, something that has never happened to me with Amis's fiction (unless you count tears of laughter).
The book is a near-perfect evocation of experience and memory. It unfolds not chronoligically, but jumps back and forth in time, looping and swirling back on itself, just like memory. The book is supplemented by footnotes ("to preserve the collateral thought") and also interspersed with Amis's school-age letters to Kingsley and his then-wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, "to allow the reader . . .to enjoy a few moments of vacuity, of luxurious inanition before coming to the matter ahead." These letters are strategically placed for precisely this purpose, and after a while you can start to predict when one will turn up.
While Amis devotes considerable time to his dental problems (and those of Joyce and Nabokov), his travails with the press, and the devastating loss of his cousin Lucy Partington to a notorious serial killer, the focus of the book is a touching partrait of his father, especially during the last several years of his life. This book should not be seen as a "memoir" in the autobiographical sense. "Experience" is certainly not an autobiography, and it might disappoint those who are hoping for a detailed account of Martin's life. It succeeds rather in its honesty, its loving portrait of a sometimes unlovable father, and its illumination of the writer's mind.
With his usual dazzling prose, Amis' explores themes of innocence and experience, loss and recovery, and of death and rebirth. Practically everything in the book is filtered through these themes, even the teeth (old teeth lost, new teeth gained; pain as "experience").
There are some curious hiccups. Amis "helps" the reader by defining some terms he uses (e.g. "ex cathedra" is "speaking with the full authority of office"; and Amis writes that his father suffers from "nyctophobia, or fear of the night") yet elsewhere uses words or phrases far more obscure (e.g. "eidolon") without definition. The "assistance" is simply not necessary, and feels almost condescending. Other choices are rather odd: the word "imago" (wonderfully precise, though still an obscure, once-a-book word) appears three times in about 50 pages. Yet, these are minor quibbles.
One of the reviews here (by a "reader") criticizes Amis for merely adumbrating certain characters, such as his sister Sally and his brother Phillip, yet truly, who cares? I don't believe anyone will read this book hoping to get a full portrait of Martin's brother or sister. If you want more detail about them, or the breakdown of Amis's marriage to Antonia Phillips, wait for the biography, because you won't get it here. The book is primarily about his father and his relationship - both as a writer and as a son - with his father. Tellingly, at a reading of "Night Train" I attended, when asked what he was working on, Amis replied "a kind of memoir about the last few years of my father's life." That is "Experience": it is *not* intended to be a biography of Kingsley, or an autobiography.
The book is simply beautifully written. It is poignant, touching and heartfelt without being maudlin. For example (not entirely random, yet wonderful passages occur frequently), here is Amis recalling some photographs taken by his first wife of Amis with Christopher Hitchens, both holding their first sons in their arms:
"I said to myself, Look at it: Look at what you've done. There is the rented car, a different rented car, in which you will drive alone to Logan. There is your wife, crying in the drive. Beyond her are your boys on the patch of grass, with that zoo of theirs - the frogs, the turtles."
This is simply haunting, concise and perfectly evocative prose. With Amis, we've come to expect nothing less.
on November 29, 2015
This was advertised to be about Martin Amis' father, Kingsley Amis, and many other writers Martin has met, in whom I would have been very intreseted. I did not have the patience to hunt all the way through this book to find out if there really is much material of that sort but I can already attest that it is mostly about Martin. It includes letters he wrote while he was in public school. They show no foreshadowing of any kind of talent or intelligence. Not that anyone would expect much, other than the family member to whom such a letter would be addressed. By his own account Martin was small, unattractive, childish, insecure and led a distressing but uninteresting life. His account of this life is neither illuminating nor witty. As a disclaimer, I have found previous books of his to be strained, almost hysterical accounts of mild and common dissipation, a kind of myopic striving for pop chic. They seem to be mostly complaints about a privileged existence. Calling his sports car a Fiasco was funny but his owning and driving the absurd status symbol was the usual, as above.