Martin Amis’s novels have been appearing more or less triennially since The Rachel Papers in 1973, when he was 24. When Night Train, a sort of philosophical thriller (and a short trip—only 147 pages), appeared in 1997, the year 2000 seemed the logical ETA for the next big fiction: but the year passed with no new novel coming puffing down the tracks. What arrived instead was a memoir weighty in size and subject matter, a work that urgently, often painfully, recounted and reflected on what those early novels by a precocious talent barely out of Oxford could not have: Experience.
Amis, 50 at the time of writing, was secure in his reputation as one of Britain’s leading serious novelists, as well as being a celebrity hotly watched by the country’s literary journalists. These, by and large, bore him a long-standing grudge—or so the story goes—for his unfair fast-track to artistic success (from Oxford to a junior editorship on the Times Literary Supplement overnight, plus endless handy pointers, presumably, from his novelist dad, Sir Kingsley, whose circle of friends included many of the best writers of his generation, all of whom lucky little Martin got to meet during long, drunken luncheons in the living room: or so the story goes, more or less). Martin’s story—Experience: A Memoir—doesn’t deny the defining fact of fame in his life, either his own fame or that of his father and his circle. “Namedropping is unavoidabl[e]” he warns at the outset, and many names appear: Larkin, Graves, Betjemen, Bellow, MacEwan, Rushdie, Vidal, Naipaul, and others. But no life, Amis insists, however dazzlingly spotlit, lacks for shadows, and this book, for all its trademark stylistic verve and mordant wit, is a book of shadows: ghosts, griefs, and dark forebodings walk its pages, and the absence of the steady comedy and caricature of the novels give it, for the most part, a tragic vision.
My life, it seems to me, is ridiculously shapeless. I know what makes a good narrative, and lives don’t have much of that—pattern and balance, form, completion, commensurateness. It is often the case that a Life, at least to start with, will resemble a success story; but the only shape that life dependably exhibits is that of tragedy—minus all the grand stuff about nemesis, fortune’s wheel, and the fatal flaw. Tragedy follows the line of the mouth on the tragic mask…. You rise to a crest and then curve down to a further point along the same latitude.
Of course songs of experience are often bitter, and although Blake, author of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, believed innocence could be regained in some measure in the midst of the disillusions of adulthood, death and loss don’t go away. Amis makes brief, maybe envious reference to Blake singing on his deathbed; when his wife asked him whose songs they were, he answered: “My beloved, they are not mine, no, they are not mine.” But no overheard heavenly choruses attend the two defining deaths of Amis’s book: the first, his father’s, a slow and miserable one, and the second, his young cousin’s, sudden, mysterious—and unbelievably savage.
“Perhaps the most revealing thing my father ever said,” Amis notes, “was in response to Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s question…‘You [an] atheist?’ He answered: ‘Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.’” Sir Kingsley Amis died in 1995, after months of Alzheimer’s disease had stopped him from finishing a novel and finally stopped all clear speech. This Amis sums up with the remark, “the words had left him,” and words had been the substance of the elder writer’s only faith. The wrenching record of the family’s hospital visits and bedside vigils illustrate the terminal facts all human roads point toward, past a certain age: “the articles of faith for a man of fifty,” as Amis calls them: “the parents are going, the children are staying, and I am somewhere in between.” As these articles suggest, the faith of the younger Amis is no more theological than that of the elder, but constitutes, as one would expect from a latter-day litterateur, a stoic (and sometimes rather mopey) humanism. In a chapter called “Permanent Soul,” he quotes Saul Bellow on the need to establish “sober, decent terms with death” and illustrates the dictum with a description of the death of the poet Cecil Day Lewis, which he witnessed:
[H]is equanimity, his stillness, drew me in closer. It was an extraordinary demonstration. He was showing how you could keep your self-possession, right to the end; you still had your permanent soul…And the dying got done.
The idea that living and dying, after the spontaneous joie de vivre of childhood has faded, are equally tasks to be stoically accepted, echoes throughout the book: “existence still is the job,” he remarks in a chapter that uses that phrase for its title. It’s funny that a writer who considers himself so boldly philosophical can have his outlook reduced in the end to the British stiff upper lip.
But that may be unfair, because the stiffly upper-lipped are famously humourless, and what Amis is famous for is finding humour amid all his post-modern disaffection, and he does so in Experience—including a joking trope of the stiff upper lip idea itself. In the midst of middle-aged dental woes—aches, implants and “falsies”—he finds himself, recently divested of all his front teeth, with the flaccid, dangling opposite of the mouth of a British stoic. The dental torment here becomes a image of life’s larger ones, and the resolve to grin and bear it all is sadly laughed at.
For this man of 50, and parent, the fact that “the children are staying” is the bright point in all the shadows. The ultimate piece of information in The Information (1994) is the fact that we die, and the ultimate experience in Experience is the realization of mortality. Childhood has yet to face this: in its innocence it perceives life as promise; play, not work. Amis’s memories of his own childhood, recounted in the early chapters, are largely fond, and his children (including one he never meets until she is almost 20) repeatedly relieve the gravitas.
But what if innocence is violently interrupted? The most harrowing part of the memoir recounts the disappearance of Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington in 1973, when she was 21. Her remains were exhumed twenty years later from the back yard of Frederick West, the worst serial killer in British history. Besides his other victims, West raped and sexually tortured his own children, murdering two of them. For Amis, he is the embodiment of evil, and the discovery of evil is part of no longer being a child. To a parent, though, the knowledge of the sort of world one’s children must soon enter is almost worse than one’s own experience of that world. On this painful subject, as on others, Amis grits his teeth, or his dentures, and writes—well.