Review: Experience by Martin Amis

The review below was originally published in Red Pepper some time in 2000. I came across it recently while reminiscing with the aid of The Wayback Machine.

The publication in 1995 of his novel The Information was accompanied by a wave of journalistic tattle perhaps unprecedented for a British novelist. The scoop, the skinny was this: Martin Amis had forsaken his longtime agent Pat Kavanagh. So what? Well, Kavanagh happened to be married to none other than Julian Barnes, Amis’s fellow novelist and close friend. Still unimpressed? Get this: he ditched Kavanagh in favour of Andrew Wylie, a shark-like figure famed and feared in the publishing industry for the remorseless tenacity with which he pursues ever more lucrative deals for his charges. The clincher, though, was not the £500,000 advance Wylie was rumoured to have secured for The Information. No, the real sensation was what Amis was said to have spent a dizzying fraction of the money on. Wait for it.

He got his teeth fixed.

The story, it seemed, had everything. It had, at any rate, the serviceable trinity of treachery, avarice and vanity, sins of sufficiently wide currency to propel even a literary novelist into the 48-point notoriety of the tabloids. But it had, of course, been routinely distorted. For some, there was white-hot catharsis in this tale of intellectual might succumbing to the most ordinary of weaknesses, and no nuance that might intervene would survive.

In Experience, Amis sets about coolly subtracting from the scandals to reveal a version of events that conforms to his observation, in an early passage, that life offends the novelist with ‘its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity’. His horrendous dental overhaul, for instance, was provoked not by a mid-life quest after an imago with impeccable pearly-whites, but by the discovery, after years of timorous procrastination, of a tumour.

But the book is no mere screed of vindication. Amis’s press ordeal was as quotidian as it was injurious, and its rebuttal is not unnecessarily protracted. Nor is he so susceptible to slight as to have been sent lurching to the bureau by the teeth affair alone. In approaching the autobiographical dredge of the psyche, his main preoccupations are disarmingly universal. ‘I do it,’ he writes, ‘because I feel the same stirrings that everyone else feels’.

The best of you is still here, and I still have it.

If one urge is foremost, it is Amis’s apparently straightforward wish to commemorate his late father. Kingsley Amis, of course, was himself a celebrated novelist; Amis fils introduces their relationship as ‘a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son’. Here is a writer of formidable gifts, then, paying tribute to another, but here too is a son who bore a complicated love for a father who could oscillate between gregarious hilarity and remote petulance. Nor can the strands be fully separated. The younger Amis has an intimate knowledge of his father’s œuvre, and his close readings (which are admittedly partisan, but far from uniformly reverent) often give way, without sharp demarcation, to anecdote or reminiscence, as the child reclaims the vanished parent by means of this purest of communions. ‘The best of you is here,’ he affirms, ‘and I still have it’.

A loss that could not be mediated by a literary legacy was that of Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington. Lucy’s remains were discovered in the house of Frederick West in 1994. She had disappeared in 1973. The absence of this adored figure, pensive and gifted, recurs in Amis’s recollections like an ache. The possible magnitude of her suffering at West’s hands haunts him. He is much concerned with innocence and its extinction (he has long insisted that Paradise Lost is ‘the central poem in our language’), and Lucy Partington, whose innocence was cancelled out by its appalling opposite, becomes the focus of these meditations.

Towards the beginning of his memoir, Martin Amis, a writer of unique power to polarise opinion with his knowing stylistic swagger, lets it be known that he has undertaken to write, for the first time, ‘without artifice’. He does not mean, of course, that he will abandon all formality and hose the reader with unchecked consciousness. In fact, Experience is more formally exquisite than ever, with instances of the familiar linguistic brilliance almost distracting in their frequency. What he means is that he will abstain from the comforting devices of fiction and confront life in all its crazed variety. He has done so, and produced a work of seductive candour and considerable emotional weight.

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