Friday, 11 December 2009

Experience by Martin Amis

Martin Amis, you will discover, is a human punching bag for critics. Google his name or one of his books, and you will find an endless resource of Amis-bashing from broadsheets to boobrags.

The reason? Pretension. People perceive Amis as a conceited windbag who ranks himself amongst Nabokov, Saul Bellow and his father Kingsley in the pantheon of literary greats. The voice doesn’t help – that interminable transatlantic drawl with its considered hesitations and self-important emphases.

The fact of the matter, of the fact of the matter (of the matter), is that Amis is a towering presence in the field of lit-crit: the sharpest and smartest Nero of criticism working in Britain right now, with almost four decades of experience under his belt.

Which brings me to Experience, a book that is not about lit-crit, that is not about literature, but which purports to be about Amis and his dad. Well, firstly, there is no book about Martin Amis which is not about lit-crit and the process of writing. After the first fifty pages – past the infinitesimal detail about his entrance into the litosphere – I got the impression Amis had been imprisoned in this role of literary executioner since birth. His entrance into the literary world is so casual, like a son automatically following in his dad's footsteps, that it is barely covered.

The novel is largely about Amis’s relationship with his father Kingsley Amis and his cousin Lucy Partington, cut down by Fred West at a bus stop at the age of 21. Amis writes about his father using an incredible amount of literary comparisons and footnotes, showing how much he learned of his father through his books, and quite how important ‘the book’ was in their lives – scarcely a day in the Amis household would pass without reference to the Greats.

As is to be expected in household of writers who count Philip Larkin as a cuddly uncle. Anyway, this book is fascinating and intimate. Amis was deeply affected by his cousin’s death, and her presence is felt throughout the whole novel, mirroring her impact on his life. Kingsley is evoked as a genius, wit, and a hilariously un-PC father, but also an adulterer, paranoid and lonely man.

Amis looks back on his youth with humour and contempt – including a series of spotty photos in the sleeve – and tackles the press who fondly hound him, and romanticises his dental agony as being a sign of greatness. There are the usual Amis preoccupations to be found here – Nabokov, Saul Bellow and his never-less-than-irritating mate Christopher Hitchens.

Even if you’re not a fiftysomething intellectual from a time when people had staunch political stances and voiced ‘radical’ opinions among the bourgeois highbrow crowd, you should find this memoir a touching portrait of an unconventional and privileged upbringing. The passages about his father's death are especially touching. Amis's most honest and lyrical writing is to be found here.

Or, you’ll find this a self-indulgent portrait of a man you have absolutely interest in whatsoever.

I rather enjoyed it, you know.

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