Be interesting!

John Lanchester

  • Experience by Martin Amis
    Cape, 401 pp, £18.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 224 05060 5

In the middle of the current memoir boom it is easy to forget that the novelist’s memoir is a distinct and recent genre. There are, it goes without saying, any number of first-rate writers whose main claim on our attention is their autobiographical work; there are great writers whose letters and/or diaries add up to masterpieces of self-portraiture (Byron, Woolf, Flaubert); there are, and this, too, is a contemporary phenomenon, writers who turn to fiction after an explicitly autobiographical first book. But none of those cases is quite the same as that of the novelist of established reputation and readership who at some mid or late point in his career (the pronoun is not quite gender-neutral, since for some reason it is usually a man) sits down to tell the story of his life. Nabokov’s Speak, Memory is in this and other respects an important book, and it also establishes the defining problem of the genre, which is how to give the memoir an artistically gratifying shape while remaining true to the messiness and quotidianness of lived life. It’s a problem which, to my mind, the great man outrageously flunked, settling for a spurious and cod-mystical belief in pattern, as if life were as pretty in its shapes and echoes and motifs as a work of fiction – his fiction. The much-acclaimed result, while full of astounding things, is also hysterical and, in some important sense, feels false.

The opposite approach to the problem is to make no attempt to impose a shape on experience: to let life have its messiness, and let the book pay the necessary price in terms of formal imperfection. Anthony Powell’s four-volume memoirs, published from 1976 to 1982, are something of a masterpiece in this mode, combining a deceptive casualness of manner with an almost epigrammatical density of insight. Its pen portraits are, in an unassuming way, extremely crisp.

Friendly, easy, picking up instantaneously the most lightly suggested nuance in conversation, Eliot had also just a touch of the headmaster, laying aside his dignity for a talk with the more intelligent boys, boys from whom he was quite prepared to pick up something for his own use; indeed a headmaster who had learnt deep humility from shattering experiences. None the less the façade of buttered scones and toasted crumpets – both representing a perfectly genuine taste in Eliot – was by this time all but impenetrable ... This amalgam of tea-party cosiness with a cold intellectuality, the more menacing because strictly implicit rather than explicit, gave Tom Eliot’s personality that very peculiar flavour ...

All novelist’s memoirs exist somewhere on this Nabokov-Powell continuum. Updike’s Self-Consciousness is well up at the art-over-life end of the spectrum; Philip Roth’s record-straightening and strangely flat The Facts is, perhaps surprisingly, of the other type (and his intensely focused Patrimony is somewhere in the middle). Kingsley Amis’s riotous Memoirs are lifelike, too much so for some. Terence Kilmartin once said that the book was ‘fantastically idle’ – which was part of the point. In a sense, it’s logical for a novelist to choose this second course, since a novelist more or less by definition is someone who believes in the ascendancy of fiction over fact. What that usually boils down to is a belief in the superior veracity of fiction: that you can tell more of the truth about more of life by making things up. In Rortyian terms, it’s a commitment to the idea that the kinds of sentence used in fiction do more, better and more important work than other sorts of sentence. If you didn’t believe that you wouldn’t bother writing novels. A memoir by a novelist is therefore, pace Nabokov, likely to be less artistic, less shapely, less considered and made, and in the larger sense less truthful than a novel. On the other hand, it does have going for it the very considerable glamour of fact.

Martin Amis’s memoir Experience – published to harrypotterish levels of excitement and with an amazingly clumsy serialisation – is autobiographical writing of a very high order, well towards the life-over-art end of the spectrum. ‘The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity,’ Amis announces at the start of the book.

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[*] There are a lot of footnotes about at the moment, and I thought I’d hop onto the bandwagon before it gathered any more speed. The footnotes in Amis’s book are often short diversions into memory or literary criticism, away from the main emotional axis of the book. Another literary memoir causing a storm at the moment is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a 30-year-old American writer (and editor of the literary periodical McSweeney’s) who is currently hoovering up the laurels in the USA. Eggers uses a huge repertoire of Post-Modern tricks – jokey prefaces, footnotes, frontpapers, etc – to moderate the main current of feeling in his memoir, which is about his parents’ near-simultaneous deaths and his subsequently having to bring up his younger brother. It’s as if he uses the footnotes to deflect, or escape from, the strength of his own feelings; which isn’t a million miles away from Amis’s use of them.