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.

Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending ... My organisational principles, therefore, derive from an inner urgency, and from the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections. The method, plus the use of footnotes (to preserve the collateral thought), should give a clear view of the geography of a writer’s mind. If the effect sometimes seems staccato, tangential, stopgo, etc, then I can only say that that’s what it’s like, on my side of the desk.

That’s clear enough. The engrossing result is a memoir that is almost remorselessly interesting; as if there has been an energising liberation in abandoning the constraints and demands of form. There is a famous piece of advice about all this: ‘Be interesting! Be interesting! Art is no excuse for boring people!’ This is counsel which Experience has taken:

Only a week earlier my mouth had soured a New Yorker dinner at the Caprice in London by indulging in this ‘exchange’ with Salman Rushdie:

     – So you like Beckett’s prose, do you? You like Beckett’s prose.

     Having established earlier that he did like Beckett’s prose, Salman neglected to answer.

     – Okay. Quote me some. Oh I see. You can’t.

     No answer: only the extreme hooded-eye treatment. Richard Avedon would need a studio’s worth of lights and reflectors to rig up this expression on an unsuspecting Salman. At the moment, though, a passing waiter with an Instamatic could have easily bettered it. Nobody spoke. Not even Christopher Hitchens. And I really do hate Beckett’s prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear. So I said:

     – Well I’ll do it for you. All you need is maximum ugliness and a lot of negatives. ‘Nor it the nothing never is.’ ‘Neither nowhere the nothing is not.’ ‘Non-nothing the never –’

     Feeling my father in me now (as well as the couple of hundred glasses of wine consumed at the party we had all come on from), I settled down for a concerted goad and wheedle. By this stage Salman looked like a falcon staring through a Venetian blind.

     – ‘No neither nor never none not no –’

     – ‘Do you want to come outside?’

End of evening.

There might be some sense in which that isn’t ‘literature’, but who cares?

Experience is structured around an annus horribilis for Amis, 1994-95, a period which encompassed his father’s final illness and death; the loss of all his teeth in extensive, excruciating dental work (and the lavishly hostile treatment of the event in the press); the aftermath of his divorce; a parting of ways with his agent Pat Kavanagh and her husband, his great friend, Julian Barnes; the near-death of his mentor Saul Bellow; the discovery that his maternal cousin Lucy Partington, missing since she disappeared without trace in December 1973, had been one of the victims of Fred West. To contemplate this sequence is to see how it might well have needed expression in something other than a novel – especially bearing in mind the accompaniment to all the above of a cacophony of jeering in the press.

It’s no secret that the idiot wind roars strongly in British journalism, and for some reason it has tended to blow in Amis’s direction with particular savagery. I remember in 1993 reading news of the break-up of his marriage, as enthusiastically reported in the Sunday Times by a columnist who announced that he was ‘having trouble controlling my Schadenfreude’ over the news. In those days I used to think that nothing about the papers in this country could ever surprise me again, but I did do a double-take at that. I thought: what on earth did Amis do to deserve this? What did he do to you? You thought that the thematic superstructure of London Fields was a bit top-heavy, perhaps – so you’re chuffed that his marriage has broken up? And that comment was by no means unrepresentative of the press coverage Amis was to have over the next few years. The teeth in particular got people going, and again a deliberate ill-will was hugely evident, since if someone is having to spend £30,000 on dental work (I’ve no idea if that was what it actually cost, but it was a figure much tutted over at the time), and a heart bypass costs about £10,000, then that someone is clearly going to have some extraordinarily horrible things happening to his mouth. It’s easy to see why Amis needed to write about his life, if only as a way of redescribing it to himself.

The heart of Experience is in Amis’s account of his relationship with his father. This, too, is a subject that gets people going, not least because of Kingsley’s expressed lack of reverence for his son’s fiction. Kingsley, however, didn’t like anybody’s novels apart from those of Anthony Powell and Dick Francis, and his absolute honesty about this was a crucial part of his character. As Martin says, in some absolutely central way, Kingsley refused to make allowances for anyone, ever. He never faked interest in anything. This appears to have made him a rather good father, in a now discredited style: for instance, from the age of five the Amis children were allowed to smoke a cigarette on Christmas Day. He clearly didn’t have, and couldn’t be bothered to feign, much interest in them when they were small, but, thought-provokingly, it seems as if this in some way made him closer to them when they grew up. Because Kingsley had never pretended to be someone he wasn’t, and never took on a paternal role out of a sense of obligation, there seems to have been less distance to overcome when Martin was older. It’s a portrait of a remarkably close, easy and above all honest relationship. Experience recounts tremendous arguments (‘the velvet revolutions of 1989 had left him a bit short of obvious villains and hate-figures – until, incredibly, he settled on Nelson Mandela’) and even more tremendous jokes. Amis is a much-envied man, but this relationship really is worth envying:

My father and I often had occasion to agree that ‘fuck off’ was very funny. One naturally admired its brutality and brevity – but it was also terribly good.

     But the best fuck off of all time had Dad at the receiving end of it. Or at least he stage-managed it so. One afternoon, in Hampstead ... he came in through the front door after posting a letter, laughing quietly and richly to himself. I said:

– What was so funny?

– I saw a bloody fool of a dog just now ...

     It was a genuine summer’s day, concerted and cloudless. On his way to the letterbox my father had passed a full-grown Alsatian apparently asleep on the boiling breast of a parked car. He looked interestedly at the dog and the dog roused itself and stared back, as if to say: I’m lying on this car – all right? On his walk back from the letterbox he looked at the dog again, and the dog stared back, adding: It may be hot but I’m still lying on this car. Before opening the garden door he turned for a final glance.

     – What did it do? I urged him, because he was laughing quietly and richly to himself.

     It lifted its head from its paws and straightened its neck and went ... Kingsley did one of two things. Either he made the bark sound exactly like fuck off. Or he made fuck off sound exactly like the bark.

     When he made you laugh he sometimes made you laugh – not continually, but punctually – for the rest of your life.

The depiction of Martin and Kingsley’s relationship is one of the most remarkable son-father accounts we have; as good as Gosse, but without the rancour. These sections of the book also contain an important clue to something which has gone astray in Amis’s fiction since his masterpiece, Money, in 1984. The novels since then have tended to have a mix of superbly good writing with false notes and a straining for effect or largeness. They have combined brilliant comedy with serious preoccupations that often feel worked up. The solemn central concern has varied: in London Fields it was nuclear weapons (a Very Bad Thing), in Time’s Arrow it was the Holocaust (another VBT), in The Information it was man’s tininess in relation to the infinitely indifferent cosmos (not necessarily a VBT but it doesn’t half make you feel small and meaningless). Experience perhaps suggests where some of the impetus to this comes from. Amis mentions a very powerful negative review of his father by John Updike, published in 1978 when Jake’s Thing came out, and collected in Hugging the Shore in 1983. It’s a much less patronising, and more overtly hostile, review than usual for Updike, and it begins:

If the postwar English novel figures on the international scene as winsomely trivial, Kingsley Amis must bear some of the blame. Though he himself is a poet good enough to be generously represented in The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse (which Mr Amis himself edited), it is a rare sentence of his that surrenders to the demons of language, that abdicates a seat of fussy social judgment, that is there for its own sake, out of simple awe, gratitude or dismay in the face of creation. His universe is claustrophobically human, and his ambition and reputation alike remain in thrall to the weary concept of the ‘comic novel’.

Amis says that the judgment about his father’s work being ‘claustrophobically human’ – he misremembers the phrase as ‘stiflingly human’ – ‘haunts’ him, and it certainly is a sore-point verdict that’s difficult for an admirer of Kingsley’s to dismiss entirely. Amis describes himself quoting the review to his father in 1984, presumably not long after Hugging the Shore came out. It makes me wonder if the piece had an effect on Amis’s own fiction, pushing him in the direction of the extra-human, anti-comic dimensions whose presence in his work often feels so willed. These elements figure as an impulse towards inexpressibility, towards things which resist being spoken of. One could say in shorthand that he has a desire to write of those things about which Wittgenstein thought we must remain silent.

In Experience these passages largely concern his murdered cousin, Lucy Partington. Some observers and commentators have doubted Amis’s good faith in writing about someone he did not know well (as he freely says), a charge which, I would suggest, mistakes the nature of grief. Grief is as mysterious as love, and can operate with all kinds of unpredictable intensities and intermittencies; no other emotion (including love) is entirely inaccessible to volition. When someone disappears the worst thoughts involve imagining the worst possible outcomes for the missing person. In the case of Lucy Partington, the revealed truth, longed for and dreaded for over two decades, exceeded any horror her family could possibly have conceived. Add to that the circumstances of Amis’s terrible year and it would have been surprising if the discovery of her fate had not been devastating. But this is not to say that its depiction in Experience succeeds, since the writing often goes both flat and strained:

My family cannot understand the extraordinary collision that allowed him [the murderer] to touch our lives, and I have no wish to prolong the contact. But he is here now, in my head; I want him exorcised. And Frederick West is uncontrollable: he is uncontrollable. For now he will get from me a one-sentence verdict and I will get from him a single detail. Here is the sentence. West was a sordid inadequate who was trained by his childhood to addict himself to the moment when impotence becomes prepotence.

Given that build-up, the sentence about West ought to do better. Especially as there is really no need to say anything, and nothing can match the horror and pity of the bare case. There are several moments like that in Experience. Another concession to inexpressibility, and another aesthetic mistake, is the postscript visit to Auschwitz.

It would, however, he unfair to end on a note of dispraise. There are dark things in Experience but it is not a dark book, not least because of the extraordinary absence of the bitterness and anger Amis would be thoroughly entitled to feel about the British press. (He permits himself only a short but stinging appendix on the subject of Eric Jacobs, his father’s biographer.) The book is full of good humour, of the ‘gossip and jokes’ which Gore Vidal once convincingly said were the things for which people read memoirs. Experience is full of a lovely warmth about Amis’s mother (‘There were many reasons why my mother loved living in Spain, not the least of them being that you could, in most pharmacies, buy speed over the counter’), and of dead-on observations (on the 1970s: ‘It amazes me, now, that any of us managed to write a word of sense during the whole decade, considering that we were all evidently stupid enough to wear flares’). There is an antic parade of footnotes,[*] of stories and asides and, throughout, an engaging and persuasive openness.

Experience also describes the one big good thing which happened to Amis during his otherwise horrible year. He returned from a trip to America to find a letter telling him that he had a daughter he didn’t know: Delilah Seale, conceived during a fling with her married mother, Lamorna, 18 years before. Lamorna Seale killed herself two years later, and Delilah was brought up by Patrick Seale unaware of the identity of her biological father – just as Amis was unaware he had a daughter. Now Delilah had been told, and it was Amis’s turn, and time for the two to meet. Except that Amis had half-known, since Lamorna had once given him a photograph of the little girl and told him she was his daughter. Amis had shown the photograph to his mother:

     – Lamorna says I’m her father. What do you think, Mum?

     She held the photograph at various distances from her eyes. She held it at arm’s length, her free hand steadying her glasses. She brought it closer. Without looking up she said:

     – Definitely.

And then Experience goes more or less silent on the subject of the girl, until she resurfaces many years and pages later. Amis doesn’t tell us what he thought about his missing daughter, other than to say she must have been ‘in the back of my mind’. The account is all the more effective and moving for that, and the parallel between the girl who went missing, and turned out to have a terrible fate, and the other girl who was found without ever having been lost, is proof that when life does manage a bit of structure and pattern, it’s as good as Shakespeare. Amis doesn’t labour the point. He can leave things out, to great effect, when he wants to.

[*] 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.