Sunday, October 24, 2010

Experience by Martin Amis

Don't approach this book (2000) of memoirs thinking you are going to get a free ride. Oh no. Amis writes this like his novels, you must come to the table with your thinking cap. "Even the best kind of popular novel just comes straight at you; you have no conversation with a popular novel" (p. 224). I would not recommend reading the memoirs without having read his novels up to The Information. It is hardly an autobiography. It is generally agreed that the book was written in response to his father's death in 1995, that would be Kingsley Amis, famous British author. A large fraction of the content is about his father. "Why should I tell the story of my life ? I do it because my father is dead now, and I always knew I would have to commemorate him. He was a writer and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case - a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son" (pp. 6-7). But his musings of his father are from his personal reference points. Diedrick (Understanding Martin Amis) makes the observation that Martin and his father viewed themselves as playing a curatorial role as guardians of the English language. Martin observes his father's intimate fondness of the Concise Oxford Dictionary - "When it [COD] was nearby and he was praising it..., he would sometimes pat and even stroke the squat black book, as if it were one of his cats" (p. 285n). The book opens with the interrogative "-Dad." (p. 3), establishing the patriarchal focus and preoccupation of the memoir that follows. When the trajectory is completed, at his father's death, Martin states "It is 1995 and he has been there since 1949" (p. 345), Martin's birth date (not his father's), a telling way to delimit.

The balance of the book deals with his childhood and admission to Oxford, with inevitable discussion about the gruesome and well publicised murder of his cousin Lucy Partington. Last but not least, he also has a daughter Delilah, who was born following a brief affair with Lamorna Seale in 1974 and with whom he had no contact until she was 19. This twin loss (Lucy and Delilah) is what he refers to as his "missing" (p. 3). It has been said that his personal life is denser than his novels. Some reviewers called Experience exhibitionist. It seems there are times when the reader is given priority over his friends, in revealing personal details, like Julian Barnes. Comments are often made that Martin Amis is the Mick Jagger of literature.

One of the more interesting discussions has to do with his Madison Ave. dental reconstruction, which the media believed was sponsored by his publisher as part of his lucrative book deal for The Information. He dispels this in a footnote (p. 210n). It resurfaces later (p.346) "the Fourth Estate is still agog about my dental work."

Both Martin and his father were married twice (so far). Kingsley was married to Hilary Ann Bardwell (1948-1965) and Elizabeth Jane Howard (1965-1983). Kingsley moved back in with Hilary after Jane left him in 1985 (p. 296). Amis was married to Antonia Phillips (1984-1993) and Isabel Fonseca (1996-present), the book dedicatee. At one point, Martin goes to his father for advice, at the time he is leaving his 1st wife - "only to him I could talk about what I was doing to my children. Because he had done it to me" (p. 99). Astute readers will note how little lip service is given to M.A.'s first wife, Antonia. There is a poignant scene at the Cape Cod home in Horseleech Pond (location of the Heavy Water story "What Happened to Me on My Holiday") when Amis leaves his 1st wife and 2 boys "All this is going to go. All this is going to disappear. This will fail. I will fail. I said to myself, Look at it: Look at what you've done...There is your wife, crying in the drive. Beyond her are your boys on the patch of grass..." (p. 269). It was Kingsley who said "It's only half a life without a woman" (p. 28). While on the topic of wisdom related to love, it was Martin who said "love has two opposites. One is hate. One is re-alerts you to death" (p. 187).

The book is divided into two parts (1) Unawakened and (2) The Main Events. "Unawakened" is in the sense of unaroused (p. 349), innocent. The "Main Events" are what constitute the mad rush of Experience. The basic structure of the book is alternating letters from "Mart" and random memoirs, no chronology followed. Most of the letters are addressed "Dear Dad and Jane." This changes in 1971 "So Dad has dropped out, rather hurtfully in retrospect" (p.250). The letters are extraordinarily open and read much like the character Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers. The letters are all innocence. Martin was upset by the discovery that his father was having an affair with the woman that would become his 2nd wife. When Martin and brother Philip pay an unexpected visit to his father "He was horrified to see us. We had busted him in flagrante delicto....It would have been an impossible heresy for me to admit that any woman was more beautiful than my mother. But I could tell at once that Jane, while also being beautiful, was certainly more experienced. And experience accounts for the well-attested attraction, to the Young Man, of the Older Woman" (pp.144-145).

Much ado (no pun intended) is made on the part of the author with his persona Osric (from Shakespeare's Hamlet - Hamlet calls Osric the "water-fly," a comic who flits aimlessly across the water's surface). Osric is the courtier sent by Claudius to invite Hamlet to participate in the duel with Laertes. Osric, as well as Polonius, engages with Hamlet in the elaborate, witty discourse, fully consistent with Baldassare Castiglone's 1528 work, The Courtier. This work outlines several courtly rules, specifically advising royal retainers to amuse their masters with inventive language. It's Martin in a nutshell. He also identifies (p. 153) with Kinch (nickname meaning "knife" attributed to Stephen Daedalus in Joyce's Ulysses) and Pnin in Nabokov's book of the same name.

Amis' mother, "Hilly" had a sister Miggy Partington. The Partington clan is very close to Martin Amis as a youth. While the Amis clan was "city" the Partington clan was "country." When they mixed, "the lion lay down with the lamb" (p. 135). Amis, in an interview with Charlie Rose in 1998 (Feb 5,, revealed he was a cousin of Lucy Partington. In the interview, Amis reveals that this event played a major role in his novels embodied in themes of vanished girls. The novelist Maureen Freely "noted the punctual arrival...of a stream of lost or wandering daughters and putative or fugitive fathers" (p. 280). She was the daughter of Miggy Partington, sister of Martin's mother (Hilary Bardwell). Amis recounts "On the night of 27 December 1973, Lucy Partington was abducted by one of the most prolific murderers in British history, Frederick West. We know what happened to her after death. She was decapitated and dismembered, and her remains were crammed into a shaft between two leaking sewer pipes, along with a knife, a rope, a section of masking-tape and two hairgrips. But the terrible imponderable was what happened to her when she was still alive" (pp. 62-63). Interestingly, the family did not know who the killer was until 5 March 1994. Lucy's sister Marion kept a diary, with entry "Saturday, March 5 10:15 phone call from the police saying they would like to come over to talk to us [Marian and her mother]. They have some 'news' for us' (p. 66). This revelation about the serial killer catapulted Amis from innocence to experience rapidly in what would be a perfect storm of horrifying events, culminating in the death of his father in November, 1995. He comments "1994 and 1995 had not gone out of their way to persuade me that I was immune to disaster" (p. 287).

Hari (The Independent) in reviewing Amis' subsequent memoir Korba the Dread, makes the case that Amis believes Fred West's evil stems from literary failings. "The death of Lucy Partington represents a fantastic collision...It is what happens when darkness meets light..." (p. 172). Amis quotes two paragraphs by Fred West and LP. The 1st is illiterate and garbled, the 2nd is intelligent and about literature. The tragedy of LP's killing happens when the man who wrote the first paragraph comes up against the woman who wrote the second.

His daughter Delilah also figures into his novels, but indirectly, in that her mother "hanged herself" (p. 280) when she was 2 years old. This clearly resonates in Success and Night Train. The recollection of Amis' meeting with Delilah as a 19 year old is typical of his novels where information is not always forthcoming. We learn "One letter caused me to sit down suddenly when I was halfway through the first sentence....I took the letter from my jacket and passed it across the table [to Isabel]" (p. 276). We assume the letter is from Delilah. It's not. Two pages later, "[Patrick Seale] was also the author of the letter in my jacket pocket" (p. 278), her step-father. Reading Experience is like doing a crossword puzzle. Amis has much to say on suicide - "suicide was a heavier undertaking than murder. The murderer kills just one person. The suicide kills everybody" (p. 281). As a writer, "because of what I do all day,...suicides...are antithetical" (p. 281), meaning he is a creator.

Through the course of the book he makes some insightful comments on writing. "Because that's what novels are (among other things): not almanacs of your waking life but messages from your unconscious history. They come from the back of your mind, not from its forefront" (p. 218n). Amis recounts his father's famous drinking binges and the belief in enhanced insight into the writing and reading of great literature while inebriated, quoting an English novelist ""In vino veritas - I don't know," Anthony Powell once said to me, "but, in scribendo veritas - a certainty"" (p. 337), which translates as "I tell the truth by writing." This phrase shows up (p. 327) in a cell phone text message from k8 in Yellow Dog (2000). The poet Philip Larkin (friend of Kingsley) figures heavily in the book as a strong influence on Martin. I love this brief anecdote "in his room before dinner he gave me, or maybe just showed me (was it a present for his niece ? I already had it, anyway), a copy of the Rolling Stones' live LP, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out. We agreed that it had clear strengths - particularly 'Stray Cat Blues' " (p. 239).

He gives little away of his own love life. For example he casually mentions his first love "I was lying in the arms of a Sephardic Jewess in Golders Green. When the invasion began, on 5 June, she went off, hectically, to give blood for Israel. And at that moment I knew that this was love: first love..." (p. 264). We never learn her name.

Another "rictus" sighting (p. 165).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

This is Martin Amis' first novel (1973), and rather autobiographical at that. One can clearly see the seeds of genius in the incredible vocabulary and word command as well as the sense of humor in this dramatic monologue. There is an extraordinary candor about bodily functions. Modern readers will also pick up on a clearly articulated misogyny. Amis has always attributed this to his characters, rather than himself. His 4th book, Other People, from the woman's vantage point was a reaction to such comments from critics. Ironically, this freshman effort won England's Somerset Maugham award, the only novel of Amis to have such a distinction. The American writer Jacob Epstein plagiarized much of the book in Wild Oats, an account of which was published in Thomas Mallon's Stolen Words. The novel is dedicated to his girlfriend Gully (Alexandra Wells), but according to his memoirs (Experience, p. 264) Rachel was modelled after his first love, whose name he never reveals.

The Rachel Papers is the story of events in Charles Highway's last few months as a teenager. Indeed, the 24 chapter headings span the last 5 hours of his 19th year. Quite simply, he wants to enter two things - Oxford and his latest girlfriend, Rachel. Both are within his reach, but will require work. Both efforts are so calculating that they extinguish the passion that originally motivated them. Rachel's surname Noyes (No, then Yes) betrays the fact that it will take him two tries to consummate his relationship with her. Of course, in the end, he loses interest in her rapidly. As he comments to his father Gordon (a dead ringer for his own father, Kingsley Amis) "why does it take so long coming and so little time going ?" (p. 225). His life is lived vicariously through his beloved literature. William Blake is used as seduction material, he even mentally recites scrambled lines from T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" and "Ash-Wednesday" (pp. 165-166) to delay orgasm.

Diedrick points out three important literary allusions (Understanding Martin Amis). John Keats' poem The Eve of St. Agnes is a sensuous rumination on the relationship between romantic-desire and self-deception. As soon as Madeline and Porphyro consummate their passion, wind and sleet assail the windowpanes of Madeline's chamber, portending future troubles. Right after Rachel reveals to Charles that she has lied to him about her father, Charles reports that "the wind outside, which has been strong all evening, started to make cornily portentous noises, cooed from behind the cellar door, fidgeted with the window-frames" (p. 212).

The chapter subtitled "The Dean of St. Patrick's," is a reference to Jonathan Swift. The unnamed poem that shapes this chapter is the once-infamous "Cassinus and Peter," a satirical portrait of a Cambridge undergraduate driven to hysteria by his discovery that his beloved "Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" When Charles notices a stray pair of panties, he says "after I had been kissing and sniffing at them for a while I turned them inside out. I saw: (i) three commas of pencil-thick pubic hair, and (ii) a stripe of suede-brown shit, as big as my finger." (p, 185). This is a turning point in the book as Charles has a graphic reminder of Rachel's bodily nature. Diedrick elegantly nails it "Despite his longing for authenticity, his Keatsian desire to embrace pure sensation, few of Charles' experiences are direct ones. In one of his many moments of self-criticism, he indicts himself for this," "I will not be placed at the mercy of my spontaneous self" (p. 184).

There is a reference to Kingsley Amis' first book, Lucky Jim. His favorite maxim is "nice things are nicer than nasty ones." Charles has clearly read Lucky Jim, because he replaces it with "surely, nice things are dull, and nasty things are funny. The nastier a thing is, the funnier it gets" (p. 91). Diedrick points out that we are seeing Amis' own literary manifesto - one part exorcism of his father's precedent, one part declaration that his own province is the comedy of the grotesque.

One criticism of the book is that the serious emotional scenes are inadequately realized or curtailed. Glibness and calculation so dominate his accounting of his relation with Rachel, he fails to imbue it with emotions that are true. When Rachel first rejects him, he says "I felt completely hollow, as if I were a child" (p. 88). This reaction is not what the reader expects.

Another "rictus" sighting (p. 164).