Martin Amis On Memory, Memoirs and Experience

by | October 29, 2013

Martin Amis is the most famous, most profiled and most anatomised novelist of his generation. But what happens when such a public artist tries to speak for himself?

There is no pretence of modesty. Amis is willing to talk not only about himself but also – importantly – about how he sees himself “very much as a comic novelist.” In a tradition – “it’s called the English comic novel,” he interjects, rather snidely – “that starts with Henry Fielding and continues through Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, through… my father, to me.” Why comic novels? “It’s all there is, really.” Later, when ISIS asks if his dental problems were a worthy price for a position in a writers’ triumvirate of troubled teeth – the other members being post-modernism’s precursors, Joyce and Nabokov – he hardly pauses.

“Well, sure,” he says, tapping the ash off the end of his cigarette cavalierly.

And if Amis locates himself in a tradition that includes Austen and Dickens, he certainly adds that most quintessential of post-modernities – the twist of viewpoint. And so, as we sit and watch the cameras watch Amis, it is easy to revise, to imagine him not as some mythical beast defending a heraldic tradition, but rather as a Vegas high-roller. From a chair pushed back from the table, a world-weary slump, this Amis surveys the spills of fortune, stoically taking his fate with his cigarettes. “I say I am an agnostic,” Amis confided in an earlier interview to the Telegraph’s Elizabeth Grice, narrating in the language of chance. “People think that’s pusillanimous and covering your bets. But… it is a tribute to the complexity and, at our present stage of development, the unknowability of the universe.” It’s hard to know even what, precisely, is at stake in Martin Amis’ world, which dice are in hand – the dots seem to shift between love and life and dying. And though Amis as the gambling guru demonstrates only the most cursory interest in the contingences to which he has subjected himself, his hands shake when he rolls his cigarettes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his memoir dissects these same affairs with unashamed attention – even self-admitted “obsession,” in some cases – but frames them, rather, as the contingencies to which he has been subjected. The book makes no apologies for the status he gleaned from his father’s literary connections and reputation. “Any London house would have published my first novel out of vulgar curiosity,” he writes (on page 25, at that). And when he is questioned at the Union about the source of his fame, Amis underscores his own confidence. “My brother and sister aren’t famous,” he says dismissively. Yet while Amis refuses to engage in the game of self-justification, he seems to beg some cosmic agent, unknown and unnamed, for the very same when he writes of the disappearance of his cousin Lucy Partington – and the subsequent discovery of her body “decapitated and dismembered. . . crammed into a shaft between leaking sewage pipes, along with a knife, a rope, a section of masking-tape, and two hairgrips” (62). When ISIS refers to her by name in phrasing a question, Amis flinches.

This is the tough work of memory, losing things and finding them again, but finding them distorted by the violence of being torn out of time and reconstituted in the present. Much of the memoir’s reminiscing as the quality of grafts in consciousness, sepia-toned cutouts against the diorama of a techincolour world. In the pictures and descriptions Amis offers, Lucy seems other-worldly; one photo unfolds from angelic, heavy lidded eyes, framed delicately by eyeglasses whose curious tortoise-shell angles point to some mythically indeterminate decade. It is easy to overlook he writing floating over her head – where her halo might have been – “UNDESIRABLE ALIEN,” crudely scrawled and never explained.

Alien though it might be, after suffering the warp of time – jet lag writ large – the stuff of past is, for memory and for Amis, still recognizable. Sometimes, as with Lucy, recognition comes with a ghastly jarring, but other times in a suffusion of yellow light that threatens (or promises) to turn everything into a summer’s twilight. Lucy is not the only child-woman lost and found again – so too is Delilah Seale. We are introduced to her, early in the book, in iconic form, with an unexplained anecdote about a photograph of a lovely little girl in a smocked dress and the while-blonde hair of childhood; it is only after references like dream-surfacing and the lapse of the reader’s time – that we are given to understand that she is Amis’ daughter. 

If memory – and thus memoir – is fundamentally an art of time lost and time regained, so too, at least in Amis’ case, does it seem to be an art of order lost and reclaimed. Amis sets himself the goal of “speaking without artifice” in the beginning of Experience, and he does not disguise that he considers his novels to be essentially and necessarily contrived. “Fiction is artifice,” he says flatly, when ISIS asks him to expand on this provocative mantra.

But then, so would seem writing more generally; it seems peculiar that the non-fiction narrative does not meet a similar assessment from Amis, particularly for all that has been written about his post-modern sensibilities. In a review of Don DeLillo’s Mao II, Amis writes, “We all know that second-hand isn’t close enough anymore. Or better say third hand. The even or the person is first-hand. TV is second-hand. Print is third-hand.” While experience may be “the event,” Experience is print, with all the mediation that implies.

Amis writes of a dish at a local Italian restaurant called “from grandmother’s handbag,” joking that the ingredients would have to be hairgrips and Dentufix. What seems at first careless reveals itself as contrived as we remember the macabre significance of the hairgrips – a sign of Lucy repeated, a stamp in memory – and the adhesive associations with Amis’ dental problems. Such a speciality is indeed a plate of experience – concocted specifically for consumption.

This kind of order presumably is the writer’s compromise, a substitute for an order that follows from assumptions of human agency, of causality and intelligibility, an order that Amis’s fiction sacrifices in the name of honesty. Amis summarizes Night Train as “about a suicide that seems inexplicable,” a golden girl gone wrong; indeed, even when the tough cop of a narrator finds an ‘explanation’ – a lithium dependency – it only pushed the mystery back: why was she taking mood-altering drugs? Even in Experience, we are not given to understand motives; indeed, Amis structures the book episodically, almost as though to preclude the relevance of motivation.

Entropy is the name of this whirl of a game; there is a sense, even in Experience, of catastrophe bearing down, the fallout of the nuclear age has apparently weighed heavy enough to press its print – translucent like a watermark – on the mind. “I remember it as one long dankly gleaming twilight: darkness at noon, a solar eclipse, an Icelandic winter morning,” writes Amis. “The planet’s children suffered this crisis – the most severe in human history – dumbly with abject dumbness.” Now, though, Amis is loquacious on the subject – he responds more thoroughly to ISIS‘s question about nuclear disarmament than to any of the questions about writing. “I used to run out of the room when they would show the kill-circles on TV,” Amis begins. “Now, my son runs out of the room whenever Thomas the Tank Engine comes on.” There is a long pause, a slow drag while Amis returns to the past. “Senseless. Absolutely senseless. It’s better now. It used to be hours,” he adds flatly, looking at him dead-on, speaking of the time between crisis and apocalypse. He has all the gravity of an expert in his field, offers none of the self-effacements that you would expect. “It used to be hours, now, months. Maybe six months until America could mobilize. And crises don’t usually last that long.”

And one could imagine the trajectory of Amis’ writing as a missile’s parabola, marking out the time between misstep and consequence, now and forever. Indeed, Time’s Arrow finds Amis explicitly reversing time – resurrecting its victims – as though it were a video to be rewound. Boyd Tomkin, in his review of Experience, suggests that Amis – like the murderer-narrator of his novel Other People in writing his autobiography obeys the basic impulse of the storyteller: “to repeat [stories] obsessively, until they turn out right.”

But the success of the enterprise depends upon a certain brand of faith. When we wish we could change what has happened, all we can hope to do now is change the story we tell ourselves about it, to change out memory of it – and this, like all enterprises of self-revision, is an endeavour of belief. With Amis’ attempt to impress order upon history and his prepossession with the impending end of time- both things central to eschatological thought, particularly that of Jewish mysticism – there is something profoundly appropriate about the way Experience finds Amis often in Jerusalem. And such an end of ends is actually, for Amis, a kind of beginning – apocalypse and redemption as the prototype for the economy of finding and losing.

But as far as it goes in Experience, such an economy is not all encompassing. Though his father Kingsley, died several years ago, it is clear that Amis has not lost him for a moment. During the interview, it seems as though alternate sentences begin with “Kingsley” – and Amis does call his father by his name, although it seems more likely that this is a conversation to create a protective distance rather than to reflect an emotional one. If Amis is quick to locate himself in the tradition that includes Fielding and Austen and Dickens, he is even quicker to position his father as the mediator; it would be almost too tidy to have, in Experience, an account of bedtime stories, received from the mouth of the father. Though this brand of anecdote is omitted from the book – I feel as though we are invited to fabricate it, somehow – little else relating to Kingsley is: Experience reads like a chronicle, a defence, a tribute, perhaps best as a meditation. This is not to say that Amis’ perspective on his father is one of doe-eyed adulation. There are times when he appears less than heroic: Martin exposes his father’s phobias in cold light and classifies as “revisionist” a letter in which his father writes of his “charmed [single] life.” The same letter, Amis does not conceal, describes his former wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, as “the old bag”; parentheses confide that “he was much more energetically ungallant elsewhere.”

Even so, Amis is obviously not one to overlook his debts. He seems constantly struck by what he seems as the improbability of it: in the interview as well as at the talk at the Union, he reiterates the point he makes in the book – “historically, what long odds you face: there’s Mrs Trollope as well as Anthony and Dumas, père et fils, and that’s about it.” He devotes no small time to his father’s work, particularly in footnotes; though he refrains from giving the sort of curt two-sentence verdict which he offers on the oeuvres of any number of other writers, it is easy to sense a tacit criticism. The same attitude extends to Kingsley’s notorious “difficultly” with Martin’s work – something of the disinterested journalist relating his experiences as an interested man, and doing so wryly. Yet, when ISIS asks Amis what he thinks his father would have though of his memoir, Amis – for the only time all evening – is taken aback. “I don’t really know,” he says. “I hadn’t really …” He trails off, then, after a long pause, says – states – “I think he would think it was good.”