Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Experience: A Memoir, Book Review by Lezah

It has taken me (I'm somewhat ashamed to admit) about three weeks to get through Martin Amis's 15th book, 'Experience: A Memoir'. But then I've been reading a lot of other books simultaneously, and biographies/memoirs usually lend themselves fairly well to getting put down for a while as I delve into something else...

In case you don't know, little Martin Amis (as he is sometimes mockingly called by the British press) is the son of the equally famous Kingsley Amis, himself a Booker Prize winner (1986's 'The Old Devils' [which I never read]) and author of 'Lucky Jim' (which I read) - among others (I also tried to read the misogynistic 'Jake's Thing' but couldn't get through it). Together the Amises are the literary equivalent of the Royal family.   

Martin (or Mart, as he is known to his family) has been called one of the 'princes of British intelligentsia', but he has also suffered the fate which seems to befall many princes these days - lots and lots of bad press. He was recently described as 'the most celebrated and vilified novelist in the English language'.

His is a life that reads like fiction: he has grown up in cities and university towns (Oxford, Princeton) where he was exposed to many of the top minds of the last fifty years and has long been on a first-name basis with many of them; he's suffered great losses (the death of his father in 1995, and the murder of his cousin by Britain's most infamous serial killer, Frederick West) and lived through emotional turmoil (the divorce of his parents, his own messy marital break-up, the discovery of a long-lost daughter); and he's experienced great critical success in his professional life in spite of being an extremely poor student in his early years.

'Experience' is not what one could call a standard chronological narrative; Amis begins most chapters with a letter to his father (and second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard) written at the time when Amis was a student (most letters end with itemized lists of bills paid or still in need of payment by Amis senior). From there each chapter leaps forward and/or backward in time, digressing and fast forwarding in a way that, on the surface, appears to lack structure but ultimately illustrates a very clever framework from which to showcase one's life. It's quite an interesting treatment and prevents the work from reading like a diary; in addition, Amis has included footnotes that are often very lengthy and, in many cases, offer the juiciest details and digressions.

It's interesting, for a person who was brought up in a somewhat dysfunctional family such as his, with the break-up of his family home, the emotional break-down of his mother, the alcoholism of his philandering father, the multiple marriages between the lot of them (Martin included), the bohemian upbringing and spotty schooling he had during his teen years, that ultimately, when the end came for Kingsley, the family unit was solidly together (albeit with his mother's third husband still very much in the picture). But then maybe all children, regardless of what age they happen to be, still need to believe that their parents loved and still do love each other...

Much has been written about another recurrent thread through his book, that of the murder of Amis's cousin Lucy Partington. Her sister Marion has since claimed that Amis only met Lucy twice. That is not the impression one gets from reading 'Experience'. However, each person's perspective is different, and it's entirely possible Amis did feel the loss as profoundly as he claims.

More peculiar, I thought, was his preoccupation with the state of his teeth throughout the book, which received an amount of ink approximately equivalent to that received by his murdered cousin. Of course, Amis's teeth also got a lot of coverage in the British press, so perhaps this convinced him that his dentition was, indeed, truly newsworthy.

Grammar was another recurring topic, as were familial relationships - which one would expect in a memoir. Due to the nature of the family, however, it was interesting to note how, in conversations between Amis and his father, they discussed their books almost as though they were their offspring. Which leads us full circle to the idea of experience, yet another recurrent theme in the book. Innocence and experience are two ideas that are discussed, examined, debated and, at various times, tried on for size. Experience seems to be the best fit for Amis.

Certainly if you are a fan of Amis, or are at all interested in British literature in the late 20th Century, then this book is one you should read.  

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