The Portland Phoenix
July 13 - 20, 2000
TWENTY YEARS on, Amis's candid, comprehensive, sometimes rambling memoir Experience comes pretty close to being that book. The successes are there in abundance, but so are the pickles, the catastrophes, the cock-ups, the angst. He comes across as sensitive, vulnerable, even fallible. Does this mean we'll have to start liking him? Well, not entirely. The book also has plenty of the famous Amis saltiness and scrappiness. If Amis feels he's had a hard time with the press, Experience soon makes it clear that he won't be extending any olive branches. It takes him all of six pages to take a swipe at his old foes -- and, as always, he's not averse to hitting below the belt. "[W]hat was the extent of your hopes for your prose," he writes, addressing literary journalists, "bookchat, interviews, gossip?" And then, in a butter-wouldn't-melt tone, he turns his attention to us: "Valued reader, it is not for me to say this is envy. It is for you to say that this is envy."
Needless to say, the journalists have not been amused. One of the more spirited attacks came from Julie Birchill, who, writing in the New Statesman, frothed: "[A] lightweight mind attempting to grapple with heavyweight matters is one of the most wretched spectacles metropolitan life has to offer." You can almost see her, staring into the fog of Amis's exhaust, shaking her fist out of the driver's window: "Road hog!"
Yet the "lightweight" charge is nothing new. One of the more enduring criticisms of Amis is that he uses his facility with language to mask the facile nature of his work, that he is all surface and no depth. Experience should go a long way to defusing this idea. The book is not only tremendously complicated in its arrangement -- with its scrambled chronology, its latticed themes 1 -- it is also remarkably astute emotionally and philosophically. For once, you get the sense that Amis isn't playing games. If he (and we) were 30 years younger, we might say Amis was keeping it real.
It's no surprise that Experience is entertaining. We expected the celebrity gossip (Salman Rushdie once challenged Amis to a fight), the literary criticism (Finnegans Wake "reads like a 600-page crossword clue"), the comedy (a newborn baby resembles a "howling pizza"), and the rancor (Kingsley Amis's biographer, Eric Jacobs, is given an appendix-length drubbing). The fact that we also get such a tender, nuanced exploration of life and death, love and loss, family and friendship, innocence and corruption -- that's the shocker. But maybe it shouldn't be. As many a recent profiler has commented, Amis is a changed man. He has, as they keep saying, mellowed.
IT'S A chilly Wednesday afternoon, and Amis arrives at the Phoenix offices in Boston looking a couple of notches below mellow -- as if he'd just been through the spin cycle of a washing machine. The previous night he'd been at a cocktail party in New York, thrown in his honor by Talk editor Tina Brown, and he looks -- we'll give him the benefit of the doubt -- tired.
Amis is past 50 now, no longer the bad boy of British fiction. The hairline's waning and the eyebrows are waxing. He's a little crinkled, a little frayed. In fact, if Amis were to hold out his hand and ask for some change right now, I'd give it to him.
But don't get me wrong: I am not a hater of Amis. I am a big, lolloping, quivering fan.
In Experience, Amis captures the journalist/fan's dilemma with hilarious precision. "This business of writing about writers is more ambivalent than the end-product normally admits," he writes, warming up to an interview with his literary mentor Saul Bellow. "As a fan and a reader, you want your hero to be genuinely inspirational. As a journalist, you hope for lunacy, spite, deplorable indiscretions, a full-scale nervous breakdown in mid-interview."
What you don't want is tired. What you don't want, under any circumstances, is mellow.
Amis and I retire to the Boston Billiard Club, the pool hall downstairs from the newspaper offices. I've invited Amis here ostensibly to talk about his book, but what I really want is a game of pool (see "Rack and Ruin," above). But first things first. He orders a spicy tomato juice -- "Very spicy" -- and pours himself into a chair. Something tells me I won't be getting the full-scale nervous breakdown. Amis seems resolutely, unassailably happy.
"I count my blessings," he says, sipping his juice, puffing on a roll-your-own cigarette, "and they are considerable."
Whoa: I count my blessings?
"I've been able to earn a living doing what I love most, and there's not a day that goes by without me thinking how lucky I am for that. And having a full quiver of kids, all of whom seem to be very charming, it gives you a feeling of luxury."
Indeed, Martin Amis has become the kind of person who, unbidden, whips a snapshot of the kids out of his wallet. Where's the cutthroat sarcasm, the puffed-up self-promotion? Where's the man who could whip his interviewers into fits of sputtering disapproval?
"I definitely, self-evidently, haven't been successful in my dealings with the press," Amis says in a rare moment of understatement. "I made a few semi-jokey boastful remarks, arrogant or maybe just ambitious remarks. I once said something like, `In 500 years I want them to be talking about Shakespeare, Dante, and Martin Amis.' I didn't mean that literally; I was just exaggerating an impulse that all writers have."
1. The book is also strewn with footnotes: asides and observations litter the bottom of almost every page and often creep perilously close to the top. (back)
Chris Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.