October 23, 2017
Kingsley and/or Martin Amis
On this day in 1949 Martin Amis was born. In any history of the last half-century of English Literature, a chapter will have to be given to the Amis family. From Kingsley, starting in 1953, and Martin, starting in 1973, there have come over seventy books (and, in Martin's case, still quickly counting). Two chapters might be better: one of Kingsley's many "failures of tolerance," to use the phrase from Martin's recent memoir, Experience, was his contempt for his son's postmodern novels. Having "only read about half," and having struggled at those, father had no intention of following his son's prescription for one of them: "Little sod said on TV you had to read it twice!"
As memoirs go (and as compared to Kingsley's 1991 Memoirs), Martin's Experience is also postmodern. But it is funny, revealing and post-judgmental too, with a frank but friendly eye turned to his father's opinions, booze and relationship problems. Given the "adultery explosion" that became a plague on all the Amis houses, bringing commiseration and love between father and son with it, the anecdote of the parental birds 'n bees talk ("Dad's Telling Us the Lot") seems to resonate, and versions of it are included in both books. This is Kingsley's version:
Philip and Martin came in, their expressions quite blank, innocent in every possible way that the most expensive film-director could have put there. They were, I suppose, seven and six years old. The short monologue I gave them slipped out of my head afterwards at the first opportunity, though I know I did conscientiously get in a certain amount of what might be called hard anatomy and concrete nouns, although again I must have used the word 'thing' a good deal and talked about Dad planting a seed. Well, what would you? I have never loved and admired them more than for the unruffled calm and seriousness with which they heard me out. I knew they knew, they knew I knew they knew and so on to the end but never mind. They left in a silence that they courteously prolonged until they were out of all hearing.... In no sphere is it truer that it is necessary to say what it is unnecessary to say.
Martin's first book, The Rachel Papers, seems to spring full-grown from Dad's "thing" and seed-planting talk. Here the young, know-it-all, try-anything, do-anyone hero prepares to bed Rachel:
What clothes would I wear? Blue madras shirt, black boots, and the old black cord suit with those touching leather elbow-patches. What persona would I wear? On the two occasions I had seen her last August I underwent several complete identity-reorganizations, settling finally somewhere between the pained, laconic, inscrutable type and the knowing, garrulous, cynical, laugh a minute, yet something demonic about him, something nihilistic, muted death-wish type. Revamp those, or start again?
Like his father's Lucky Jim, Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers won the Somerset Maugham Award for first novels. When he won, Kingsley gave notice of how entrenched and sure he would become: with prize money intended to provide young novelists with enriching travel abroad, he stayed home to write I Like it Here. In his memoir, Experience, Martin looks doubtfully back on his book (and sounds a bit like his father): "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."