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IN Experience, Martin eschews any such attempts at political whitewashing. If anything, he rubs in Kingsley's displeasing opinions, though as part of a rounded, penetrating, touching description of his father, in his prime and in decline. This is all the better done, one suspects, because of Martin's own experience of fatherhood.
But the portrait of Kingsley is only part of Experience, which is a book written with a purpose. This isn't the Confessions of Martin Amis, nor yet his Apologia pro Vita Sua; if Martin were borrowing a title, it would be not from Cardinal Newman but from Alger Hiss, In the Court of Public Opinion. His book is intended to set the record straight and to settle a few scores, five years after a head-splitting cocktail of events. Within the space of a year Martin's father died; there was a messy aftermath to the breakup of his marriage; it transpired that Lucy Partington, his cousin, who had disappeared years before, had been the victim of a serial murderer; he dumped his agent, Pat Kavanagh, and thereby lost the friendship of her husband, Julian Barnes; he had major remedial surgery on his teeth; and he met for the first time a daughter he had begotten nearly twenty years before. It would be a rash novelist who imposed this concatenation of melodrama on a character.
American reviewers have been baffled by the amount of space devoted to Martin's teeth (is it a memoir or a dental treatise?), and American readers may be puzzled by the detail in which his feuds are described: with Jacobs the biographer, with Barnes (a mawkish letter to whom is included, though it left me thinking again about Martin's solipsistic personality -- whatever the rights and wrongs, if any, how did he expect Pat and Julian to react?), with reviewers, and with newspapers. That turbulent year included what he unsmilingly calls "months of crucifixion in the press," with reporters on his doorstep and brutal pieces in the papers.
Now, that Martin had a rough time I don't deny, and cannot deny -- not as a workaday journalist with some experience of the London tabloids from the inside. Ringing in my mind's ear to this day is the voice of the features editor of the Daily Beast, asking in the Fleet Street vernacular for a disquisition on some exalted personage: "And let's give him a good kicking, Geoff." Martin got a kicking, and he can't have enjoyed it.
But is this a man who has spent his life ill used by a cruel world? He was the son of a famous author, his first novel was widely and enthusiastically reviewed (notably by Auberon Waugh, another of Larkin's sons of famous fathers, who was "very generous," as Martin says: "Nobody -- literally nobody -- was in a position to be more sympathetic"), and every one of his books since, good, bad, or in between, has been praised, often enough by his friends. The second half of the 1970s found Martin at work and play with a group of these friends: the Gang. A weekly lunch gathering "would have typically included Clive James, Russell Davies, Julian Barnes, Terence Kilmartin, Mark Boxer, James Fenton, the Hitch ... ," of whom Amis, Barnes, Fenton, and Christopher Hitchens were close contemporaries, all working at the New Statesman.
The names of the Gang speak for themselves: among them were some very gifted writers. But they were also the most egregious mutual-admiration society that literary London had seen since the days of the Auden, Spender, and Isherwood gang, forty years earlier. When Kingsley published his book of poetry A Case of Samples, in 1956, he suggested to Larkin that he should review it anonymously, adding drily that "log-rolling is fine, but is apt to be somewhat neutralised if it is detectable as such." His apprehension never troubled the Gang. They rolled one another's logs, boosted one another's books, sang one another's praises.
That assertion could be supported at tedious length. One example will do. In 1977 Clive James -- some years older than the younger Gangsters -- published Fan Mail, a collection of verse letters to friends, composed with avuncular unction and purporting to be "written in my own adaptation of an Audenesque rime coué e stanza, ... rhyme royal, ... ottava rima." Actually, they were all written in what Fenton (always a rather detached and ironic member of the Gang) later called "Clive James's authentic Australian iambo-dactyllo-spondulic rhyming thermometers." The epistle addressed to Martin included the deathless lines "Among the foremost ranks of your adherents / I'm vocal to the point of incoherence / When totting up your qualities of mind. / You've even got the rarest: Perseverance."
Then the Gang moved westside. In the early 1970s Martin had presciently dated Tina Brown, an Oxford undergraduate but "already famous ... fringe playwright, journalist, looker, prodigy. To get to her room in college I would have to step over waiting TV crews, interviewers, profilists," ho, ho. She became the Gangsters' moll, and they were wafted up in her own ascent to greatness. Hence Martin's appointment some years ago as tennis correspondent of The New Yorker, which left me reflecting, not for the first time, on the sheer humility of my American colleagues.
Certainly the London media do sometimes seem obsessed with Martin Amis, but he hasn't always suffered as a result. The liberal Guardian and the Tory Daily Telegraph fought for serial rights to Experience, the Guardian reportedly buying "first serial" for £100,000, which is a lot of money for a broadsheet here, preceded by an interview by the editor himself. When the Daily Telegraph last interviewed Martin, the interviewer was Allison Pearson, who appeared on this occasion to be in need of sedation.
I'm talking to Martin Amis.... he actually sounds remarkably like the narrator of a book by Martin Amis: possessed of a droll omniscience.... every British male writer under the age of 45 secretly wants to be Martin Amis.... the unforgivably good journalism ... the lustrous, well-connected girls.... the erudition and discipline which underpin that insolent ease....
Yes, it's a terrible thing being crucified in the press.
The truth is that Martin inverts Delmore Schwartz. If paranoiacs have enemies too, then it seems that someone who has spent his life surrounded by doting friends, been rewarded early, and been continually showered with praise can also suffer from persecution mania. Looking back, one might wish that Martin had been spared that tabloid kicking, but also that he hadn't previously enjoyed decades of slavish adulation that might have turned the head of an innately humble man, and has not been good for him. Some writers suffer from depressive doubt, but that can be less dangerous than manic self-confidence, with no candid friend to say "Come off it."
ALL this is meant in a more genial spirit than it may sound. I admire both Kingsley and Martin Amis greatly, within reason, and, though not a close friend of either, I have been on friendly terms with both. I briefly appear in Kingsley's Letters in 1980, when I was trying to pin down the elusive Larkin for an interview, and Kingsley very decently helped by writing to his friend to say that I was easy to deal with, as journalists go, and "quite good fun, too." Well, I can return that, and say that Kingsley was good fun, as Martin is. One of the many things they have in common is indeed that they are more likable in private than they seem when writing about themselves.
And yet: Martin's career has also described its arcs, though not quite the same ones as Kingsley's (there is no sign of the son's moving to the far right as yet or, I trust, drinking himself to death). His novels likewise got steadily better, until the dazzling Money (1984) -- his masterpiece, for all Larkin's lack of enthusiasm, and a book that has made me laugh uncontrollably out loud. There aren't many writers who can do that, and one should be grateful to them. Then his novels didn't get better. Martin sarcastically uses the words "problematic" and "controversial" for books and people he doesn't like, and his own later novels have been problematic or controversial, quite apart from their length (when he sacked Pat Kavanagh, I can't have been the only one to reflect that what Martin needed wasn't a new agent but a new editor).
What went wrong is easily explained by something Evelyn Waugh once said: at a certain point in his life every writer has to decide whether he is going to be an aesthete or a prophet. Martin Amis is exceptionally well equipped to be an aesthete. He is indeed the outstanding imaginative prose stylist of his generation, with an entirely recognizable literary manner, fizzy and playful (I am trying to avoid the words "pyrotechnic" and "ludic"). To this is added every other gift a comic novelist needs: an anarchic sense of the absurd, an eye for human folly, a pitch-perfect ear for speech.
He is also unusually ill equipped to be what Waugh meant by a prophet. Martin's political ruminations are vapid, his belief that he can grasp and impart large scientific ideas seems unfounded, and even his devotees ruefully admit that the attempts at philosophy in his novels are embarrassing. Experience is full of footnotes, interesting or quaint or tediously didactic (some give the meanings and etymologies of words he uses). In one he tells us that when he took his A-levels (the English high school graduation exam), he got an A in English and a D in logic, which seems about right.
All of this mattered less during the first phase of his career, when he was content to be a stylist, and a jester. Even then Kingsley found the manner of the books exhausting. Martin's fourth novel, Other People, was "tough going," Kingsley wrote. "It's like a novel by Craig Raine, well not quite as fearful as that would be." And the next year, "Have you actually tried to read Clive Sinclair and Ian MacEwen (mcewan?) and Angela Carter and M**t** *m**? Roll on is all I can say boyo. Fucking roll on." That's harsh, though at the best of times the books were a little worked-at. Martin cites one of Nietzsche's "most stunning utterances." Not surprisingly, he fails to quote Nietzsche's equally stunning definition of good writers: "They prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers." But at least the novels up to Money didn't have a Message.
Then came the Conversion of Martin Amis. It was a little hard to take at the time. After years of apolitical and amoral capering and sneering, Martin announced that he had seen the light. He was now totally opposed to nuclear annihilation, the Holocaust, and all the other things the rest of us are so keen on. This new guise really didn't suit him. A novel that attracted a cult following among Kingsley's friends more than fifty years ago was At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O'Brien. In his role as the satirical columnist Myles na Gopaleen, of the Irish Times, that writer used to say that he preferred his countrymen cynical and skittish to what he called Paddy Solemn. Some of us preferred the cynical and skittish young Amis to Martin Solemn.
This conversion irritated Kingsley. Martin had "gone all lefty and of the crappiest neutralist kind," Kingsley told Conquest in 1986. "He's bright, you see, but a fucking fool, and the worse, far worse, for having come to it late, aetat. nearly 37, not 17." Without having any positive enthusiasm for nuclear war, one may sympathize with Kingsley's vexation. What Martin wrote about the Bomb was fatuous, and not less so for being dressed up in exalted, strutting prose. Then, in 1991, he published Time's Arrow, "my novel about the Holocaust," another controversial and problematic book. He now tries to settle one more score -- with those who attacked that book or, as he claims, accused him of anti-Semitism. That is wrong, and manages to misrepresent those who misrepresented him. One or two writers, with excessive venom, accused Martin of conscious bad faith and cynical exploitation of a horror beyond tragedy. I was personally quite sure that the accusation was untrue and that Martin simply had no idea how far out of his depth he was.
NINE years later he still doesn't get it. I should admit that my unease with Time's Arrow began even before reading it, because I share the view of Isaiah Berlin (and Iam glad to find myself in his company). As Michael Ignatieff puts it in his biography, Berlin "actively despised the Holocaust industry and kept his distance from all rhetorical invocations of his people's horrible fate. Silence seemed more truthful." Time's Arrow may not have been an industrial product, but it's a rhetorical invocation, whichever way you slice it. Martin has never recognized the grave dissonance between form and content in that book. I have nothing against Martin Amis in particular or the dandy school of letters in general, but a story by Ronald Firbank that was set in the trenches of Passchendaele would have been incongruous, to say the least, or "my novel about the Gulag" by Peter De Vries.
At the time, Martin tried to defend himself by contrasting his own philo-Semitism with his father's mild anti-Semitism -- this was when Kingsley was still alive -- and telling us that an early girlfriend was Jewish (an interesting variation on "some of my best friends ..."). Now he returns to the matter, in problematic and controversial terms.
I think about Israel with the blood. [At the time of the Six-Day War, in 1967] 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.... she was a virgin. When, eventually, it happened, we looked for blood, and found none.... Where did she end up? Australia? Canada? Israel, whose army her blood had fuelled? ... So I will never be entirely reasonable about Israel. I will always think about her with the blood. Not my blood. The blood of my first love.
He again contrasts himself with Kingsley. "What's it like being mildly anti-Semitic?" son asks father, and there is a faint suggestion that Martin is trying to make Kingsley look bad to make himself look good. But hold on, anyway. Always a letter-to-the-editor writer of Herzogian prolificity, Kingsley wrote blusteringly to the Spectator in 1962 to say that "anti-Semitism in any form, including the fashionable one of anti-anti-anti-Semitism, must be combated." I find myself no more depressed by Kingsley's later private carping than impressed by his earlier public posturing -- or by Martin's grandstanding. In any case, we don't turn to comic novelists for guidance on these matters.
In some ways it got worse still after Time's Arrow. Martin has always been an incorrigible exegete of his own work, never letting it stand alone but forever explaining what the inspiration of his books was, what they meant, how important they were, and so forth. By the time Night Train (1997) was published, he wasn't so much pretentious or sententious as downright alarming. In that book, ostensibly a thriller, he was exploring the "post-human," he explained -- a condition that will arise when we understand that "the universe seems to be bifurcating every millisecond." There will be "a revolution of consciousness, and there will be casualties. There will be gratuitous suicides like the one in Night Train. Because anything that can happen will happen." When the guy in the bar starts talking like that, you suddenly remember an urgent appointment and leave before he goes on to expound the meaning of life through the dimensions of the Great Pyramid.
It isn't too late for Martin to give up prophecy and return to style, which is what he is good at, though Experience is not encouraging in this respect. And he must also resolve his relationship with Kingsley, intellectually as well as emotionally. Martin loved his father, he admired his father, he understood his father. What he still doesn't recognize is how much he takes after his father -- or what his father has to teach him. For all the facile bravura he sometimes displayed, and his son has inherited, Kingsley did not set himself up as a prophet. Not in his novels, at least: in fact, one of them makes a contrary point most effectively. In Girl, 20 the music-critic narrator is given a lift by a young black radical (sharply but not contemptuously drawn), who is disconcerted by the lack of reaction when he uses the word "fascist."
"Don't you think that's a bloody serious accusation, to call you a fascist?"
In Kingsley's Letters are two other texts, written many years apart, that his very gifted son could mull over. Writing in 1947, Kingsley told Larkin how much he disliked Dylan Thomas's "using his verbal alchemy to dress up a trite idea in language designed to prevent people from seeing how trite it is." And thirty-eight years later, at his dear friend's funeral, he said just why Larkin was a great writer.
He never showed off, never laid claim to feeling what he didn't feel, and it was that honesty, more total in his case than in any other I've known, that gave his poetry such power. He meant every word of it; and so, though he may not have written many poems, he wrote none that were false or unnecessary.
Even now Martin Amis's books would be better if he saw them primarily as comedies, without any hoo-ha. They would have still more power if they used less verbal alchemy, and if nothing he wrote was ever false or unnecessary. Can we go indoors now?
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; What Kingsley Can Teach Martin - 00.09 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 3; page 110-118.