Sunday, March 11, 2007


Just finished Martin Amis' book 'Experience', a kind of autobiographical work, initially punctuated by his letters home from college and university, and also focusing on Lucy Partington, his teeth, and largely his relationship with his father, the writer Kingsley Amis.

Funny how I read this book almost immediately after Wackwitz 'Neue Menschen'. The two books have quite a lot in common. Both are about a young man's development (though Wackwitz' book stops earlier, somewhere in his 20's - Amis' essentially ends with his father's death in his own late forties); in both books fathers feature strongly (though Wackwitz does not write much about his relationship with his father, rather more about his father's own youth - which perhaps tells its own story), both make heavy use of quotes (their fathers and others). But there the commonality ends.

Amis is by far the more successful writer, having been able to live off writing for almost all his life, and as a result having produced book after book. The other big difference is, and this may be a cultural difference between England and Germany, that Amis' book is very amusing to read. I doubt if Wackwitz' book had a single laugh in it. Amis seems to be rather fond of his footnotes - nearly every page is littered by one, but since each one is a gem one does not like to miss them. It interrupts the reading process, constantly.....How would you like to miss the story about John Bailey, the husband of the late Iris Murdoch, where at a public dinner for the Writer of the Year award (Amis got it that time), Bailey 'would take an olive out of his deep trouser pocket and say,"Have one. They're frightfully good."'

It seems Amis has had a great relationship with his father, being able to discuss anything with him, even on points where they disagreed violently - but they always parted on good terms. The business of distinguishing between loving people for who they are, and what they believe, I guess. His father may not have been the easiest person to deal with - he could virtually never be left alone, for example - but there seems to be some good-natured tolerance accepting him as he is and just getting on with it.

Unlike the average autobiographer, and more like the novelist that he is, Amis dips backwards and forwards between different periods of his life - and driving the reader forward because they want to know how the events unfold.

Lucy Partington, who features greatly in the book, was Amis' cousin who disappeared in 1973; only in the early 90's it was discovered that she was another victim of the Wests in Gloucester (they tortured and murdered about 12 young women in total, including some of their own daughters). They only found her skull and some bones. Amis very movingly writes about her (their shared) childhood and about the memorial service held some 20 years after her presumed death.

The story of the teeth - I remember the hoo-ha when in the mid 90's the media came out with the story that he had had his mouth renovated (as they said) for 'cosmetic reasons'. The story he tells in the book (to set things straight?) is that he had been a martyr to toothache most of his life, including a tumour in the lower jaw, and as a result he had to undergo these fairly horrifying procedures. Remember also that he was born in the late 1940s, and that that generation in the UK was stricken with bad teeth, and not very wonderful dentistry. I remember seeing a sign outside my dentist's in Port Glasgow, in 1975, stating that extractions for pain relief would take place every morning at 9. At that time there was a statistic that of those aged over 16 in Scotland, half did not have their own teeth - and I remember a colleague who was told by her parents at the age of shortly over 16, that they (she?) had had enough of messing with her teeth and they should come out. And they did. Amis tells a lovely story of two twenty-year-olds discussing teeth on a London bus, before one of them flashes out his set for her to look at....

It's a great read, this book - it also reflects well the period, particularly the 60s and 70s when Amis was in what could be described as his Sturm and Drang period. Despite my dislike of the one other book of his I had read, I am glad I picked it up in the British bookshop in Vienna - there did not seem to be that much choice of books that I had not read before, or that I might not like to read. Might now try and look at some other of his books, and perhaps those of his father, too.


granny p said...

Don't much care for Martin A, but glad you put that one straight. (Especially speaking from a British dentistry perspective. Still have my teeth though - most of them. But not in the condition an American dentist would have left them. Wouldn't I spend the money to sort that all out, if I could!) Ever thought of bringing your music group to tour the Canaries - well my island, at least? How we - I - need you.