The chirp of children’s voices does not figure heavily in the darkly satirical works of Martin Amis. Nor are they the kind of sounds likely to halt in mid-sentence a writer whose journeys through a grotesque urban underworld long ago earned him a reputation as the cynical bad boy of British fiction. But that is precisely what happens on a grey day in London, when the tinkle of children’s laughter drifts into the living room of Amis’s handsome Primrose Hill home. A furrow of parental concern creases his brow as he hurries to a window and glances into his front yard. “My kids,” he mutters apologetically around one of the hand-rolled cigarettes that hang, almost permanently, from the corner of his mouth. “I just want to make sure that nothing’s amiss.”
Loving father and attentive family man is not quite the conventional view of Amis, at least not for anyone who has followed his career in the British press for much of the past decade. His novels have been panned, his extramarital affairs dissected; even his teeth have been the subject of endless heated debate. The country’s newspapers, the rowdy tabloids in particular, have portrayed him as sneering and greedy: a disloyal friend, a faithless husband, an uncaring parent and, most damning of all, the cold son to his own father, novelist and poet Sir Kingsley Amis, who died in 1995. The critics, however, may sing a different tune as a result of the near-simultaneous publication of two books: Experience (Knopf Canada, $35.95), a 400-page memoir by Martin Amis, and The Letters of Kingsley Amis (available on July 1 from HarperCollins, $54.95), 1,200 pages of correspondence edited by Martin’s longtime friend and tennis partner, Zachary Leader.
Both books shed new light on each Amis, and even more on a relationship that is nearly unique in the world of letters. For Kingsley and Martin were not merely father and son, subject to all of the usual tribulations; they were also literary soulmates, often rivals. And while much has been made of their differences, Kingsley’s Letters and, especially, Martin’s Experience reveal that they shared a deep, abiding affection.
To be sure, father and son disagreed on almost everything, politics in particular. All of Kingsley’s foibles — the snobbery, the anti- Semitism, the wacky right-wing ideology — are on display in the letters, the bulk of which consists of salty exchanges with British poet Philip Larkin and American poet-historian Robert Conquest. But so, too, is the comic genius that won him early fame for Lucky Jim and a Booker Prize in his declining, curmudgeonly years for The Old Devils. More telling, the letters also unmask Kingsley’s much-publicized envy of Martin’s success for what it really was, something of a private joke to amuse — and confuse — London’s gossipy literary establishment. “In truth, they got on very well,” says Leader, a U.S.-born, British-based professor of English literature, “not least because of Martin’s superhuman ability to not get upset over his father’s repeated public claims that he could not read many of his son’s novels.”
The criticism certainly carried a sting. Martin makes that clear in Experience as he describes “the squeeze of immediate hurt” when Kingsley bluntly tells him that he “couldn’t get on” with the younger Amis’s second novel, Dead Babies, published in 1975. But then, as now, Martin could always regard his father’s opinions with some philosophical detachment. “It’s true that my father could sometimes slight me in public,” he says without a hint of rancour in the rolling Oxbridge accent that is so at odds with the low-life characters who people his fiction. “But it was Kingsley’s way of slighting all contemporary fiction, really.”
At 50, the bad-boy tag does not much fit Martin Amis anymore, if it ever did. The label is in any case absurd for someone who is the father of five children (including toddlers Clio and Fernanda, daughters of his second marriage to writer Isabel Fonseca), never mind the author of nine novels and a huge and growing body of journalism, essays and literary criticism. The new Martin carries traces of the old, in the trim figure, the cool demeanour, the hip vocabulary. But he is no longer the whippet-like 24-year-old with the Beatles haircut and crushed-velvet trousers who rocketed to fame with the 1973 publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. That book won him a Somerset Maugham Award, the same prize his father had won 20 years earlier for his first published novel, Lucky Jim. But Martin’s star has dimmed a little of late. Neither of his two most recent novels — The Information (1995) and Night Train (1998) — have been received well in Britain, though they have fared much better with North American reviewers and readers.
Experience, however, may well signal a rebound, for it is a masterly work of art, displaying a writer in full command of his craft. Though billed as an autobiography, it is much more than that. The very structure is novelistic, leaping back and forth in time in search of parallels and connections, buried symmetry. The prose is finely wrought, replete with the inventive wordplay for which Martin is justly celebrated. And what emerges at the end is an intensely private, at times deeply moving account of one man’s journey from innocence to experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final pages, as Martin watches his father’s slow demise. “How hard it is to die,” he writes. “You have to chase it, panting.”
Kingsley’s death was the prime catalyst that compelled Martin to write Experience. It was not, however, the only reason. Sections of Experience are devoted to what Amis describes as “setting the record straight” on the whole chain of disasters the befell him in 1994 and 1995, when Britain’s media turned his private life into a public nightmare. His first marriage fell apart and he underwent painful surgery to reconstruct his jaw and replace all of his teeth. At the same time, he broke with his longtime British agent, Pat Kavanagh, over his demand for a then-unprecedented $1.1-million advance for The Information, which, in turn, prompted a high-profile rupture with Kavanagh’s husband and Martin’s old friend, the novelist Julian Barnes. All of these events were seized upon by the media, the tabloids especially, to rake Amis over hot coals. The novelist A. S. Byatt did not help matters with her now-famous complaint about subsidizing Martin’s “greed simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone.”
Amis’s fans will finally get a chance to read in Experience the author’s version of those tumultuous two years — a period when he discovered that he was the father of 17-year-old Delilah Seale and that his cousin Lucy Partington, who had disappeared in 1973, was one of the victims of the notorious serial killer Frederick West. They will learn much, perhaps too much, about the agonies associated with rebuilding his mouth. But, apart from a dig or two at the press, they will not find an abundance of gall. Amis’s tone is conciliatory, a plea for understanding. In one long passage, he describes a visit to Cape Cod to bid a final goodbye to his then-estranged first wife and their two young sons. “On the night flight back to London,” he writes, “I performed what seemed to me to be the extraordinary feat of shedding tears throughout the full six hours, even during the shallow sleep I kept snapping out of.” A happier note is struck later in the book when Amis witnesses the birth of his first daughter by his second marriage. “At the birth of your child, you forgive your parents everything, without a second thought, like a velvet revolution. This is part of the cunning of babies.”
Amis interrupted his 10th novel in midstream to write Experience. He vows to return to his novel, but not until he finishes gathering and editing a collection of his essays and writing a nonfiction account of atrocities committed during the early years of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, America beckons. Like his friend Salman Rushdie, Amis is thinking of moving to New York City. “I’ll probably go in three or four years’ time,” he says, “once my boys are older.” If he does make the move, the British might miss him, but probably not London’s tabloids. As Experience amply demonstrates, the bad boy of English letters departed long ago.