A Collection of Essays written between 1986 and 2016
I confess to never having read a novel by Martin Amis.
I did read (possibly) a couple of novels by his father, Kingsley Amis, in my extreme youth (before the age of 24), but I didn't enjoy the masculine tone, or the misogyny, and stopped after "Lucky Jim", and (possibly) "Take a Girl Like You". I followed the progress of the senior author, via newspaper reports, until the publication of "The Old Devils". This marked, on reflection, the emergence, within my reading persona, of the habit of taking from the reviews of a much talked-of new novel sufficient information to decide that it would be a waste of time to read the novel itself.
I did like Elizabeth Jane Howard, Kingsley's second wife. I've read almost all her novels. From her own autobiography, I sensed that Kingsley was an unlikeable man, and after I dipped into a double biography of both Kingsley and Martin Amis, this was confirmed. However, the latter book included some sharply incisive quotes from the work of both father and son, which whetted my appetite. This led me to order some books from libraries, to find out more about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries from bite-size chunks of the authors' output. No need or desire existed to read even one novel by either, but each seemed in his own way to have put a finger on the pulse of his times.
I'm still waiting for a copy of Zachary Leader's (leading) biography of Kingsley, but a different county library has provided me with Martin's "Experience" and "The Rub of Time". "Experience" is almost unreadable due to the author's habit (it's almost like he has just undergone colonic irrigation, and can't wait until arrival at a place where voiding would be appropriate) to thrust very lengthy footnotes onto almost every page, intended to illuminate - or perhaps cast a smokescreen of small grit over - the labouring brain of the reader.
"The Rub of Time", however, was easy and rewarding to read. It was like being handed a potted history of much of what I missed over the last 30 years. This loss, due to the combined demands of working and parenting, resulted in my having little or no time or energy to read beyond the book reviews in the Sunday papers.
The essays confirmed that I don't need to bother seeking out any novels by either Vladimir Nabakov or Philip Roth (who died yesterday). I've learned all I need to know.
On Philip Larkin, I remain torn. He was a much-loved poet of my schooldays, but I never read his novels. Martin Amis often refers to him, in both the books I've mentioned here, largely because of his childhood memories of Larkin's visits to the family home. Larkin was a friend and contemporary of Kingsley. Martin hasn't succeeded in encouraging me to read Larkin again, but he does provide a good summary of the poet's 35 year relationship with a woman called Monica Jones. I was aware of this (from reading the Sunday Times book reviews over the years) and aware that the affair reflected very badly on Larkin, but knew no details. Martin's essay, reprinted from The Guardian, (2010) provides all the detail one could desire, without the effort of reading any full-length book. The essay can be read in full here, and reading it gives a scintillating glimpse of the full Martin Amis range: wit, verbal dexterity, self-confidence, and simultaneous grasp of both the detail and the whole picture.
Here's part of a quotation from Larkin's "Letters to Monica" which Martin helpfully singles out as "the most memorable letter in the book". Thanks, Martin, it saves me the bother of going through them all. This letter endorses advice I have been given myself. The full quote can be read in the Guardian article linked above.
"It's simply that in my view you would do much better to revise, drastically, the amount you say and the intensity with which you say it . . .I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it. "
Yup, and I say that to myself frequently as well.
I will look out for more by Mr Amis junior. In newspapers, of course.