The Book Club

An Investigation of Love

Dear Inigo:

I would encourage people to avoid some of your links: They are soul-darkening. Julie Burchill’s thing is destructive of human grace and reason. People who read Slate, or who find themselves interested in Kingsley or Martin Amis, are likely to be insufficiently dead-in-the-head to want to spend a nanosecond in the company of Britain’s saddest columnist. Those badly written sentences of hers are dunked in pus: One must turn again to Experience for the vertiginous comforts (and dangers) of good writing.

It took the Americans some time to see the point of Philip Larkin. Somehow this doesn’t surprise me; their own version of a “confessional” postwar lyric poet (Robert Lowell, I suppose), would be a poet who intervened on matters of tradition, and the state of the Union, and the losing of one’s mind, in ways that seemed public and discursive. Larkin writes like someone in a quotidian fumble: His Englishness makes him lonely, and all the stuff around him–books, the view from high windows, ambulances, girl’s eyes–is utterly present and at the same time quite remote. Death is part of the ordinary, scrappable, furniture in Larkin: In Lowell’s world of battle hymns and epitaphs, even the dark road leads in the end to glory. The best thing in Kingsley Amis’ letters are the ones to Larkin, and indeed, Martin Amis’ book–which is really terrific by the way–has a whole lot of Larkinian ether in its paragraphs. Very welcome too: The landscape of Amis’ memoir is no mid-Atlantis (though there’s always Bellow and a battalion of sentences halfway to Boston), but it is a very particular England of the last 40 years that comes alive there.

Check this out, for instance: Amis is talking about the English manner of dealing with death, as opposed to that exhibited by Isabel Fonseca, his wife, a pleasing presence in the whole book, and a very sane, very proactive, very American one here:

Isabel comes from a place where the very first thing you do about death is throw your life-savings at it. She wants, at the least, a second opinion, and I don’t even want a first opinion. … I engage in discussions with Isabel behind a net curtain of Englishness, Old Englishness. How palpable, how commonplace it is. In England, when you see death coming, you just ask if you’ve joined the right queue.

I mentioned Norman Mailer yesterday. He and Martin Amis have had similar careers in many ways. In fact, I once asked Mailer if he’s been hurt by some earlier piece Amis had written about him. He said yes, he had been, “It only ever hurts when you get rushed at by somebody who’s good.” But I’ve always thought they were similar–great journalists, ballsy, high-wire novelists, good fathers, publicity-scarred–and Experience inundates you with a sense of the openhearted in pursuit of the closely guarded. Amis says it himself–he is reaching into the back of his mind, where writing comes from, and I have to tell you the benefit is ours. He provides a sad, meaningful memorial to his cousin Lucy–how present she seems now, at last stepping away from that terrible register of absences; and his dad, a figure (even in death: especially in death) ready to be ambushed by the politically correct, or smooched to death by right-wing thugs or humorless windbags, is lifted manfully and humanely by his son, clear of rubbish and petrifaction. Here’s Amis’ description of his mother with his father near the end: 

My mother dabbed his face with 4711. You could feel his anxiety submit to a trusted ritual as she said,

–You can go now, darling. You’ve done everything you needed to do. His lazy left eye stayed open for a moment longer.

–Close that naughty eye now. You’ve done everything. You’ve done all your work.

Remind me, Inigo, to pack it all in, to pack up the whole thing and go, the day I forget how to respond to an investigation of love so fond as this one, Experience.

As ever,