In England, you achieve a little early success and then spend the rest of your career dealing with people who want to kill you. Why is that? It should be a no-brainer: jealousy, and the complicated rage stirred up when people come to the realization that their ambition is incommensurate with their talent. But in England there’s a special enjoyment of the condition; beating the gifted can seem to alleviate some larger anxiety in the culture. Around these parts all this happens at the most intimate level: “Your friends will forgive you anything,” said your friend Oscar Wilde, “except your success.”
Martin Amis has probably had more of this guff than anybody in the writing business except Norman Mailer, and Amis’ new book, Experience, is as good a self-portrait by a working novelist as Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself was in 1955. I think it comes from a similar place, too: written out of an existential crisis, out of changes in circumstances with his beloved, out of public humiliations and lies, out of lost friendships, out of pain. Anyway, in both books you gain a sense of the size and the character of the talent proposed. You get spirit and honesty and funniness: What else is there?
Here’s some early-morning advice: Never question a writer’s motives; you only reveal your own. I remember being a wee bit worried when I heard that Amis would write about Lucy Partington, his cousin murdered by Frederick West, and also write about the problems with his teeth, his father Kingsley, and his busted friendship with Julian Barnes. I was bothered because I thought he was too good a writer to be goaded into writing a string of self-defenses for the press. I wasn’t being the brightest button in the class that day: I was thinking like a hack. But I made the point to Ian Hamilton, Amis’ friend, who only smiled at my earnestness, blew smoke out the side of his mouth, and proved himself a better friend to Amis than to Dire Speculation. “These are interesting things,” he said. “You know that.”
And so they are, and so I do. I can see from reading the book that my worries were obvious but unfounded: Yes, there’s some score-settling, and some handsome jeers at the Fourth Estate, but the book is really not to do with that, not to do with reputation at all really, but to do with love and work, and an episodic revelation of a writer’s unconscious materials. Don’t you think so? He has so much to say and he goes ahead and says it. The problem with Updike’s Self-Consciousness, or Roth’s Patrimony, was that they were books in which the authors involved themselves too deeply in the unquiet processes of self-mythologization: Amis’ book is not an exhibition of superior strengths, it is no arranged marriage with posterity, but is just a funny book, and a sad one, about the love and the loss of his father, and about other losses, other loves. It is much closer than those other writers’ books to other people’s lives. Roth was never drawn to anyone other than Roth. See what I mean?
Tell me what you think. And tell me if the Americans will understand the way the jokes work.