The Book Club

Serious Humor

Dear Andrew,

I’ll turn to humor–and to anger–in a mo. First, back to the interesting question of resentment that you mention at the beginning of your piece. Blame the Somerset Maugham Prize for the unusual resentment served on young writers in Britain. Winners of that award (under-35-year-old British or Commonwealth writers) often seem destined to spend a good part of their lives under siege from the press. Kingsley and Martin Amis both won the prize for their first novels–Lucky Jim and The Rachel Papers–and when they were in their 20s. But compared with his father, who was no stranger to the fray of London life, Martin Amis’ experience with press resentment is vastly more public.

You can’t help thinking that for some journalists, happiness is the news of a good writer’s death, or, at the very least, gossip about a writer’s private misfortunes (family trouble, problems with the tax authorities, etc.). For others (and D.J. Taylor seems one of these–see his review of Experience here), there’s resentment at a writer’s ability to make money from books, plus the good friends and the writer’s life. But there’s also resentment about fame, especially if you’ve become famous in America (e.g. Julie Burchill–see her bitter review here). If a British writer is famous in, say, Nicaragua (William Golding, for example), that’s one thing; but if a writer becomes famous in the United States, then the resentment is of a different magnitude. It’s as if such a writer has become, in certain British eyes, as famous as a movie star or a hero from TV. Like an actor, the writer deserves a good tabloid thrashing or trashing–whatever it takes–until he tells the papers what his life is really like and/or makes a fool of himself. In Amis’ case, he’s alive, makes a living from the sale of his books, and is famous in America. He’s a triple jackpot for the resentful soul who just can’t wait to have a go at his latest book.

But a novelist is not the same as an actor. To make this simple point, Amis writes about his several meetings with John Travolta in Experience. “I’ve never felt uglier than when I dined with Travolta,” he says, “(or poorer: me with my VW Golf, him with his three airplanes).” Also, actors, unlike writers, don’t go on book tours. I saw Will Self at the end of his book tour in 1997. He didn’t look tired after the rigors self-promotion. He looked like death. Yet part of the Fourth Estate delights itself with the category error.

What’s interesting here is that Amis’ novels are filled with characters who think one thing and do another, say one thing and mean another. So is Experience. Yet, unlike the journalists who pursue him, Amis sees both the humor and the seriousness of this. It’s very funny when, in Amis’ short story “What Happened to Me on My Summer Holiday,” a child called Pablo puts on a lion’s outfit and screams to anyone who will hear him, “I’m a Lion’s costume.” It’s very funny, too, at the beginning of Experience, when Amis’ children chide their father for his pronunciation.

–Dad …
–What class are we?
From the wheel I said ruggedly,
–We aren’t. We don’t buy that stuff.
–Then what are we?
–We’re outside all that. We’re the intelligentsia.
–Oh, he said, and added in deliberate falsetto: Am I an intellectual?
This was a number-two son, Jacob, then aged nine.
–Why do you say Fridee and Mondee and Thursdee?
–What do you say? Fri-day and Mon-day?
–It’s bound to sound stupid if you say it in that voice. And do you say birthdee?

But the conversation is turning serious when Louis asks:

–Do you say yesterdee? …
–But you don’t say todee, do you.
–No. Of course not
–And you don’t say dee. What a lovely dee it is.
–Early the next dee, said Jacob.
–What dee would suit you?
–No of course I don’t.
–Then why do you say Mondee and Fridee and Sundee?
–Jesus. I trained myself to do it my teens because I thought it sounded posh.
–Why d’you do that? asked Louis with sincere puzzlement.
–Because it used to be cool to be posh.
His head snapped round.
Did it? … Christ

This isn’t just teasing: A young boy asking a parent why he did put on a posh voice just to impress others is no small question. And it’s not funny at all when, in the appendix to Experience, Amis makes a phone call to the biographer of his father, Eric Jacobs, who has written an unwanted, much-hated account of Kingsley Amis’ last days in the hospital and of the funeral. The London Sunday Times is about to publish the article.

–I see you’ve added an account of the funeral.
–Well, yes.
–Which you describe as a perfunctory affair. You end your description of it with the following: “Only Sally cried.” [Sally is Amis’ sister] If I were you, Eric, I would take that out, because it isn’t true.
–Oh really?
–And there were many people present who can confirm that it isn’t true.
–You weren’t there, were you, Eric. Who told you only Sally cried?
–Someone who was … who was there.
–Whoever it was was mistaken.
–Oh. Then I … Then I’ll …
–Everybody cried.

There were any number of times that I fell off the sofa laughing while reading Experience, but there were passages, like the one above, where I found myself stunned, as if I’d been thrown against a wall as Amis’ anger–rightful and heartfelt–reared from the page.

You asked about humor, and whether Americans would get the jokes. Yes, they will. But, Andy, what I wonder is this: People laugh a lot in London, but do they sometimes laugh without recognizing (or not wanting to recognize) the seriousness of the joke–out of politeness or embarrassment? Or resentment?