The Book Club

Laughing With Father

Dear Inigo:

I’ll tell you what makes the father and son riff a bit different in Experience–a lot of the relationship is based on jokes. That is fairly new. They weren’t particularly drawn to one another as writers–Kingsley was uneven, bad about women and Jews; Martin was “a leaf blown by the winds of trend”–but they managed to laugh at the same things. Martin is not his father’s perfect reader–Christopher Hitchens might be that–but he is his perfect foil, and a good listener. They are Curmudgeon and Kid, or Steptoe and Son (though Martin Amis, with his teeth drawn, once or twice likens himself to the older Steptoe in appearance). The jokes are quite un-American–too self-deprecating and absurd–whether it’s this, quoted from Philip Amis’ diary: “Mum told me she found Mart crying in the night about the size of his bum. I do feel sorry for him, but a) it is enormous, and b) it’s not going to go away.” Or this, as Amis père et fils reminisce: 

Ann Jones won Wimbledon in 1969. She was, as the English say, a big girl; there was some talk about Billie Jean King, her opponent in the Final, exploiting this fact by “crowding” Ann on her volleys.
–She had a wonderful body and a goofy face. And you used to put your thumb over it on the TV so you could look at her breasts.
–What of it?
–You once told me the sexiest part of a woman was her face. And I remember another conversation. Jane was there. I said, “Are you a total tit-man? Don’t you like any other bits? Don’t you like legs?” And you said, “Well, I like to know they’re both there.”

This is a relationship comprehended–and beyond comprehension–through jokes. Amis sets himself up: The man who asks his father if he is a “total tit-man” is an up-growth (though not by much) of the schoolboy who earlier writes to his father asking him if he can rent a flat in which to fuck girls. In his letters, Kingsley serially refers to Martin as Savage Little Mart and worse–but he comes in the end to see him as one of his Inner Circle. A friendship and a kinship based on barbs and objections, but also based on the fact of each liking the idea of the other–this is all better than a family love based on sentimentality alone. “The rewards of being sane may not be very many,” wrote Kingsley in Stanley and the Women, “but knowing what’s funny is one of them. And that’s an end to it.”

The Martin who speaks in Experience knows this is true–and he knows it may be his lasting bond with Kingsley. “When he made you laugh,” writes Martin, “he sometimes made you laugh–not continuously, not punctually–for the rest of your life. This was his superhumour: the great engine of his comedy. And now the engine was winding down.”

If you look at other writers who wrote about their fathers, you hardly ever see them laughing. Poor James Boswell, with his unloving judge of a father, an old man who never smiled, forever telling his son he was a waster and an idiot; Robert Louis Stevenson’s father, Thomas, the engineer, fearful of his son’s waywardness and irreligion–warning him, baiting him, beyond any comprehension of jokes or differences. Even poorer Edmund Gosse, his distant father wading all day in pools of algae, the son going mad with the hope of love. They all got books out of it, of course. But I’d swap all of them together for Kingsley in his bed, a lovely old bigot in his bed, asking his son for one little more hug.

That’s that, then. A fine book, Inigo. And I put it on the shelf with a small certainty: This is the kind of book that serves a novelist well. He has swum this while in the Main Events, and written his Memoir; the next time he breaks the surface, and takes a lungful of air, I imagine his breathing will be somewhat new, and the novels he writes will be better for it.

As ever,