Wednesday 2 May 2018


I've been avoiding reading Martin Amis's Experience for years now. It keeps crossing my path, I pick it up, weigh it in my hands, maybe flick through it abstractedly, think about it, but somehow can't summon the energy to read it. The thing is, when Amis's early novels came out I was about as avid a fan as could be imagined, but by the time of The Information I was already having my doubts, and over the subsequent years I found that I just wasn't interested any more. Nor was I tempted to revisit those early novels, for fear of further disappointment. But then there was Experience, the big fat autobiography, and part of me badly wanted to read this one, even as another part kept me putting it back on the shelf unread.
  Then, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted it yet again in a charity shop, and this time I took the plunge, bought it and read it. It was a curious reading experience, reminding me why I had been such a fan – and, more or less simultaneously, why I had gone off the author so decisively. I found the book compulsively readable – Amis certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages – but as I neared the end I was beginning to find his tricks and tropes, his slick phrase-making, his bottomless self-consciousness, irritating. Also I was beginning to get fed up with the endless grisly accounts of surgery inflicted on his mouth and jaws (this by way of justifying his huge advance for The Information – he did not, he wants you to know, spend it on cosmetic dentistry). There's altogether too much score-settling and setting the record straight, and the book as a whole could have been cut by maybe a third with no great loss. The footnotes are often interesting, but too numerous, and some are punishingly long – and there's an entire Appendix devoted to the deplorable behaviour of Kingsley's biographer immediately after KA's death.
  However, Experience has a terrific tale to tell, of a life not short of incident, unexpected turns of events, and downright tragedy (Amis's cousin Lucy was one of the victims of the serial killer Fred West). And, of course, Martin is the son of Kingsley, so there is masses of good stuff on KA, some of it very funny indeed, and all of it illuminating. Anyone seriously interested in Kingsley should certainly read Experience. As usual with autobiographies, the earlier, family-focused parts are the best, but Amis managed to keep me gripped, despite my growing reservations, to the very end, and I read the whole thing in half the time such a fat volume would normally take me. An unlikely page-turner, but a page-turner none the less.


  1. I came to Martin though Kingsley, at first you're mesmerized by the virtuosity and energy of his prose, but the more one reads there is this nagging feeling that there is no center, no story to tell. I read 'Experience' first, so the bar was set high. However reading his novels proved an exercise in declining expectations. After 'Money', I simply stopped.

  2. I quite agree Craig. I suspect MA is a naturally gifted comic novelist who got led astray into 'seriousness' and big themes which didn't suit his particular abilities. You could say something similar of KA (did anything he wrote top Lucky Jim?) but the comedy was still there in almost everything he wrote, and he never aimed as ruinously high as his son.

  3. Regarding KA, that is true, post Elizabeth Jane Howard KA is particularly turgid in terms of grammar and content. However, he does regain some form in his latter novels.

    I also agree with your assessment of MA, he was probably a little over conscious of climbing 'Mt Nabokov'.

  4. Yes indeed, and Mt Bellow!

  5. Experience was my favourite MA by far. I even liked the dentistry stuff. But yes it's the stuff about Kingsley that makes it compelling. Martin has love but no illusions.