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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir


Martin Amis

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To purchase Experience

Title: Experience
Author: Martin Amis
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2000
Length: 406 pages
Availability: Experience - US
Experience - UK
Experience - Canada
Expérience - France
Die Hauptsachen - Deutschland
  • A Memoir

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Our Assessment:

B+ : touching memoir of fathers and sons and relations, but too little of the author himself -- bares too much about teeth and too little about most other things

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age A+ 27/6/2000 Peter Craven
Atlantic Monthly . 9/2000 Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Daily Telegraph A+ 22/5/2000 Victoria Glendinning
The Economist . 27/5/2000 .
FAZ . 26/11/2005 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Guardian A 20/5/2000 James Wood
The Guardian A+ 7/4/2001 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 21/5/2000 John Walsh
The LA Times B- 4/6/2000 Frederic Raphael
London Rev. of Books . 6/7/2000 John Lanchester
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A 13/12/2005 Thomas David
New Statesman B 29/5/2000 D. J. Taylor
The New Yorker . 19/6/2000 Joan Acocella
The NY Times A 23/5/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B 28/5/2000 John Leonard
The Observer A- 21/5/2000 Tim Adams
Salon A+ 26/5/2000 Andrew Roe
Sunday Herald . 25/5/2000 Karl Miller
The Sunday Times A- 21/5/2000 Terence Blacker
Time . 19/6/2000 Paul Gray
The Times A 18/5/2000 Marianne Wiggins
TLS A 26/5/2000 David Lodge
Voice Lit. Supp. B 6/2000 Daniel Handler

  Review Consensus:

  Very positive, with many touched by the book. Complaints vary (the teeth, the arrogance, etc.), but by and large most were very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Experience is a remarkable book: savage, side-splitting and full of the kind of tenderness that sometimes risks sentimentality. (...) (T)his is a book about life and death, about children and families. All the kids' voices in Experience -- those of the narrator as a child and those of his own children -- are done with a clairvoyant accuracy that wrings the heart even though it's funny." - Peter Craven, The Age

  • "Martin's elliptical memoir is a very odd mixture, but easily the most memorable and moving thing in it is his portrait of his father." - Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Atlantic Monthly

  • "Amis intends, he says, to set the record straight and to speak, for once, "without artifice". This is impossible. He is a self-conscious character in his own story, infinitely vulnerable to the reflection in his bathroom mirror. You cannot craft a narrative without artifice, and this one is as crafty and as artificial as it gets -- by which I mean it is a work of art. The autobiography -- which is funny, sad, moving and absolutely riveting -- is a complex piece of layering, and incorporates a substantial overview (or underview) of his father's life and work." - Victoria Glendinning, Daily Telegraph

  • "The point is the parallels and connections. His book is cross-hatched with them, running across from fathers to sons and back; between marriages and books, between books and books, between births and deaths. He says autobiography meant being able to write without artifice, but his writer's cunning is everywhere. (...) (T)he geography of the book circles and doubles, with long footnotes to take the spread. Why footnotes? "To preserve the collateral thought," says he. In fact, the whole thing is a lattice of collateral." - The Economist

  • "So quintessentially English sich dieses Buch auch für deutsche Leser zunächst ausnehmen mag, so muß man doch weder ein Faible für die angelsächsische Spezialität eines durch brachialen Humor auf ein verträgliches Maß gestutzten Selbsthasses haben noch sich brennend für die englische Literatur oder gar fär die Amises interessieren, um daran Gefallen zu finden" - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Experience is not quite a memoir, nor is it quite a portrait of his father, nor is it really an autobiography. It is an escape from memoir; indeed, an escape into privacy. In the very book which might, at first glance, seem most exhibitionist, most shamelessly metropolitan, Amis has softly retreated to the provinces of himself." - James Wood, The Guardian

  • "It is possibly Amis's best book; it is also necessary. (...) In one sense, this isn't even a book: it's an event. What a relief that it's as well-written as it is." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Experience is by no means the artless apologia it at first appears. It's a cunning, labyrinthine echo-chamber of regrets and farewells, appeals for permission, hesitant declarations of love. Amis is not above buttonholing us with "dear reader" and imagining us fondling the spine of his new production, as though inviting us to hold the baby for a moment. This may be just a cunning strategy -- to draw in by flattery, to disarm by pathos. But it works. He has written an utterly fascinating self-portrait that's also a horrified examination of the fragility of life." - John Walsh, The Independent

  • "I liked Experience sometimes (for its wit) and I was touched sometimes: It is truly elegiac when it comes to Kingsley's boozer's death. I disliked its spleen, smugness, resentment and lack of self-knowledge, the marks of the pampered and the overpraised down the ages." - Frederic Raphael, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Zwar faszinieren Amis' Romane aufgrund ihres intellektuellen Gewichts und der vitalen Schwerelosigkeit eines charakteristischen Stils, der auch dazu beiträgt, Die Hauptsachen zu einer ebenso kurzweiligen wie unvergesslichen Lektüre zu machen: Der hohe Grad an Selbsterkenntnis jedoch, der Amis' Memoiren auszeichnet, das Bekenntnis zum Menschlichen, das sich in ihnen offenbart, verbirgt sich selbst in so hervorragenden Büchern wie Money und London Fields (...) Die schmerzhaften Verwandlungen des Lebens wurden von Martin Amis nie eindrucksvoller beschrieben als in diesem Buch." - Thomas David, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Whatever the peaks of candour, defensiveness and doggedness (and also, it should be said, sympathy, generosity and humour) scaled in Experience, it is nevertheless an extremely odd book. (...) Both The Letters of Kingsley Amis and Experience, in their separate ways, seem to have been compiled with one eye on a remote and exacting audience: posterity. Martin's book, in particular, carries with it an almost painful sense (Nabokov, Bellow, Joyce . . . ) of a writer standing cap-in-hand before some far-off literary judgement seat." - D.J.Taylor, New Statesman

  • "Mr. Amis's most fully realized book yet -- a book that fuses his humor, intellect and daring with a new gravitas and warmth, a book that stands, at once, as a loving tribute to his father and as a fulfillment of his own abundant talents as a writer." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Experience is a portmanteau of personal history, ancestor worship and promiscuous opinionizing, and a pinata of literary gossip that Amis beats with a stick, causing many names to drop." - John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) fluidly structured meditation on love and loss. In some ways, this is a survivor's story; it is also a (belated) coming of age." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "(A) balanced, haunting work of memory and memorial, a surprisingly gentle meditation on fathers and sons, mortality, the loss of innocence, divorce, friendship, love -- what Amis calls "the main events," those "ordinary miracles and ordinary disasters" that shape you and define you and remain forever in your blood and being." - Andrew Roe, Salon

  • "The memoir moves in a mysterious way, mingling early and late, and circling back to this or that key episode. And it is hung with footnotes, which carry important material and which can give the impression that the book has been hurried into print along with its afterthoughts. This is hardly a major hazard, though it takes some getting used to." - Karl Miller, Sunday Herald

  • "The prose and structure here, full of footnotes, afterthoughts and repetitions, present an impression of casualness, but, for all its incidental pleasures and the fascinating insights it offers to anyone interested in Martin or Kingsley Amis, Experience sees a distinguished writer- celebrity carefully offering the world his emotional credentials." - Terence Blacker, The Sunday Times

  • "The mood of Experience is (...) valedictory rather than recriminatory. The book hums with the same antic prose and looping comic riffs that characterize Amis' fiction. He recounts his dental misadventures, for example, with masochistic self-mockery. But about the sufferings of others he manifests a tenderness that may surprise his faithful readers." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "Three times in the reading of this book, the courage, compassion and simplicity of Amis's writing brought me to tears. (...) That said, this is by no means a valentine designed for Oprah's Book Club. This is still a book by that Martin Amis (". . .shall I be -- ?"), the outrageous, wicked-funny, self-promoting short guy jockeying for position in the heat across Literature's Bridge of Size. His obsession with being taken seriously consumes a quarter of the book." - Marianne Wigins, The Times

  • "There is a great deal of art in Experience, not only in the style, as you would expect from this writer, but also in the structure. The narrative is notable for elaborate and complex time-shifts back and forth across the author's life, setting up echoes and parallels between incidents, playing variations on the themes of love and death, fathers and sons, innocence and experience. (...) Experience is not just an exploration of the father-son relationship, but also of what it is to be a writer; more specifically, what it is to be a writer in a culture obsessed with the idea of celebrity." - David Lodge, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Britain's faded but feisty bad boy puts on one of his shiniest displays here -- all flashy, stylish, explosive bursts of sound and fury. But -- to paraphrase another famous British writer -- what do the sound and fury signify, exactly? (...) (F)or a writer whose lovesexy style has always allowed him to soar over the pitfalls of autobiographical fiction, Amis is so focused on getting the record straight that he falls into the deep murk of irrelevant anecdotes and tirades against unworthy and forgotten opponents." - Daniel Handler, Voice Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Near the beginning of his "memoir" Martin Amis asks: "Why should I tell the story of my life ?" He offers a variety of reasons, perhaps first and foremost being that he wants to "set the record straight". Set the record straight ? There's an awful lot of arrogance right there. He wants to tell us his side of things and have us accept it as the truth, that's what he is saying. The record is a much more complicated thing and it is unlikely that a principal actor could set it straight: he's been too involved in contorting it all along (unintentionally or not). And when the man is a novelist -- why he's hardly to be trusted more than any of the members of the Fourth Estate Amis inveighs against. Novelists and journalists are, after all, all professional contorters.
       Amis does tell a story, but it does not convince as the story of a life. There are a few foci: dear old Dad (noted novelist Kingsley Amis), the disappearance of Amis' cousin Lucy Partington in 1973 and the discovery, decades later, of her grisly fate (she was brutally murdered by a man responsible for many similar despicable crimes), and Amis' 'orrible teeth (and their expensive replacements). It's an odd choice of emphasis for what is meant to be a memoir.
       Amis does proceed with a fair amount of autobiographical detail, though it is largely presented in only the roughest chronological order, with constant jumps ahead and back. "Letters from School" (and then College) to Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard (Martin's stepmother from 1965 to 1983) are interspersed between the chapters of the first part of the memoir, giving a glimpse of the young Martin and his academic (and other) tribulations as he crams for (and then at) Oxford. There are anecdotes galore throughout, as Amis recounts adventures and episodes from his life, leaping back and forth. The memoir is also heavily footnoted ("to preserve the collateral thought") with additional asides (some of which are astoundingly off-point -- indeed, off almost any point).
       It is Kingsley who takes up what seems to be most of the memoir. He seems an almost ever-present figure, and the book reads largely like a tribute to the man. Amis revels in the father-son relationship, even when it is a difficult one. (Martin's sons are also a loved presence throughout the book (while Martin's wives and women rate few mentions (except as dedicatees)).)
       The last part of the memoir deals with Kingsley's decline and death. The brief mention of the peculiar living arrangement of the last years (Kingsley's ex-wife (Martin's mum) and her husband moved in with him) typifies Martin's approach to many of the "controversial" pieces in the book: readers of newspaper-articles on this book learn more about the arrangement than they do in the book itself. Perhaps Martin presupposes that his readers are familiar with the details; still, it is an odd way of "setting the record straight". (In fact, Martin handles these scenes particularly well, but there is just too little information for those who aren't in the know.)
       There is also a fair amount about the "betrayal" by "the Biographer" (Kingsley's appointed biographer, Eric Jacobs), culminating in an appendix discussing what Martin and other Amiss apparently took very amiss, the writing and eventual publication of some material about recently departed Kingsley. It was apparently an "agonizing violation (...) inflicted on the immediate family", as Kingsley was "described without a particle of decorum" a mere seventy-two hours after his death. Martin obviously feels extremely strongly about this, and there is no arguing with such deep hurt and outraged feelings. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that he once again does nothing resembling setting any record straight. Kingsley's arrangement with Eric Jacob's is never adequately explained, and neither are many of the details of the controversy. Martin's righteousness may well be justified, but here he just sounds righteous.
       There are other, more interesting scandals that Amis almost completely ignores, notably his split with longtime friend Julian Barnes and his wife (and Amis' agent), Pat Kavanagh. Perhaps Amis is tired of this subject, fodder for the Fourth Estate for ages, but surely it deserves more comment than the brief passages on it and the letter he wrote to "Dear Jules".
       The ghost of Lucy Partington also haunts the memoir. What could one possibly say about this unspeakable tragedy ? It affected Amis, obviously, and he conveys this convincingly -- and still the reader feels manipulated. In part that is because there is so much else about which Martin says so little -- including the other women in his life, as well as his books (one hardly senses book-writing is his main occupation).
       And then there are the teeth. Certainly, Amis describes his oral suffering very well. On page after page. And his dental preoccupation is understandable: they were terrible teeth, and the solution to his problems was a highly unpleasant procedure. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that no one, save professionals, need all this gory detail. (And, again, the question arises: why not similar detail about other events in his life ? Admittedly this was a major trauma, but surely other events from earlier on warrant similar coverage.)

       There is a great deal of informative stuff in Experience as well, and much of it is cleverly presented. Amis casts himself (in younger days) as Osric (the "water-fly" from Hamlet), which works quite well. And there are revealing bits tucked away all over. Perhaps he really doesn't need to say more about his relationship with the women than he does in a revealing letter from 1971, writing about then (and longtime) girlfriend Alexandra "Gully" Wells:

I haven't been able to bring myself to tell Gully that I don't think our living together will work and it's getting to be pretty worrying since we're supposed to be looking for suitable places to live. I think she knows I'm not happy about [it] but I suppose she's just hoping for the best.
       Amis adds that he is "increasingly convinced" that he won't get married until he's "about 70." It seems: "It's all too harrowing." Harrowing or not Amis did wed, repeatedly, before he hit 70, but there is not much about that here. He revels in fatherhood (including the (re)discovery of a girl he fathered in his younger days and first met some 20 years after the fact), but the women involved are treated much more circumspectly and discreetly.
       Kingsley, central throughout, is well done in Experience, the mothers (real and step) less so. There are some other decent portraits: when he finally gets around to him Amis has some excellent pages on Philip Larkin ("life was happening to Larkin, but he had no talent for that"), and some of his own friends (Hitch -- Christopher Hitchens -- for example) work well on the periphery. Then, of course, there is the adored Saul Bellow (whose own struggles with a near-fatal illness also shook Amis in the late 1990s). Amis maintains that he is Bellow's "ideal reader", though the case for this is not presented convincingly. (He also suggests that Christopher Hitchens is, "funnily enough", Kingsley's ideal reader -- a judgement that, on the basis of the evidence presented in this book, sounds more convincing.)
       There is a jumble of odds and ends throughout the book. There are far too many pets (accorded about the same status as Amis' women). There are odd star-struck asides ("John Travolta is one of the sanest men I have ever met"). There are fun little facts and opinions.
       Still, stunningly, one comes away from the book almost none the wiser. Amis' life has been a very public one, so perhaps most of the pertinent facts are already familiar. But there seems almost nothing new here, and Amis' spin on what he presents seems so controlled and carefully dosed that more seems to be hidden than revealed. Far from setting the record straight Amis seems to have largely obscured it (except, perhaps, some of the stuff about the teeth, and the fact that everyone cried at Kingsley's funeral -- the only facts he really seems to care about).
       Amis writes engagingly and generally very, very well, and this book is no exception. It's a good enough read, and an entertaining one, and certainly of interest to anyone who is interested in Kingsley Amis and Martin's relationship with his father. As a memoir it is selective indeed -- a practise-volume, one hopes, for the subsequent real thing.
       At one point Amis writes:
This remains the great deficiency of literature: its imitation of nature cannot prepare you for the main events. For the main events, only experience will do.
       Fair enough, and point taken -- but Experience seems to try too hard to make that point.

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Experience: Reviews: Martin Amis: Other books by Martin Amis under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Ravelstein, by beloved Saul Bellow, much praised in Experience
  • The first in the Flashman series, by George MacDonald Fraser, from which Martin read to debilitated Kingsley
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Biography-Index, including autobiographies, memoirs, critical studies, etc.

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About the Author:

       British author Martin Amis lived 1949 to 2023.

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© 2000-2023 the complete review

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