Martin Amis on life and Kingsley Amis

Martin Amis (left) describes seeing his father, Kingsley Amis (below), in a dream in his autobiography, Experience. Published in 2000, five years after his father’s death, it’s one of the most intimate accounts of a father-and-son relationship that I have ever read.

He writes:

Why should I tell the story of my life?

I do it because my father is dead now, and I always knew I would have to commemorate him. He was a writer, and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case — a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son.

Kingsley_amis_2010 He writes about his father explaining the mysteries of sex to him and his elder brother, Philip, when they were schoolboys and the conversations they had when he had grown up.

His father pops up even when he is writing about other things. He recalls the articles he published in the New Statesman following the death of the critic FR Leavis and calling them a “symposium”. A symposium originally meant a drinking party, he says and adds:

And that is what Kingsley liked, above all things. Well, he probably liked adultery even better, in his manly noon, but the symposium was a far more durable and unambivalent pleasure — a love whose month was forever May.

The gift

His father never urged him to be a writer, he writes:

(H)e had never expressed any desire any desire that I should pursue the literary life, despite all the evidence that I had such a life in mind. I attributed this to sheer indolence on his part, but I now think he was obeying a parental instinct, and a good one…

In the arts when the parent invites the child to follow — this is a complicated affair, and there will always be a suspicion of egotism in it. Is the child’s promise a tribute to the superabundance of the father’s gift? And historically what long odds you face: there’s Mrs Trollope as well as Anthony, and Dumas pere et fils, and that’s about it. What usually happens is that the child is productive for a while, and then the filial rivalrousness plays itself out. I think literary talent is strongly inherited. But literary stamina is not.

He seems to have inherited both the talent and the stamina, though he has not written as many books as his father — yet.

That is what makes his account of his father’s long illness so poignant.

Kingsley Amis, a prolific writer who had a new book published almost every year from the 1950s to the early 1990s, eventually began to lose his memory.

Martin Amis recalls him typing phone numbers on the typewriter to remember them and the words “COMPLETELY RELAHIBLE”. He meant “completely reliable” and got the phone numbers wrong.

The dying…

He was admitted to St Pancras Hospital, in London. Amis recalls how he suffered:

Kingsley’s pneumonia has returned and is not being treated… The air sacs in his lungs are filling with matter. He must breathe so much harder and faster to get the oxygen he needs. How hard it is to die. You have to chase it, panting…

My father has turned away. He is showing me how you do it. You turn away, on your side, and do the dying.

He saw his father suffer, but it was his sister, Sally, who was present when the old man died, at 73, on October 22, 1995. Amis writes:

She had been with him for ten hours… When we pressed in there, the white screens were being drawn, and Sally stood, as if electrified, as if italicised — as if so many urgent tasks awaited her that she couldn’t for the life of her think where to begin. Philip flinched away from seeing the body and I said but you must, you must; and as we moved forward I felt his fingers clutching my arm, the way we had clutched each other a thousand times, in childhood, when there was a reckoning to be faced. Next came a moment of outlandish horror. In Kingsley’s bed a sheeted figure thrashed (they’re killing him!) — but this was someone different, someone else, a new arrival being battened down into his blankets. Our father lay further in, on the other side of the screens, which I now parted. Instant chemistry of death, already changing him from alkaline to acid. And the death colours, greens and indigos, like dyes of caste, so much more garish than the colours of life. As if to ward something off, his right hand was raised (contorted, mottled), with the plastic nametag on its wrist.

… and the dream

Later, he saw his father in a dream. It’s remarkable how he completely identifies with his father. He writes:

That night my father came to me in a dream. He was all business. He came not as shade but as envoy.

I fell asleep and it seemed that he was already there, waiting patiently, although his time was far from limitless. He was about sixty; he looked respectable to the point of mild dowdiness, and more self-sufficient and obviously benign than he ever was in life. And sexless — crucially sexless; free of gender and desire…

Well, Dad, I said, how do you want things to go, now you’re back?

And I didn’t mean back from the dead. I meant back in the neighbourhood…

He said nothing (and I felt he didn’t want to be touched). With gestures only, with looks, with pauses, he gave me to understand that I had all his trust — in the prosecution of his wishes, and in everything else. Because my wishes were his wishes, and the other way around. Then he left, he briskly absented himself, returning not to death but to an intermediate vantage. He was resolute. The dream was all business. He came not as shade but as messenger.

A messenger from my own unconscious, naturally. Because my mind is his mind and the other way around.

So it was incredibly warming to see you, Dad….

It was incredibly warming to see you, but I didn’t really need the reassurance about your wishes. Because my wishes are your wishes, and I am you and you are me.

That’s life

One of my favourite Shakespeare quotes is this passage from Julius Caesar, where Brutus tells Cassius:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

(Act IV, Scene III)

Amis, too, seemed to have those lines from Shakespeare in mind before he had his dream. Just before describing his dream, he writes:

My life, it seems to me, is ridiculously shapeless. I know what makes a good narrative, and lives don’t have much of that — pattern and balance, form, completion, commensurateness. It is often the case that a Life, at least to start with, will resemble a success story; but the only shape that life dependably exhibits is that of tragedy — minus all the grand stuff about nemesis, fortune’s wheel and the fatal flaw. Tragedy follows the line of the mouth on the tragic mask (and the equivalent is true of comedy). You rise to the crest and then you curve down to a further point along the same latitude. That’s the only real shape lives usually have — and, again, forget about coherence of imagery and the Uniting Theme.

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