Martin Amis, 61 today, on ageing

Martin AmisMartin Amis is 61 today. Happy birthday. Here's his own take on ageing from his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, published this year. Martin Amis – never amiss with words:

This is the way it goes. In your mid-forties, you have your first crisis of mortality (death will not ignore me); and ten years later you have your first crisis of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me). But something very interesting happens to you in between.

As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!… Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.

Martin Amis on life and Kingsley Amis

Martin_amis_2010
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.

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On Chesil Beach: Life (and sex)

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

A relationship formalised when her stroking his penis elicits a marriage proposal from him ends on wedding night when her grasping his penis again makes him come all over her, sending her fleeing in revulsion first to the bathroom and then out of the hotel. She is frigid, Edward tells Florence, running after her. And when she tells him she loves him and that if he really wanted –- she doesn’t say what -– she would never be jealous as long as she knew he loved her, he spits out in cold fury: “You want me to go out with other women!…

“Do you realise how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is?”

Humiliated, Florence leaves the hotel the same night — and Edward doesn’t try to make up with her. Her parents set in motion a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage.

Unusual as it sounds, Ian McEwan brings this short novel to life with his exquisite prose, which verges on music and photography. He describes scenes and feelings vividly from the act of “self-pleasuring” — “a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body” — to the virgin Florence’s dread of any kind of physical intrusion. She does not like even French kissing, so when out of a sense of duty she starts foreplay with her newly-married husband, it ends in disaster. They have been engaged and fondled and kissed before, but they have never had sex.

Early Sixties

This is England in 1962, memorably described by Philip Larkin in the poem Annus Horribilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP

Edward adores his beautiful wife, and she loves him too -– but she is not prepared for this. She has other interests. As a trained classical musician, she is engrossed in her music and her career and has had girlfriends, not boyfriends, before.

McEwan portrays the differences in class and background between Edward and Florence. He is a schoolmaster’s son, a grammar school boy, she is a businessman’s daughter who has had all the privileges.

Starting with the dinner the newlyweds have before they retire to bed with disastrous consequences, the author tells the story flashing back and forth between the past and the present showing the differences between the couple. In the process one gets a picture of early 1960s England.

A day in the life

The story is set almost entirely in a single day, jumping 40 years to the noughties -– the present decade -– in the last pages.

Edward, now in his 60s, looks back on his life and misses Florence, who has become a famous violinist leading her own quartet.

Regrets

He has changed since he was shocked by her suggestion that he could go out with other women. He absorbed the spirit of sexual liberation that came in the late 1960s, had affairs with other women and went through another short-lived marriage. But he feels his life would have been far more rewarding had he listened to Florence and stuck with her.

The last two pages of the novel, filled with Edward’s regrets, are a meditation on the choices we make and their consequences, success and failure. The story ends on an elegiac note in McEwan’s beautiful prose: 

Continue reading “On Chesil Beach: Life (and sex)”