In Martin Amis’s memoir, Experience, he includes verbatim reproductions of letters he sent as a teenager and young man, primarily to his father, to add depth to his own character and to provide an interesting dual-track narrative, which runs parallel to the more conventional course of the book. He confesses fairly early on in his contemporary account that the letters were written by a person he does not recognise, someone who is not even perceptibly him – though this could of course be the product of reflexive embarrassment at observing his youthful precocity after all of the years which had passed.
He terms this personality ‘Osric’, after the simpering, jejune courtier in Hamlet. Amis quotes the play: ‘(Hamlet … [Aside to Horatio] Dost know this water-fly)’. In Osric mode, Amis reads avidly, develops opinions on great novels (he terms Middlemarch ‘FUCKING good’, for example, and has a veritable obsession with using the word ‘fine’ to describe great canonical texts) and generally does his very best to appear the worldly man of letters; it is not churlish, I think, to read into this some desire to please his father, Kingsley Amis, who was a successful author and intellect and a bit of an old devil in his own right. (Amis fils remembers: ‘I was recently reminded that Kingsley played Osric in a college production at Swansea in 1953. Now I recall his Osric routine, very flirtatious, all eyelash and limp wrist.’)
Psychoanalysis aside, then, ‘Osric’ as presented in Experience is still a clever and even charming character; and he even exhibits critical taste and not a little wit. He is not quite as clever as he thinks himself – or as clever as he would like others to view him – but, latter-day embarrassment aside, there is not a great deal wrong with the guy. The same cannot be said, however, for Charles Highway, the protagonist of Amis’s debut novel, The Rachel Papers. (The wit of Amis the writer is on show – with phrases like ‘piston-wristed savagery’ to describe the forceful enthusiasm of juvenile masturbation – but to an extent that is beside the point.)
Highway, whose very introduction is rather finely crafted – ‘My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me’ – is a character, on the verge of his 20th birthday, in need of portent and happening. All of this is swiftly and ironically undermined in the second sentence of the first page, however: ‘It’s such a rangy, well-travelled, big-cocked name and, to look at, I am none of these’.
Still, the mitigating phrase – ‘to look at’ – gives a none-too-subtle impression that Highway’s opinion of himself is a little higher than the one he attributes to others. And in that respect he is right; the young man – at least in his own telling – is perceptive, indeed obsessively so, and possesses a skill for clarity of thought. The way Amis describes his meticulous note-taking and emotional book-keeping demonstrates that comprehensively.
The subjects of this fierce attention are the eponymous papers, and the Rachel who gives them their name. She is the ‘Older Woman’ Highway seeks, and the target of his scheming and plotting. One skill Highway apparently possesses which Amis as ‘Osric’ did not is a chameleon-like reflex for adaption, which manifests itself in a continuous shifting of accents, sartorial standards and the décor of his bedroom – all the better to impress and eventually possess (a telling usage) the girls and young women who are the objects of his attentions.
The problem with his attention to detail, however, is the inevitable erosion of the individual underneath: the crumbling of the experience Amis details in his book of that title. And in the same way that Amis is clearly more than a little self-conscious about the ‘Osric’ phase of his emotional and intellectual development, eventually Highway’s precocity – and pomposity – catches up with him.
After Highway gets the girl, the narrative begins to sag somewhat; the objective attained, he loses impetus. And though the relationship with Rachel initially appears to fulfil his expectations and fantasies, it too deteriorates and becomes decidedly less satisfying. At the same time, the protagonist has to face the profound intellectual challenge of his Oxford entrance examination. It presents something of an obstacle, even for he who gives accomplished – if slightly absurd – lectures in art galleries and cinemas to impress this or that girl.
When the dreaded exam finally makes an appearance, our man thinks he has made a good go of things, despite having ‘a sequence of (mild) identity crises’.
By his own reckoning, then:
I explicated a Donne sonnet and paid uncomprehending lip-service to a beefy dirge by someone called John Skelton. There was a D. H. Lawrence essay on how passionate and truthful D. H. Lawrence was: a characteristic piece of small-cocked doggerel which I treated with characteristic knowingness. Finally, I belaboured one of Gerard Manly Hopkins’s sleazier lyrics, implying (a last-minute reread made clear) that it was high time we burned all extant editions of the little fag’s poetry; emendations took the form of replacing some of the ‘ands’ with ‘buts’, and of changing the odd ‘moreover’ to ‘however’.
This, and the fact that on the English Literature paper he wrote on ‘Blake alone’, all add up to an attempt to attract ‘the erratic-but-oh-so-brilliant ticket’. For the last essay, candidates write on the literary implications and associations of a single word; Highway, perhaps ironically, chooses ‘Experience’.
In his interview, however, Highway comes unstuck. His expectations of the thing and what could happen are wildly divergent: either his essays were ‘so brilliant as virtually to replace the texts themselves, rendering all previous literary criticism defunct’, or they would prove sufficiently terrible to justify his incarceration in an asylum of some sort. That said, however, it is clear that Highway continues to think himself an intellectual, a thinker of some originality and skill. The possibility of failure, at least as he imagines it, rests on the chance that his brilliance might be misinterpreted by other people.
The seeds of hubristic arrogance permeate the book as a whole: at one point Highway wonders how well he would do with Rachel in France: ‘automatic Fellowship? Telegram from the PM’. And even after his aforementioned crisis of confidence, he still wonders if he ‘would … be met at the station by the Vice-Chancellor and Mayor, driven through the town in an open car, waving at the crowds, laughing as I brushed the confetti and streamers from my hair’. At the same time, Highway continues his relentless planning and extends the number of parts he can play – personalities he can affect – to match the many possible paths which his interview could take.
(To an extent this duality, and the fear of the unknown, is also seen in Amis’s own writing in Experience about his preparation for being interviewed at Oxford. In a letter to Kingsley and his then-wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Amis wonders whether he should be ‘refreshingly different’, ‘stolidly middle-brow’, ‘engagingly naïve’, ‘candidly matter-of-fact’, ‘contemptuously sophisticated’, ‘incorruptibly sincere’, ‘sonorously pedantic’, ‘curiously fickle’, ‘youthfully wide-eyed’ and so on. Rather obviously, but not incorrectly, he decides he ‘shall end up … just … being … myself’.)
The same is not true of his fictional counterpart, whose conception of self is buried amid the many divergent personae he adopts to suit his purposes. At interview Highway’s ambition and his surface-level intelligence fail to pass muster; he and his essays are deftly deconstructed by a hippie Fellow in ‘urban-guerrilla dress’, and all of his inconsistencies and unacknowledged borrowings and pretensions are enunciated with stinging clarity. Unexpectedly, he is asked if he even likes literature: such is his apparent contempt for revered writers (as well as mainstream points of view) that the question is hardly unreasonable. Highway fails properly to answer that question and passes the rest of his very short interview in a state of understandable shock.
Though the hippie – a cool young academic who is said to be ‘very active’ for ‘Political reform’ (with telling italics) – unbraids his interview subject, he is also charitable; he decides to admit this candidate, but tells him to lay off ‘all this structuralist stuff’. This is not a downfall worthy of the name; it is not a serious failure, one which would normally compel a character to take another tack, to review matters seriously. But it is a humiliation of the sort which Charles Highway is unequipped the deal with, and it makes him seem subdued and altogether more pensive. He ditches Rachel, for a long time the object of his obsessive interest, and returns to the contemplation of his oncoming 20th birthday.
It is on this ambiguous note that the novel closes: with its protagonist having spurned a lover and suffered a humiliation, but still being in a position to contemplate the prospect of Oxford. This is not a story of genuine suffering, or even of real emotional development, but it does at least hold out the possibility of advancement, and the pursuit of experience.