A conversation with Martin Amis
Martin Amis is a novelist with an innate talent to cause outrage. He angered Muslims (among others) by telling them post 9/11 that they ought to “suffer until they get their house in order”. He offended senior citizens (among others) in Britain by suggesting that euthanasia booths be installed along the streets for the silver tsunami to avail of a “medal and a martini” before terminating their lives. He annoyed his friend Julian Barnes (among others) by ditching his wife Pat Kavanagh as agent and switching to Andrew Wylie.
Prodigy, literary Mick Jagger, bad boy of British letters, enfant terrible—Amis lies at the nexus of several literary lineages. Son of novelist Kingsley Amis, who was best buddies with poet Philip Larkin (in a reversal of fortunes of our Desai mother-daughter duo, Anita and Kiran, Kingsley won the Booker, Martin hasn’t. “Mine aren’t the sort of books that produce a consensus. It’s why I don’t win prizes”). Rat pack of his own: Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Craig Raine, the late Christopher Hitchens. Husband to the beautiful writer Isabel Fonseca. The enfant is now 67 but the swagger shows no sign of depleting.
Amis claims as inspirations Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, Charles Dickens, John Updike. But above all, Vladamir Nabokov. No Amis interview is complete without mention of Nabokov. The English sentence is what he puts his trust in. He doesn’t want “depressed”, “Princess Diana language” and he doesn’t want to read “gloomy bastards”. He wants style, he wants “the king in his counting house…to be crude, it would be like saying that I don’t trust an abstract painter unless I know that he can do hands.”
His own voice is unmistakable. Part snarl, part hideous smirk, part laughter in the dark. As one critic said, “You could pick out 10 sentences of Ian McEwan, a paragraph of Julian Barnes, at random and you would not necessarily be able to identify them as such. A paragraph of Amis, a sentence of Amis, always sounds like Amis.”
I first interviewed Martin Amis 14 years ago in his London home after the publication of Koba The Dread, a work of non-fiction about Stalin’s regime. He wore tennis whites, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and spoke in a gravelly English drawl of perfectly enunciated sentences. Amis is a short man, somewhere in the vicinity of 5ft, 6 inches. He has written 14 novels, of which the most recent is The Zone Of Interest, set in Auschwitz (his second Holocaust novel). He was recently in Mumbai for the Tata Literature Live! festival to talk about the city as a character, the crisis of the Western writer and why liberals are so out of the loop. We met at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel bar where Amis drank Kingfishers and ate popcorn. He is as short as I remember him. His hair is thinner. He takes frequent hits from an electronic cigarette, which is concealed in the inside pocket of his blazer (“something to do between cigarettes,” he says). The drawl remains unchanged.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
You hold the title of Britain’s most contrarian writer. Have you found your popularity somewhat increased since you moved to the US five years ago?
Probably. A bit. How can you tell? It doesn’t seem any different.
What do you miss about England?
Not much. My girls miss it more than I do. I like going back. And I’m impressed when I go back because it seems to me more advanced than America. Post-racial. Of course, it isn’t. It depends on the economic level of whichever bit of London you happen to be in, but almost the first thing I feel when I get off the plane is that this is a more evolved society. England has been around for 1,200 years, and America for 250, and I’m impressed by it. I’m amazed by how orderly it is. Always a friendly place, and America is a friendly place, but England is witty as well as friendly. America is too big to be witty. And also, if you look at the personal ads in Britain, you know—hopeless, overweight, alcoholic, chain-smoker seeks companion who is pretty tolerant, etc. In America, it’s super-fit, ultra-successful, non-smoker guy wants similar….It’s always selling yourself, which Britain is not.
And you like that?
Yeah. I recognize that; in a way I don’t recognize the American triumphant self-presentation.
What’s your feeling on Brexit and now Donald Trump?
I’ve been wracking my brains to think what has happened in the last 10 years that has made everyone in the West so credulous and so easily swayed in this unpleasant direction, in retrograde, and all I can think of is the Internet. I think there has been a psychic change in ordinary people. For instance, the weakening of the truth as a standard. People don’t care about the truth as they used to because they’re used to things not necessarily being true. I remember someone saying years ago that everything on the Internet is about 60% truth. I was horrified when I saw that, but now I think it’s 30%, and it seems to have blurred people’s grip on reality and brought out very unpleasant atavistic feelings, tribal feelings, I don’t know why.
And yet, we seem to be obsessed with reality, whether it’s reality shows or reality fiction—there seems to be a need for wanting to see real people in real situations.
Yes, and that huge genre known as life writing. As if they don’t trust fiction. What they’re trusting instead is this hazy, woozy, if-it- feels-true-then-it’s true-truthiness. I don’t think Trump has shown any insight, any special grasp of modernity. Occasionally, he shows he does have an unconscious grasp of what’s happening, when he notoriously said, for instance, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Now, that’s revealing a truth. He blundered into something there, because I think people don’t think he’s real and when they read about him goosing some beauty queen, they think that’s all right because she isn’t real either. They don’t connect it with real people. He’s a construct as seen on TV. I think Michael Moore is ridiculously wrong about lots of things but I agreed completely with his reading with what had gone on in Trump’s mind when he began his political career last year as a way of upping his price, his brand. Michael Moore said he fell in love with himself all over again, and I think that’s right. He just thought I’m as wonderful as I used to think I was and all I got to do is reveal how wonderful I am and people will follow me because I’m so wonderful.
So if reality is being bombarded by these fictions then what is the role of fiction?
Zadie Smith said to me years ago, “Everything we think of as literary culture will be gone in a generation and a half.” She said, “It will last your time, but it won’t last mine.” I don’t think it will ever disappear, but it will shrink. It will go back to what it was when I started out, which is a minority interest sphere, which some people happen to be very interested in. What happened as I see it is that the newspapers got bigger and bigger, and they were casting about for people to write about, and they ran out of people until they found themselves writing about writers—the people they hate most, certainly in England. And then suddenly, writers were much more famous than they used to be. When I started out, you wrote your novel, you sent it in, it was published, it got reviewed. But none of the other stuff. No interviews, no tours, no readings, no panels, no photographs, no TV, no radio, all that came with this higher profile, higher visibility. I think it will go back to something like what it was.
Your friend Christopher Hitchens considered himself a ‘soixante-huitard’. He described 1968 not as the beginning of something, but the last gasp of red-flag socialism. Do you feel you’re a child of 1968? And do we need a new revolution?
You know, there are many ways you can introduce this, where you say there’s the basic difference between people—some people are like this and some people are like that. Nabokov said the world divides into those who sleep well and those heroic insomniacs like himself. He had that lovely line, “Night is always a giant, but this one was especially terrible.” One of the ways people divide is they like revolutions or they don’t. Hitch loved revolutions. Any revolution. He thought revolutions were good per se. I don’t like revolutions. I’m a gradualist, an incrementalist. Hitch loved the idea of creative destruction, fire and blood, it’s what accelerates and gets you to the next stage, but I hate the violence of revolutions, everything in me recoils from it.
But a lot of your work has to do with violence. You’ve written about Stalin, you’ve written about the Holocaust, you’ve written about some pretty dodgy characters, so on some level you are attracted to violence, surely?
Yeah, I am. We all are. It’s a great paradox and I’ve never seen it really explained, but why have films become increasingly more violent? We do want to see it, but only in art, not in real life. There’s nothing more nauseating than if say a fight breaks out now in this bar, it’s horrible, it’s alien. But we’re fascinated by it. We are a violent species. It’s the great curse of our species. Violence is always a failure of articulacy. When men beat their wives or their girlfriends it’s because they can’t think of anything to say. They’re getting defeated in argument and their tank is empty. It’s a confession of failure, your persuasive powers are over so you seek a brutal solution. I think it perfectly understandable that we’re fascinated by it, but violence in art doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s the great thing about it. When I create a monster character, the covers of the book are like the bars of a cage. He can’t harm you, but you can look at him. You can look at this monster and admire its severity and horror, but it doesn’t mean you secretly want violence. It’s not a subconscious cry for violence, it’s actually the opposite, it’s how we control it.
I was reading about your cousin Lucy Partington, who was killed by Fred West and that you discovered this much after the fact.
She disappeared in 1973 and was dug up 20 years later in the “House of Horrors” ( in Gloucestershire). I remember hearing it from my cousins and my aunt, my mother’s sister, “Lucy didn’t come home last night.” I constructed a history, or an imaginary history of what happened. She was always very artistic, a poetess, very religious, studying medieval music, I thought she’d taken herself off to Australia. She was 19-20, you could just about imagine her doing that, although she was devoted to her family and animals; she had a horse and rabbits. And then I was coming in from the airport in London and I opened The Sun, and there was a picture of her next to this horrible scene of bones in the garden of his house. She disappeared at the bus stop, getting the last bus back to her village. I’ve read everything about Fred West, I know exactly how it happened. He pulled up in his van and said, “Hop in love, I’ll give you a lift back,” and he had sitting beside him Rosemary West, who had a baby in her lap.
Lucy, very sensible girl, wouldn’t have gotten in a car with Fred West, but if there’s a woman in the front seat with a baby, you could imagine her getting in the car. So I told my children, never get into a car with a stranger, they could have three or four children in there and bunny rabbits and puppies, but don’t get in. I said trust your instincts, and if you have even 1% doubt, then obey.
Listening to you at the Hay Festival in Wales some years ago, you said the obituary for poetry has been written...
It’s written all the time. The obituary for the literary novel is being written too.
But sales of poetry books are rising in the UK.
Poetry sales are up? Really? Well, that surprises me very much. I certainly think that culturally, poetry is in retreat. Poetry readings, poetry slams, you know about those? Sure. But people sitting down with a book of verse is rarer. History is accelerating and the novel has responded to that and speeded up those big novels—700 pages long—that didn’t really tell a story, the baggy monster kind of novel, that’s more or less disappeared. The narrative has to be much stronger than it used to be, the novel has adapted to that, not opportunistically, but simply because novelists are modern people too, and they felt this acceleration of history and things happening faster, and adapted to that, but I don’t see how poetry adapts to that because what a poem does is stop the clock. Poems say, you know, time is stopped, and we’re going to look at this poem and examine this epiphany and it can’t speed up. So I’d be very surprised. Certainly there are no great poetic figures as there used to be, dominant figures like (W.H.) Auden, or even (Seamus) Heaney. I don’t see them emerging.
Does writing get any easier?
Yeah, in some ways. It’s an artificial distinction but I think quite a useful one. If every novelist comes with some genius and some talent, it’s the genius bit that gets weaker. Genius being that sort of God-given quality of perception and articulacy. Talent is technique, and that gets stronger. So a lot of stuff that you used to have to think about when you were younger about pacing and modulation and what goes where, it’s very interesting just to look at novelists to see how they get their characters across town. It’s very onerous business, getting your characters across town, how you do it reveals technique, and someone like Nabokov, who has a lot of genius and a lot of talent is wonderful—they’re suddenly across town and either the journey was very interesting in itself, or they’re just across town. It’s very unlaborious. That’s technique. So your genius, which is the slightly wild, pyrotechnic art of what you do gets weaker, but you get people across town more efficiently than you used to.
Have you ever had a sense of your reader, and has that relationship changed over your career?
You are the reader. The writer is the reader. It’s not someone else, it’s you. You write the novels you want to read. It takes you a long time to realize that, which makes it even more solipsistic.
As you grow older, do you find yourself turning into your father?
I’m already my father. No. My father, I think, was silly politically. He was a communist till he was 35. I mean, card-carrying communist whose mission was to help Moscow. He was someone who needed an ideology, which was communism, and when that was over, the new ideology was anti-communism. He couldn’t get by without an ideology. I’ve never been ideological, so I haven’t shifted at all politically. Left of left. Not very far left, but left, and I was that when I was 20, and I’m that now. He was the one who was always going from extreme to extreme. I’ve been very steady and can’t conceive of changing or becoming right wing. Impossible.
What quality of language excites you?
I’m quite clear on what it is I’m looking for. The first thing is level of deception, where you think this is a writer who doesn’t see things as they present themselves, looks deeper than that, is seeing something that’s not obvious about a very recognizable situation—what I call rhythmical security, where there’s sort of a euphony, not necessarily melodious, but the language is obeying the writer. Absolute avoidance of cliché, lack of resemblance to any other writer, a feeling that this is a voice like no other. As soon as I see really glaring infelicities in a piece of prose, inadvertencies, what I mean by inadvertency is repetitions, accidental rhymes, sentences you have to read twice to know what they mean, you realize the writer is not in full control of things. When I begin reading a sentence twice for pleasure, that’s when I begin to be really interested.
Do you find yourself reading work by people you have never read before, or are you
mainly reading books you’ve already read?
A lot of rereading. Nabokov said you cannot read a novel, you can only reread a novel. As a rule you never read anyone who’s younger than you unless they’re friends, that’s just being polite, and often, if they’re your friends, it’s probably because they’re interesting. But usually I read the dead or else very old people, or very, very old people, because why read the sensational new novel by the 25-year-old when you have no idea whether it’s going to last more than six months?
I remember an interview where you say that what young writers are doing is telling older writers it’s no longer done that way but this way. When you wrote ‘The Rachel Papers’ in your 20s, you were saying to an older generation of writers, this is how it is. Maybe you’re missing out on a young you?
I think it was my father who said that, and I said it too. At a certain point, you lose your connection with the contemporary. That’s why as I get older I write about the past because I know about that. My reading of the present, my general sense, my take, is not as confident as it used to be. That’s just inevitable, so there comes a point where you’re not so interested in it. It’s not part of your blood stream anymore.
Are you working on a new book?
Goes without saying. I’m writing an autobiographical novel that I’ve been trying to write for 15 years. It’s not so much about me, it’s about three other writers—a poet, a novelist and an essayist—Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, and since I started trying to write it, Larkin died in 1985, Bellow died in 2005, and Hitch died in 2011, and that gives me a theme, death, and it gives me a bit more freedom, and fiction is freedom. It’s hard going but the one benefit is that I have the freedom to invent things. I don’t have them looking over my shoulder anymore.
Tishani Doshi is a novelist, dancer and poet. She has published five books of poetry and fiction. A book of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, is forthcoming.
The essential reading
Three definitive books by the author
The Rachel Papers
Published when Amis was 23, this has been described as a coming-of-age novel with sex and scholarship as its main themes. Amis has acknowledged the novel as being autobiographical. The protagonist Charles is as physically self-conscious as Amis was as an adolescent (he referred to himself as “short-arse”). In a YouTube video, a young Amis talks about how adolescence can be “boring, hysterical, winsome, grotesque, a sort of pimply rant”, and how he needed to write at a distance from that. Older Amis looks back at this novel as being “crude” and “crack-handed” but the book did win an award—the Somerset Maugham.
Not everyone was enamoured with Amis’ memoirs written in response to his father’s death.
James Wood thought it was beautiful, “an escape from memoir…an escape into privacy”. Julie Burchill called him “a clogged-up, clod-hopping, plate-juggling great show-off”. Names are dropped, girlfriends are enumerated, an 18-year-old daughter Delilah is discovered, and Amis’ infamous dental troubles are probably given too much attention. Still, if there was a book to begin with, I’d pick this.
Vintage Amis. Considered by fans to be one of his best books. Energetic, raucous, comic with lines like, “Because we are all poets or babies in the middle of the night, struggling with being”. The hook for the novel, Amis says, was the idea of a woman arranging her own murder. Set in the pubs of West London, darts and nuclear threat loom large, as well as the paranoia of ageing. After finishing ‘London Fields’, Amis says he felt “like a clinical moron. My IQ was about sixty-five. For weeks I shambled about, unable to do my own shoelaces. Also faintly happy and proud.”