Twenty Minutes with Martin Amis

I was granted a twenty-minute phone interview with Martin Amis, enough time—I’m told—for phone sex, but perhaps not enough for an in-depth literary conversation. Amis, though, was impeccably gracious and obliging, not the intimidating figure sometimes depicted in the press. Conversation centered inevitably on his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Amis always fires up the critics, and one sometimes wants to ask: Now that you’ve reviewed the book’s publicity and the author’s life, would you care to comment on the new novel?

Amis’s great London trilogy—Money, London Fields, and The Information—fiercely and fearlessly depicts urban life in the final decades of the twentieth century. These novels are distinguished by their humor and their range, as well as a characteristic vividness in the prose, an almost Joycean complexity and wit.

Amis’s later novels include an unorthodox novel of the Holocaust (Time’s Arrow), his take on the American detective story (Night Train), an examination of male violence (Yellow Dog), a small masterpiece about the Russian gulag (House of Meetings), and a fictional examination of the sexual revolution that includes a haunting description of the psyche of a man in late middle age (The Pregnant Widow). Amis has also produced several bracing and often quite funny collections of profiles and criticism, a meditation on Stalinism (Koba the Dread), and a memoir focusing on his relationship with his novelist father Kingsley (Experience).

All of these works embody Amis’s insistence that “writing is freedom”—the writer is free to take on any topic and any character he dares to attempt.

Amen to that.

Amis has said that Lionel Asbo is a kind of modern fairy tale. Lionel is a comically exaggerated career criminal, one of Amis’s series of low-life creations stretching back as far as Keith Talent, the darts-playing, porn-watching failed thug in London Fields. As in the fiction of Amis’s literary hero Saul Bellow, these criminal types bring an air of menace to Amis’s work while breathing life into the narrative. Lionel, who specializes in “the very hairiest end of debt collection,” is an object of humor, but as Amis told me, Lionel does have his charms. In the new novel, this ultimate yob is suddenly one of the richest men in England when he wins just under 140 million pounds in the lottery and becomes a celebrity, a notorious tabloid target, “the Lottery Lout”.

By contrast, Lionel’s nephew, Desmond Pepperdine—Des—is as sympathetic as a Dickens orphan. Despite his impoverished life in the fictional London slum of Diston, Des is a compassionate and intelligent young man with the nascent sensibility of a writer. The reader feels that Amis wants us to like Des in a way that is perhaps unique in Amis’s oeuvre.

The polarities, then, are clearly drawn in this portrait of London at its worst—or, as Amis might have it, the modern world as it is.

Ronald K. Fried

INTERVIEWER

Critics have questioned your choice—or your right, really—to write about what used to be called the underclass. But isn’t that what urban novelists have always done—from Balzac through Dickens and Bellow?  Is there something censorious about this criticism?

MARTIN AMIS

Not only censorious, I think self-righteous is a better word.  I think it’s also primitive and illiterate. Writers have always had this freedom. I’ve been doing that for forty years without being challenged once on it. So I just think it was a new touchiness and also the search for self-righteousness.

INTERVIEWER

Is it a species of political correctness—telling the novelist what he can and cannot write about?

MARTIN AMIS

I don’t know.  It’s weird isn’t it?  Because you’d think that what we call political correctness had peaked some time ago, and to get this now, it’s very odd.  Particularly since I’ve been doing it for so longand during that high noon of PCwithout it coming up.  My slogan is writing is freedom and to hell with everything else.

INTERVIEWER

Lionel Asbo follows The Pregnant Widow, which had autobiographical elements, while the new novel describes characters who are more outside your immediate experience.  Does this require a different part of your imagination—a different set of muscles?

MARTIN AMIS

Well, The Pregnant Widow started life as an autobiographical novel and I wasted a lot of time trying to do it and it was just completely dead.  And it was illuminating in a way. I realized that what gives a novel life is not verisimilitude or truth to life. On the contrary, only very few novelists have been able to write from their own lives, Saul Bellow being the towering example.  But most of us can’t do it that way. Bellow found a way of being universal in writing about things quite close to his own life, whereas we have to search for universality by a different route.  I did abandon [The Pregnant Widow] and I had a tough couple of weeks.  And then I thought, the bit in Italy is the only bit I really like.  It was the only bit that seemed alive, partly because it was mostly fictionalized. And then you realize that it’s sort of patterning and symmetry and imagery that makes a novel come alive, not these other things.  And then it was a joy to plunge in and re-imagine it.  I felt tremendous liberation just thinking it’s so much fun using your imagination.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see a certain timidity in middle-class novelists today in, say, America? Do you feel that, for lack of a better phrase, middle-class writers somehow lack the nerveor ballsto expand their range?

MARTIN AMIS

Not so much here.  But I do think—with many exceptions—there is a sort of coziness about the English novel.  It was like that in l970 or so.  When I started out, the novel was about middle-class ups and down.  Then we had the marvelous infusion of talent from what we might call still the Commonwealth. And that seemed to be very empowering for the novel in England. …I don’t read enough contemporary fiction to have a coherent opinion. But it does seem a little bit cozy.

INTERVIEWER

To get back to Lionel Asbo, the character of Des Pepperdine is orphaned and impoverished, but quite sensitive and intelligent.  One likes him from the beginning.  One worries about him.  Does he seem like something of a departure for you?

MARTIN AMIS

Some things about writing fiction are embarrassingly simple. Once I’d got going on Lionel, who is exceptionally dreadful in many ways, although I think charming in his

INTERVIEWER

One looks forward to his reappearance throughout the novel…

MARTIN AMIS

That’s the shameful truth, isn’t it?  Yeah.  I know my brother is going to say that the whole novel should have been about Lionel with no Desmond in it. (Laughs.) So Lionel is extra bad so Desmond is extra good.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s like painting by numbers in a way.  It’s hard to make good people attractive on the page.  It was Henry de Montherlant who said, “Happiness writes white.” And goodness writes white, too.  So it was a challenge of a different kind to make him endearing.

INTERVIEWER

You gave Des the consciousness of a writer to some extent.  He’s beginning to ask questions about the world.  He’s curious and he’s growing in a way.

MARTIN AMIS

Those early pages where he’s awakening—that is very much my idea of where writing begins.  It’s in that communion with a sort of higher voice that is nonetheless your own. And Lionel has a little of that just before he goes back to prison where he listens to this voice and the voice seems more intelligent than him—and also has a better accent.

INTERVIEWER

You often manage to both embody and somehow expand upon the voices of your characters—John Self, for example, in Money. You improve their descriptive powers but remain true to who they are.  Is this difficult to modulate?

MARTIN AMIS

Well, you’re constantly sort of feeling your way. And you write it and you read it perhaps out loud and some bits are going to strike you as not quite right and you’ve got to streamline that.  And it’s got to be consistent with them but also consistent with some sort of higher idea of fluency.   So it’s a trial and error and very instinctive and you don’t know quite why you’re making these little decisions but nonetheless they feel necessary.

INTERVIEWER

Does this ever require the suppression of your own natural gifts of expression?

MARTIN AMIS

Well I don’t think I’d ever be interested in writing a sort of realistically stupid character, although I’m sort of doing one now at the moment.  Again, you have to be free—that’s why I had this friendly disagreement with Salman Rushdie about children’s books where I said [that I’d consider writing a children’s book] “only after a severe brain injury.”  But I think there’s a case for saying that there’s something infinite about children, too, and that you can write flat out in a different way because children…they have so much in potentia  …It’s an ongoing argument.  If Lionel had just been doggedly stupid then to me he wouldn’t be someone I would be bringing along.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that Lionel and Des reverse the pattern found in Bellow novels where the criminal acts as the reality instructor wising up the more literate character.  Here it’s the opposite: Des wises up Lionel.

MARTIN AMIS

Yeah, yeah. Reality instruction, exactly.  But Desmond does try and help Lionel along but Lionel never listens. And Lionel repeats the same advice that he gets from professionals without remembering that in almost exactly the same words, Desmond has given him the same advice twenty pages earlier.  And Lionel is a sort of counter-reality instructor to Desmond, saying that he should watch pornography and go out armed with a knife and all the rest of it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve spoken about this recently, but do you feel that the contemporary reader lacks the patience for a meditative novel such as, say, Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift?  You’ve said that you now feel the need for “forward motion” and “propulsion” when you write. Is there a place today for a novel like Humboldt’s Gift?

MARTIN AMIS

There’s a place for those novels on my shelf and in my heart—and I’m sure in yours.  But the pressure of speed is a characteristic of all our lives. Novelists are contemporary people too and they feel it. The one thing where I feel I’m not going to give in is that I’m not going to make my style—I mean I couldn’t do it anyway—but I’m not going to turn the heat off just to get more forward motion. I’m sort of sticking to my guns there because I can’t write any other way. But I do feel that that arrow of moving forward is sharper than it used to be.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written about novelists who fall out of love with their reader—and gave late Henry James as an example. Can you expand on that? Do you ever feel yourself succumbing to the temptation?

MARTIN AMIS

I have undiminished love for the reader.  It’s like being a good host.  You give your best chair and your best wine to your guests and you want them to have–not only instruction and delight in the old phrase—but since writing inevitably involves a bit of suffering for the writerI mean a novel wouldn’t be any good if it didn’tits quite an altruistic love in that you’re fully prepared to go through a bit of shit and uncertainty and doubt but that’s what you put in for the pleasure of your readers.

INTERVIEWER

You are much in the press, and inevitably some readers form opinions about you without reading your work—in the same way that they did about Norman Mailer.  Do you feel increasing sympathy for Mailer, a widely quoted figure who was caricatured in the media?

MARTIN AMIS

Yeah, I think Norman…Stormin’ Norman…was just sort of a runaway train and he didn’t care too much about the consequences.  I think all that would have bothered him—which bothers me—is you sometimes don’t think you’re not getting a fair hearing and you’re being reviewed rather than the book.

INTERVIEWER

It seems like you’ve said generous things about some Mailer books—Harlot’s Ghost and The Spooky Art. Is that accurate?

MARTIN AMIS

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I mean The Naked and the Dead and The Executioner’s Song are fantastic books. He’s very uneven and he knew that about himself.  He used to reproach himself about that.  He said, “I’ve written too much and some of them aren’t good enough.”

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to end by making a very American request on behalf of, I’d guess, many of your readers: Have you thought about stopping smoking?

MARTIN AMIS

(Laughs.)  And then the prose would go off.

Advertisements

One comment

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Reading, 26.8.12

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: