Martin Amis, in an elegant dark overcoat, steps through the black doorway curtain that insulates the denizens of the Brooklyn café from the frigid evening. His face is flushed from the cold, and I must say he looks great. He is, after all, “Martin Fucking Amis,” to borrow a phrase from the professional poker player who used it to buck up Amis before Amis competed—briefly and unsuccessfully—in a Las Vegas poker tournament.
Martin Fucking Amis, as most readers know, is the author of Money, London Fields, and The Information, the caustic, hilarious, defining novels of the final decades of the last century. He’s the novelist whose finest work includes House of Meetings, a tour de force set in the Russian Gulag, Night Train, a darkly funny version of the American police procedural, and The Pregnant Widow, a bittersweet take on the sexual revolution. Besides Amis’ 16 novels and the highly praised memoir Experience, there are five collections of almost dauntingly erudite essays and reportage. The latest of these is to be the subject of our conversation.
The Rub of Time presents quite a list of topics to choose from as the book’s subtitle begins to suggest: “Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump.”
At about this point in most Amis profiles—the third or fourth paragraph down—it’s customary to mention that Amis, in bygone days, was often described as the Mick Jagger-like bad boy of the British literary world; that he had a number of attractive and brilliant girlfriends; that his comments on terrorism, euthanasia, and Jeremy Corbyn have, in recent years, sparked rather tiresome outrage; and that critics have ganged up on some of his later novels, notably Yellow Dog. And oh, by the way, his father was the renowned novelist and poet Kingsley Amis. Hanging in the air is often the unspoken notion that Amis is somehow getting away with something, perhaps the sin of having a hugely successful writing life.
But these received ideas and largely manufactured controversies seem far too outdated and easily countered to broach when talking to the happily married, unfailingly courteous father and grandfather who is the 68-year-old Martin Amis today.
Going through his new collection of pieces written since 1994, one feels not only that Amis has read and remembered more—but also truly seen more of what he sees—than any other living novelist. Yet he has not, as he famously accuses Henry James of having done, fallen out of love with his reader. Instead, Amis’ largely admiring literary pieces at the heart of this book—appreciations of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, and J.G. Ballard, among others—do what criticism ought to do: They send the reader back to the texts. You read Amis on Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or Nabokov’s Transparent Things and think, yeah, I really ought to go back and read that again.
“If you’ve been writing fiction for 45 years,” Amis says, “you’ll know a thing or two about it, and you can see the writer behind certain sentences: how the writer arranges it. And you can even anticipate and second-guess a writer.”
Yet given his career-long display of brilliance, it is perhaps consoling to know that these days Martin Amis is like everyone else: He can’t help thinking and talking about Donald Trump.
I thought we’d start with literature and move on from there, I tell Amis after we take our seats and order our first drinks at the rear of the increasingly noisy boîte where no one seems to recognize the arguably most famous writer in England talking into a digital recorder. But one sentence into his answer to an opening question about Updike, Amis switches topics. “In the age of Trump, it’s more of a struggle to feel that all that matters,” he says before adding, “though of course it does.”
Yes, of course, literature still matters, which, for Amis also means language and truth still matter. In a critique of film adaptations of the novels of Jane Austen—one of Amis’ first literary loves—he writes that irony “doesn’t incite you to transform society; it strengthens you to tolerate it.” And that’s what Amis’ writing on Trump achieves: It is a devastatingly witty balm to the festering wound that is the Trump presidency.
“What I think is complete bullshit is this idea that modern life is so satirical you can’t satirize it,” Amis says between sips of beer. “Satire is not dependent on having a quiet surface to life. Satire can take care of itself. The idea that you’ve killed the genre of satire is ridiculous. Satire finds a way.”
It certainly does. Last summer, brave Amis ventured to Columbus, Ohio, to observe one of Trump’s odd, campaign-style rallies—odd for a sitting president, that is. His report appeared in Esquire and is included toward the end of The Rub of Time. Here’s Amis on Trump’s peculiar grins: “There are only three false smiles: the golf-pro smirk, revealing the golf-champ teeth; the one in which he bites down on his sucked-in lower lip (this isn’t a smile so much as an imitation of a regular guy); and, arguably the most dreadful of all, the flat sneer of Ozymandian hauteur that widens out almost from ear to ear, like a comic mask. The eyes, meanwhile, remain utterly unamused.”
In an earlier piece on Trump, written in the spring of 2016, Amis writes that Trump’s “antennae are sensitive to weakness… Perhaps that’s the defining asset: a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey. Trump can sense when an entity is no longer strong enough or lithe enough to evade predation… The question is, Can he do it with American democracy?”
Amis is still struggling to adjust to the reality of Trump. “President Trump is an oxymoron,” he says. “Can you define the day after the election night? One German historian wrote about Hitler—he was a kid when that happened [Hitler’s electoral victory in 1933]—and he said the next day you look outside or go out on the street, and it all looked like a vicious parody of what normality should be. In fact, nothing’s changed. The milk man is still going around. It’s not horror you feel, it’s unreality. “
My wife has a rule, I explain—often violated by me—“No talking about Trump in the morning.” What about Amis? Does he start his day with the Donald?
“He takes up—what?—a half an hour a day, at least, just keeping pace with it, and reading comforting opinion pieces and things,” Amis says. “I start every day, as I have for years and years. I look at The Guardian online. There are usually four or five things on Trump. Then I go to The New York Times. There’s Krugman and Brooks and Friedman and Gail [Collins]. And sometimes you think that’s not quite enough, so you go to Politico. But I mean, it is like living in the Cuban Missile crisis. Everything feels that contingent under Trump.”
In that report on the Trump presidential rally Amis asks, “How can you devalue truth, and devalue language without cost?” Yet for Amis, who today wonders if “the truth can bounce back,” Trump’s compulsive lying is not the worst of it. “The worst thing is to reopen the wound of racism for his own political profit. That’s really unconscionable.”
It’s a theme Amis returns to again as we talk. “The idea that you’re trying to get yourself elected the leader of the country, and what you go to as your route to do that is absolutely the most shameful, degraded thread of that history,” he says pausing, “the depth of the cruelty of that system, cruelty upon cruelty upon cruelty. And Trump thought, ‘Yeah, OK, let’s try that route.’”
Trump’s shamelessness is numbing, of course. “There’s a definite sort of imperviousness that you do develop,” Amis says. “Two or three times a week he does something that would finish a normal political career. It’s not that he’s clever or good at anything, it’s just that having no conscience and no curiosity is very sustaining. That question, ‘How do you sleep at night?’ is meaningless to him. He sleeps fine. He sleeps like a baby.”
As for Trump’s sexual transgressions, Amis argues that our president is more of a locker room braggart than anything else. “I’m a bit shaken by Stormy Daniels because it goes against my whole reading,” he admits. “How can you be as germaphobic as he is and have sex? It would surely get in the way. There’s got to be more to it, or less to it.”
So what, then, is in it for Trump?
“He is a sort of serial harasser. I think that’s the extent of it myself. He doesn’t engage that much in actual sexual intercourse. What he likes to do is throw his masculine bulk around a bit. Intimidate.”
Talk of Trump naturally brings us to the current epidemic of sexual scandals. What does Amis, a longtime chronicler of male atavism, make of Harvey Weinstein and his ilk?
“I think women see this much more clearly than men,” he says. “Harvey Weinstein said—and Charlie Rose said—‘I thought I was exploring a shared attraction.’” Rejecting that excuse, Amis says, “It’s not that they’re just sloppy and have misread the situation. They’ve read it to their own satisfaction.”
Amis has invented any number of low male beasts: Keith Talent, the porn-loving failed criminal from London Fields, the pornographers and tabloid hacks in Yellow Dogs, and Lionel Asbo, the terrifying violent enforcer of Amis’ novel of the same name. Yet none indulge in the behavior that repeatedly turns up in recent accounts of male transgressions, which is to say, some fat old bastard masturbating in front of his victim. What’s that about?
“What a turn-on that must be,” Amis says derisively. “My wife and your wife doubtless would say they think that will really terrify [their victim], make her feel very uneasy. It’s the unease that they enjoy.”
But back to literature. The bulk of Amis’ time these days is devoted to finishing an autobiographical novel inspired by his friendships with Saul Bellow, the poet Philip Larkin, and Amis’ late beloved friend Christopher Hitchens. Amis has been working on the book on and off for 16 years.
“Life-writing, you’ve heard that phrase,” he says. “I’ve always been suspicious of it. I think you’re more or less helplessly committed to do that if you start young. With your first couple of books, that’s all you’ve got. Your consciousness is all you’ve got. And I must admit that now I feel it’s incredibly limited. You’re pressed in at all sides. Fiction to me equals freedom, blissful freedom. But as soon as real people are involved in your novel, the constraints are palpable. “
For Amis, Bellow’s ability to successfully summon first-rate fiction from his own life is unique. “Philip Roth’s autobiographical fiction is very feeble I think,” he says. “The whole spirit of it is constricted.”
Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov make up what Amis calls the “Twin Peaks” of his personal literary canon. Yet he devotes two pieces in his current collection to “the only significant embarrassment in the Nabokov corpus.” Of Nabokov’s 19 novels, Amis writes, “no fewer than six wholly or partly concern themselves with the sexuality of prepubescent girls.”
Nabokov “stopped seeing what an outrage it was, the crime,” Amis tells me, referring to the violation of young girls in his fiction. “And he became rather casual about it. And it really tips the whole corpus in an unsightly direction.”
So what would Amis tell the literate college student daughter of a friend mine who said she couldn’t read Lolita?
“My youngest girls, they’ve both read Lolita now,” Amis says, “and they can see the comedy in it. But it was something that even Nabokov didn’t get quite right because he became promiscuous about all these nymphets. And it is morally a very, very subtle book.” He concedes, however, “It’s asking a lot for a young girl to see that. But they should trust the comedy. It is sort of unforgivable, the comedy, but much humor is unforgivable.”
In a 2014 podcast produced by his publisher, Amis and his friend and fellow novelist Ian McEwan both said that they lately read more history than fiction. Is this still true?
“I discovered Trollope at Ian’s suggestion. I’ve read thousands of pages of Trollope in the last year and a half. And I do very much like having a big novel on my table that you can sort of work your way through. But when you’re actually writing a novel, you don’t want to read fiction because it seems to be doubling back on what you’ve been thinking about all day anyway. I was quite old when I found this intriguing genre known as nonfiction. I thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’”
Amis is “tremendously happy when reading history,” and reading history is likely to be taking up more of his time once he finishes the autobiographical novel. His next novel, he thinks, will treat race in America. “As I sit here tonight I don’t understand it—I don’t understand how you get to terms with such a level of cruelty.”
With our time running out, the inescapable Trump rears his bottle-blond head again when I ask Amis—whose Koba the Dread examines the horrors of the Stalin era—how he explains Trump’s infatuation with Putin and Russia.
“It would be nice if you could impute some kind of controlling cunning or intelligence, but I think Trump just flounders from one position to the other. I bet that he looked into the Russian contacts to see what they could deliver, and we get a sense of it more from his indifference to the whole interference effort from Russians. He doesn’t seem to take that as an affront to sovereignty.”
Are Americans naïve about Russia?
“I think there’s a naiveté about the level of duplicity and mendacity that is second nature to the Russian ruling class,” Amis says. “What Trump likes is the idea of a single strong personality able to commandeer the willpower of everybody else.”
And what will the reaction be when Trump visits England?
“Quite fierce. And he’ll be radioactive for politicians. They won’t want to be associated with him.” Not even Trump’s pal Nigel Farage, the man who convinced Britain that Brexit was a good idea? Won’t Farage be at the airport welcome Trump? “He might be able to send a sort of goon’s rodeo of right-wing firebrands. I think there are going to be big protests.”
As for the latest addition to the royal family, Prince Harry’s fiancée Meghan Markle—“this absolutely charming girl,” as Amis puts it—Amis is certain that the British people “will love her.”
After 90 minutes—and a second round of drinks—Amis invites one last question.
The Rub of Time includes a short piece lamenting the decline in Updike’s prose toward the end of his life. Philip Roth, now 84, has announced his retirement from fiction. Might Amis ever bow out like Roth?
“I’ll go on until I feel I’m really falling short,” he says. “I should be all right for another two or three years without too much worry.”
Judging from the fearlessness, generosity, and cutting wit of the pieces collected in The Rub of Time, I’m not worried, either.
As Amis politely takes his leave, I’m reminded of John Updike’s answer when Amis asked why we like certain literary characters. “What we like is life,” Updike said. Yes, that’s what we—or at least I—like about Amis’ sentences. What I like is the life on the page.