Before delving into literary matters, I ask Martin Amis, esteemed giant of contemporary literature, what one always asks these days, “How are you doing given the current …”
“I’m like everybody else,” Amis says via Zoom from his Brooklyn apartment. “I’m mildly depressed.”
And like everybody else, he’s not sleeping well.
“I can’t say if that’s anxiety because I take an anti-anxiety pill every night,” he says, casually dropping what to me is a surprising revelation. “It usually works as a sleeping pill for me. I don’t sleep, but my insomnia is quite anxiety-free, rather than self-tormenting. It’s quite bearable.”
But this uneasiness is not interfering with his work. “I’ve got a new theme which is race,” he says. “And I’m certainly excited by taking this on. Even though I’m stepping on toes, I realize.”
Stepping on toes indeed. Amis is, after all, an old white guy, to use what has become to many—but not to me—a term of derision. Plus, he’s a Brit planning to write fiction about American racism. “My defense is ready,” he says. “In fact, it’s just a couple of sentences. I would say that trying to imagine things outside your experience is not a bad definition of what a novel does.”
Amis, as always, is determined to follow his novelist’s instincts. “What it comes down to—as I’ve written—is silent anxiety,” he says. “It’s all the subconscious stuff that you don’t know you’re worrying about. And once an idea gets in there and cooks for a while, then it’s a sacred duty to follow through.”
Or as Amis pointed out in an essay about Vladimir Nabokov, “writers like to write about the things they like to think about.”
And in his very curious, very daring new novel, Inside Story: How to Write, Amis is thinking about many things: his friend and mentor Saul Bellow’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease; the life and poetry of his father’s best friend, Philip Larkin; and above all, the death from esophageal cancer of his beloved friend Christopher Hitchens in 2011.
Age has clearly given the 71-year-old Amis license to write exactly what he pleases, to go wherever his instincts direct him. Thus, at times, Inside Story hardly seems like a novel at all. Bellow, Hitchens, and Larkin are called by their names. When Amis mentions his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, he uses her middle name. Yet his friend Anna Wintour is called Anna Wintour when she makes a cameo appearance as Hitchens’ long-ago girlfriend who “had a figure that belonged, not to the Olive Oyls of fashion, but to the shapely heroines of Hollywood.” (Who knew?)
This merging of fact and fiction is unusual enough, but then there’s that subtitle: How to Write. Amis periodically halts a narrative thread to give advice on how to put sentences together. So, for example, after a few pages about Hitchens or Bellow or Larkin, the reader gets writing tips like this:
“Don’t let your sentences peter out with an apologetic number, a trickle of dross like ‘in the circumstances’ or ‘at least for the time being’ or ‘in its own way’. Most sentences have a burden, something to impart to get across: put that bit last. The end of a sentence is weighty, and that means it should tend to round off with a stress.”
But that’s not all Amis is thinking about here. The novel is haunted by Amis’ excruciating memories of an old girlfriend, Phoebe Phelps, a femme fatale who is an invented character, a composite of girlfriends past. Phoebe’s idiosyncratic views on relationships produce “sexual terror-famines,” i.e., no sexual intercourse allowed. This, in turn, leads Amis to promise the reader things to come: “The Worst Thing I Ever Did” and “The Night of Shame.”
Phoebe also has a taste for vengeance which, Amis writes, goes beyond “the point, perhaps, where the average Corsican cut-throat would throw up his hands, roll his eyes, and call it quits.”
This rather conveniently provides one of the novel’s central plot points. Decades after their affair has ended, Phoebe—in an effort to punish Amis for having cheated on her many years earlier—sends him a note claiming that Philip Larkin, not Kingsley Amis, is Martin’s real father. The idea is plausible enough to give Amis pause and question if he is who he thinks he is.
But why combine a fictional character—and fictional events—with the many real people and true stories in this genre-breaking book that calls itself a novel?
“I thought presciently that it was going to drive me nuts to write a long novel about people who were already there,” Amis says. “Why not conjure someone?”
Yet Amis isn’t all that strict in making sure that Phoebe’s actions conform to the larger themes of the novel. “Many times, as I was writing about Phoebe,” he says, “I’d tell myself, ‘You don’t have to do that shit in this novel. It’s not that kind of novel.’”
To further complicate matters, Amis explicitly discusses his own ambivalence about the book that readers hold in their hands. It is, he writes, an example of a “dubious genre,” which he calls “life-writing”—fiction that closely adheres to the facts of the authors’ life. What’s more, in one of Inside Story’s detours into literary criticism, Amis argues that contemporary readers have lost patience with “baggy monsters”—discursive novels that are short on plot but long on essay-like passages.
But isn’t Amis’ new novel itself a baggy monster?
“It is indeed a baggy monster,” Amis says, “a baggy monster that does make certain demands of the reader. And only someone who is very literary would pick it up and not put it down at once.”
I should add here that when I picked it up, I very much did not want to put it down. And none of this literary talk is to suggest that Inside Story deals exclusively with matters of the head; it also deals more openly than much of his earlier work with matters of the heart.
“My father was right when he said nothing opens you up like a novel,” Amis says. “You reveal yourself utterly, even when you’re writing about things that aren’t really contiguous with you as a person. It’s just there. It just comes out.”
What comes out in Inside Story is Amis’ love for Hitchens. Amis travels to Houston where “the Hitch”—as Hitchens called himself from early on—is heroically and uncomplainingly enduring treatment for his cancer. After one visit, Amis writes, “He slept. After a while I smoothed him and kissed him and, as instructed, left behind me on the bedside table a skeleton staff of cigarettes.”
This and other passages are moving in ways not often associated with Amis. Yet Amis doesn’t spare Hitchens and himself when he recreates their long-ago conversations about women, or, as the boys put it back then, “chicks.”
“It was much worse than that,” Amis says with a smile, “much worse. So I’ve toned it down a bit. But I don’t think it was quite as locker-room as probably most contemporaries were then… because of the disinhibition of the sexual revolution, which was profound.”
While the young Amis and the Hitch discuss their romantic and sexual woes, they consume enough booze to give the reader a hangover. Many decades later in Washington during the early stage of Hitchens' treatment, not all that much changed:
“Lunch with the Hitch was still lunch with the Hitch, in the sense that you got there around one, and left there while the place was filling up for dinner. …[Hitchens] drank his one or two Johnnie Blacks and his half a bottle of wine, (‘sometimes more, never less’ was his rule), and he talked with undiminished fluency and humour for six or seven hours—to such effect that it would be a sin, he said, not to round it off with some cognac.”
Though moments like this have their charm, there’s something disturbing here as well. So I ask Amis why Hitchens drank so much.
“It was sort of fuel for him,” Amis says. “He could write when most people having had what he had had would be helplessly drunk. He was very focused and clear. So maybe he just exploited that. But he did say quite a few times towards the end that he wished he hadn’t had such a wonderful constitution because it had turned out to be bad for his health.”
Amis never really discouraged Hitchens’ boozing. “Some people embrace this destiny, and they welcome it,” he says. “It’s who they are.”
Who Amis is—among other things—is a reader and a critic, which is why I can’t resist asking him to expand on the passages about the high priests of literary modernism that pop up throughout Inside Story. For one thing, Amis seems to have a bone to pick with James Joyce.
“It does come down to Ulysses and Dubliners up to a point,” he says. “But the rest… I mean Finnegans Wake, as Nabokov said, is ‘a snore in the other room.’ The Portrait of the Artist is pretty feeble, I think. Part of my mind as I read, as I assess an author, comes down to this question, What is their strike rate? How often do they bring it off? And with Joyce, it’s sort of two out of four, and that’s it.”
Didn’t Amis once say that Ulysses was only 25 percent successful?
“That’s a high score in the stream-of-consciousness,” he says. “How could anyone put up with that for a minute? It’s like a very rough draft. But it needs another couple of years' work.”
Which brings us to William Faulkner.
Owing to Amis’ interest in race in America and the history of the South, he has lately been “struggling” with Faulkner. “He doesn’t make it easy for you, does he?” Amis asks, referring to Faulkner’s habit of introducing lots of characters all at once at the start of the narrative. It’s a practice Amis warns writers against in Inside Story:
“Don’t, for example harass your visitor with a multitude of fresh acquaintances, as Faulkner tends to do, beginning a short story with something like Abe, Bax, Cal, and Dirk were sitting up front, so I got in back with Emery, Fil, Grunt, Hube, and J-J (who used to be called Zoodie), and out on the flatbed I could see Keller, Leroy Mo, Ned, Orrin…”
With Faulkner, “it’s a full-time job just knowing who’s who and what’s going on,” says Amis. “Faulkner is like Joyce: he’s all genius and no talent. He can’t push the story forward in an efficient way… Yet you register his weight, his talent, his gift.”
Amis’ reverence for Saul Bellow is well-known, but I am surprised to learn that he has kind words for Norman Mailer. The Spooky Art, a collection of Mailer’s thoughts on the craft of writing, displays “good critical intelligence,” Amis says, before adding, “I meant it when I said that no one talked more balls or behaved more badly than Norman.” He nevertheless calls Mailer’s mammoth CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost “mesmerizing” and “one of the great reading experiences of my life.”
What about younger writers, does Amis read them?
“Not much,” he says. “Everyone says you must get this 800-page book by the 25-year-old genius who has just emerged, to which I would say, ‘If that novel is still there in 50 years’ time, then I’ll certainly look at it.’ But time is the only dispenser of value judgments.”
These days, Amis is reading more and more history.
“My father said to me once, there’s a point in a writer’s life when you’re getting old when you suspect that it isn’t like that anymore. Your everyday consciousness is not the everyday consciousness of 30-year-olds today, you know, obviously, but that becomes haunting for me. ‘It’s not like that anymore –it’s like this’—that’s what the young writers naturally say to the old writers. So history is an escape from that bind, as well as being incredibly interesting.”
But back to Inside Story, where Amis writes, “At a certain point, usually in late middle age, something congeals and solidifies and encysts itself—and that’s your lot, that’s your destiny. You’re going to feel this way for the rest of your life. You have found your destined mood, and it has found you, too.”
So it’s fair to ask, what is Amis’ destined mood?
“Well, so far I would congratulate myself as Updike did when he said, ‘I have this uncanny equanimity,’” Amis says. “But he became depressed… So that can spring up on you even when you feel you have equanimity. It would be hubristic to say I’ll have this sunny equanimity. You never know.”