The struggles of Martin Amis

A tricksy autobiographical novel feels very familiar
September 3, 2020

Can this really be Martin Amis’s last novel? He’s been writing them for most of my life, starting with The Rachel Papers in 1973, and producing a steady flow since, along with journalism and essays, assorted broadsides and sideswipes. These often came accompanied by a portrait of Amis wearing his famous sulky moue. That refusal to smile suggested a new and dangerous intellectualism—although it later turned out he was hiding bad teeth—an impression that primed us for something revolutionary. Our parents had been fans of his father Kingsley’s comic novels, but Amis fils was going to chuck that realist tradition overboard. In books like Money: A Suicide Note, London Fields and The Information, he invented a new language, where style was substance or even, in his words, “morality.”

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Amis’s image—he was sometimes compared to Mick Jagger—was as famous as his mould-breaking prose. The media thrilled to his love affairs and literary spats, the expensive dentistry, the secret love child. His girlfriends included literati and aristocrats, although in this novel-memoir he boasts that the early ones were mostly “blue-collar” and “international,” including “a Ceylonese, an Iranian, a Pakistani, three West Indians, and a mixed-race South African.” The New Statesman once ran a competition for most unlikely book title: the winner was “Martin Amis: My Struggle.”

Real struggles did come though. In the early 2000s, following mixed reviews of his novel Yellow Dog, and the non-fiction book Koba the Dread about the horrors of Stalinism, Amis disappeared with his second wife to Uruguay for a couple of years, allegedly to escape writer’s block. He preferred to call it “worldhum” (anybody who doesn’t know that Amis hates clichés hasn’t been doing their homework). There he wrote an autobiographical novel, Life: A Novel, the first iteration of this book, but after 30 months and 100,000 words he realised that it wasn’t working: Life was dead. As he sat on a Uruguayan beach in 2005 watching the waves, Amis wondered if he might be washed up.

Most of us have been there—if not to Uruguay then to that despondent shore where a failure crystallises and has to be acknowledged. Amis writes well about it partly because, generally speaking, he has a buoyant self-regard. Anyway, Inside Story: A Novel is the new Life, weighing in at more than 500 pages and we may wonder if such a long memoir is justified, given that Amis already has one to his name. Experience (2000) was largely focused on his relationship with Kingsley and the disappearance of his cousin Lucy Partington, a victim of Fred and Rosemary West. This time the title may be a dark pun since much of the narrative concerns the insides of three men in Amis’s life: his best friend and sparring partner, Christopher Hitchens; his much-loved mentor, Saul Bellow; and the poet Philip Larkin, his brother’s godfather. All three were eaten up by their insides—Larkin and Hitchens with oesophageal cancer, Bellow with Alzheimer’s. In the case of the last two, Amis was a close observer of the final descent. After Bellow died in 2005, Amis flew from Uruguay to sit shiva with the novelist’s family. In 2011 he was closer still, at Hitchens’s deathbed, a scene described in some detail. Was he taking notes? If so, we shouldn’t reproach him. Writers know the score—everything is copy. If it hadn’t been Amis writing about Hitchens, it might well have been Hitchens writing about Amis.

Described as an “autobiographical novel,” Inside Story is a meditation on brotherly love and loss, aging and death, into which some other ideas and reminiscences are haphazardly gathered. It’s necessarily melancholic—we’re still in Roman numerals when the first mention of “suicidal ideation” occurs—but not lugubrious. By his own admission Amis was a happy child and has been a happy parent; he says “anger is something I almost never feel” (although many of us remember him angrily saying he’d like Muslims to “suffer” for 9/11). If he doesn’t relish life the way Hitchens did, he concedes that he does at least quite like it. The suicidal urge that struck in his fifties in Uruguay seems to have been the product of philosophy, rather than despair. And nowadays (he turned 70 last year) he thinks “that the only time I’ve ever been happier was in childhood.”

Christopher Hitchens at the New Statesman Credit: ohn Dempsie/ANL/Shutterstock Christopher Hitchens at the New Statesman Credit: ohn Dempsie/ANL/Shutterstock Christopher Hitchens Writer Outside The Office Of The New Statesman Christopher Hitchens Writer Outside The Office Of The New Statesman

Christopher Hitchens at the New Statesman Credit: John Dempsie/ANL/Shutterstock

The book opens oddly, with Amis welcoming a young visitor on the eve of 2016 to his home in New York, for a chat and a glass of Scotch by the fire. What is this, you think, Tales from the Hearth? Later we learn that the visitor is an 18-year-old version of Amis himself, come to hear wisdom about writing, and generally to indulge the older man as he reminisces about his past friends and lovers. Much of what follows is familiar, especially if you’ve read Experience. Amis may have coined a new writing style, but he likes using it to explore familiar terrain. So there’s the teeth, the girlfriends, the fanboying of Bellow and Nabokov, the height anxiety (Amis is 5’6”—although the Daily Mail seems to enjoy putting him at 5’4”).

The difference is fictional licence—it’s a novel, after all, even if not much appears to have been made up. Family names have been changed and some conversations must have been invented or re-remembered. Here Amis’s wife is called Elena, but it’s a photograph of his actual wife, the American-Uruguayan writer Isabel Fonseca, that appears in the book. Elena is Fonseca’s middle name.

The narrative often switches from first to third person, with no reason given other than the author’s first-person observation that the third person can provide a useful “armour” or a “loincloth.” Amis has entered his own fictions before, of course, most memorably in Money. Here his fictitious self returns the favour, entering the real story. It’s rather a rambling one, with digressions, brackets, asterisks and, as with Experience, footnotes. Some footnotes even refer you to another footnote. That’s where the juiciest stuff is, with swipes at Graham Greene, the Bloomsbury group and Hannah Arendt. His encounter with Gloria Steinem (“the world’s second most glamorous feminist”) is literally confined to a footnote. His affair with Germaine Greer (who gets top glamour billing) is “surely of scant general interest.”

Interspersed throughout the book are “Guidelines” for writing, presumably pillaged from Amis’s time as professor of creative writing at Manchester University (2007-11)—and they are very interesting, although it’s surprising, somehow, to find a whole paragraph on when to use “me” and “I,” or “who” and “whom.”

“As he sat on a Uruguayan beach in 2005 watching the waves, Amis wondered if he might be washed up”

Among other tips, Amis advises the would-be writer not to worry about cultural appropriation or “elegant variation”—he thinks it’s more important to avoid repeating syllables than words—but never to use “any phrase that bears the taint of the secondhand”; there can be no letting up in the war against cliché:

“All credit to whoever coined no-brainer and (I suppose) to whoever coined go ballistic and Marxism lite and you rock and eye-popping and jaw-dropping and double whammy and all the rest of them. Never do it—not even in conversation. Never say (let alone write) You know what? or I don’t think so or Hello? or Hey (jocularly, as in ‘But hey, we all make mistakes’).”

Self-plagiarism is not a crime in Amis’s book, though, so expect a few rehashed anecdotes and the odd redundancy: “Bellow was 68 and I was 34, exactly half his age (a conjunction that would of course not recur).”

Saul Bellow Credit: Sten Rosenlund/Shutterstock Saul Bellow Credit: Sten Rosenlund/Shutterstock

Saul Bellow Credit: Sten Rosenlund/Shutterstock

Indeed, the narrative is shaped around his lifelong friendships with Bellow and also Hitchens, starting from the time he first met them both. Bellow was an interview assignment in 1982. Hitchens was his colleague at the New Statesman, where they bonded over their untidy desks. (Julian Barnes’s was immaculate, apparently.)

It’s archive material now, those long lunches, the boozing, the banter, but enjoyable all the same, while not offering any new information. Then into this gentle reminiscence struts Phoebe Phelps, like a cartoon Jessica Rabbit striding into Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, with a figure to match. Phoebe does appear to be new information. It turns out that she was Amis’s lover for five years in his late twenties and he has never forgotten her. In fact he went to visit her in London one last time, just three years ago. So where does this lover fit in with the Ceylonese, the Iranian, the Pakistani and the three West Indians? How did she elude the tabloids? The curious reader will do some quick googling, find nothing substantive, then feel silly for looking. Phoebe Phelps is no more probable than any of Amis’s other characters.

Like Nicola Six, in London Fields, like Selina Street in Money, like Gloria Beautyman in The Pregnant Widow, Phoebe is tall and slim, with unfeasibly large breasts and buttocks. Amis hates clichés, remember, but only linguistic ones. Sexually, his women are so clichéd it makes you want to reach for extra accents. They’re cockteasers. They’ll do it for money. They went to convents but they might secretly be whores. In Inside Story even Amis’s wife, an acclaimed writer, practises an award-acceptance speech in just a pair of pants and kitten heels. He does make her look good, though, which I suppose is more than Pablo Picasso did for Dora Maar.

“Phoebe is tall with unfeasibly large breasts. Amis hates clichés, remember”

Phoebe’s sexual attributes don’t end with her T and A. She also has a prominent pubis which she concedes is like “a boner.” We may remember that Gloria Beautyman had buttocks like testicles and a head like a helmet. “I am a cock. And we’re very rare.” And when Amis wrote about pornography for the Guardian in 2001, a director told him that it was the women’s “virility” they wanted to capture on screen. He likes his women to have cojones, then, at least metaphorically.

It’s strange though, isn’t it? Men and women should write about each other however they please, but Amis on sex leaves many female readers cold. His approach seems both coy and cruel. Money, about a pornography-addicted director of adverts, is funny, scabrous, clever—and an uncomfortable read in 2020. Every page finds some inventive way to describe women’s bodies, their cellulite, their stretch marks and periods, the way they talk, or age or get fat, their stupidity in various matters. The fun of raping them. The necessity of hitting them. Yes, it’s the character John Self, not the author who observes these things, but would we laugh as readily if John Self were racist, rather than sexist? Amis claims to be uninterested in character—“I think a whole set of notions, of character and motivation, and fatal flaws and so on, are nostalgic creations,” he told Will Self in an interview for Mississippi Review in 1993. His men and women are simply grotesques, vehicles for his satire and for the wordplay. The men don’t get raped, though.

There may even be a bit of father-baiting in his refusal to put some authorial distance between himself and his objectionable characters. Amis himself said his dogged defence of Lolita (a favourite novel) on moral grounds may partly be a reaction to his father’s “preposterous” view that Nabokov shared Humbert Humbert’s predilection for schoolgirls.

I don’t know what the real Amis thinks about real women—he seems either to worship or deride them—but his interest in the aesthetics of sexual violence has been a surprising constant, his determination to pursue it as a point of principle, resolute as that sulky moue. One reader of the Guardian piece noted that Amis claimed to hate pornography, “while lasciviously paying attention to all of its detail.” Meanwhile Amis assured Will Self that he could spot “an actual misogynist at a hundred yards”—and he wasn’t one. Phew! Actually, he said, he’s a gynocrat, someone who would welcome the rule of women. OK Martin, but that doesn’t make you a feminist. You’d probably want us all in kitten heels.

Phoebe Phelps may be a fiction, then, but in Inside Story she is incorporated into Amis’s real past. He talks about her to Hitchens, and the way she won’t let him come when they have sex. He introduces her to Larkin at a party for which she has deliberately dressed in a kind of sexy school uniform in order to inflame the poor old poet (this is 1980 and Larkin’s schoolgirl fantasies are not yet generally known). Kingsley Amis seduces Phoebe and tells her that Martin is not his son, but the product of a one-night stand between Larkin and Martin’s mother, Hilly. Martin claims to be shaken enough by this revelation to seek therapy. Given his resemblance to Kingsley it would be cheaper, you’d think, to look in the mirror.

It’s entertaining, but is it OK, playing with real events like this, when the players are dead? Time and the sales figures will tell, but my feeling is that Amis writes better when he isn’t messing around.

“When his conversation with a dying Hitchens finally ends, Amis’s grief is palpable”

Whatever he thinks about women, his real passion is for the men, his mates. His loyalty to old friends and their mutual interests is solid. It reminds me of those teenage boys who decide they love Camus, the Cure and Arsenal aged 15 and never deviate from that line-up for the rest of their lives (women don’t seem to form such iron-clad attachments). With Amis it’s Bellow, Larkin, Nabokov and his mate Hitch. Forever together. (Tina Brown remembers Amis quoting Larkin as they lay in her single bed together at Oxford.) You’ll find one or other of this gang popping up in much of his non-fiction.

Inside Story involves these soulmates in a conversation across borders and times. Amis talks to Bellow and Hitchens about God, politics, family and sex. Larkin weighs in from beyond the grave, through his posthumously published letters to Kingsley, as well as his diaries and poetry. Amis quotes bits of Larkin to Bellow or Hitchens. They quote bits back to him. Someone throws in Nabokov. It feels like a friendly, familiar conversation.

Philip Larkin Credit: Alamy Philip Larkin Credit: Alamy

Philip Larkin Credit: Alamy

At the MD Anderson hospital in Houston where Hitchens is living out his last days, that same 40-year-old conversation continues, but is increasingly interrupted by “the blood lady,” the “pain lady,” by doctors, nurses and painful interventions. Hitchens gets weaker and thinner and finally the conversation ends, and we feel sad for Amis, whose grief is palpable. He and other friends of Hitchens—who included Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan—resolve that they will try to enjoy their lives more, as a tribute to Hitch.

Indeed the suicide theme that has rumbled on through 500 pages is niftily dispatched in a footnote: “Life can be very simple. When I turned 60 I cut my carcinogen intake by about 80 per cent. It was no doubt far too little and far too late—but it instantly cured me of thinking about suicide. Probably because my death is no longer something I’m so actively engaged in bringing about. As I say, life can be very simple.”

And there is still the writing, although Amis thinks he hasn’t much of that left to do. He knows that late-career writers can lose their “ear,” citing as examples Nabokov, Updike and Roth (he could have added García Márquez). So this is the last long book, it seems, though there may be a few short stories and “a modest novella.” And then no more Amis, unless one of the next generation is at this moment working on a brooding profile pose and a new way with words. I hope this time it’s one of the girls.