Britain's most controversial novelist talks to Tom Chatfield about his new book, the sexual revolution, Philip Larkin's sex life, and why JM Coetzee is no goodby Tom Chatfield / February 1, 2010 / Leave a comment
Above: Martin Amis, mid-discussion at the New Yorker Festival
I spoke to Martin Amis at his house in January, shortly before publication of his twelfth novel, “The Pregnant Widow.” If you’re not familiar with the book, it may be useful to look at my review of it (available here) before reading the interview.
Tom Chatfield: I wanted to start off by asking you about the new book, which I’ve been very struck by. It has had an unusually long gestation, and yet it read very easily to me, in a way that I hadn’t felt for a while: it felt very much of a piece.
Martin Amis: Well, that’s an accurate apprehension on your part. I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I struggled for years with a turgid autobiographical novel, with a fictional structure. It seemed endless and inert. And it’s a funny thing about life that, when you put it in a novel, it’s dead. None of the usual forces that are in a novel—to do with unities and metaphor and imagination—were there. There was this horrible Easter, the Easter before last, in Uruguay, where it seemed huge and endless, no end in sight. I just thought to myself, “my god, this is dead.”
I had a bad couple of weeks, and there was a bit in it that I liked, which was the Italy bit. It was a big bit, but it was a tenth of what I had written. I took it out and it was about maybe 100 pages—and I thought, can I get this up to a novel size and expand it? It was a bit I liked because it was the most fictional: although it all seems very transparent now. And then I wrote for a year, 15 months, and when the proofs came in the book was 470 pages long, so 370 were new and recent. The bulk of it was the latest stuff. So it doesn’t I hope have that feeling. In Mao II, Don DeLillo describes this block in writing a novel: “it was the colour of a monkey, it had alligator’s feet, it was a monstrosity…” which is what that was. And I realised that it was two novels. The other half will be pressed into a literary novel about Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Ian Hamilton [the British literary critic]—he’s the Neil Darlington figure [in The Pregnant Widow]. And there will be one novel in-between.
TC: State of England.
TC: It felt to me that there was a lot of autobiography very close to the surface in The Pregnant Widow, in the character Keith Nearing especially: he shares your birthday, doesn’t he?
MA: We have various bonds, like height, and birthday.
TC: And having a sister and a best friend who have been lost.
MA: A sister and a best friend, yes. The only people who are from life in the book are now dead—including Ian Hamilton. And the Kenrick character [Keith’s best friend in The Pregnant Widow], and the Violet character [Keith’s younger sister]. I felt I could, you know—that their lives were complete. And also slightly manipulable, for fictional reasons.
TC: It seemed to me to work very well with those characters: they felt fictional in the context of the novel, but the life was there.
MA: Yes. Because I had been living with these characters for so long that I did feel they were there. And when it switches to the coda, I felt I had sort of lived all that, even the bits that weren’t true—like Keith going to work for an ad agency, which is diametrically not my life.
TC: It’s a kind of shadow-life…
MA: Except that I did work for an advertising agency for three months before I got the job at the TLS, like Keith. But there was never the slightest question in my mind that I would ever be an ad man. Keith is different, he is in a different situation. What I find I had to do to him to really divest him of any resemblance to me was to completely remove his sense of entitlement. He has no sense of entitlement: he is an illegitimate orphan, a sort of tabula rasa in a way that I never was. My father was Kingsley Amis, and my mother was a very remarkable woman. So that was what I had to do. And I also had to make him sexually much more tentative, blundering…
TC: And this means that Keith was in a position to be profoundly deceived.
MA: Deceived, and also profoundly gratified in a way that he wasn’t ready for, that ruined him for a long time.
TC: All the way through the novel I found myself sensing, as often in your books, lines and half-lines of poetry, from Larkin in particular. And then suddenly the Larkin erupts into this explicit vision of “Larkinland” at the end, this place that Keith is sent to by his own weakness.
MA: Well, that experience with Gloria [the character who violently seduces Keith] was too much for him really.
TC: This decision to make what had been a very dense subtext explicit, almost to show your hand…
MA: It’s the most invidious of subjects. And that word, “invidious,” is tailor-made for what we mean—that which is unfair, and wounding, and likely to cause resentment. And I think the sexually unhappy, which Larkin definitely was… It was weird, I spent an evening with Larkin and Monica [Monica Jones, Larkin’s long-term companion], and it’s described in my book Experience quite neutrally, as if they were both slightly eccentric. Years later, ten, 15 years later when the letters and the Life [the biography of Larkin by Andrew Motion] came out, I completely re-experienced that evening with horror. I didn’t realise that he was sexually so miserable, and I have to say she looked like an urka [a Russian criminal from the bottom of society]: like a male urka. Really butch. And she dominated the evening in a weird way. She was awful. A beast. And I thought, that is the love of his life.
TC: The big one.
MA: The big one, yes. You know she was the model for the character of Margaret…
TC: …in your father’s Lucky Jim, yes.
MA: The terrible clothes. But it’s more than that. A great sense of frustrated self-importance. And all Larkin’s girls seemed to have that.
TC: It answered to something in him.
MA: His mum, I guess.
TC: “Dear old mop,” he called her in the letters. It seems remarkable, that correspondence with his mother—something entirely outside of the literary.
MA: Yeah. Some of the quotes from her letters. “I think you were most mistaken to sleep in those damp pants. I said so at the time.”
TC: Bathos by the ladle-full.
MA: He was an old woman. He was an old bag. A sexual sloth. The bit from the letters where Kingsley writes to him—”I fucking give you up. I give up when it comes to you.” “We don’t meet different women, we meet them differently.”
TC: Is that a line in Larkin’s poem “Letter to a friend about girls”?
MA: It’s not in the poem, but that’s what he means in it.
TC: Sex, in both senses of the word, keeps coming through in this new book. You say Larkin was an old woman, but the sexual revolution as you describe it—is it about women becoming men, becoming able to behave like men?
MA: Well, that didn’t last very long, that phase: the gaudy, equalitarian phase. And it’s very understandable: what model did women have for being adventurous? Only the male model. And they took it up for a bit, and then they realised very soon that it wasn’t in their interests. I remember during the equalitarian phase, you would meet serious people, serious women, serious men, who would say “there is no difference between men and women.” But that phase ended. And during it, and thereafter, it was the women who had to do all the hard work, the adapting, the changing, the throwing off of what they had been taught with such consistency for hundreds of years. As is demonstrated by all the books in Keith’s English literature reading course, from Clarissa onwards.
TC: All these women in English novels, where alcohol or drugs or hysteria have to be invoked in order to escape this structure.
MA: Or madness.
TC: Yes, the lunar influence, lunacy.
MA: It’s sort of touching and desperate, really.
TC: In your discussions of your earlier books, it’s often seemed to me that you treated the characters as though they are skewered on pins, wriggling: they were there to have things done to them, and if the audience chose to empathise with them that was a forgiveable mistake on their part. But in this book there seems to be a lot of tenderness for these characters, especially when you open it up at the end. They are given a lot of space to live their mistakes, and some make it and some don’t.
MA: Yeah, well. We are all quite sentimental, a word that Nabokov defended. He wrote of Dickens and the death of Little Joe in Bleak House, I will not allow you to describe this as sentimental: people who use that word have no idea what sentiment is. Also, the entirely pleasant feeling that I got after writing Experience was that we have all protected our emotion, it was the orthodoxy then that writing was tough. But writing Experience made me think that the emotion which I had always thought was present and detectable to a good reader should be given more room. It’s partly getting older and you just think, it’s all too plangent for words. As Kurt Vonnegut said, everyone thinks I’m tough and slick, but in fact I’m as soft as a sneaker full of shit. And you are, as a writer.
TC: You’re not afraid to quote yourself, in the book, or to quote yourself quoting people: from the book of Job through Ovid and Shakespeare to Larkin. But another aspect of the confidence seems to be that you are unafraid to acknowledge explicitly the place of these things: they matter to you, they are important, so there they are in the book.
MA: It’s rather like Experience in that way, in that there are lots of quotes: Herbert, Keats, Wordsworth, Blake, Auden. And actually, in the prose, Lawrence.
TC: Did Lawrence stay in that castle in Italy, where your novel is set, with Frieda?
MA: In a similar castle. They may well have stayed there. There was such a summer, for me. And it was with half as many characters, and nothing happened. It was pathetic.
TC: And nothing would really have happened in this book if it wasn’t for Gloria, for this kind of dea ex machina, who parachutes in from another frame of reference and turns it, I suppose, into a Martin Amis novel, rather than a Kinglsey Amis novel.
MA: Well, I mean, something might have happened there, it was very much in the air. Scheherazade might well have . . .
TC: . . . got it on with Keith.
MA: Yes. But through various sorts of blunders it doesn’t happen until Gloria manipulates it into being.
TC: Manipulation is another recurring theme in your writing: this idea that you create characters who – and I suppose Iago is a prototype of this – like Fielding in Money, or Quentin in Dead Babies, can just take the others and open up their weaknesses, who know their secret selves better than they do.
MA: That is what you are sort of doing, is putting your characters through it. EM Forster said that when he started a novel, he lined up his characters and said, no larks, behave. Nabokov was horrified by that: “my characters cringe when I come near them,” he said, “they are galley slaves. I have seen whole avenues of imagined trees lose their leaves with terror as I approach.” I think you do insert these characters into novels, and they are wised up, in the novelist’s way, they know how people work. And Gloria comes from a fairly long line of girls in my stuff who know exactly what men are like; and that is a scary thing, and a funny thing, to have a girl who really understands all that.
TC: Who is a cock, as you put it in the novel.
MA: Yes, well, there haven’t been any of them before. Right. But, in my own summer, there was no Gloria. She was made up: jerry-built to do this very strange job in the novel, being ten years ahead of the others.
TC: She’s a sort of messenger from the future.
MA: Yeah. And there were none of the other incidental characters out there either, in my own summer: no Una, no Prentiss, that summer, no Rita, no Kenrick.
TC: There were the three leads.
MA: There were those characters. But it was such a relief to get back to fiction, because something else takes over: that’s the marvellous thing, the exhilaration.
TC: It was a relief to read it, in that it felt like you were joining up a lot of dots: Islam was in there, war, appearances, morality, death, but with an elegant flourish rather than the sense of very hard work that can come with being non-fictional.
MA: It’s certainly a real history, a real history of the golden age, this very specific period, and of this social convulsion. You get more and more interested as you get older in what actually you have lived through, historically. My grandfather lived through an enormous historical change, which was people giving up the land and going to live in the city. That was the big change for his generation, the really significant demographic change. In my generation it was the sexual revolution, that enormous convulsion.
TC: And what would you say it is for my and your sons’ generation?
MA: Well I get the impression, when I teach and we have a lot of general discussions – three years now, and they impress me with being non-ideological – but they have been saying, actually, our ideology is Green. And there is a lot of social pressure about how often you fly and things like that. Maybe the Greening of people’s imagination is the next thing.
TC: Yet again, it smuggles something rather apocalyptic and inhuman in scale into the psyche.
TC: A lot of the great themes of the 20th century have proved to be anti-human, ripping down those protections we had built around ourselves historically.
MA: And this sense of the exhaustability of the earth is a completely new idea, one that would have made no sense to anyone not born in or after the 20th century.
TC: In a sense we are fighting against a pre-20th-century attitude. And you might say that there are parts of the world where people feel they are entitled not yet to be forced to enter the 21st century.
MA: I thought George Monbiot made an interesting point that connects to my book, in that he cites the same book by Ernest Becker as I do, The Denial of Death. Monbiot wrote in a piece for the Guardian that what people are doing is denying something that’s too horrible to contemplate. Becker is quoted, specifically and non-specifically, several times in that piece.
We had a ten-year holiday from this feeling in the 1990s. The nuclear cold war, then a ten-year holiday, then Islam. Islam only up to a point, one mustn’t exaggerate: the number of people killed by terrorism in the west is the same as the number of Americans who drown in the bath. It’s not apocalyptic. I remember Kingsley saying, of nuclear weapons, “there’s always something, it’s the end, judgement day, something else.”
But then again, the weather, climate change; I’ve talked to Clive James about this and to Nigel Lawson. I asked, why are 180 countries gathered in Copenhagen to do something they don’t want to do? Politicians, Nigel said, love anything that makes them look busy. I say to Clive, don’t you sense the incredible potential for violence in the weather, already—the storms, the snow? You can see the nature of what the future will be, and it’s all terror and boredom all over again. You will be massively inconvenienced and appalled by the power of the weather. It’s intuitively inescapable to me.
TC: You’ve been there before with apocalyptic weather, in fiction, in London Fields.
MA: Yes. And in Yellow Dog.
TC: Do you see yourself as a political writer, or feel that writers are inescapably political creatures?
MA: They are under no obligation to do politics. Some writers don’t want to do it. If it doesn’t coincide with their writerly urge, absolutely fine; they are enriching the perceptions of their readers, that’s pro bono enough. It has to coincide with your writerly flow, you can’t decide to write a political novel, it has to come on just like any other fictional situation.
TC: The big political situations do seem to have come on you over the years.
MA: Yeah. So far, the fiction has been nuclear weapons, the Holocaust, and the gulag. But the impulse each time was literary. I’ve just written a piece about writing Time’s Arrow, and begin by quoting the often-asked question that I heard, “why did you decide to write a novel about the Holocaust?” I never did. I never decide to write any novel of mine. They emerge. “Decide” is completely the wrong word, and “about” is completely the wrong preposition. You find yourself writing around a topic, but not after thinking “someone ought to do something like this,” nothing like that.
TC: You suggest in your criticism that the route to bad or dishonest writing begins when you start off from a set position, then write to fit.
MA: Then it emanates out from that, yes.
TC: You’ve also written about seeing your father’s work going through a period where it was deformed by biographical or political circumstances. Stanley and the Women, a couple of other books where false assumptions came in.
MA: Well, yes. Russian Hide and Seek, that was a real wild goose chase politically. Predictive power isn’t everything by any means, but you look at novels like Anthony Burgess’s 1985, which is about a trade union takeover, and it just looks sillier by the week and is of course dead as a doornail in the long term. Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t describe 1984, of course; barely even in the Soviet Union. But that is such a dynamic fiction, in its non-genius way. It’s important to realise that Orwell is not a genius but he does do some things very, very well.
TC: I’ve enjoyed reading his diaries as a way of understanding the particular nature of his non-genius, that he had this enormous gift for the quotidian, of stacking it up…
MA: Jealously stacking it up, exactly.
TC: And then seeing the salience, picking out the detail: these ploughs in North Africa, wells. It’s the highest pitch of journalism rather than literature.
MA: Yes. 1984 I’ve been looking at again. It is journalistic, but it’s quite swift and direct, and has few false quantities.
TC: It may be an impossible question, but do you have any personal hierarchy of preference among your own books: ones that you feel more completely say what you wanted to say, or that feel like unfinished business you might want to revisit?
MA: Yeah. Burgess used to say, when asked which his favourite book was, “the next one.” Which is sophistical in a way, but I feel it. And I would grade my novels completely chronologically right up to the present one.
TC: A steady increase.
MA: I tried to read The Rachel Papers [Amis’s first novel] recently, to reacquaint myself with what it is like to be 20 or 19, and I couldn’t read it. I knew it quite well so I knew all the good bits, the not bad bits, but as a structure and as a . . . the craft is pitiful.
TC: It reads to me like a companion book to your father’s Lucky Jim, or a riposte. Nice things aren’t interesting, nasty things are interesting.
MA: Nice things are boring, nasty things are funny.
TC: Yes, sorry, I’m misquoting you.
MA: I just taught Lucky Jim, which went down incredibly well with my students. Kingsley says, in Lucky Jim, it all goes to shore up this view that nice things are nicer than nasty things. And actually that’s contra Larkin, who took on the suffering inside himself.
TC: I suppose happiness is a talent, and Larkin lacked that.
MA: I attribute a sort of heroic strain to Larkin. He realised. Don’t tell me that he died and left half a million quid. Poets were very popular with women in London. Women were very moved by poets. “What do you do?” “I’m a poet.” That gets you a big start, or got you a big start; it probably wouldn’t do you any good today. But women were very drawn to him. Some of them were terrible trogs and tyrants, but he had lots of women around him. Larkin, as the leading English poet, could have moved to London, in a Keith-like move, and become . . . women loved his poems, some of the poems. But he didn’t. He’s heroic in that he embraced that.
TC: And if he had done otherwise he would have had a different poetry.
MA: Yeah, and I wrote 20 years ago that he decided to cling, to wrap it round him, this peculiar misery, and to write the poems that belonged to it. And I salute him for it. Combined with sloth, it was actually a way of saying, this is my voice, the voice of failure.
TC: Do you have a characterisation of your own voice, a way you would describe your best literary self?
MA: I do think that Kingsley’s value, the supreme value in his fictional world – not in his poetry, good little minor poet that he was – but the thing his fictional valued above all was decency. And the value my fiction values above all is innocence. Even the most unlikely innocence. I would claim that Violet in The Pregnant Widow is innocent.
TC: She’s almost a holy innocent, isn’t she?
MA: I have got a horror of that type from reading Graham Greene recently, and Brideshead Revisited. I loathe the idea of the degenerate who is awarded saintly status because religious novelists are trapped in this terrible tendentiousness where they have got to do that for religious reasons. It’s so anti-artistic. Greene’s The End of the Affair is a wild, hilariously incompetent and charmless book. And Brideshead, where even Sebastian in his “monk’s cell” at the end and Julia has this great religious effusion, quoting the Bible, this sort of trance…
TC: It’s a quintessential artist’s cop-out, that you smuggle in a saving absolute. Suddenly, it stops you having to do the balancing act.
MA: I think religious novelists have the balancing act forced upon them. You see ponderous intrusions, they wheel it round: it’s so anti-artistic. Religion is the enemy of art in fiction. Not in other forms, not in poetry.
TC: Is that because the novel post-dates the dissociation of sensibility? That idea of that dissociation crops up in your latest novel.
MA: It does crop up. But I don’t think it’s that. We did an event in Manchester on religion and literature with James Wood, and I said that the two things are co-eternal and come from the same place. As Flaubert said: all the artistic stuff comes, in post-Romantic cases, from frustrated religious feeling. It’s fine for poetry and, obviously, for music and painting. But the minute you get into the discursive world of fiction, it’s a disaster, because it runs the show, and it is the opposite of art: it is tendentious, schematic, predictable.
TC: Your father once said, it’s not so much that I don’t believe in God, it’s that I hate him.
MA: It’s more that I hate him. He said it to that poet. . .
TC: To the Soviet poet, Yevtushenko. Is that your position?
MA: No. In fact, I’m an agnostic, which is the only rational position. It’s not because I feel a God or think that anything resembling the banal God of religion will turn up. But I think that atheism sounds like a proof of something, and it’s incredibly evident that we are nowhere near intelligent enough to understand the universe. We are a dozen Einsteins away. It’s pathetic. I feel very sorry for cosmologists. Only a couple of years ago I was told by one, Lee Smolin, he said they had just discovered that the universe is not only expanding but that this process is accelerating. For us, he said, that’s like throwing your car keys in the air and them not coming down. And then, they’ve just been struggling to understand what dark matter is, which occupies 80 per cent of mass in the universe and until the last year all they knew about it was that it was this “dark material.” The guy at Playboy magazine said that “Hugh is a great admirer of your material.” I mean, “material” is really telling you nothing at all. Paul Davies in the Guardian says that we now know it exists in massive particles that haven’t really gelled. But that’s 80 per cent of mass in the universe, and we have no idea…
TC: Of course, your fiction contains one of the few examples I can think of of death by cosmology: Night Train.
MA: Yeah, in a way.
TC: A woman who has everything to live for, but can’t face the insignificance of everything she knows in the context of the universe.
MA: A falling short. And there was one thing I mentioned in London Fields, where I got a very nice letter from a cosmologist. In this description of an eclipse I was saying, it’s amazing that you have this 93 million mile pool shot, and it’s absolutely straight, the balls fill each other, and maybe that’s a prerequisite of life on this planet. And I got this letter saying they were thinking about that, apparently.
TC: And then you have the anthropic principle saying that if things were any different, we simply wouldn’t be around to watch them. We can have no null hypothesis, there is just us.
MA: One observer per universe. But now we have the idea of the multiverse.
TC: Although a prerequisite for that seems to be that it’s an untestable idea.
MA: No contact possible, yes. Like super-string theory – they wasted a generation on that.
TC: And what does all this do to fiction, the state of what we know and what we think of as truth? Because literature is interested in containing rational forms….
MA: It has no effect on fiction. It has an effect on some writers. Writers are above all individuals, and above all writing is freedom, so they will go off in all sorts of directions. I think it does apply to the debate about religion, in that it’s a crabbed novelist who pulls the shutters down and says, there is no other thing. Don’t use the word God: but something more intelligent than us… If we can’t understand it, then it’s formidable. And we understand very little. We don’t understand the weak nuclear force, galaxy formation . . . so one should be humble.
TC: That does make me think of Larkin, looking at the stars: “Much less is known than not, More far than near.”
MA: And then there is “Solar.”
TC: I presume you’ve read it, the forthcoming novel from Ian McEwan?
MA: No, I haven’t, no. It’s very heavily embargoed. But I was also talking about the Larkin poem “Solar,” which is what McEwan is referring to. “Heat is the echo of your gold.” I mean, that’s really cosmically aware, it’s a lovely line. But I’m dying to read Ian’s book. And he’s done it the clever way, which is not to have the first sentence being “Splork tied his camel to the rail outside the Igloo and looked south.” No, it’s some guy who goes to all of these conferences. I am looking forward to that.
TC: As your career has gone on, I was also wondering how your attitude to your father’s work has changed. Do you feel differently now about it?
MA: I re-read Lucky Jim recently for the tenth time, in order to teach it. A first novel that was perfect would be a creepy thing: it’s not what you go to first novels for. You go for energy and freshness of voice, and Christ have you got that. But it’s 20 per cent too long, it’s got too much editorialising. He doesn’t yet know what you can leave out. My favourite novel of his is The Old Devils, which I think is fantastic. And Ending Up is great.
TC: It’s sad and delicate too. I found the dementia aspect very sad.
MA: But it’s antic, and it’s scurrilous, in a good way. A funny read.
TC: A very serious kind of fun.
MA: I guess. Yes, it’s awful. As Kingsley said as he began the address at Larkin’s funeral, all this is evidence for the terrible effect of time on everything we have.
TC: More generally, you and your father are often bracketed together as comic writers. Is that something you feel is getting harder to do?
MA: The comic novel is dying, because comedy is anti-democratic. Comedy is a smear.
TC: Inviting you to laugh at.
MA: Yes. But…