The second time I went to interview Martin Amis was again at his London house in Primrose Hill. He had no real reason to be kind to me that day and yet his spontaneous willingness to give me his time and encouragement was indicative of a lesser-documented quality in his character and, I think, his writing: the quality of generosity. And that’s what I want to illuminate a little here. Now that he has gone. Or, rather, as he would say: now that he has migrated permanently and exclusively to the shelf.
I buzzed the security gate that he felt it necessary to maintain. He opened the front door himself – a one-man essay in how bad posture and a nicotine-squint might perversely signal great courtesy and clarity of vision. (Like his generosity, this oddly paradoxical relation has its counterpart on the page.) Come on in. Come on in. His life, he said, was pretty full and also pretty full of shit – by which he meant actual nappies (he had infant daughters at that time) as well as the by-now brisk and regular dunking in excrement that he suffered at the hands of the British media. We sat down in his airy library with its ever-open volumes of the OED and I thought about asking him to sign my copy of his book, but then decided against – on grounds of faux-professionalism and real embarrassment.
There were many reasons for Martin not to be generous that day. For one thing, his daughters and sons twanged in and out of his afternoon with what seemed to be an escalating series of personal ultimatums. For another, he had come to loathe British journalists. He had already started work on possibly his most repulsive character in a world-class field: Clint Smoker, the journalist of Yellow Dog (2003) – “furiously commuting from Foulness, near Southend, where he had a semi… [and lived in]… a condition of untouchable sordor”. For a third, there was the regrettable truth that the paper I worked for at that time was – at best – a confused farrago of irrelevance with less than zero purchase on his career, standing or future. And, last but not least, there was the undeniable fact that I was insultingly young to be doing anything with anyone – let alone talking to a national figure about his life, times and intimate biography. And yet, here he was giving me the time of day, offering triple-distilled coffee, regretting the noises-off, remembering lines from my first interview, wondering how full Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full had turned out to be now that I had finished reading it.
[See also: Shakespeare’s race problem]
I got to know Martin a little in the period between Heavy Water (1998) and Koba the Dread (2002) – not well, but enough to risk calling him Martin and for him to know about my ambitions to become a novelist; enough to be invited to the occasional party and to speak a few times on the phone when, for example, he randomly wanted tickets for a Bob Dylan concert. (He loved “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and especially the lines: “Get sick, get well/Hang around the ink well.”) The first time we met had been for the now roundly unremembered collection Heavy Water. (Which, by the way, is casually littered with all the usual gleaming treasures of phrasing – the “highly calibrated insouciance” of a screenwriter called Alistair being a personal favourite.) But that day, the business before us was his life. We were supposed to be talking about his memoir – and one of his two masterpieces – Experience (2000).
I was there under false pretences. I had zero interest in his teeth, his money or his relationships. I didn’t even want to be a journalist. I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to be a writer. I had spent all my then short adult life studying literature and what interested me was… well, how he wrote exactly, where he saw the novel going, how he turned a phrase this way and then that, how many drafts it took him to perfect his cadences, when he thought euphony was too much, when to deploy harshness, why did he neglect plot and character, what about when style wasn’t enough, what he thought of his literary opposites such as JM Coetzee, how many distinct skills did he think the novelist must have – could these be categorised, how many did he think he had – and why did so very few authors ever manage a masterpiece?
Writers are – or should be – the most perceptive people it is possible to encounter. And he was ever the most perceptive of the tribe. So, of course, he saw through me from the moment he first saw me at all. But he recognised, too, that there was no guile on my part: I was (and I still am) obsessed by these questions. And my somewhat ingenuous enquiries therefore had the virtue of putting him more at ease. He was relieved to talk shop. He was relieved that we were not, as he said, shovelling more shit on the mighty shit-mountain. Later, of course, to become the near-unscalable shit-massif that all but enclosed him.
Towards the end of the hour, in a desultory way – and feeling that I’d better go through the motions – I asked him about why he thought he was getting so vehemently attacked. This was before social media, when pile-ons were weekly rather than hourly and almost cordially elliptical by comparison. (Imagine Twitter bothering with the cost of his dentistry.) He said that he thought part of it was to do with the medium (for him everything, in the end, was to do with the medium) – which is to say that because journalists and gossip columnists used the same basic art form as novelists – writing – they therefore felt more entitled to have a go. A bit like, he noted, how everyone can kick a ball and thus everyone has a view on exactly how England’s leading striker should play or why he flunked that penalty when it really mattered.
The hour soon was over. I felt I’d soured the end of our conversation by panic-asking about his “celebrity”. But, on the way out, he enquired after how my manuscript submissions were going. I said that I’d had a close one – this was the second “first” novel I had written – but that I’d recently had the final “no” from the publisher I thought most likely to say “yes”.
Writing and the language itself meant everything to me then. It still does. And so, I must have evinced some kind of involuntary rawness about the recent rejection as we stood there in the hall. Maybe it felt extra-deflating after the conversation we had been having. Now I wonder if I didn’t think madly that I had somehow let him down. I don’t know. What happened in the physical world is that I just stopped moving for a second and then awkwardly half-offered him Experience to sign. He sensed something deeper than embarrassment and likewise stopped. And then he said, oh, in that case, leave all your stuff here and come and have a beer on the roof and we’ll have a proper conversation.
And that was it. He went and got two bottles and I followed him up through the house and we sat up on his roof garden for the next few hours and we really got down to “it”. And by “it”, I mean everything you can possibly imagine discussing in relation to the central question of which of the novelists and poets had the ability to render the human experience on the page in a manner that was resonant to other people, offered real readerly pleasures and yet was truthful and enduring? And what could we learn from them? Most generously of all, for the purposes of this conversation, he counted himself a student alongside me. Not in a phoney way and not to show off – he was way past that – but because he himself was greatly animated and compelled by these questions. By the end (a few bottles later) we were deep in a near line-by-line discussion (from memory on his part) of the sophistication of Jane Austen’s emotional choreography in the first assembly scene in Pride and Prejudice when Mary Bennet sings and Elizabeth despairs of her family.
He was astonishingly generous. He was astonishingly encouraging. Most of all, he was astonishingly intelligent. Lots of people are intelligent – and lots of species of intelligence are tedious – but Amis’s mind worked in a way that continually outflanked and astounded any thinking you were doing in parallel or response. There was the huge on-board library resource, of course, and he quoted paragraphs and verses at will – Conrad, Waugh, Austen, Larkin, Auden, George Eliot, Donne, endless Shakespeare, his father, Bellow, Nabokov – but, again, lots of people know things and that, too, can become a peculiar form of dullness. No, what was astonishing was the unexpected connections that his mind conjured – each next thought in a sequence of conversation would have been unimaginable beforehand and yet made a miraculous chain of self-evident understanding afterwards. And all of this he was able to articulate with a breathtaking precision.
There’s a great line in Experience where Amis writes about his father: “I wasn’t making the elementary error of conflating the man and the work, but all writers know that the truth is in the fiction. That’s where the spiritual thermometer gives its reading.” There isn’t space to go into all the brilliances (or failings) of Amis’s work here. And there are as many ways to write a great novel as there are great novelists. Coetzee or Hilary Mantel or Toni Morrison or, for that matter, Cervantes: they’re all going to teach you completely different lessons. Unlike Martin (or unlike he sometimes pretended), I am interested in all the different ways to do it – yes, even, as he would describe them, the clear-as-a-mountain-creek-merchants. And, for what it’s worth, I think there is a rebarbative sneer that occasionally corrodes his texts from the inside so that the surface brilliance tarnishes and rusts, becomes brittle. But for now, I want to read the spiritual thermometer the other way round – from man to work – because I think that the personal generosity that he displayed that day to me (and there are many others who experienced this) is also there in the writing. Not in the narrow sense of what he’s writing about – or who, or where – but in the sense of how he is writing.
So, by way of unpacking for the newly Amis-curious what pleasure his best work brings to those who admire it, here are three great generosities that are as alive in the style as they were in the man.
The first is to do with straightforward abundance. There’s a ravishing luxuriousness to all his writing. You get to revel and recline in the great opulent apparel of our language as if it were yours to drape yourself in all along. Which, of course, it is. In this way, he generously returns to you what you feel you have lost by hair-shirting your way through other writers of various pinch, beef and earnest. You feel more subtle in his company, you feel your own vocabulary expand, your sensibility for words is reconjured, your vow of love for the English language is remade; in the moment of reading his best work, you feel richer.
The second is to do with his scrupulousness and precision. Leaving aside macro concerns, you can as a reader always rest assured that there is no other British prose writer who has taken quite so much care over the word-by-word selection that goes into making a sentence. His status as a novelist is mercurial but his paragraphs are still the best in recent English. Most of this hand-to-hand stuff is intuitive for him (as was apparent when he spoke), but he also checked and double checked and read and reread his work until its sound and rhythm and timbre was (as he felt it) perfect. For many readers this assiduousness is strangely relaxing. Relaxing because you know you can trust him; because you never have the feeling of being let down on the sentence level by a cliché, or a repetition, or some other infelicity that breaks the all-important spell of authorial command.
[See also: Why read life-writing?]
The third generosity is to do with exuberance – an intoxicating joy, a pleasure, a live kinetic vitality that lives word to word in his work. As your author-guide, he is forever delighting you with unexpected phrase-making, with freshness, with ingenuity, with invention and ingeniousness. In his other masterpiece, Money (1984), you laugh, you gasp, you shake your head, you rush towards the next sentence at the same time as you back up to marvel at the last. Think again about the meaning of this word, he seems to urge the reader, and then look at this word next to that word. I never wholly bought his Nabokovian style-is-morality schtick. But I do believe that his work is existentially incandescent only because it is stylistically incandescent.
This last quality – of exuberance and spirit; the incandescent style – is more in the tradition of the poets than the novelists; it is also much more in the tradition of the 18th century – Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding and the gang – than the writers he is often compared to – Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse. If you combine these thoughts, the figure who comes to mind is the great 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. And, indeed, I have always thought that Amis has a great deal in common with Pope’s sensibility. The way Pope is a flat-out genius with words and in such Bach-like musical control; the way he is unsurpassable as a compassionate-but-mighty-and-scathing satirist; the way he is unable to write about matters of the heart organically; the way he is endlessly funny and arch and sly and collusive and playful; most of all, the way he loves and takes care of his readers. From the opening of Pope’s “An Essay on Man”:
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot;
Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot folly as it flies,
And catch the manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can…
Martin would love that invitational “Together let us…” and the way all those different meanings are simultaneously alive in the single line as it runs – beckoning us – forward: “Together let us beat this ample field.” Come on in. Come on in.
Taken altogether these three qualities represent what, I think, is at the heart of Amis’s work: a delighted, forensic, monumental and epic commitment to language itself. That’s the quiddity. That’s the core reason so many writers and journalists enjoy reading him. And that’s the reason I don’t think the distinction between the non-fiction and the fiction holds. Because all his writing is like that. Sure, the non-fiction feels more anchored because of its ostensible subject. And, yes, the bad fiction feels worse than it is because its subject is so obviously ostensible. But really the subject in either case was not the subject; the true subject was always the language – its meaning and its music. And – about this – Amis is never anything other than serious, devout, sincere, interesting, sublime.
On the way out the second time, I was fixed. I picked up Experience again from the side table and this time boldly asked him to sign it. I’m chary of overstatement and – thinking about that day – I’m still not sure if this is a failing or a virtue. But in those few hours, he restored my faith. Writing fiction, publishing, editing, magazines, poetry – they’re all such fragile businesses and yet he was absolutely certain that they mattered, that their power was not only purposeful but transcendent. I soon began again on another novel. And this – my “third”, the next thing I wrote – became my debut.
It wasn’t until a couple of days later, though, that I opened up Experience. Only then did I read what he had written. “To Ed, keep going, Martin Amis.” Such a kind and generous thing to say. The same thing he had been saying to me all afternoon. I have the inscription in front of me now.
This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up