Martin Amis is settling into a Zoom call on Long Island, an escape from his usual writing eyrie in Covid-ridden Brooklyn, with the tentative air of a man who thinks on-screen technology might bite him.
His wife Isabel Fonseca swishes in to sort out the camera and the familiar long Amis face appears, intense brown eyes and domed forehead: a bookish ghost swimming into focus.
The image might appeal to a writer who has ridden the zeitgeist since he first published picaresque literary novels in his twenties. He’s written 13 since, two collections of stories, and eight works of non-fiction.
His latest, Inside Story, is a narrator-driven tale with digressions and comedy galore: but also a portrait of his real life and friendships which, as one critic wrote, “hug the shores of the writer’s biography”. His mood is a bit melancholic, I think, though this is still recognisably the sharp pen of “little Keith” (as his friend, the essayist Chris Hitchens jokingly called him). “Garrulous, urbane, a bit crotchety,” decreed the TLS of Inside Story.
I wonder how a man who once seemed to be at every literary salon at once on either side of the Atlantic copes with the seclusion of lockdowns. Frankly, he looks delighted. “Writers are the least inconvenienced species on Earth by the pandemic,” he retorts, drily shuffling an array of pens, paper and the glow of a blue-tipped vape. “Writers are withdrawn from society anyway. It is not like we’re used to a noisy office.”
Amis is avowedly Trump-hostile but lightens the ritual East Coast denunciations. “It’s like Clive James once said of Barry Manilow: everyone you know thinks he is terrible. Everyone you don’t know things he’s absolutely great.” He reckons the days of the Great Shrek are numbered in November’s elections. “I can’t see him making it back [to power] though I am always wrong about these things, wrong about Trump getting elected. Wrong about Brexit. Let’s see.”
He talks more slowly these days: speaking in deliberative sentences like a distant cousin of Sir Tom Stoppard, and sounds very British for a man who has embraced America as home (Fonseca is a native New Yorker and they moved there in 2012). “You’d have to be very weak-minded to take on an American accent as an English person,” he says. “My American is rusty. I am loftily Anglophone.”
America, Amis reckons, “has a different, more benign view of writers — there is a subliminal expectation since the founding of the US. They are important in that they help tell a story of who the country is and what makes a collection of very different people into a nation. Whereas no one is going to tell anyone in England who they are”.
He has caused a stir by declaring Inside Story his “last big novel” — and I wonder why, at just over 70, he sets such a valedictory tone? “Any novelist beyond 70 is haunted by the question — when do I stop?” He wants to try his hand at shorter works. “Chekhov once said that everything he read in old age seemed not short enough. Your vocabulary starts to shrink at 65-70 — it’s universal and ominous.”
He tells me his friend, the author Kazuo Ishiguro, has researched all this (Amis has a tone of faux seriousness) “with a chart” — and maintains the thirties are the peak age for writing great novels. “If you start young, you do your growing up in public,” muses Amis. “So over time you will do your winding down in public too.” The odd thing about this is that he takes a pretty stern view of younger writers too. We move suddenly to a thorough takedown of the Booker Prize unlikely to please the judges — or indeed the 2019 winner, Bernardine Evaristo.
“To read your contemporaries, let alone your juniors, is an uneconomical way of dividing your reading time, I almost want to snort with laughter. Why should I do that?”
Woah. What was he publishing at 25?
“Well, 24! The Rachel Papers.” Wouldn’t he have wanted it reviewed? He concedes (a bit). “Well yeah, for a laugh but the only way to look at the excellent and the not-excellent is the clock. Anything else is subjective and artificial. If a writer has been delighting audiences for half a century there is a good reason for that.”
Should he have won the Booker — one of the few prizes to elude him? There is tension in the air. “I don’t care. I did care when I was much younger: it would have simplified things if I had won it. But it had no authority and has less authority now.” This might be seen as sour grapes — or is it because he doesn’t like the contemporary winners? “I haven’t read any of these books for the reasons I gave you. You don’t feel a literary push behind it. It’s politics, it’s sociopolitical considerations rather than literary like the Nobel: every country has to have its turn. It is an utterly external thing to me.”
I say Evaristo might be fine with the sociopolitical description via her writing, because she intends to reflect on a changing society.
“I hardly recognise anything you are talking about,” says Amis. “Not out of literary snobbery, maybe a literary immunity I have inherited from my father and stepmother [Elizabeth Jane Howard].”
A relationship alternating admiration and competition with his father Kingsley Amis still grips him, the scrappy but tight paternal bond seen across the pages of a writer’s life. “Having a father who was the same kind of writer as me had some drawbacks but a perk: you become detached from the public aspect of writing, I never got as affected by bad reviews as a young man — or as euphoric about good ones.”
So what would his advice be to aspirant writers, agonising in social isolation these days about the blank page, a poor review or unreturned agent call? “You need to start writing in your thirties at the latest. Otherwise you get blocked by genealogy. Start when you’re young and brave and stupid — and then charge in before inhibitions beset you.” It is Amis at his fluid, funny finest (he often speaks in cadences which most of us would need to write down to command).
Inside Story features a long list of his lovers and a tantalising description of Fonseca (an extremely good-looking author and essayist of note herself), lusciously semi-clad while rehearsing a literary talk in French. (From memories of Fonseca as a talented, sociable muse at Oxford, this is something she could pull off).
Yet the most tantalising female invention in the book is Phoebe Phelps, a former escort and professional tease, who renders the male ego (and other parts) helpless.
To Amis, she embodies “moralism, unreflecting amoralism. I hesitate to say it is a feminine trait but I have never encountered that indifference to moral norms among men, because men are always looking over their shoulder looking for ballast. Women strike out on their own more”.
Amis’s sweeping judgments about what men and women do and don’t do can, frankly, jar. In the language of 2020 isn’t the “gendered view” a bit old-school, patriarchal, even? He sticks to his guns. “Women can be more blithely amoral ie indifferent to morality.”
Perhaps he senses danger in this boggy terrain, because when I press him on the implications, he says he would rather live under women as head of state than men “though I never dated a head of state”. (Given his rollicking Don Giovanni list, this feels like an unfortunate omission.)
One relationship which shines with affection in the book is with Chris “the Hitch” Hitchens, the polemicist and writer who died of cancer in 2011 and was Amis’s friend, competitor and professional provocateur. “He made writing exciting in the way most journalists would not dream of doing.”
He remembers the relationship — and gruelling vigil at Hitchens’s bedside in the dying weeks — vividly, including the “ fraction of homoerotic power that all male friendships include”.
When he and Fonseca moved to New York around the same time, he says he was aware of docking in a city which had been a sanctuary for so many hounded intellectuals and refugees over time. The Trump administration’s hostility to people coming in has, he says, changed that promise for the worse.
“Where I live in Brooklyn I have a clear view of the Statue of Liberty — on some mornings she looks like the beacon welcoming you to a glorious idea. Other mornings, when the mist comes and you can’t, she looks like the stub of a great civilisation. It reminds me of the Shelley poem Ozymandias, ‘Look on my works ye mighty and despair.’ If Trump wins this election, that will be the fate of this glorious ideal. But if you ask me to take a bet — I think Lady Liberty will shine again.”
Anne McElvoy’s podcast interview with Martin Amis can be heard here.