Martin Amis interview
The iconic English novelist on social commentary, emigration and Christopher Hitchens
‘The press, and therefore the public, have only one or two ideas about every writer,’ says Martin Amis ‘It’s what they call the narrative. And the narrative on me is that I used to be good, but now I’ve declined.’ The pause is exquisite. ‘But that has no relation to anything, as far as I can see. I mean, my last couple of novels got better reviews than I’ve ever had. Once the narrative is in place, though: that’s it, basically.’ We’re in a chichi part of Brooklyn, in the living room of the house Amis bought last summer with his second wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca. There are paintings, the family cat and stacks of his new novel, ‘Lionel Asbo: State of England’. England seems a long way away today, but it is Amis’s quitting of it and relocation to New York – or rather the British press’s reaction to it – which has prompted his outburst.
What the move was not, he insists, was a flight from failure. ‘The press flatters itself by thinking your life choices are made in response to them,’ he says. ‘It absolutely wasn’t a huffy departure.’ He lashes out at ‘fake interviews’: ‘They had one in The Guardian – the paper I write for – saying, “England can go stuff itself, I’m going...” I have nothing but affection for England.’
Over the years, this ‘affection’ has taken a variety of forms, many of them not obviously that affectionate, and the new book, compulsively readable, is an enthusiastic return to some recognisable themes: Amis’s satirical stomping ground of vicious, half-smart London criminals and vacant women, rendered with an impressive economy of craft. Its title character, who has previously changed his name to the politically charged acronym, is a cosmically undeserving pitbull-towed thug who wins £139 million on the lottery. Transformed by the tabloids into a holy fool, Lionel Asbo doesn’t exactly bloom so much as retrench into his principles. As the sad casualty of circumstance that is Lionel’s cowering, sensitive nephew Desmond observes: ‘You could only do that if you gave being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.’
In his scrappy viciousness Asbo recalls Keith Talent from ‘London Fields’; in his needy grotesquery, John Self from ‘Money’. Why, I ask Amis, do these kind of characters exert such a pull on him? Surely they’re far removed from his own experience?
‘I’ve always had feelers out in that kind of life,’ he says. ‘When I was a child, my parents suddenly took off, when my father’s first book came out. We were parked with a working-class Welsh family in Swansea. There was Michael, their teddy boy son, and Hilary, their pretty daughter. My brother very much resented it, but I didn’t. I liked it: all their cousins and that community. I have a friend in London, a restaurateur and businessman, who used to know that world. He’d say, “Come down. There are some people here you need to meet.” I’d go, listen and learn. This friend’s not a reader. He once said to me, “Have you ever tried to read one of your books?” Kind of a brilliant remark.’
At 62, Amis is impossibly distinguished: very much the man of letters. The handsome near-scowl, the bass grumble and professorial glasses hanging from a cord around his neck are all in evidence. Although he says he does miss London (‘I don’t care about the Olympics. I miss the football’), over the last decade, this quintessentially British writer has broadened himself into a citizen of the world, taking risks that maybe ought to be better appreciated. ‘The Second Plane’ (2008), his collection of prickly thinking on the 9/11 attacks, was a tonic for those who’d grown tired of hearing the words ‘too soon’, while the Stalin-era works ‘Koba the Dread’ (2002) and ‘House of Meetings’ (2006) injected a strain of social justice into a catalogue known for its slipperiness.
So the subtitle of ‘Lionel Asbo’ seems at once portentous and playful. Is Amis really taking England to task? ‘I like subtitles,’ he bats back. ‘You get to pack in another notion. My 12-year-old daughter told me, “Enough with the subtitles, for crying out loud!” There used to be such a thing as the state-of-England novel. It was always rather earnest: longish, bearing the imprint of a work of ideas in that all the characters would be discussing England. And they would all sound the same. So it’s ironic, but it’s a mere subtitle.’
One suggestive component to ‘Lionel Asbo’, though, that does reach for a wider cultural comment is the intersection of fame and silicon-enhanced desperation. A Katie Price-like character, Danube (‘I had fun with my sons thinking up a name for this Jordan figure. I thought: It’s got to be a river’), struts on the periphery of the action, while Asbo’s recently acquired top-heavy girlfriend, Threnody, covets the attention for herself. For Amis, in recent years, this subject has become something of a pet obsession. ‘It’s hard to see how that kind of celebrity, plus the ageing process, is going to work,’ he muses darkly. ‘It can’t turn out well.’
Amis’s own ageing process has seen him reassess both his back catalogue and his approach to writing. ‘When I look at my early stuff, it seems technically very crude to me,’ he says. ‘I’m much happier with my last few novels. What happens as you get older is that your musicality decreases. There’ll be nothing wrong with your sentences, but they won’t be as pyrotechnic as they used to be, like the passages in “Money” where the volume is turned up very loud. That urge decreases as you get older.’ The predatory impulse of the younger, lustier novelist who wrote ‘Success’ (1978) has also been tempered by death. ‘Something seismic happens to you in your forties, where you accept for the first time that you’re going to die,’ he says. ‘This is what “The Information” is about. Until then – and I would define youth as being this – you look in the mirror and think: While I accept intellectually that everyone gets old and dies, I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’re an exception to the rule.’
The death from cancer of Amis’s close friend – and fellow expat – Christopher Hitchens in December 2011 hit him hard. ‘I was there at the end,’ he says. ‘It’s very complicated when you lose someone you’ve known for 40 years. Not like other deaths where you know them a bit. It’s going to take the rest of my life.’ ‘I would have agreed with Gogol a few years ago,’ he continues, ‘when he said, “Old age is pitiless, because it gives nothing back.” But now I think it does give something back. I wouldn’t have mentioned this until quite recently, but there’s a sort of leave-taking poignancy that’s very nice. You look at things and value them as you haven’t before, because they’re not going to be around.’ We stroll into the house’s open kitchen, the dining area walled with an impressive library of non-fiction. Outside a large garden – a rarity for New York living – is washed with spring rain. Amis suddenly seems fragile, which feels like an absurd way of thinking about a writer in his mature prime, arguably as rebarbative, provocative and unpredictable as ever. Typically, however, he rationalises this apparently elegiac strain as an unsentimental clarity of vision: ‘The illusion of immortality evaporates,’ he says. ‘And that does change you. You’re grateful, really, because you don’t want illusions.’
By Joshua Rothkopf