By IAN BROWN
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Constrictions are what an aging writer notices over time - of talent, facility and confidence, to go with the more organic blockages that afflict everyone. Or as Martin Amis puts it in The Rub of Time, his new collection of essays: "Writers die twice: once when the body dies and once when the talent dies."
The constrictions afflicting Martin Amis this late-February day in Toronto, where he has come to talk about his new book, include the hours he spent queuing the week before at the U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Service in Manhattan's Federal Plaza to renew his visa. (He moved to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, from London with his second wife, the American novelist Isabel Fonseca, in 2011.) "Being sneered at by power-crazed non-entities," Amis says. "I mean, a really crude, patronizing, menacing thing for power. And this little twerp who lets people into the building, saying [Amis perfectly mimics the guard] 'Yew don even speak Inglesh?' It must make [newcomers] feel like an ant, or an alien from outer space. It makes you hate America, actually. Quite a few things do that, I find."
At 68, Amis looks frailer than he has over the years since the first of our roughly half-dozen conversations, in 1989. He now strolls at a pace even a fellow boulevardier would call slow. He plays less tennis, but still smokes hand-rolled cigarettes; these days, his cough is volcanic/tectonic, and sounds as though it began its expectorant journey eons ago, picking up substrate and history and tradition and even a few cousins as it travelled.
The infamous son of novelist Kingsley Amis and long-time bad lad of British literary life (16 works of fiction, including the timeless bestsellers Money, London Fields, Time's Arrow, The Information and The Zone of Interest; seven previous works of non-fiction such as Experience and The Second Plane) - is kinder and less judgmental than he was as a younger man. Or at least he's less defensive.
But the famous Amis mind, calmly bristling in its certainty of judgment (Virginia Woolf's standard for what raised great writing above the rest) is thoroughly intact. The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage 1994-2017 is Amis's evidence of what time does not just to talent, but to the judgment of talent. In the case of Amis's non-fiction - rich in reading, deeply considered, geometrically reasoned and the stylistic equivalent of a shot of human adrenalin - time has been kind.
All of Amis's fave obsessions feature here. The essays at once track the rise of literary fiction (thanks to thenwealthy newspapers so desperate to fill ad pages that they started interviewing writers) and the decline of America and the Republican Party (2045, Amis insists, is the year China takes over for good). Considerations of his literary idols Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow kick off and close the collection, sustained in between by Amis's blood-seeking brilliant-mindedness on a colour wheel of subjects that rotates from the false allure of Princess Diana (from 2002: "'Bloody hell, after all I've done for this ... family': In the end, horribly, what she did for the family was to die. It was a little Restoration") to the poetically brilliant but emotionally crippled Philip Larkin. Larkin's lifelong but never married lover, Monica Jones, was the model, with Larkin's secret permission, for the boring grasper Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim, the breakout novel of Amis's father Kingsley (from 2011: "... the gauntness of Larkin's personal history [with no emotions, no vital essences, worth looking back on] contributed to the early decline of his inspiration").
Amis's almost genetic familiarity with British writing stems not just from deep and talented reading, but from the famous literary living rooms he grew up in. Along the way, he also writes fetchingly about tennis, the shortage of accomplished people named Tim, the Republican Party, John Travolta, Donald Trump, Iris Murdoch, author tours, Vegas, porn and terrorism, among other obsessions. He can still spin sentences the way Rumpelstiltskin could gold, and his convictions (a foe of radical Islamism, though not of Islam) are as chin-leading as ever. The #MeToo movement, for instance, fascinates him. "I think women, collectively, have something close to a bad conscience about Trump," he says, calmly and yet pyromaniacally provocative.
"Because 53 per cent of white, collegeeducated American women voted for Trump. ... They were already angry with themselves and with what Trump was already doing to ruin the lives of women all over the world. By some calculations, a million women are going to die from not having contraception.
Even if you hadn't voted for Trump, you'd still feel you hadn't done enough to thwart him. So I think that partly accounts for #MeToo. It's actually very invigorating to see."
Always ambitious and driven (partly by his father's example), Amis has already finished his next book, despite what he describes as oncoming slow motion. "I can't work for as long," he says. "I used to have about four hours, or sometimes five. But now it's three, on a good day. It's just energy. John Banville once - on TV, I think - said writing sort of seeps out in a dreamlike state. But he was very emphatic when I asked what is the one key thing about writing. He said, 'Energy, energy, energy.' That certainly starts to decline."
The as-yet-unpublished book is a memoir - though he insists on calling it a novel, for the liberties he takes - of the interconnected lives of Larkin, Bellow and Amis's late and much-missed pal, Christopher Hitchens. "I've been trying to write it for 15 years," Amis says. "I've got to get rid of it."
It suffers, he claims, from "the huge limitations of life writing," a.k.a. memoir - a genre for which he blames D.H.
Lawrence. "This is sort of a bit outré, but it's a very real thing: Your subconscious isn't engaged. And you rely very heavily on your subconscious when you're writing a proper novel. But it's got nothing to do in life writing.
There's no arranging of a life. ... Life is inartistic." A chat with Marty Amis is a rangey thing.
For all his allegedly dwindling faculties, Amis is also pressing on to his next project still. It may be the real reason he moved to the United States, to gain firsthand knowledge of why he hates what he hates about America.
"It's the bigger question of letting money into areas where it shouldn't be," he says, "For-profit health care, for-profit prisons, forprofit schools. Money has no business there. And again the next inference is that it's not just a plutocratic society - it's always been that - but it's an intensely materialist society. And there's a sort of heartlessness that goes with that, a mercilessness."
That materialist instinct - and remember that Amis fils, born 1949, was raised by Amis père, who was a card-carrying communist until 1956 - has reached a new nadir, Amis feels, in Donald Trump. "Trump has shaken my faith in the American people," his admits, after politely ordering a spicy midday tomato juice.
"When Brexit happened, people said, 'Well, we won't be able to sneer at America any more, because we're just as stupid as they are.' But the big difference between Brexit and Trump is that Brexit was an unknown quantity.
If they'd known that it had orange skin and yellow hair and couldn't complete a six-word sentence, I think they'd have had their doubts. But when Trump was elected, we'd seen nothing else but Trump for well over a year, 18 months. And instead of wanting less Trump, they wanted more Trump."
Trump himself is just a symptom, a recrudescence (a favourite Amis word) of America's most unconscious and pathological sin - its racism. Race is the subject of Amis's next novel, which he is now starting. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, Amis notes, was formed the same week Barack Obama was elected.
"It's all about race," Amis says of the Republican agenda. "The guy looking out of the trailer he lives in, as he had another opioid and another gulp of gin, could say to himself, 'I may not be much, but I'm better than any black man.' But then they saw Obama, and thought, ahem, well, maybe not better than this particular black guy and two-term president. I think that really shook, say, one in three Americans, which is about the level of Trump's strongly approved numbers."
That unexamined racist impulse continues to paralyze American politics - though Amis believes black Americans are closer to getting over the history of slavery than whites are. "I've got a sort of shape in mind," Amis says of the new novel. "And I'm very much looking forward to at least a year of reading. What you do - and I did this for the gulag novel, as well as the two Holocaust novels - you read a hell of a lot of history and memoirs." Then he gathers up the details and stories that stick in his mind. "And then the novel becomes a way of covering those bases that really struck you."
He's currently reading about slave-catchers, white farmers and ranchers who took it upon themselves to retrieve escaped slaves.
"There was a fuss in Alabama where they brought in these three runaways and one of them was returned to his owner beaten so badly he couldn't work and needed time to recuperate. The slave owner felt very strongly about that. So what did he do? When he was on slavecatching duty and they caught a slave belonging to the guy who'd beaten up his slave, he beat him up even worse. You see that all the time, this sort of doubling down on cruelty. The victim can always say, 'I was a victim.' What does the perpetrator say, in his moments of moral clarity? He'd obviously have to block those moments of moral clarity. And that goes right to the heart of America. 'Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal'? Don't make me laugh." Cultures built on vast and constellated lies - capitalism, cosmopolitanism, copulation, cretinism - have inspired most of Amis's masterpieces.
Amis has always been subject to derision, for his precocious career and his literary lineage as much as for his ambitions and success and his shrivelling impatience with the non-serious. (This is the man, remember, who once said, "If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book.") That jeering and the critical view that Amis had lost his talent, came to a head ("It was rough," Amis admits) after 2003's Yellow Dog, which writer Tibor Fischer likened to "your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating." (It nonetheless made the long list for the Man Booker Prize.)
But the sharpest residue left on the pages of Amis's essays is his profound concern for the world he lives in: It would be touching if his prose weren't so fierce. Psychologist Steven Pinker claims in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that the novel and the women's movement have been two of history's most important socializing influences.
"Since violence is the thing that I think is the curse of human-kind," Amis says, "the idea that I'm doing my infinitesimal bit to weaken that force is thrilling to me. What the novel taught was empathy. People read Clarissa, the unreadable five-volume novel by Richardson in the middle of the 18th century, and they're suddenly thinking like Clarissa. So that very good Christian motto, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' is very much reinforced once you start making an imaginative effort to be someone else. Which is what the novel traditionally did."
Alas, that doesn't make them any easier to write as time rubs by.
Amis's last novel, 2014's The Zone of Interest, set in Auschwitz, "wrote itself," and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. "Genius isn't so rare," Amis says thoughtfully, rolling another cigarette. "What's rare is having a lot of genius. Every writer's got a bit of genius. And some writers - a very good genre writer will have probably only a smattering of genius but a great deal of talent, organizational talent. Talent is technique ... your technique gets better, I think. But your genius definitely" - and here, again, he pauses. He doesn't want to say the actual words. Maybe he doesn't want to bring the darkening on. He tries again. "It has to do with musicality. It's to do with perception. Energy of the perception. You can't make it new in the way you used to be able to. It's your originality that weakens.
Because the world doesn't strike you as so strange any more."
"Do you think there's any way around that?" I ask, nervously.
"Um," he says. "I shouldn't think so." Laughs. "I don't see how you can do a correctional course on life."
So then what? "Will you be like Philip Roth, and just stop?" "It's a very honourable way to do it, I think, just to stop. Rather than flailing on. Your stuff gets diluted." The question he wants to ask Roth is, what does he do all day, now that he's not writing?
Roth says he reads history, which is how Kingsley Amis planned to live out his après-talent years - and Kingsley the elder won the Booker Prize at the age of 64 for The Old Devils. At 72, he wrote The Folks that Live on the Hill, which his son deems "not at all bad."
"They talk about late style," Amis admits. "I talked to a critic, a family friend, about what is 'late style.' She'd been looking into it vis-à-vis Isherwood. And she said, 'Well, it's just more words per sentence. And not getting to the point quite as quickly.' And I feel that a bit, encroaching on me. You have many more false starts to a sentence than you used to. And you get entangled in a subclause, you get into it, and you think, now I've got to get out of it! And was it worth it?" So let's leave it there, while we're ahead. "But," I say, a last lob, "you won't be stopping at least for five years." I meant it as a question.
"Yeah," Amis says, smiling ever so lightly. "I'll probably last that long."
Writer Martin Amis, seen here at the Le Germain Hotel in Toronto last month, has a new book, The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017, that tracks the rise of literary fiction and the decline of the Republican Party.
PHOTOS BY FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Amis is working on a book about race and racism in the United States.