Friday, September 15, 2006

An interview with Martin Amis

There is a long interview with Martin Amis in the (London) Times. I'm not sure how intelligible it will be for the reader who does not know most of his biography, much of the gossip around him, and at least some of his books.

I'm reminded of what his father Kingsley said (somewhere, I can't remember where) about young Martin, now age 57: it's all very well for a young man like Martin to have these liberal ideas--in fact it's a good thing--but it would be very stupid for him to not trade them for more conservative notions as an older man. (That's not even a paraphrase, but I'm reasonably certain that I remember the sense of Kingsley's observation accurately.)

Martin Amis certainly no longer sounds like the young man who burst on the scene in 1973 with The Rachel Papers, his very engaging debut novel. The interviewer (Ginny Dougary) suggests to him:

as with most serious novelists near the top of their game, surely for him what really matters, in the final reckoning, is the work? But while this may once have been true, Amis says it is no longer the case.

“I’ll tell you why. It has become clearer and clearer to me that when you get into the last lap of your life, you don’t really think about your work at all. What you think about is (a) how it went with the women in your life and (b) your children, and work comes very much third. There’s even a hint of it in there [pointing to his new book, House of Meetings] when the main character says that men always die in torment because they’re not congratulating themselves on their achievements in the world; they’re reproaching themselves for the bad things they did.”

Perhaps Amis is over-identifying with Saul Bellow, one of his two main literary inspirations (Nabokov is the other), with these autumnal sentiments.

“You would think Saul would be in a stupor of self-satisfaction because his work was so celebrated. He didn’t say it till quite close to the end when a friend came in, who was almost the same age, and asked, ‘Well, what have you got to say for yourself, Bellow?’ And Saul, from his hospitalic bed in his own house, said, ‘I’ve been thinking. Now which is it? Is it: there goes a man or there goes a jerk?’ And his friend, Karl, said, ‘There goes a man.’ And Saul said, ‘OK. I’ll take your word for it.’

“So that’s what you’re thinking. He had five marriages – and four children – and the last was his longest and his best. But there had been a lot of wounds and blows given and received in four divorces. It’s there [he refers again to the book; its story takes the form of a letter as a manuscript from the Russian narrator to his Am­eri­can stepdaughter], when he says to Venus that there’s a difference between men and women in the last round. Men break the habit of a lifetime and start blaming themselves; women break the habit of a lifetime and stop blaming themselves. Good news for women.”

The absence of a hopefulness about how he and others will look back on his writing is mirrored in at least one aspect of his thinking about dealing with terrorists.

“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?”
There is a lot more in the interview about Amis' coming work, his thinking about the Booker prize, his daughters' Jewishness, etc. Click here to read it.

--Marshal Zeringue