My Favorite Martin
Martin Amis is dabbing at the right side of his face with a tissue. I'm sitting down to breakfast with the author -- who's in town for a talk at Washington University -- at the Daniele Hotel in Clayton. He's cut himself shaving. I tell Amis that I had a similar encounter with a tissue an hour or so earlier, Same side, a little lower. A neat, linear nick. We agree that electric razors just don't cut it."You just don't feel... clean, do you?" Amis quips.Frankly, I'm nervous sitting with Amis. Amis is my favorite living writer. His novels are (for the most part) big, bustling, kinetic works that burst at the seams with savvy and intellect. (See "On the Money.") His journalism is pungent, by turns wounding and consoling. Sharing some mutual feelings about shaving does put me more at ease.In retrospect, however, I should have been more relaxed. Amis' books -- while dark, and cutting -- aren't exactly off-putting. They require attention, yes, but not study. They reward second and third readings with ready pleasure, and not the satisfaction of a puzzle solved. They range from clear-headed, inventive works on the Holocaust (Time's Arrow) to more dense and savagely moral gusts (Money, The Information).In fact, if anyone should be tense, it's Amis. He became a dad for the third time just three months ago, capping off a bizarre two years in which he became England's favorite literary punching bag. Gossip about Amis' changing of literary agents, his large advance on his new work, his marriage, and even his teeth has overshadowed his work of late. When the New Yorker and Vanity Fair take to reviewing your life instead of your work, you're pretty darn famous for a writer -- in this culture, at least.But Amis strikes me as fairly relaxed. Nothing to shill for, no new book to sell. His talk at Washington University is about Robert Bly, Phillip Larkin, and the scourge of political correctness. (The publication of a Larkin biography and the poet's correspondence caused a literary firestorm in England, because of scattered, yet highly charged racial and sexual comments contained in them.)Amis tells me that Bly's daughter is on the Washington University faculty, and that they had him fax over his talk. "I'm afraid it is rather wounding and personal," Amis says. "I think he's a rather preposterous figure."Amis' lecture is strong stuff, sketching out Bly's landscape in his bestseller Iron John as "an Arcadia splattered with mud and blood."Starting our interview, Amis interrogated me about what he dubbed "Iron Johnism":RFT: I think there's a general sensitizing -- and sensitivity -- of the male, but I don't think it has much to do with Bly. I think it has more to do with other influences, like television and changes in the legal system. Once sitcoms start mocking it, it tends to act as an inoculation. Martin Amis: Yes, there's always a book called something like, "Backlash," at the top of the bestseller list. It's always swinging one way or the other. It's as if men and women take turns being at the forefront of the consciousness. The other one starts to feel neglected.So how, in your talk, do you pull Larkin in with Bly?It's mainly about Larkin, actually. It's about what happens when poetry interacts with the general culture. One is a case where poetry, or a poet, is going out into society, or being taken up by society. In Larkin's case, it's where society comes and gets the poet.The second case is much more serious, I think. In the Bly case, poetry finds some extra readers, who do God knows what with it. But that has to be some kind of plus. In the Larkin case, though, it's about the diminution of a poet, and the destruction of his reputation after death. I think it miserable and ungenerous in spirit.The T.S. Eliot business (a debate about anti-Semitism in Eliot's work) has resurfaced in England because Princess Diana's divorce lawyer wrote a book about Eliot and anti-Semitism, and that got it all going again. But people have been dealing with Eliot and anti-Semitism for thirty years, even longer. I didn't contribute to the debate, but I felt very strongly that the spectacle of critics, reviewers, minor poets getting to call Eliot a "scoundrel" and a "brute" -- I find it inimical.And that's what the lecture turns into; a defense of the dead. Even, you know, when they are racist and sexist and all that. You've got to see that the self is different in that age. It's pure lack of imagination to judge the past by the standards of the present. It's boring. It's stupid.In Bly's case, too, there's a certain self-promoting genius. Larkin had to be literally pulled out of Hull.That makes it the more brutal, really. Bly is taking his chances with the general culture. But Larkin would have been absolutely horrified.Much of the controversy had to do with the Selected Letters, which, in theory, and maybe even in fact, Larkin tried to block. He tried to have all his papers destroyed. But the letters, of course, were in the possession of the recipients. There was nothing he could do about that.I'm going through this myself with my father's letters (novelist Kingsley Amis), which are being edited at the moment. I once said to my father, "You're in this Larkin thing. I bet your letters are just as bad, or worse. What are you going to do about that?" And he said, "I don't have to do anything about that. I'll be dead. You're going to have to deal with it."People in this country talk about how the line between news and entertainment has been blurred beyond distinction. Has the same thing happened to criticism and scholarship as well?Well, it's got to have some biographical slot. That's the thing. People are now much more interested in writers than in writing. Because writers have joined the personality fodder, the features page.I end the lecture by quoting Milan Kundera, who put it very well, I think, when he said that we live, we progress, in the fog. We're like people in fog. We grope forward, we try to get things straight, but we can see perhaps fifty yards ahead of us, and no more. But when we turn and look at the figures of the past, we see them clearly. We don't see the fog that they were groping through.I think that's exactly right. In this multicultural world, that has become so judging, you've got to actually embrace the figures of the past, as if they were refugees, and welcome the dead. The dimension they come from is one of time. They look funny, frightening, distorted. And that's why. One should have the generosity to accept them, with their faults.In its original form, political correctness is a nice idea. It's the idea that no one should feel ashamed of what they are. What they do and say, yes, but not what they are. I agree with all of that. But this sort of Utopia, where people are being purged of their atavisms, and no longer having any kind of racial feeling or sexual discrimination in their mind, is something that's way down the line. You just can't snap your fingers and be it. So it's an illusion. And the only way you keep an illusion going is with an ideology. A lot of police work.How much interest do you take in American politics?When I'm over here in the summer, especially if it's an election year, then I do get very absorbed. The thing is, I'm not the slightest bit interested in English politics. There is no politics in England. Which may be a good thing. All the big battles have come and gone. You look at the run up to the election in England, it makes you weep to see what the issues are. Taxation, maybe. There's no sort of vinegar in it.So I do follow American politics. It's in a quiet phase at the moment.London Fields was concretely about the millenium. It was the backdrop. When you hear Bill Clinton talk about "the bridge to the 21st Century," how does that compare to how it's played out in your mind. After all, you wrote about the millenium fairly early on.Yes, in 89. Obviously, the collapse of the Soviet Union changed everything. That changed a great deal.That novel was set at a time of great anxiety about the continuation of the planet. The novelty with this millenium is that the hardware was in place to bring about the end of the world for the first time in history. All the hysterics and flatulence in 1499 or 999 was just whistling Dixie, really. It couldn't come about.But, really, that book was about the anxieties of the 80s. The Reagan buildup just intensified various other millenial themes -- plague, catastrophe, and fundamentalism.That's what's strikes me as different about this country now, as opposed to the Reagan years, when you had a Secretary of the Interior saying, well, let's cut down all the trees, because we'll be bodily assumed any day now. That's not the public rhetoric anymore. It's the earthly kingdom being built now.Yes, and dispensationalism, where the idea was that we might as well use up the world, because it's going to come to an end anyway.All those Swaggerts and Falwells, they're a part of the Reagan pantheon that just collapsed.Are you working on another novel now?I've written another novel. It hasn't come out yet. It's short. It's a sort of noir thriller really. It's related by a middle-aged female homicide detective. It's a noir, but with a kind of theme that's more interesting, more involved -- a satire against mankind. Seeing the whole human venture, as it were, from outside. Wondering why it ended up like this. There's no reason why it had to end up like this. There are all kind of other possible presents that we could have brought about. It's not a sort of sneering intellectual position. It's something I feel more all the time -- Why this? Why that?I've noticed that you've alternated between longer, London-based works (Money, London Fields, and The Information), and shorter tales (Einstein's Monsters, Time's Arrow). It seems like when you have a very strong moral point to make, you slim down.Well, having written a long novel, you don't want to write a long novel. You're so wrung out. But it's just the way it happens. I'm sure you know, it's not about decisions. It's a question of just writing the next thing that's there for you to write.Both Time's Arrow and this new one, which is called Night Train, both of them started in my head as short stories. I thought, ah, this is a short story, and then it just grew. And then I think, oh, this a novella, then. And it turns out that they're both short novels.But I couldn't write a long novel about the Holocaust. I could only go at it in this weird way. But you're right, in that I think my next novel will be another longish, London novel.I've moved now. To Regent's Park, which is, on the face of it, tremendously bourgeois. But just around the corner, you have Camden Town, which is a zoo. It's full of people with their doorkeys through one eye and their car keys through the other. How did my son put it? "A plow through their nose and an anchor through their chin." All those scarification guys. I'm going to go down there with my notebook a lot.I haven't been to Camden Market for about seven years. I'm sure it's changed tremendously.It's a big market. It rivals Portobello now. As my father put it in his last novel, it's full of people who are the winners and runners-up in the Pan-European Hideousness Contest. I mean, they really are. When you look, well, the "look like shit" look, the "in your face look like shit" look.I once said to my father, "Punk, what does it mean?" He said, "What does it mean? It doesn't mean anything. What does this match box design mean?"But, of course, it does mean something. In the case of the punks, it's vandalizing yourself. I'm sure it has its origins in nuclear anxiety. This is what we're all going to look like if you do that.But with this new, functional, in your face look, like punk, it's a way of obliterating the distinctions of looks, and beauty, so that everyone is thrust toward physical qualities.What I love about your longer novels is the way that you jump to this country from London. Have you ever been tempted to write a novel about America, your own Martin Chuzzlewit? Do you need that London base in your novels?It is my town. It's the one I understand. I've lived there for 30 years. Skanky though it is, it is my town. I can imagine, later, writing a Chuzzlewit. I like the idea of writing imitation American novels, long novels, about sordid goings on in a little patch of London. I like that disparity.I'm sure this new novel will have an American connection. Part of me feels that I've done that, the state of England kind of novels.