About 20 years ago, Martin Amis — the writer with the most pronounced daddy issues this side of Sylvia Plath — received a letter from an especially harrowing ex-girlfriend.
Wrong Daddy, she said. Amis’s father, she claimed, was not the novelist Kingsley Amis but Kingsley’s best friend, the poet Philip Larkin — a man so timid with women he once joked, “Sex is too good to share with anyone else.”
She told Amis that she’d gotten this scoop while sleeping with Kingsley. I suppose I should mention here that the news arrived on Sept. 11, 2001.
From this mystery sprouts the tangled narrative of “Inside Story,” Amis’s new book. At 523 pages, it is one of his longest novels. He tells us it is likely to be his last.
The book is a “novelized autobiography” — an unstable and charismatic compound of fact and fiction. Amis revisits stories he told in his memoir “Experience.” Some other passages have been grafted from his essays and speeches. He reproduces a New Yorker article in its entirety.
The mystery itself is a bit of tease. The ex — whom he calls Phoebe Phelps, and describes as an amalgam of women he’s known — is flagrantly untrustworthy. Still, the confusion about his parentage serves its purpose — a juicy lure — as the true, more somber story slides into view, of the deaths of three writers beloved to Amis: a poet (Larkin), a novelist (Saul Bellow) and an essayist (Christopher Hitchens).
For 20 years Amis tried to write this book. He completed one version, declared it lifeless, despaired. In “Inside Story,” he describes staring at the sea, hysterically scanning himself for a throb of inspiration. For any writer, it would be a terrifying prospect. For this writer, it was a special torture. It was a moment he had been anticipating.
Lucian Freud once said that any remarks he might make about his paintings were as relevant to those paintings as the sound a tennis player might involuntarily produce when making a shot. This has been the Amis view. Scrutinize the prose, not the life, he scolds. And yet the hallmark of his own literary criticism is his interest in the pressures that life and art exert on each other, the mark that addiction and alimony payments leave on one’s sentences — judgments he makes with the serene confidence of the child of a writer.
In his most recent essay collection, “The Rub of Time,” Amis devotes himself to that singularly dubious “contribution of medical science,” the aging writer. Writers now outlive their talent, he says. They decline in full view of the public. “It’s self-evident that the grasp and the gift erodes,” he has explained. “I don’t see many exceptions to that rule.”
What does time snatch from writers, according to Amis? It robbed Nabokov of his “moral delicacy” (his last novels are “infested,” Amis argues, with 12-year-old girls). It diminished Updike’s ear — and stole speech itself from Kingsley, from the novelist Iris Murdoch, from Amis’s hero Bellow, who died of Alzheimer’s.
Amis’s anxieties are implicit: What will time take from me? Has it taken anything from me already? How will I know?
His reputation is already in a curious position. Cue the montage reel. Amis’s childhood home was warm, chaotic, lavishly permissive. It would have been unremarked upon, he once said, if he had lit up a cigarette under the Christmas tree at the age of 5.
After university, his rise was swift, and deeply alarming to a rivalrous father. He published his first book — “The Rachel Papers” — at 24, and took a position as literary editor at The New Statesman, where his inner circle included Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Ian Hamilton, Julian Barnes.
Their little group stoked paranoia in all the predictable quarters. Norman Mailer, sane as ever, announced that literary England was in the grips of a gay cabal led by Amis, Hitchens and Hamilton. Hitchens later accosted Mailer at a party. “I think that’s very unfair,” he said, “to Ian Hamilton.”
I write under the sign of Amis. You can no more pick your early, decisive influences than your dominant hand. Amis described encountering Bellow’s work with a shock of recognition: He is writing for me alone. So it is. Amis’s saw-toothed sentences seized me by the scruff and carried me off for good. The insolence of the novels, the high silliness, the shame, the jokes: “After a while, marriage is a sibling relationship — marked by occasional, and rather regrettable, episodes of incest.”
Why doesn’t everyone write like this? I thought. Doesn’t it occur to them to be this rude, this funny?
Amis feels a bit like a beloved vice these days. You read him through your fingers. As a critic, he remains strong and original. His memoir is a model of the form. The unofficial trilogy of novels — “London Fields,” “Money” and “The Information” — will last. But there are his horrific statements about Muslims following 9/11. There are his dull attempts to write about historical tragedy (“Koba the Dread,” “House of Meetings”). There are the women in his novels, always a bit caricatured but now frequently so silly, so extreme (in their physical proportions alone) that even Robert Crumb might counsel a little restraint.
“Inside Story” draws on all of the above. There is a ludicrous femme fatale (Phoebe Phelps), the intimate portraits of the past, much gassing on about geopolitics. Long sections of writing advice break up the narrative. The structure doesn’t mimic memory so much as the marathon conversations between Amis and Hitchens, some replicated here, that roved between history, gossip, craft, shoptalk.
Don’t be baffling, don’t be indigestible, he warns the young writer. Exercise moderation when writing about dreams, sex and religion. Be a good host to your readers.
It’s sound advice. Why doesn’t he take it?
“Inside History” is rife with dreams, sex fantasies and maundering meditations on Jewishness, a longstanding obsession. The book feels built to baffle. It is an orgy of inconsistencies and inexplicable technical choices. Why are some characters referred to by their real names (Amis’s friends, for example) and others given pseudonyms (his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, is referred to by her middle name, Elena)? What is the logic behind the sudden shifts into the “loincloth” of the third person? Why does a writer who, on one page, excoriates Joseph Conrad for cliché, for the sin of “in the twinkling of an eye,” so blandly deploy “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” — and worse? What … is … the point … of the … insane … amount … of ellipses?
Most maddening of all, “Inside Story” also includes some of Amis’s best writing to date.
The sections on Bellow and Larkin, about whom he’s written exhaustively, are warm and familiar. There are scenes of the disorientation of their last days, of Bellow compulsively watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He’s a very brave boy, he’d say of Jack Sparrow, with genuine emotion.
It’s on Hitchens that Amis moves into a fresh register. A writer so praised for his style (but also derided for being all style), Amis accesses a depth of feeling and a plainness of language entirely new to his work. He marvels at his friend’s ability to face death with courage. He puzzles over what he still doesn’t understand — chiefly Hitchens’s support of the Iraq War, which he claims Hitchens deeply regretted.
In one scene, Amis assists Hitchens as he takes a swim. “Do you mind?” Hitchens asked, now ailing. Swimming alongside him, Amis was seized by the memory of helping his son learn to walk in proper shoes. “No,” he responded. “I love it.”
Nothing in Amis prepared me for such scenes, for their quiet, their simplicity. Martin Amis, like Phoebe Phelps, has retained the power to surprise. An unexpected boon of aging? He’ll never admit it. But we might say of him, as he says of Phoebe: “She’s like a character in a novel where you want to skip ahead and see how they turned out. Anyway. I can’t give up now.”
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