Interview: Martin Amis, writer
ENTERING Martin Amis's house, I disappoint the first woman I meet. This is his housekeeper, who is foreign, and in our strangulated intercom conversation she'd hoped I was the plumber, come to repair the central heating.
It will be of absolutely no consolation to her that, recalling the writer of his generation at his best, I could probably offer up the kind of name – Norvis, Dean, Thelonius, Curtly, Truth, Shakespeare or F***er – that Amis might bestow on a 24-hour emergency boilerman sharking though this corner of north London on a bitterly cold night.
I have no intention of disappointing the second woman I meet, so when Isabel Fonseca, Amis's wife, shows me in to the drawing-room, stokes the fire and takes my order for a refreshment, I do not ask her what it feels like to be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. And nor do I look around for evidence of the "long lacquered table", upon which, in Fonseca's purple prose, the hero places his lover carefully, "like a large terracotta urn".
Finally Amis appears, waistcoated, specs on a string, bottle of white wine in one hand, two tumblers in the other. Three minutes in, he will mention the Bad Sex shortlisting unprompted. A minute later, he will raise the spectre of his critics, including "fat-arsed Tibor Fischer".
Twenty-three minutes: the c-word. Twenty-eight: the C-word ("David Cameron just doesn't look like a prime minister. He's epicene, and slightly bloated with inherited money"). Fifty-nine: fetches another bottle. At the 76-minute mark, he will declare that women were wrong to reach for the moon in the sex war; that a beachhead of a "50-50 split" on domestic and family chores would ultimately have gained them more.
And by the conversation's end (lots of clinking and chortling on my tape by this point; Amis's louche drawl assuming a pronounced Leslie Phillips aspect) he's advising me on late fatherhood, how to pull it off. "What I am is an emeritus father," he says (quick reminder of the meaning of emeritus: retired, but retaining honorary title). "Your wife is how old? Fan-tas-tic! Aim for that."
Now I know what you're thinking: famous writer is indulged by deranged fan, they get drunk in Primrose Hill, talking about books but mostly sex, objectivity flies past the yards of books, the heavy oils, the pinball machine and out the handsome window – critical rigour never has a hope in hell. But it wasn't really like that. At least not as far as I can remember…
I don't hang on his every word. I haven't loved all his looks – some I bought and barely opened. But I loved his first, The Rachel Papers, published when he was just 24, and I love his latest, The Pregnant Widow, the work of a 60-year-old man.
Mart has now entered his seventh decade. That's quite something. Kingsley Amis's laddie is a grandfather. Not that long ago, men's magazine editors were still wading through Amisese, with one calculating that 80 per cent of the hacks on his books wanted to be him.
But when I devoured The Rachel Papers on the bus journey to the Dalkeith Advertiser, wondering how I could sneak Martisms into my Rotary Club reports, I never expected to one day be offered paternalistic wisdom by its author. As someone says in The Pregnant Widow, by far his most autobiographical novel, "Never trust anyone over 25."
So, let's start with the age thing. Just how bad was turning 60? "Pretty bad," he says with a mild gasp. "There's something about 60 that can't be laughed off, and the new element is dread.
I don't usually get these calendrical feelings but… 50 was no sweat; 60, though, has a sort of frazzled sound to it. You're suddenly looking at the last lap and you're thinking, 'This is not going to end well.'"
When his new hero, Keith Nearing, is told, "Daddy, when you laugh you look like a mad old tramp," that's one of Amis's daughters, talking to him. Later Keith says, "My body whispers that death is already intrigued by me."
At least Amis has not had to bear the weight of the years alone. He says, "Hitch (the author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens, his great friend] turned 60 around the same time.
He has been writing his memoirs – Hitch 22, a great title, don't you think? But he was very blue about 60 and took up smoking again. I've never stopped, though I roll my own and use three filters now; there's just a sprig of tobacco at the end."
Amis looks well; indeed to me he has always looked much worse. The first time we met, for the 2000 publication of his own memoirs, Experience, he was dreadfully hungover.
The second time, for the film version of Dead Babies, was just a week after the death of his sister Sally, and this was such a no-filter period in his life that my editor had difficulty finding a politically correct photograph, sans nicotine fug. The third time, he was cultivating a Kingsleyesque paunch.
The fourth, he managed a stout defence against the worst reviews of his career (for Yellow Dog) but there was no doubt that he was hurt by barbs that were almost Amisesque in their casual venom: the threat of being spotted reading the old dog was, it was said, akin to "your favourite uncle being caught in the school playground, masturbating".
"All that going off," he says, reflecting on 2003's critical kicking, "it was a journalistic thing, it was the line." There was "a flurry of gleeful Philistinism" and – after the intervention of the generously bottomed Fischer – a feeling that "you could say anything you liked; suddenly it was on".
To be honest, "fat arse" is a bit lame, coming from such an original writer whose masterpiece is Money (filmed at last; it's on BBC this spring) and who has been involved in so many literary spats that have even ruined friendships. But the proper response was with the pen, which in House of Meetings still proved mighty, gaining him best-ever reviews. Now, what better way to prove you're not past it than to write so winningly about being 21?
House of Meetings was Gulag-set; The Pregnant Widow is Amis in more familiar surroundings: a very big house, a castle in Italy, gilded youth rubbing against guttersnipe, bikini tops no longer rubbing against flesh, girls behaving like boys, the f-word suddenly available to both sexes, "like a sticky toy".
Yes, something was very definitely "churning" between the sexes in the long hot summer of 1970, as Amis remembers well, for, like Keith Nearing, he too was an undergraduate holidaying in this "Eden", his head in the clouds (a long way off when you're "in that much-disputed territory between 5ft 6in and 5ft 7in") or lost in books or, increasingly, having it turned by girls.
"That was the first time I'd seen girls go topless, and it was done with just a shrug," he says. "And of course Italian men, a generation behind, were just hysterical, like a herd of wildebeest at the riverside when they get spooked. You kept on being astonished. You kept thinking, 'Where's the police?' There was a constant sense of mild transgression. Nice transgression, some trepidation, but very exciting and full of possibility."
So what did he really think of girls behaving like boys? "It seemed like a false lead. I just thought, 'No, you're girls.' It wasn't just nightly behaviour, it was an ideology for a bit – the equalitarian phase of feminism. I remember a terrible argument in a restaurant with (leftie columnist] Polly Toynbee.
She insisted there was no difference between men and women, and I wasn't having any of it. Richard Boston was there, from Private Eye, but he wouldn't support me. In fact, he said something balls-achingly terrible: 'I don't think of men and women, I only think of… people.'
"The novel is the place where you give yourself the lines the you didn't manage to say at the time, so in The Information there's a bit about spiders, the males being half-eaten by their mates during sex, then hobbling away while their missing legs are chewed like chicken drumsticks.
'I don't think of male spiders and female spiders, I only think of … (really simpering now] spiders.'"
Of course, Amis down the years has been accused of misogyny, but most of the jokes in The Pregnant Widow are at the expense of the men: Adriano, all 4ft 10ins of him, posh Timmy, with so much entitlement, and Keith, who is hopelessly smitten with Scheherazade: blonde, beautiful, madly grand, 6ft 6ins but "there was hardly enough room in her to put everything", wears skirts no broader than a watchstrap, drives all the way to Rome for a new monokini.
He lives for glimpses of the hot outline of her bottom on a just-vacated white towel.
Sex, then, remains Amis's great arena. "I wanted to write about the missed one, the one you remember with a groan, the one that never lets you go," he says. So who was his, the impossible beauty whose bathwater he almost wanted to drink? "Ha ha, well there were a few who did seem to exist in a different dimension, particularly if they were tall. Others would seem within my grasp, but then I'd lose my nerve. That summer I was with a girlfriend but it was a rich situation. Nothing happened."
Not then, perhaps, but shortly after his father had treated him to a night at the flicks marking his 21st birthday ("The Wild Bunch, and on the way home I smoked a joint in the back of the cab"), Amis seemed to get the lot. There was his own entitlement, of course, as son of Kingsley. He had the looks and the books.
He played tennis with poets, then refuelled in hell-pubs for all-important research – a Byronic existence. He got the money (swapping his agent for one with sharper teeth, then treating himself to new gnashers) and, if he hadn't attracted quite enough envy already, he always got the girls. "I do remember Julian Barnes telling me years ago, 'If you have literary success coupled with success with women they're never going to forgive you.' Everyone was behaving like that in the 1970s – I was average, really – but I suppose the difference for me was Kingsley.
"My chums were punished by their fathers for the sexual revolution. Three or four times a week they'd have these completely circular arguments with the generation who didn't have sex before marriage about the limitations to their freedom. Kingsley, on the other hand, was cheering me on, goading me on. When my brother Phil and I, you know, got going, he took us out to a celebratory lunch and gave us each a gross of condoms.
"The ease I had with my father made the likes of Hitch seethe, they were weak with jealousy. Only when I had brought a girl home after midnight and she'd blundered into his bedroom would Kingsley leave a note under my door: 'Your friend is very welcome to stay to breakfast but please be discreet for – the cleaning lady – Mrs Lucy.'"
Who got to stay beyond breakfast, right through to pre-prandial cocktails? Last year, in anticipation of turning 60, The Pregnant Widow and perhaps their wafting appearances in it, three ex-girlfriends remembered Amis from when he swanked about London in his trademark "velvs". Angela Gorgas did it with an exhibition of photographs, parading him at his most Jaggeresque.
Julie Kavanagh did it with a long article recalling the man she nicknamed "Little Shit" at his most charming but also mentioning the times when he was "nasty, facetious and belittling". Then Emma Soames read Kavanagh's piece, realised he must have been two-timing them both, and penned her own version, the Daily Mail gleefully assembling a headline requiring "Churchill's grand-daughter" "betrayed" and "scribbling dwarf". Amis squirms a bit. "The betrayals," he says, "the overlaps, I'm not proud of them. I was a bit of a shit.
"For me, it has been tremendously important to do all right with girls. I think for girls it's tremendously important to do all right with boys, and maybe therefore I should understand those who can be bitter because for them it didn't work out and their moment has passed – but I don't, not really. I guess none of us can be Philip Larkin, who managed to create this body of verse out of this feeling: 'It's not going to be me; I'm not the pretty one.'"
He laughs, remembering a Larkin poem about Kingsley. "Dad was having an affair with a woman whose husband covered rugby for a local newspaper. He sent Larkin the fixture-list for the forthcoming season: five away matches in a row, all circled. Then Larkin wrote Dad a letter: 'My girls have their world, where they age and put off men by being unattractive or religious or moral; among your girls, beauty is accepted slang for 'yes'.' But don't tell me he couldn't have got a pretty girl. Girls melt for poets, or they used to." Keith Nearing, indeed, reckons he could and should have been one.
The most serious overlap for Amis, of course, was his affair while still married to his beautiful, raven-haired first wife, Antonia Phillips, after which he married the beautiful, raven-haired Fonseca. Once again, Kingsley figures in his explanation of events, as his gaze fixes on the floor. "I really did say to myself, and often, that I would never get divorced. I'd seen it and been stunned by it.
After Kingsley left our mother, Phil and I were with her in Spain and every morning we'd sit outside waiting for the postman on his scooter. We were so mopey about not getting a letter from Dad that, aged 14 and 13, we were put on a plane back to London. It was 1am when he answered the door in his pyjamas and said, 'You know I'm not alone here.' Jane (Elizabeth Jane Howard] made us bacon and eggs, there was a long conversation and Phil called him a c***.
"Well, my boys (Louis and Jacob] didn't call me a c***. They were younger, six and seven, but just as stunned as I'd been. It was horrible, such a sense of utter defeat." More than once The Pregnant Widow refers to men on their deathbeds "needing to know how it had gone, all their life, with women and love". Amis fully expects, when the day comes, "much thrashing" on the subject. He says, "Saul Bellow (Amis's great literary hero] did this at the end. The Nobel Prize was no comfort; he was thinking about his five wives and the three sons he'd had with different women. I know I'll be the same.
"My relationship with all five of my children (two girls by Fonseca, Fernanda and Clio, plus Delilah, the daughter he never knew he had, from a youthful liaison] is very good. Kingsley left a woman he still loved in a lazy way, then Jane left him. I have my own regrets.
"My second marriage has not ended, and shows no sign of doing so. The strength of it justifies the nightmare of what happened with the first. I owe a great moral debt there. The first was good until it wasn't. You stay until you can't stay any longer, and then you go."
Scheherazade may be "the missed one" for Amis's tragicomic Keith, but for the author, the girl who got away while the sexual revolution played out was Sally, the younger sister he says was killed by it. In the book, Keith's sister Violet is described as the kind who "dates football teams". Everyday transactions inevitably lead to sex. "She's got the builders in" has a different meaning.
Amis says Sally, who suffered from alcoholism and depression and died aged 46, was all of this and worse. "The sexual revolution wasn't a bad thing, but it's a massive project to rethink an entire gender, and behaving like boys was girls' only model. Sally couldn't cope with the sexual liberation she'd been granted. She was pathologically promiscuous. You would've needed the Taleban to control her; a whipping van on every street corner.
"It all started to go wrong for her, I think, when she went to live with our mother in Michigan. She was only 13 but suddenly she was going to rock concerts with truckloads of Hell's Angels and taking heavy drugs. After that, she stopped developing. Phil and I tried to help and were always committing her to this and checking her out of that, but I've got guilt there too. As I say in the book, it's the deaths of others that kill you in the end."
The Pregnant Widow almost killed him. Only slightly less melodramatically, he feared during its struggles that he was witnessing "the death of one's talent". Who knows, maybe he used that Amisesque substitute for Viagra, His Voluminousness, to finish it. After being accused of Islamaphobia – claims he has rubbished – you sense his wicked pleasure in the line about Gloria Beautyman, from Edinburgh, no less, having a bottom "on an epic and terrifying scale, like the Chinese Revolution or the colonisation of the Americas or the rise of Islam".
Feminists will hate that, but the book is Amis almost back to his best. The next one, State of England, featuring a version of Jordan, is coming along nicely, and the one after that promises to be even more biographical, with sizeable walk-ons for Kingsley, Larkin and Bellow. It'll probably be called Life, though will feature a good deal of death.
Both bottles are empty; we're done. Amis says, "An old boy went in to see Saul before me. 'Well, Bellow, what have you go to say for yourself?' 'Gene – there goes a man or there goes a jerk?' The old boy, 'There goes a man.'" Then he quotes John Donne: "Were I a man that I were one/I needs must know."
Amis doesn't know what they'll say about him, but maybe it's as well that in his life he opted for scabrous satire rather than poetry, otherwise just imagine the havoc he could have caused. Kingsley's gross might have been nowhere near enough.
The Pregnant Widow (Jonathan Cape, 18.99)
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 07 February 2010
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