What’s the most ludicrous, laugh-out-loud title you could find on the spine of a book? Forty years ago now there was a competition and a popular winner was declared: “Martin Amis: My Struggle.”
Mart, so it seemed, never had to struggle for anything. Not acclaim, not fat advances, not willowy women. He had the looks (Jaggeresque, without the jittery maracas), the famous dad, the famous mates. A typical day seemed to be a chapter or two of dazzling fiction, tennis with poets, preprandial research for the next bestseller in a hell-raiser’s pub with a bloke called Keith, then a quick change into the “velves” – velvet jacket – to be fêted once again as the novelist of his generation.
But look at him now: Amis does struggle. Originally he’d “pretentiously” called this book Life, but round about the 100,000-word mark he declared it extinct. Not just that: “I thought I was finished. I really did.”
This wasn’t a new feeling. I interviewed Amis when he embarked on the project, having completed The Pregnant Widow, where he thought he was witnessing “the death of one’s talent”. But here, finally, is Life in resuscitated form, with an equally pretentious subheading (“How to Write”), a 560-page whopper, his heaviest book.
Do I want to do this? The opening words – “Welcome! Do step in…” – unnerve. He introduces his cat, Spats. Do I want the one-time enfant terrible of the BritLit scene to be this chummy and chatty? Soon, in the margins, I’m scribbling “His worst-ever book?” But later this changes to “best-ever?”
He calls Inside Story a novel so why is there an index? Ah, it’s auto-fiction, the sort of thing that would get old man Kingsley truly riled. It’s a sequel of sorts to Experience, which was an official memoir and officially his finest work. It’s a Mart megamix: favourite Big Themes (the Holocaust, 9/11, the Iraq War); more on the key literary associations/obsessions (Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, Christopher Hitchens), and a return to “The Sock” for more ribald tales, this being Amisese for the bachelor pad from where our man used to rip up London (before marriage, divorce, re-marriage, Uruguay, Brooklyn).
“You already know absolutely everything about me,” he writes. Autobiographical novels require the author to be like another of his heroes, Vladimir Nabokov: “A very rare case, a writer to whom things actually happened.” What happens to Amis during the course of Inside Story? How about learning that his old man – the Old Devil – may not actually be his old man? It might be the crafter of the lines: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad.”
He’s never liked being called Martin – “a crap name” – so how does he feel about Martin Larkin? The revelation comes in a letter from Phoebe Phelps who Amis has constructed, Dr Frankenstein-like, from a number of old flames. Here are just some of her index listings: “Affair with schoolmaster… as escort girl… Father Gabriel… her lavatorial habits… tempts Amis… loses money and moves in with Amis… the night of shame.” Oh, and Kingsley seems to have once tried it on with her.
Amis dismisses Phoebe’s shock theory later but she’s a hoot to have around and their moments together – one minute there’s a “sexual terror famine”, the next she’s dragging him to a party for a soft-porn mag – recall his early hits The Rachel Papers and Success and the funniest of his writing.
Argue among yourselves about whether Amis should still be writing about “chicks” at 71, but in that interview he predicted much “thrashing around” later concerning women, both encountered and missed.
The absolute best of this book concerns not sex but death. One minute Amis and Hitchens are partying – “Hello boys” is the greeting from the “darkly imposing beauty” – and the next Mart (or as Hitch calls him, Little Keith) is at the hospital bedside as his great friend battles cancer. Amis has battled through Inside Story to declare it will probably be his “last long novel” but I hope not.
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