Martin Amis Image Bank / Getty Images
Amis: “All the justification, the poetical, imaginative legitimacy of Israel has to do with the Holocaust.” Photo by Image Bank / Getty Images
Text size

As he strides over to the bar at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, where he is staying during his visit here, he is impossible to miss. Although Martin Amis is 61 years old, one can't help but notice immediately the glint in the eye of the man whom many view as the "bad boy" of British literature. Most of Amis' books have not been translated into Hebrew, however, and the three that were ("Night Train," "Time's Arrow, or The Nature of the Offense" and "The Information" ) were unsuccessful. Maybe his wit, acerbity, humor and rich vocabulary got lost in translation.

Now Amis' 2006 novel "House of Meetings" is coming out in Hebrew (in a translation by Amir Zukerman, published by Ahuzat Bayit ). Perhaps it will succeed where the others have failed. Either way, Amis does not appear to be too concerned; he has received enough recognition and glory. Indeed, many critics consider Amis - who belongs to the generation of authors that emerged in England in the 1980s, and included Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes - to be one of the most influential and innovative writers of contemporary British literature. "People try to write like Martin. There's something very infectious and competitive about it," Barnes himself said of Amis.

For his part, Amis cites Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce and Saul Bellow as particular influences. In Bellow, he says, he saw a sort of spiritual teacher, plus the two were friends.

For the British, Amis is first and foremost the son of Sir Kingsley Amis. In 2008 the editors of The Times ranked the latter No. 9 among the 50 greatest British writers since 1945; Martin came in 19th. As the younger Amis notes, this was a rare occurrence; there had been cases of siblings, but never of a father and child. Kingsley Amis, who died in 1995, did not always take his son's prose in his stride, and pointed to a "terrible compulsive vividness in his style ... that constant demonstrating of his command of English."

The British press, which can be quite vicious, hounded Martin for years, and he gave it some good reasons for doing so. As a young writer, he was known as a womanizer. At one point he married Antonia Phillips, an American philosophy teacher, and the couple had two sons. The press had a field day when he divorced her, and married writer Isabel Fonseca, the mother of his two daughters. In 1996 he discovered that he had another daughter, Delilah, of whose existence he had been ignorant: She was the product of an affair he had in the mid-1970s.

After marrying Fonseca, Amis left his veteran agent - the wife of his close friend Julian Barnes - and switched to Andrew Wylie, who managed to get him a huge $800,000 advance on his book "The Information."

Amis has never been hesitant about revealing his opinions, even when they are not accepted by his circle or politically correct. He has variously raised the ire of Muslims, the left and feminists, and makes a point of saying that writing is freedom and that he is not trying to curry favor with anyone.

"They're silly about me and about Salman for some odd reason," he says of the way he and Rushdie are treated in the British press.

Amis' first book, "The Rachel Papers," was published in 1973, when he was 24. It won the Somerset Maugham Award and was also made into a movie in 1989. After graduating Oxford University, Amis worked for the Times Literary Supplement, and at 27 was appointed literary editor of the New Statesman. He has published 12 novels, several story collections, and assorted works of nonfiction that have been translated into 35 languages. He regularly publishes opinion pieces in leading British newspapers.

Comic, absurd, scandalous

Asked why he keeps coming back to Israel again and again, Amis demonstrates his gift for telling a comic and absurd story that also contains a whiff of scandal.

"My first love was a Jewish girl. It was in 1967, and she was a virgin," he quips.

What does that have to do with it?

Amis: "It's significant because we had just started to be lovers and the Six-Day War began, and she kept running off to give blood for Israel. Very symbolic. And that was the end of that."

Amis cites other reasons for his ongoing support of Israel. "There have been very significant Jews in my life. Christopher Hitchens, who did not know he was a Jew until 1989. And Saul Bellow. And my current wife is Jewish, and so my daughters are too, by Jewish law, and that matters to me. I'm pleased, I am proud. It makes me more inside history than I would be."

Indeed, Amis was here in the country on a private visit, with his wife and two daughters. Before our meeting he had already found the time to climb Masada, he notes. "I did it 25 years ago. It was a bit easier then, but I am rather pleased with my performance."

He has friends here, and talks about two of them: one very right wing and the other very much a leftist. The first thinks that the solution to every problem in the country is to build more settlements; and other wants to live in a "state of all its citizens."

"You can't understand Israel without understanding the Holocaust," he says, "and people don't understand the Holocaust, therefore they do not understand Israel. I mean all the justification, the poetical, imaginative legitimacy of Israel has to do with the Holocaust. And if you understand the Holocaust, you understand this had an extraordinary effect on all Jews and particularly Israeli Jews. Saul Bellow told me privately, 'Without Israel, Jewish manhood would be finished.'

"I live in a mildly anti-Semitic country, and Europe is mildly anti-Semitic, and they hold Israel to a higher moral standard than its neighbors. If you bring up Israel in a public meeting in England, the whole atmosphere changes. The standard left-wing person never feels more comfortable than when attacking Israel. Because they are the only foreigners you can attack. Everyone else is protected by having dark skin, or colonial history, or something. But you can attack Israel. And the atmosphere becomes very unpleasant. It is traditional, snobbish, British anti-Semitism combined with present-day circumstances."

Nonetheless, Amis acknowledges that it is increasingly difficult to defend Israel. "Someone once used a metaphor," he explains. "Imagine Europe as a burning building for the Jews and you jump to Israel. But if you land on someone you have to answer for that, you can't say you didn't land on anyone and you can't go on landing on him."

He brings up the incident of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza in May. "When it happened, I got the same feeling as I got when writing about Russia and the theater siege in Moscow, when they gassed half the audience just to get the terrorist. In the flotilla, I thought: That's Russian, that's heavy handling, it's the big fist, so indelicate, so impolitic. I think Israel probably is becoming a more Russian kind of society. The other thing is, in an intractable situation it is the stronger party that must give ground.

"I imagine that the future will be one of deterioration: Hezbollah and Hamas will have bigger rockets, and there will have to be something like the war with Lebanon in 2006 where Israel overreacts. Tzipi Livni said, 'We're going to be crazy for a while.' She said that. It's the madman theory. I remember Nixon had the madman theory - that he wanted the world to believe he was mad and if there was any disagreement, he would drop a nuclear weapon on you. 'I call it the madman theory, Bob,' he said to Bob Haldeman. And Israel is developing a slight madman look."

In "House of Meetings," Amis focuses on Russian society after World War II. The Stalinist purges, the Soviet system, the gulags and the ideology that warped an entire society are the backdrop here for a love triangle between two brothers sent to a gulag, and a young Jewish woman from Moscow.

"The conscience, I suspect, is a vital organ. And when it goes, you go," Amis writes in the novel. This is not a typical novel for him, he observes. "My novels are [usually] more satirical and comic and social, this is more historical." Furthermore, politics did not always interest him.

"I am a dilettante in politics. I never fought any battles, I never suffered for my cause. I've only taken an interest in politics in the last 10, 12 years. It was all literature before that, not politics, and suddenly I got passionately interested in history and politics. But my No. 1 rule is that writing is freedom - fiction certainly is unlimited freedom - and I carry it over when writing about politics. I'm not going to have my freedom diminished by caution and 'what will people think.' No. I just say what I feel. I say it as expressively as I can, and it would never occur to me to tailor what I say to the market or to the Guardian newspaper."

And yet in the past you have spoken out harshly regarding Islam. Weren't you afraid?

"Everyone gets death threats from Islam. It's almost like getting your National Union journalism card. A death threat is cheap; even I can make a death threat."

Feminist leanings

Amis' latest effort in English, "The Pregnant Widow," came out this year and deals with the feminist revolution.

Amis: "My novel is called 'The Pregnant Widow,' but there are no pregnant widows in the book. It's an idea from [Alexander] Herzen, the Russian thinker, who said - talking about social and political revolutions - that defeat of the old order or victory of the new order should gladden rather than depress the soul. Since writing this novel I became even more feminist. My idea is that man has not actually done very well. Male rule has not been a great success, has it? It's full of aggression, testosterone, incredible concern with pride and dignity. We all know in our hearts that women are gentler, more empathetic, less prone to violence, less ridiculously proud and vain, but then women heads of state - they all have to sound tougher than men. Like Hillary [Clinton] saying, 'I'll wipe Iran off the map.'"

The feminist revolution, he adds, still has a long way to go, as do women in the realm of politics.

"I used to think that Angela Merkel had retained some feminine qualities, although I was horrified by what she said three weeks ago about how [immigrants] will never be truly German, that they are not like us. I don't think that Germans should talk like that. 'Never again' is not just a slogan for Israel; it's a slogan for Germany, and yet she's almost echoing what Hitler said."

How do you see yourself in comparison to your friends and fellow members of your generation, Rushdie, McEwan and Barnes?

"They're doing their work, I'm doing mine. Everyone thinks novelists hate each other and are envious of each other, but I don't think it's true, because I don't want to write their novels and they don't want to write my novels. We're not trying to write the same novels. There is actually a famous novel from the 19th century that we're all trying to write, which is 'The Way We Live Now,' by [Anthony] Trollope. We're all trying to write that novel."

Do you talk to each other about what you're writing?

"A bit, but not obsessively. We talk - as I used to talk with my father - about technical things, never about my vision of the world. You might say, 'How are you getting on with your novel?' And you say 'fine.' I don't show mine to anyone. Ian shows it to two or three people - a poet, a philosopher, someone from medicine. I show it only to my wife."

You don't get edited anymore, right?

"My first novellas were edited. The last time I was edited was 1973."

So you are fairly lonely in your work.

"But that's what writing is. To be a writer you must be most alive when alone, and that's what is great about it. Writing is freedom."

Amis' sharp wit and humor do not vanish even when the conversation turns to aging and death.

"I'm 61. Writers are usually finished by about 70. All the great novels of the past were written by people in their 30s, or even younger. Jane Austen was 18 when she wrote 'Pride and Prejudice.' Incredible. And they all died young. Shakespeare at 54, Dickens - 59, Austen - 41. But now medical science has given us the aging novelist. It is a great weakening that happens, about the biblical age, when you are supposed to die. They lose it."

So what is to be done?

"I think you've got to write short. Chekhov said: 'Everything I read now' - when he was quite old, well, he didn't get very old - 'seems to me not short enough.' And Saul Bellow said, 'I find myself profoundly agreeing that everything is too long.' When I look at my early stuff, which I don't do anymore, I think: This is too long, it's too much. And there are some things you get better at. What fades are the musical elements. You have to fight for that, but your craft, your economy, skills, knowing what goes where, when to do what - that's so much improved. Bellow wrote a very nice novel when he was 80, but you couldn't compare it to his huge mighty novels. You have to face it."

How about writing poetry?

"I published a couple of poems in my 20s. It's a different human being who writes a poem. Very well captured in the Auden poem called 'The Novelist,' where he says poets are individuals, but novelists are different. [A novelist] has to among the just be just, among the filthy, filthy, too; they [novelists] have to be Everyman. And the poet is an individual, never an Everyman."

"Everyone dies," he says with resignation, "but novelists die twice. I suppose every sort of intellectual professional dies twice. At least I won't die in my 20s or 30s like philosophers; they're finished at 28."