Martin Amis. Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.

'Israel Can’t Afford to Be a Sweetie': Martin Amis on Writing, Innocence and Jewish Manhood

As English literature's longtime 'bad boy' is about to turn 70, he explains what a novelist has to do to 'earn the right weight'

I’m walking inside a lavishly decorated 18th-century country house, with two slightly trembling glasses of water in my hands. The first room I enter is of a different era, seemingly drawn from a period film: Oil paintings deck the walls, a tall gilded mirror stands above a marble fireplace, a crystal chandelier is perched over three antique settees – and to complete this portrait of refined wealth and splendor, a grand piano.

I walk to the center of the room, place the two glasses on the table, and take a seat next to Martin Amis. I had flown 4,000 kilometers, to Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas in Ireland, to meet him – the man who, more than any other living writer, has inspired my love of English literature.

I couldn’t imagine a more picturesque, dreamy, even surreal setting for such an encounter. The landscape, the architecture, and especially the people, all seemed to me exceptionally kind and benevolent, peaceful and welcoming. It is light-years away from the humid streets and typical scenery of my homeland, from the heated impatience so often characteristic of my compatriots and me: a world separate from my own.

Wearing a dark blue jacket and sweater, his glasses hanging from his neck, the so-called enfant terrible of English literature (a cliché that always seemed to miss the point) is about to turn 70, and, in outward appearance at least, he certainly carries the inescapable marks of old age. But when he speaks, it is in the same deep and resonating voice, with the same rhythms and cadences, wit and precision that have distinguished him since publication of his first novel in 1974. Amis’ voice is inimitable, sui generis.

My first meeting with that voice was eight years ago: Seeking a purportedly witty campus novel called “Lucky Jim” by a certain Kingsley Amis, I went to the appropriate shelf in the university library, where I happened upon another novel with the same surname on its spine. It was “The Information.” I opened it and read the first sentence: “Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that…”

By the end of the paragraph I already knew: I was going to have to read everything that man had ever written.

“I’ve described that feeling,” Amis says, as I recall that moment to him, “and I’m delighted to hear it because that’s exactly the feeling in a young reader you want to excite.”

It happened for you with Saul Bellow, right?

“Yeah. And Nabokov.”

And “Humboldt’s Gift” was the first book of Bellow’s that you read?

“No, I read ‘The Victim,’ his second novel. Now it does look comparatively minor, but I thought, ‘This is a penetrating and original voice.’”

I think that’s exactly it. It’s the voice, it hits you immediately and you recognize something familiar. As if you already knew that voice.

“Yes, indeed. And there’s also a sort of mutuality, in an odd way. It’s a very mysterious business, fiction. Norman Mailer wrote a terrific book on writing fiction called ‘The Spooky Art.’ Mailer is very like Lawrence in all sorts of ways [earlier, on the bench outside, we had talked about D.H. Lawrence and his influence on the sexual revolution and on autobiographical writing. We both agreed the sex scenes in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” are outrageously bad]. Behaved terribly badly, talked an awful lot of balls, but, I can recognize someone who has really thought about the novel, and I feel an odd community with him there, but nowhere else, in no other area.”

AP

You got to interview him a couple of times, didn’t you?

“I did a very long piece about him that ended up rather hostile. Because of this mutuality that I felt, combined with hostility as well, maybe the feeling that here was an opposite of me.”

When you say “mutuality,” what do you mean?

“Reading a novel is like a sort of friendship or even a love affair. You find out a lot more about a novelist [from his work] than from any other kind of writer. A poet is impenetrable. I mean, the poetry can hit you very hard, but you don’t understand the man or the woman in the way you do with a novel. My father used to say, ‘You really lay yourself open when you write a novel, there’s nothing about you that you withhold.’”

This is especially true of Martin Amis’ fiction. It’s a singularly odd feeling, to see for the first time someone you have never actually met, yet feel you know so intimately. I don’t mean here his curriculum vitae, the various facts and figures with which you sketch out a man’s life in a paragraph or less (two wives, five children, lovers galore, literary friendships, homes in London, Uruguay, Brooklyn, etc.). Having twice and thrice read all 14 of his novels, I sometimes feel like Amis’ psychologist or dream interpreter. I know all about his obsessions, fears and anxieties, his visions and ruminations, his sexual quirks and violent delusions – all the dark corners of his subconscious that, in his fiction, he keeps sleepwalking into. To bare all this in front of readers takes some courage; to make it interesting requires talent. And one of Amis’ most distinctive talents is, I think, his ability to create a deep intimacy between him and his reader.

I begin to roll out before him a list of reasons why I think his writing has such a powerful, intimate effect: an appealing sense of humor, a kind of bar-talk conversational style (which includes, at times, speaking directly to the reader), the enchanting musicality and euphony of his prose, and the occasional sense of fervent urgency, as if the writer has a painful confession he must unburden himself of.

“It’s not something that feels deliberate to me,” he says, “and I don’t see how it could ever be. It’s just your deep nature coming out. ‘Psyche’ is a very useful word. I’ve only realized why in the last couple of years. It very neatly encapsulates what one brings to writing, which is a heart, a mind and a soul. And I think that’s a very important notion there. Of course, [it gets] complicated by religion and all that, but one mustn’t let the vicars and the priests take that word over. We all have one, and it is what you bring to writing.”

I look out for a moment through the tall French windows, at the garden dotted with colorful tents, the people coming in and out with coffee and glasses of wine. During the literary festival, Borris House looks like a small paradise, a peaceful Eden removed from the outside world (if you told me nymphs and fairies come out to dance at night, I would have believed you). In the ballroom, chapel and granary, people gather to hear novelists, poets, journalists – writers of all stripes, along with other public figures. Despite the organizers’ wish to dedicate some of the events to apparently urgent political matters (global warming, wayward politicians), it is quite difficult to feel any sense of urgency amid such peaceful scenery and open and kind people. While I roamed the idyllic grounds of Borris House, a single thought kept echoing in my mind: I am in Arcadia. This is Arcadia. Meeting Amis only intensified this strange feeling.

Superlatives are, in his case, redundant. Amis is already widely recognized as one of the greatest living stylists of the English language. His position was cemented in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, with the publication of the London Trilogy – the novels “Money,” “London Fields” and “The Information” – which, though loosely related to each other, mark Amis’ coming of age. “Money,” the first, was his breakthrough “talent novel”; “London Fields” is often considered his best work; and “The Information,” although plagued by scandals, kept up the momentum.

Several elements define his work, and each balances the others in the ecosystem of his fiction. In terms of style, the first and most foundational element is his verbal virtuosity. You can’t help but fall in love with the English language when reading Amis, because he himself is so clearly in love with it. Every sentence is tenderly crafted until it has just the right ring; his attention and devotion are like those of a uxorious husband. A second element is comic wit and irony, usually expressed through satire. The two elements combine exceedingly well: virtuosity sharpening the arrows of his wit, and irony giving it a certain endearing grace that would have been lost had he decided to write with more sentimentality.

It was during the festival that it suddenly dawned on me how crucial to his writing Amis’ comic talent is. In the two sessions in which he participated, the first about Donald Trump (together with Carl Bernstein and British journalist Ed Vulliamy), and the second about Christopher Hitchens (alongside Julian Barnes), Amis repeatedly drew waves of laughter from the audience, and always with a well-crafted, pithy phrase. Commenting on Trump’s embarrassingly narrow lexicon: “[Steve] Bannon said he is the great orator of his age ... he could barely fight his way out of a four-word sentence.”

Later, Amis pondered what could cause the president to lose his base of followers: “If he chopped up another porn star or was found to con a children’s charity – it wouldn’t be that. But if he stood up there and said: ‘I intend to follow knowledge like a sinking star’ – then he’d be in trouble.” A mock-poetic phrase wielded to further ridicule an already satirical figure – that’s Amis’ method in a nutshell.

Amis’ comic writing feeds on exaggerations and perversions, and that is the reason why the most underrepresented people in his fiction are the middle class: level-headed, temperate people, neither good nor bad, neither rich nor poor. Instead, Amis looks at the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy: the crooks, criminals and lowlifes, on the one hand – the so-called underclass – and the super-rich and highly privileged, on the other: be it lottery winners, bestselling novelists or even the king of England. Amis enjoys switching between their perspectives, thriving on their contrast. His characters often inhabit a depraved dystopia, and the narrative arc always points downward: Things get increasingly bad increasingly fast, until they reach their moral nadir. Violence and corruption are ever present, and yet the thematic quintessence of his novels – the beating heart of his fiction – is innocence. Innocence, and the fear of losing it in a violent, hostile reality.

Maximilian Schönherr

Amis says he’s unsure where that theme comes from, “but it’s something I recognized about myself after about four or five novels. In my father’s stuff, the primary value was decency, a very important notion. But I thought to myself, well, it’s not that in mine, it’s innocence. Innocence is always under threat. The process of evolution, I don’t just mean physiological evolution, but societal evolution, is all to do with losing more and more innocence. And just by sticking around you become less innocent. The opposite of innocence can be guilt, but the one I’m interested in is experience. Blake – ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience.’ Just by going on living, you become more experienced.”

But some things do get better with time. In recent years, Amis’ approach to writing has focused on the notion of literary decorum, which, in his recently published essay collection “The Rub of Time,” he defined as the concurrence of style and content, together with a third element that he described as “earning the right weight.”

“It’s earning the right, as well,” says Amis, “Finding the right tone for a particular scene, a particular paragraph. It comes up a thousand times when you’re writing a novel … When I read others, sometimes I think, ‘this hasn’t begun to be earned.’ You particularly notice it when you write about heavy stuff. About violence and deviant behavior. When you’re describing, say, a professional murderer, you can’t just write ‘he was a professional murderer, he came into the room…’

“No, you’ve got to say, ‘Christ, what does that mean?’ You’ve got to pause. And you’ve got to suffer when you think about things like that. You’ve got to do the right amount of suffering. And then you can take it on. But you can’t blithely tap it up and expect it to be as if you’re describing an accountant or a lawyer… even for a lawyer you have to hunker down and think about it for a bit. It’s just registering the weight of someone’s life, and what they’ve had to sacrifice to become what they are. It’s like the normal transferring of yourself into another mind, another body, but with extra responsibility.”

Guest and host

Following that notion of literary decorum, Amis has become fond of considering the relationship between the reader and the writer as something like that of a guest and his host. Novels, which describe social realities, are in themselves social forms, and that, according to Amis, means a certain degree of etiquette is incumbent upon the novelist: not to stretch the readers’ patience, but to be kind and welcoming. If you visit a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, Amis says, he gives you the best chair, the nearest seat to the fire, his best wine and his full attention. If you attempt to visit a novel by James Joyce, you’d first find the address was wrong, and then when you did find it, he would serve you suspicious drinks and talk to you in a language you have never heard before.

And how is Amis doing as a host? Well, he has always invested a lot of energy and vigor in his prose, but it wasn’t always out of goodwill for the reader. In his earlier novels, you sometimes get the impression that the prose is overly condensed, at times even flamboyant. But since “The Pregnant Widow,” his quasi-autobiographical novel about the sexual revolution, published in 2010, I find there is a greater deftness to his style, the kind of distinguished calm befitting an experienced writer who no longer has to prove his skills and fight for his place.

Amis seems to agree with my observation. “I suppose so, yeah. It’s because you become more of an old fart, in a sense. But also, there’s a sweet, pathetic line in a very late Larkin poem called ‘The Mower.’ He went out in the garden and he was mowing the long grass, and he killed a hedgehog, one that he had fed a couple of times, and according to his woman friend he came into the house howling. The poem ends, ‘... we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.’ I think that’s a universal feeling.”

The idea of the writer as a host appears explicitly in the opening of Amis’ new novel, an autobiographical work that he’s been trying to write for the past 15 years and is still trying to finish. It starts with a cordial greeting, an invitation into the writer’s life. His eyes light up as he recites the opening paragraph from memory: “Welcome! Do come on in. Sit by the fire. Now what can I get you? Whiskey? Very sensible in this weather. The 5-year-old or the 12? Gallant. I’ll bring in a tray of snacks to keep you going until dinner.”

Amis has often described the moment of a novel’s conception in the author’s mind as being like, he says, borrowing Nabokov’s words, a pang or a shiver. His latest wasn’t as auspiciously conceived. “I sometimes worry that I didn’t have a proper pang. That it was more willed than usual. Because it is autobiographical, up to a point, and there is a lot about all these other writers, who are all named – I mean, Christopher Hitchens is Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow is Saul Bellow – so it was more a kind of project, because you don’t have these pangs about yourself. So I can’t claim a pang, a throb.”

AP

When did you start writing it?

“When we were living in Uruguay [2003-2006], I thought, there are certain things about myself I do want to reveal,’ about my sister [Sally Amis, who died at the age 46 and whom Amis once described as one of the most spectacular victims of the sexual revolution] and things like that, but it was just dead, it was completely sluggish and dead, so I wormed ‘The Pregnant Widow’ out of it – because those 30 little pages did feel novelistic, and I thought ‘the hell with this life-writing, let’s get back to a novel’. And then I wrote ‘House of Meetings,’ ‘Pregnant Widow,’ ‘Lionel Asbo,’ ‘Zone of Interest,’ all resulting from pangs. And when Christopher [Hitchens] died, I thought, ‘Christ, they’re all dead now.’ I mean Saul, Christopher and Philip Larkin who is the other dominant figure, and I thought, ‘Well, that gives me a bit more freedom’ – which it did, but it’s still not very much freedom when you’re writing about real things. Not the boundless freedom when you’re making it all up.”

It was also the death of your father which spurred you to write “Experience.”

“Yeah, I thought, ‘Now is the time.’”

So, is it a novel or is it a memoir?

“It’s a novel.”

What makes it a novel?

“Well, that has been the great difficulty. But I stick by that [e.g., calling it a novel and writing it as such], and I’m very glad it is, because it means I can make up scenes that didn’t happen. Conversations between Hitchens and me that never took place. And there’s a sort of girl, a figure in it, who is completely made up. So I thought, that will be fun. But actually mixing the two is very difficult.”

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

A bit like a dream maybe?

“No, it didn’t feel like that. It’s essayistic as well. There’s lit crit in it. I certainly discovered a lot about what fiction is from doing real life as a novel. And it’s impossible to set out to be original, but after I’d been at it for a while, I did think, ‘I don’t know about original, but I can’t think of any other novel I did like it.”

As Amis rolls another cigarette, I mention that I will have to ask him at some point about Israel – journalistic duty and all.

“Israel is a real theme in this book. It ends in Israel. And my first love was a Jewish girl. It was during the Six-Day War, and she would go off, having lost her virginity to me, to donate blood for Israel. And that – what are you going to do about that? – that is a bond.”

Amis has often declared himself to be a philosemite, which he attributes to several close relationships with people who, by chance, have been Jewish: that first love, his closest friend (the late Hitchens), his second wife, and his two daughters, whom, among their several nicknames he also sometimes calls “the Jews.”

Amis first visited Israel in 1986, and he visited a second time a year later, to speak at a conference at the University of Haifa about, and attended by, Saul Bellow, and organized by A.B. Yehoshua. He has since been to Israel many times. When I ask him about his thoughts on the changes he has observed in Israel since those first visits, Amis turns again to poetry.

“It’s a demonstration of that poem by Andrew Marvell about Oliver Cromwell [‘An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’]. He had just come back from slaughtering twenty percent of the Irish population in the middle of the 17th century: “Still keep thy sword erect; / Besides the force it has to fright / The spirits of the shady night, / The same arts that did gain / A pow’r, must it maintain.”

“Israel just had to become a tough guy.” He leans forward. “See me out?”

We walk side by side through the backyard, heading to the cottage where he was staying during the festival.

“I have an Israeli friend – a businessman, very right wing – I think he is basically a sweetie but he turned himself into a hothead. Israel just can’t afford to be a sweetie, it had to learn the art of violence. So it’s a shame. Saul used to say, Jewish manhood would have been dead without Israel. Zion followed from the Holocaust, so the only way they could be reborn was the reassertion of manhood. I was quite shocked when he said that. He said – ‘after the beating we had taken…’

He asks if I was born in Israel, and I nod.

“So you’re a sabra too. And you know what a sabra is? A prickly pear. So my friend, I think he is basically a sweetie, but he had made himself prickly. There’s no place for being sweet, especially not in the Middle East.”

We say goodbye on his doorstep, shaking hands briefly. I walk away with a familiar feeling: Amis’ voice echoing in my head.

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