Fiction Is Freedom: On Martin Amis

August 28, 2020 | 3 books mentioned 5 min read

A novel tells you far more about a writer than an essay, a poem, or even an autobiography,” says Martin Amis. He then adds, “My father thought this, too.” This statement is especially intriguing in light of his soon-to-be-published book, Inside Story, which Knopf is billing as an autobiographical novel.

Amis’s life has been exceptional. He has enjoyed great success, and the company of literary notables from birth. His father was Kingsley Amis; his stepmother was acclaimed writer Elizabeth Jane Howard; and Philip Larkin, one of the finest English poets of the last century, was a family friend. His peer group—formed largely while he was studying as an undergraduate at Oxford—includes Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie.

“I apologize for all the name-dropping,” Amis writes in the book. “You’ll get used to it. I had to.” He then counters that it’s not actually name-dropping “when, aged five, you say ‘Dad.’”

coverThese relationships alone ensure that Inside Story will attract enormous comment, but condemnation will likely follow. Amis is accustomed to this. He’s long been a fascination—and a punching bag—in the U.K., where his status as a celebrity author has done him no favors. The British love to hate this native son. In a negative review of his 2012 novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, in the Independent, Amis was called “one of those writers about whom it is increasingly difficult to find anything worth saying.” In a 2014 article for the Guardian (titled “Why We Love to Hate Martin Amis”), Spectator literary editor Sam Leith wrote, “There is no living British writer who garners as much attention as Amis, so much of it hostile, and so much of that hostility, circularly, arising from the attention itself…It’s as if, and in answer to some inchoate public need, we demand of Amis that he say things in public so we can all agree on what an ass he is.”

Now almost 71, Amis displays the kind of confidence that only a privileged white man can downplay. Or, to paraphrase British actor Michaela Coel, nearly all men of his age and milieu carry themselves in this way—without fear of interruption. Nonetheless, Amis’s contribution and commitment to literature are substantial. And his very particular upbringing was, in reality, an apprenticeship.

coverInside Story engages with some of this background, traversing territory covered in Amis’s well-received 2000 memoir, Experience (which he wrote in response to his father’s death in 1995). But Inside Story is a very different book. It is presented as fiction, though Hitchens, Kingsley Amis, and other real figures from Amis’s life make appearances as characters. The names are slightly changed for others, such as his wife and children. And some characters are entirely fictitious, though it’s not always clear which, making the work something of a play on the concept of memoir and novel writing. On another level, the novel allows those with knowledge of Amis’s literary circle to play a guessing game about who might have actually said, and done, what.

Inside Story begins with an invitation to join Amis in his home, and one of the best qualities of the book is its regard for the reader. Amis acknowledges this during a call from his home in Brooklyn. “You have to love the reader,” he says. “It’s not about toadying to the reader but loving and respecting them. A book is nothing without a reader. The relationship between writer and reader is very mysterious and fascinating and not terribly well explained. There is an intimacy to reading a novel because you feel you know the writer embarrassingly well. The great excuse for a public event is that it’s great to meet a reader.”

There is plenty to make the reader feel cherished in this novel, particularly if they like highly wrought literary criticism or are fans of those within Amis’s personal orbit. Inside Story describes encounters with those people over time and, along the way, explores ideas of childhood, family, love, literature, politics, terrorism, aging, illness, and death.

The world of the book is one that now seems very distant: Everyone smokes and drinks copiously as they work. A career in journalism provides plausible means. Social change is often tentative. Social media doesn’t exist. One might feel some nostalgia, especially if one is of a certain demographic.

The tone of the book is generous. Amis has very much sought to praise rather than to blame. “I’m not an angry person,” he explains. “I’ve read autobiographical stuff that’s full of settling scores and smearing people. I’m so glad I don’t have that.”

Amis’s father was married to Howard for 18 years and, according to Amis, during his teenage years they provided him with a vision of how to live as a writer. “It did feel like an exciting household,” he explains, noting that fellow writers were always dropping by. “The rumor is that writers are at each other’s throats. But I’ve never found that to be true. Those feelings belong at the periphery, if your confidence reasonably corresponds to your abilities.”

Accordingly, Inside Story contains wonderful considerations of what it is to be a writer, the importance of reading while writing, and writing while reading. It offers, in a way, what Amis’s parents gave him: an insight into the lives of writers.

“Most fictions, including short stories, have their origin in the subconscious,” Amis writes in Inside Story. “Very often you can feel them arrive. It is an exquisite sensation. Nabokov called it ‘a throb,’ Updike ‘a shiver’: the sense of pregnant arrest. The subconscious is putting you on notice: you have been brooding about something without knowing it. Fiction comes from there—from silent anxiety. And now it has given you a novel to write.”

The richness of this passage and others like it are nearly eclipsed by the startling plot involving Phoebe Phelps, with whom the character of Amis has a doomed five-year relationship. Their relationship is funny, wretched, and very readable. The “night of shame” is a darkly comic highlight in which Phelps refuses to have sex with Amis yet again and he starts to pay her for various sexual acts. Several decades later, long after their breakup, the 9/11 attacks prompt Phelps to reconnect with Amis. When the pair reunites, another remarkable scene occurs: she tells him that he is not the son of Kingsley Amis. It would spoil the story to say more, though the question of who Amis’s real father is will likely prompt much discussion.

Amis is reluctant to reveal much but clarifies that Phelps represents “an anthology of various women” he has known, and that she took on “a life of her own.” He also confirmed that the post-9/11 scene had not taken place but rather was “something Phoebe would do.”

In the book, Amis expresses relief that he has reached 70 and escaped both the self-doubt of middle age and the arrogance of youth. But during our call, he seems a little less assured. It had been difficult, he says, to find “a creative flow” while writing this book. “Age is a real consideration. There are so many ways you start to decay. Your certainty of what goes where tends to be harder to convince yourself of. And some very basic givens of writing a novel don’t fall into your lap.”

This is not evident from reading Inside Story. It is markedly more sincere than some of Amis’s previous work, and events and insights seem to flow seamlessly. His love for literature is earnestly shared. The Phelps plot is audacious and well done. A lifetime of scholarship is reflected in the quality of the writing. But there is still material to derange, or perhaps delight, Amis’s detractors. Some references to women are jarring at best, and the perspective is certainly one of great privilege.

Amis says he feels “fatalistic” about the launch of his 15th novel. He seems particularly stung by the criticism of Lionel Asbo, whose portrayal of working-class lives led to accusations of voyeurism. “You’ve got to be able to do what you want if you write,” he says. “If you feel the urge to write about something, that’s all you need. I was scolded by a critic about the working classes, and suddenly one wonders why he feels qualified to write about it. I’m not going to seek anyone’s permission to write. Fiction is freedom, or it’s nothing.”

Bonus Links:
The New Normal: Martin Amis’s ‘The Pregnant Widow’
A Martin Amis Hatchet Job? On ‘Lionel Asbo: State of England’
The Arcades Project: Martin Amis’s Guide to Classic Video Games
The Adulatory Biographer: On Richard Bradford’s ‘Martin Amis’

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is a writer and filmmaker in Dublin. She has contributed to Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

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