Amis & Bellow

A.A. Gill reviews Amis's TV talk with Saul Bellow

The Times
(London) 2 August, 1998

Posted by Vivian Droptrou
Monday, January 03, 2000 06:29 PM

    Martin Amis interviewed Saul Bellow in the States for Bookmark (Saturday, BBC2). Poor Martin takes such a lot of stick in the British press. I thought as a gesture of goodwill we'd award him today's 'Gary', just to show we think he's quite as good as Will Self, who got Gary-garlanded a couple of weeks back. I did promise myself I wasn't going to join the posse and have a go at him, but you know, that smug, petulant little face turns up on the screen and you just feel the palms of your hands prickle. I'm sure he's very nice, a decent father, loyal friend, bon viveur and all-round good fellow. But on screen, my God, he's the most irritating little tyke.

    Notting Hill's Jeffrey Archer donned a simply frightful raincoat and went and did that deeply infuriating arts documentary thing of picking up his bags, locking the door and getting into the cab to drive to the airport. Look, I know how you get to America. I already understand intercontinental travel, I don't need to be shown it like illustrations in a children's book. See Martin, see Martin in the taxi, see the aeroplane, see Martin in the hotel. And have you noticed how uncannily like a new Labour version of the Tories' Archer he actually is? They are both perky bantams, with skin like rhino hide and the same game, slightly hurt air of why-me? And both their names begin with 'A'. Sending Amis to interview Bellow is a marginally better idea than sending Archer to interview Grisham, although not as good as sending them both to Oshkosh, Nebraska, to interview each other.

    The first problem with Amis interviewing Bellow was that he can't interview. He somehow failed to understand that an interview generally, as a rule of thumb, involves asking questions, as opposed to floating statements. Now, I understand that asking questions feels embarrassingly like exhibiting ignorance, while making statements shows us what a smart Mart you are. But then Q&A is the way things are done, I'm afraid.

    The other problem was the hero worship. For a boy to have heroes is, of course, commendable and, in your forties, rather touching. To confront him with the object of his adoration and then film the genuflection is on a scale of embarrassment right up there with Noel Edmonds's gloop tank. Bellow and Amis grinned and nodded and sent each other "love you to death" vibes, while floating non-sequitur statements like little pink Cupids.

    The rest of the programme was made up of dramatised excerpts of Bellow's books, which made you think he might be worth a bit of a holiday read. And a lot of very pointless shots of Mart walking, see Mart walk, Mart getting into a lift, see Mart in the lift, and Mart rolling his, don't look at that. I'm afraid this was the moment when I realised it was going to be impossible not to have a pop at Mart. Is there anything more screechingly annoying than watching a $1m-advanced author of diminutive stature roll his own snouts? I think not.

    Is there conceivably anything more ripely yearning for a sock full of billiard balls in the kisser than a cool new Labour man of letters coming on like a Borstal laddy for the cameras, apropos of nothing, except to show a little moment of faux-proletarian wide-boy street-smart dexterity. Know what I mean? Sorted.

    All too soon, it was over. See Mart come home, see Mart open the door, see Mart drop his suitcase. Note to continuity: love, the bag was quite plainly empty. But then, as a metaphor for this programme, perhaps it was done on purpose.

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