Amis appears at the Huntington Library, Pasadena, April 27-29, 2000--part 2
(reporting by Shaun Mason, reactions by others, all from the Amis Discussion Board)
On Saturday I rose at the time I usually rise on a work day to haul my ass to South Pas (actually San Marino) for day 2 of The Novel in Britain 1950-2000, a conference sponsored and hosted by The Huntington Library. In attendance were Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Christopher Hitchens, and others I will mention. I missed day 1, which featured Salman Rushdie also, but I was there Thursday night for a special reading by Martin (see my previous post). Saturday was the kind of day that So Cal is famous for, startlingly hot for April. I was so damned excited I had to take deep breaths on the freeway to keep control of my car. I arrived and paid my fee, and to my delight the woman who I had spoken to on the phone had written my name down and I had a name tag waiting for me. This is only important because I thought I was just going to be some schlep off the street hanging with the literati and it made me feel a little more part of the crowd. First on the agenda was Wendy Lesser, the editor of The Threepenny review (she's had a 20-year run with a lit mag, no mean feat)who gave a talk on English novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who is interesting because she began writing novels at 60 (Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Blue Flower), and is still going at 80.
We broke for coffee and I headed straight for Hitchens, who was in the back. I told him I read his book on Mother Teresa (The Missionary Position, Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice) and he was very excited. We spent the coffee break discussing atheism and why no one has the balls to criticize religion in this country (I'm happy to any time).
Next up was Elaine Showalter, a Princeton English professor who gave a talk on what she calls "Lad Lit" which began with Lucky Jim and has carried through to High Fidelity. She talked at length about Money and had some very interesting video tape. First she showed part of an interview with Martin and Ian McEwan in 1982 or so, when Money first came out, that was very funny. I heard Hitchens say "why it's Martin . . .at the age of 12." The other bit of tape was very interesting, she read the quote from Money in which Lorne Guyland is telling Self how he wants the nude fight scene to go in their film. Then she showed a clip from Saturn 3 (Martin wrote the first drafts of the screenplay, but he told me that none of his words survived to the screen) in which Kirk Douglas plays out the scene exactly as it was described in Money. Very, very funny. Showalter has a very nice style of lecturing, but I disagreed with some of her points and was fortunately able to discuss them with her later.
During the second break I got coffee and noticed The Man standing alone with the ubiquitous cigarette. I sidled up and asked him if I could discuss Night Train a little. He was extremely open and friendly and willing to entertain all my questions. At this point I'd like to say that anyone who finds Martin Amis cold is full of shit. He was amazingly friendly and delighted to discuss his work. Anyway, I asked about the ending to Night Train, referring to the discussion we've had on this very page. He confirmed that Mike was drunk at the end, and that she had an "alcoholic mood change." I told him I thought she went off and drank herself to death. He said "well, what would you do if you were an alcoholic in that situation?" He said that at the end of a book his characters were free to do whatever they wanted, and I said "some people think she's rescued in the nick of time. I think it depends on the cynicism of the reader, the book acts as a Rorschach test." He said "ah, so the ending works as a test of the reader, and the hopeful ones have her being saved?" I said yes and he said "I'm happy with that."
I told him I thought the most brilliant stroke of Night Train, and the identifiable Amis quality, was the fact that the mystery was that there was no mystery. I also liked the suicide that took more than one shot. He said he had read cases like that which inspired him to use it.
Next up was novelist Hilary Mantel who read from her novel Vacant Possession. Hilary is an unassuming writer from the north of England who has a beautiful delivery and is very funny reading her own work. She speaks a bit slowly with the typical near-Scots accent of Lancashire and was a delight to hear. She also acts out her characters, which adds to the entertainment value. The audience was extremely appreciative of her.
After the lunch break I cornered Lindsay Duiga, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement (Times of London) while she was trying to edit her talk. She was cool, though and talked to me for awhile. I told her that in the US we aren't kept informed of the British literary world enough, and I gave her my rant on Oprah's Book Club.
Next up was John Sutherland, Professor of English at the University College of London and a frequent book reviewer for the Times of London. He gave a talk on the business of British fiction, which included his lament on the Americanization of Britain and british fiction, and his own belief that the future of British writers is dismally turning toward all of them emigrating to the US. He quoted Ian McEwan's statement that England is just a second-class United States, so why not move to the states and be in the thick of things.
I spoke to Dr. Sutherland during the break and we differed on the value of Jeanette Winterson (he for me against). I also spoke to James Wood of the New Republic, who is a very intelligent and eloquent guy.
The last speaker was Lindsay Duiga who gave a very interesting talk on the importance of book reviews. She traced the history of reviews in the TLS, which were anonymous until 1985. She read memorable quotes from good and bad reviews of well-known books and talked extensively about what she looked for in a reviewer and the difference between American and British reviewers (she thinks Americans do their homework on a book better and are more polite).
The last part of the day was a panel discussion with Mantel, McEwan and Amis. They each gave a 5-minute conclusive remark then we were allowed to ask questions. Martin spoke of how he planned to move to the US when his boys were out of school, and that because the Jewish novel in America was gone (no one to follow the footsteps of Bellow and Roth, I guess) there would be room for him in the American literary pantheon. These remarks were a bit bizarre (I don't think he meant he was converting to Judaism) but I think he was just commenting on the aging of his friend, Bellow, and the lack of interest in anyone assuming that mantle.
I asked Ms. Mantel to comment on her need to act out and "be" her characters, as she described in her talk, compared with Martin, who is ever the observer, even to the point of entering Money as a character. She backpedaled on her previous point, saying that perhaps authors aren't the best ones to describe their own techniques and that she too was an observer. I thought that was a funny answer after the extreme point she had made about acting out her characters. Martin said he thought I had hit upon a gender difference. He thought there was more joy in women's writing. This statement sent Wendy Lesser into a rant about the wrongness of separating writing by gender. "Do you mean to say that you and I are the same?" Martin asked her, to which she replied "No, there are a thousand differences between you and I, of which gender is only one. It should not be singled out as the final distinguishing characteristic in our writing." My thought on that was that maybe it shouldn't be the distinguishing factor, but perhaps it is! I didn't get a chance to ask her that question, ie, whether she actually believed that there was never a gender difference between writers (which to deny would be foolhardy IMHO). After the conference I told Martin I liked the fact he was able to set her off and we had a very nice moment as two chaps. Sexist? Perhaps, but more than that observant. The day ended with me driving home with an absolute glow, having basked in what I consider one of the greatest days of my intellectual life.
MEMO TO SHAUN MASON: Just one question, Shaun. Why the whitewash? If Mini-Mart bored the crap out of his Pasadena audience by bitching about a bunch of Russian tyrants, then what perverse protectionism led you to lie your ass off and claim that Mini-Mart's speech was a piece of fine quality entertainment? Just what kind of a suck-ass ARE you, Shaun? Inquiring pinheads wanna know. Did you lie for love or money or both? And more importantly, what sort of cast-iron ass do you possess which would allow you to sit out Amis's dishwater-dull speech? Had I been there, I would've squirmed my ass off. That speech would've worn my ass down to a nub. I commend both you AND your ass, Shaun, for your heroic stoicism. But not for a second do I believe that you enjoyed that speech. In fact, I'm convinced that you did something else for the entire duration of the speech. My guess is that you sat there staring at the head of the guy sitting in front of you. And you psychically tried to make that guy turn his head around toward you. Anything to relieve the soul-killing boredom of a Russian history lesson.
Regarding Lindsay Duiga, the editrix of The Fuckpig Literary Supplement: I wish I could've been there to kick her nubby ass clear to Bakersfield. How DARE The Fuckpig Literary Supplement remain offline when the regular London Times is online. It really burns my britches. Lemme tell ya something. Nobody admires The London Times and its free archive more than me. As far as I know, The London Times is the only major newspaper on Planet Earth that offers a free archive. Which makes it all the more galling that The Fuckpig Literary Supplement is too goddam uppity to put itself online. You said: "I told her that in the US we aren't kept informed of the British literary world enough, and I gave her my rant on Oprah's Book Club." Dammit, Shaun. We wouldn't even need an Oprah Book Club if The Fuckpig Literary Supplement would get its nubby ass online.
Jarma: The only thing that's making me squirm is all those references to asses in general, and my ass in particular. I think there's something Freudian in all that psychological booty.
Regarding my reviews, the emotion I felt is in them, and they don't need further defense. I was there, and you, by good fortune, were not. Simple as that. Like Jim Carrey, you're talking out your ass on that score.
And speaking of being wrong, The TLS is on line. I guess you're referring to the fact that you have to be a subscriber to reach the back issues? Boo fucking hoo, butt boy, we live in a capitalist society, jesus, let them pay their bills.
And on the subject of the intelligent and charming, not to mention completely unassuming, unpretentious, and brilliant Lindsay Duiga (who I met and talked to and you, by the grace of bona fortuna, did not), I don't think you could kick her ass, certainly not mentally, and I doubt physically.
All in all, your shit-soiled lingam of a post is simple sour grapes. To my great delight and surprise, I was hanging with the heavies, including MA, and you, you blouse-wearing poodle walker, were not.
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