At Vanity Fair
by Francis Sergeant, 24/1/97
Translated by Stephen Pepper
From: Stephen Pepper
Martin Amis: Amis's Works
Time: 9:26:34 AM
Remote Name: 188.8.131.52
[As I haven't had much to contribute lately (taking some Bill Bryson by way of light relief- does he sell in the US or is he just an honorary Brit?) I thought I'd at least translate the Liberation article posted by, er, Mr. or Ms Poppin' Fresh; this for the greater good (and as a quid pro quo for Jarma for the 'Holiday' stuff. Though he's probably a polyglot already, goddammit.)
Anyway, here goes (and apologies for any solecisms, this is my lunch break]:
Martin Amis is not a gentle man. At 47 years of age, the angry young man, enfant terrible of English letters, is getting no softer; though Fernanda, nine weeks old, who he holds with the infinite tenderness and the awkward clumsiness of all fathers in their forties appears to make him gentle. "My genre is cruel comedy," he acknowledges with an odd smile, incomplete and strained. "I could tell stories of good women with five children, who run a pharmaceutical company, do golf and charity work, but what of any interest could happen to them?" His world comes from the underbelly of London, peopled with ambiguous personalities with amorphous morality, who live in the areas where, as Amis says, "rich and poor are separated by the thickness of a credit card."
Since he crashed onto the scene at the age of 25, Martin Amis, son of Kingsley Amis, one of the great post-war English writers, has cultivated success and scandal. He is hailed by Malcolm Bradbury and Saul Bellow as one of the most talented novelists of the Anglo-Saxon world, but it's his stories of women and money which have brought him a devilish notoriety.
"No other writer gets as much press coverage, he can't do anything without causing a scandal," explains Boyd Tonkin, chief literary editor of The Independent. At the time of his divorce, treated with similar discretion in the UK to the separation of Charles and Diana, there were tabloid journalists and photographers outside his front door, as well as that of his mistress and that of his wife. When Martin Amis submitted to long and costly dental treatment in the US, the operation and its price were for days the subject of articles and photographs in the English press. As Amis himself wrote in a collection of essays, "the great stars of the post-modern world are elements of their own publicity machine, and all you do is write about their publicity machine."
"I often wonder why I get such attention," Amis asks himself, a rather frail man, cramped into a stained overcoat, who has nothing about him of the generally-depicted monster or seducer. "I searched for sophisticated explanations. Julian Barnes (another English writer since mixed up with Amis) said that I'd had too much success with literature and women, which is an agreeable but insufficient explanation. I rather think that it all comes from my father," he adds, "writing implies much emotion, egotism, it is corrosive and people react badly when things go too well for someone."
The fates have always been kind to Amis. After Oxford, his talent, charm and kinship with his father created one of the young Turks of London's artistic world. One of his friends from that time compares him with Mick Jagger, surrounded by women and a regular producer of articles, then books, of which some, like London Fields, have become successful both among critics and the public.
"It was accepted that I produced a 'good' first book (The Rachel Papers)," explains Martin Amis, "as one accepts that the children of artists produce one sole work and then shut up. I should have disappeared or become a journalist, but I continued to write and that was seen as unforgivable; as Gore Vidal said, 'it is not enough that we succeed, others must fail.'"
"It's as if I forced my own destiny, as if I had contradicted the English work ethic which dictates that anything you get, you have earned. Which I have, of course, but for some I just inherited the talent of my father."
His father, moreover, fifteen months dead, averred he had never read his son's books, even London Fields which was dedicated to him. "He found their style a bit strange," explains Martin Amis, "and I found his not strange enough, but we often used to talk about our work and we concluded that if I had been born in his epoch and he in mine, we would have written each other's books. We like the same irony, the same cruelty, the same blackness."
His last novel, The Information is thus a crushing and pitiless picture of the London literary world, see through two writers, one a success, repulsively vain, the other a deceitful failure.
Some critics wanted to see this work as a quasi-incestuous roman a clef, with Julian Barnes (notably author of Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters) in the role of the successful writer, dull and insipid. A more comfortable explanation is that the two men, friends for twenty years, are mortally at odds since Amis's change of literary agent, abandoning Barnes's wife, Pat Kavanagh, for an American, Andrew Wylie.
"The Information is not autobiographical, it's a personal novel." Amis defends himself while nevertheless recognizing that for the first time, he has written of a world close to him. He quotes Nabokov who said that the reader shouldn't identify with the characters but with the writer. "At the end of a book, the reader should want to telephone the author," explains Amis, adding, "It's true that I write in an aggressive and offensive manner, that I ridicule and punish my characters. This cynicism disturbs people."
"He is truly arrogant and provocative," sighs the Independent critic, who doesn't see Martin Amis softening with age and abandoning dark and unpleasant characters.
He has just finished a thriller, Night Train, which says much of his admiration for his father's only 'positive' book, The Old Devils. "It's his best book and there is a large feeling of redemption and forgiveness which is uncharacteristic of his first works, his vice was to judge people too harshly." "Perhaps I'll change," he says without trying too hard to be believed. He says he is preparing a book of memoirs. "I'm going to settle some scores," he promises, wickedly and avidly, clenching his fist as if he'd like to wipe out some of his enemies.