There's a strong sense of death and mortality in
, covering more than just your father Kingsley's death. You
wrote in London Fields
that looking at death was a full-time job. Has it
become more so?
You have to really strain to avoid it after a certain age. It's
one of those things that nothing can prepare you for. If my book prepared one
person for ageing and facing up to death then that would be a miracle, because
I don't think these events are real until they're experienced. But it's a
terrible surprise, even when you've seen it coming all your life. You begin to
get a feeling that you're running out of life: it's exhaustible, and you're
running out of it. It's like driving a car and seeing the fuel gauge heading
towards empty. Turning 50, as my brother Philip said the other day, the only
good thing is that it isn't 60. (Philip) Larkin says of death, "so dark and so
near". It does begin to feel near. The great effort of trying to ignore it
belongs to your late 30s and early 40s, the last gasp of youth. It's why
children are so reckless and brave--they think they're immortal. We all do
think we're immortal until the evidence is so overwhelming that you have to
capitulate, and that's a crisis. That is the mid-life crisis, and everyone has
it, even if they don't make all the kind of vulgar errors, or what look like
vulgar errors, that others do. I do think it's the great challenge; as I quote
Allen Bloom saying, quoting Socrates, "The task of philosophy is learning how
to die". Not a bad definition. It's everyone's task to do that.
Apart from the Fourth Estate, you express understandable anger
against [serial killer] Fred West for the murder of your cousin, Lucy
Partington. How hard was that personally to come to terms with? In your
writing, you've often considered callous and immoral thoughts and acts, yet
here you were confronted with their terrible consequences in real life.
He doesn't belong in our universe. He's a visitor from another
planet. But I feel I understand him, I have a sense of him. If I ever take him
on, it will be in a novel. I felt I was wanting him away in this book, but he
forced himself into my life, and the lives of my cousins and aunts and uncles.
But I keep him more or less at arm's length just by putting him down in the
footnotes, for the most part. He used to lurk in his van outside a home for
disturbed girls. That's what Fred West--Frederick West, we should call him, we
shouldn't use a diminutive for a man like that--that's what he liked: damaged,
disturbed girls. Easier to manipulate and control. That sums him up, I
In the course of writing Experience
you had reason to
revisit your father's work. Did you reappraise your opinions, and were you
surprised by your reactions?
I did, I had a great immersion in him, and was also reading his
letters for the first time, which gave me lots of fresh feelings about him. As
to the body of work, I was incredibly impressed by the sustained acuity and
energy. And the poems have stood up incredibly well. I see a great dip and
crisis, wonderfully mastered but it took a long time. Between Jake's Thing
Devils there was almost a decade of struggle in which he
produced, after Jake's Thing
--a terrific if troubled
book--Russian Hide and Seek
, which is a depressed book,
Stanley and the
Women, a mean book, although full of great things. And then this
incredible, efflorescence of The Old Devils
, which I think is a
masterpiece. He might have just got meaner and meaner with time, but it was my
mother, by her presence and example, who stopped him becoming that. Part of the
reason I love The Old Devils
is the sense of relief it
gave me. He could well have not come out of it, this real disappointment with
life, and love too. He was very romantic, but he could turn his back on the
primary value, and really not just turn his back, but prosecute his case
against it. It could have been the way he might have gone.
1995 was obviously the annus horribilis
for you, and it
provides the chronological spine of the book. A feature that recurs in your
fiction is the character who is perpetually dumped on, suffering indignity
after indignity. Is that how if felt for you in the 1990s?
Yes it did, but I had ballast that my characters didn't. Richard
Tull (in The Information
) is the most thoroughly disgraced of all my
characters, humiliated, and the poor bastard doesn't have a body of work behind
him, whereas I did. I felt the solidity of that. And I've never given a shit
about what they say about me in the papers, but by any objective view, yes, I
had a hard time. However, it was a rare case of disaster giving something back,
because at least I got a book out of it. And I think I will get other books out
of it. The way it works is that experience beds itself down in you, and the
significant bits go into your unconscious and emerge some years later in a
novel. That's certainly how it works for me.
Famously, George Orwell's final published words were "At 50, every
man has the face he deserves". In The Information
, Richard Tull says,
"By the age of 40 every man has the face he deserves". Which is it?
Orwell said 50, I say 40. They're both wrong. You don't have the
face you deserve. In Lisbon, not long ago, my wife saw an elephant man who made
you fall over backwards, he was so grotesque. He was quite a famous figure in
Lisbon. He didn't deserve that face. There are other things at work.
Charles Highway said, on the opening page of The Rachel
, that 20 was the real turning point. You weren't much older than
that when you wrote the line.
There is not much mention of your novels in Experience
this a conscious thing? Nabokov said, a propos
the same subject in the
Memory, that he felt "the trouble of writing them had been
enough, and that they should remain in the first stomach".
(Laughs) Yes, the trouble of writing them had been enough. It felt
like bad form to go on about one's own stuff. So, as with the whole book, it
wasn't as though I was fighting temptation, it was some internal regulatory
system was telling me, that's enough of that. When you writing a memoir, the
two poles of the experience are universality and particularity. You can't do
anything about your life in its details, and every life is full of odd-shaped
peculiarities that are not very unique, but what I wanted to stress, were the
more universal aspects, so that although my father and I are a very rare case,
we're also a very common case, that of father and son. Rare perhaps in that we
got on so well. The press tried to rig up an enmity between my father and me,
but it was not the case. I got on with my father better than any of my friends,
or anyone I knew, got on with theirs.
Duality and reversal are themes you consistently explore in your
fiction. Why are contradictory aspects so rarely embodied in the same character
in your work? Is it partly fuelled by a disparity between the public Martin
Amis and a self-image? Martin Amis and "Martin Amis"?
I don't think so, because I've always done it. I think it's just
that's the kind of writer I am. London Fields
is the best example in
that there are two babies in that book. One is hellish and one is heavenly, but
every parent knows that babies are both heaven and hell all at once. Maybe
another kind of writer would have had one baby, who was sometimes hellish and
sometimes heavenly, and they would not have had Guy Clinch and Keith Talent but
instead one character who was sometimes brutal and sometimes sensitive. I'm not
subtle; I like extremes. Someone once said of my work, and I didn't mind it at
all, that I deal with banalities delivered with tremendous force. That's fine
There's a literary precedent for duality. Among others, Nabokov
dealt with it in his novel
Your book reminded me of another Nabokov novel,
with its copious use of endnotes. His was contrived fictionally, with the real
tale being held by the parentheses. How was it for you?
It was one of those things that look like a big decision, but
wasn't any decision at all. I thought at once that I would have to have
footnotes, and my first thought was, this will make it fun to write, and it did
have that effect. It was a necessary way of letting off steam from usually
quite emotionally arduous material, and then you could have a footnote where
you just talked about James Joyce for a minute. Interesting that you should
. I made Kingsley read that when he was in hospital,
quite late on. He did read it, but he didn't tell me what he thought of it,
except that he didn't think much of it. But he wrote to Larkin, or Robert
Conquest, and said, "I managed to read Nabokov this time", and then he turned
the paper upside down in the typewriter, and wrote 'CRAP' backwards, so that it
looked like Cyrillic. He was never a great fan of Nabokov, although I could
quote Nabokov and make him laugh sometimes. But he did that hostile review of
philistine review, deliberately philistine. I couldn't interest him in any of
the people that I thought were good. He didn't really like prose. He liked his
own prose, and Anthony Powell, and that was about it, really. He liked one
novel by Evelyn Waugh,
Fall. His great passion was poetry, rather than prose.
, you quote a letter from your
17-year-old self in which you choose a number of "chaps" for your Oxford
Entrance. You chose Shakespeare, John Donne and Andrew Marvell, Coleridge and
Keats, Jane Austen, Wilfred Owen and Graham Greene. If you had to reduce it to
six, who would inhabit the pantheon now?
Well, Shakespeare certainly. Shakespeare is literature,
single-handedly responsible for the elevation of drama beyond its "hey nonny
non", village idiot constituency, which is where it belongs. So Shakespeare,
predominantly. James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, John Milton, Saul Bellow, and
then many candidates to make up the sixth.
Novelist Geoff Dyer commented that you "domesticated or
transformed a voltage that originated in America". Do you aspire to be an
American, possibly Jewish, novelist?
There's definitely an opening for a Jewish-American writer,
because the Jewish-American novel, which was the great engine of the world
novel in the second half of the 20th century, is over. All the great Jewish
writers are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and are not being replaced. Now that
I have two Jewish daughters, I feel I have an "in". It's something that's been
much misinterpreted, though. Since I said, five years ago, that one day I might
go and live in America, the whole of England has assumed that I live there now.
I've lived in London for nearly 40 years now without a break, and written
several novels about the place. The only real urge to move and go to America is
for stimulus, for a more chaotic society than England can now offer. I liked
England when there was more piss and vinegar around. I didn't like it in my
day-to-day life, but I liked it as a novelist, because we thrive on conflict
and inequality. We don't want this kind of success story that England is
becoming. I like to think that it's a successful, multi-racial society, but it
isn't. No society could ever quite be that, and it suddenly seems to be going
sour. It looked like an achievement, but it's now being whittled away by
various bastards and nutters. But still, as Saul Bellow says, and it's
absolutely true, "America's more like a world than a country". That's the
appeal of it. One thing you can absolutely say of England, is that it's the
greatest nation of poets there's ever been. Our novels don't stand up to the
Russians or the French, but our poetry fears no-one. That's a hell of a thing
to say for a country. And the greatest-ever poet was Shakespeare.
How will you follow up Experience
I'm doing another memoir, but it's a historical, polemical memoir.
It's about Bolshevism, basically, the connection being that Kingsley was a
communist into his 20s--Comrade Amis, he was at Oxford, and Iris Murdoch was
Comrade Murdoch--and two of my great friends, Christopher Hitchens and James
Fenton, were Trotskyites when we were working at the New Statesman
were out selling the Socialist Worker
on Kilburn High Street on Saturday
mornings, like the guys you still see today. You'll never get Christopher to
say, well, I was a bit misguided in those days, so we've got to have this sort
of debate. But then I just got completely fascinated by Lenin and Stalin, so
I'm going to do that, which will be about 70 pages, pamphlet length. And then I
can get back to the novel, which I was writing concurrently with
, but which, in truth, I would doodle with when I was writing
. There were days when I just wanted the relief of fiction.
And there's a book of essays to be clerked through, all my essays and book
reviews. So I'm feeling good and productive.