Amis in America: A talk with the British author
Friday, September 14, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) — As Mo Farah surged ahead in the 5,000 meters and Jessica Ennis leaped to a gold medal in the heptahlon, the Olympians were cheered on by an author and fellow Briton known best for his sprinting portraits of decline.
"I followed it rather eagerly, astounded by how well England did," says Martin Amis. "It's curious, because sometimes you're watching a tennis match and you think, 'I don't care who wins this.' But after 20 minutes your body sort of decides. And when I sit down to watch anything involving England, or Britain, my body has decided when I sit down."
Amis was not a guest at London's Olympic Stadium or in attendance anywhere nearby. Since the summer of 2011, he has been a resident of the United States, that land of "make-believe" and "false destiny," he once called it, but also home to such literary heroes as Saul Bellow and an ocean away from the press he has combatted since the start of his career.
He is abroad, but not in exile. Private matters brought him here: His mother-in-law is ailing, so Amis and family have settled on a quiet side street in Brooklyn, home to authors from Paula Fox to Jonathan Safran Foer. Unlike his late, and missed friend Christopher Hitchens, Amis has no plans to apply for U.S. citizenship.
"I have that rather cool visa, where 'exceptional contribution' means you get a three-year visa, renewable," he says, seated at a small table in the front room of the townhouse he shares with his wife, Isabel Fonseca, and their two daughters.
His credentials — his "exceptional contribution" — are as easy to verify as a file of press clippings or the "A'' shelf in one of Brooklyn's fine bookstores. He has written more than 20 books, from fierce, dystopian novels such as "Money" and "London Fields" to the autumnal memoir "Experience." A child not only of Bellow and Joyce and Nabokov, but of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Amis has for 40 years embodied the author as rock star — celebrated, sensationalized and (verbally) spanked.
His new book is the entirely British "Lionel Asbo: State of England," and the title character is the author's latest specimen of what Amis has called "reptile modernity." He's a thug and jailbird beholden to theft, brutality and pornography. His last name is an acronym for Anti-Social Behavior Order (a designation in British law). His luck changes, comically, when he wins the lottery and becomes the latest meal for the British media.
Misbehavior has been Amis' subject since his 1973 debut, "The Rachel Papers," and the crime rate in his books is a match for London's roughest neighborhoods, whether the everyday loutishness of Lionel Asbo or the unique horrors of the Holocaust and Stalin's reign in the novels "Time's Arrow" and "House of Meetings."
"Violence is what I hate most, is what baffles me and disgusts me most," says Amis, currently working on a short novel about the Holocaust. "Writing comes from silent anxiety, the stuff you don't know you're really brooding about and when you start to write you realize you have been brooding about it, but not consciously. It's terribly mysterious."
The book is also a sendup of fame, which Amis has known firsthand for much of his adult life. He is the son of "Lucky Jim" novelist Kingsley Amis and has reaped bittersweet rewards for choosing the same career. His books so startled the once-genteel British literary community that they have been likened to "a boom box at a harpsichord recital." The press, in turn, has magnified his private life, whether the repair work on his teeth, his various romances or his switching agents years ago from Pat Cavanaugh (wife of fellow author Julian Barnes) to Andrew Wylie.
Amis is now 62, a grandparent, lean in a light buttoned shirt and dark pants, thinning gray hair brushed back. The alleged "angriest man" in letters is friendly and reflective. The scowl of a thousand jacket photos and publicity shots is indisposed, in its place a warm, shy smile.
An upstart to his parents' generation, Amis has been watching the clock for decades. "When middle age comes, you think you're dying all the time," he wrote in "London Fields," published when Amis was 40. Upon turning 50, he felt as if his life were thinning out, only to have it replenished by thoughts (and second thoughts) of the past. And 60? "The sentence you keep saying to yourself: 'This can't turn out well,'" he explains with a laugh. "This is going to end in tears, as, of course, all human lives do."
Fatalities are common in "Lionel Asbo" and the author's knowledge of death has only deepened since he began writing it. In June 2010, Amis' mother, Hilary Amis, died. Soon after, he received a call from his friend and fellow novelist, Ian McEwan, telling him about a "heavy thing" that had just occurred. Amis believed at first that McEwan was discussing his mother; the "heavy thing" was the diagnosis of cancer given to Hitchens, who would die last December at age 62. "Lionel Asbo" is dedicated to him.
Amis and Hitchens had been the closest of friends since the mid-1970s and they would praise each other as only men of the highest minds and flesh could. Theirs was "a love," Amis once said, "whose month is ever May." Replied Hitchens in "Hitch-22," a memoir published in 2010: "The most heterosexual relationship" possible between two young men, an "inexhaustible conversation about womanhood" that lasted through "several episodes of sexual drought as well as through some periods of embarrassment of riches."
Mortality is a conscious subject for Amis, and, at times, an unspoken backdrop. A recent reading under the Brooklyn Bridge, where he spoke of Hitchens and growing old, was at sunset, fading bands of yellow painted across the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. His interview the next day began in the late afternoon, a cloudy one, and lasted into early evening.
"When you're young, you're saying to the world, 'Hi, here I am, here the world is. 'Hi.' And then as you get older, that 'Hi' turns into 'Bye,'" Amis says, paraphrasing a passage from "The Information," published in 1995, when he was 36. "You're now in a leave-taking mode, but it all seems fresh to you in a different way. You were going this way, and now you're going that way and it all looks slightly different and slightly wonderful and tremendously valuable and precious."
Born in Swansea, South Wales in 1949, Amis had decided as a teenager that he wanted to be a writer, even before reading his father's books. He finally got to "Lucky Jim" at age 18 and "nearly killed myself laughing." Amis has called writing the act of a "hundred hunches," and one smart move, he says, was not waiting too long to begin his first book, "otherwise you get too self-conscious."
Preparing to take life's "final lap," he looks back in two ways. As a man, well, he confesses that sex is on the brain, from old girlfriends to his current wife. "That side of things," he says brightly, "went pretty well." As a writer, he is more critical. His early work seems "incredibly crude, technically crude." Whatever speed he might have lost is more than balanced by discipline and technique, the knowledge of "where things should go."
The author thinks the British press may suffer from "Amis" fatigue. Kingsley Amis was first published 60 years ago and father and son have kept the family name in the news ever since. It's as if, Amis jokes, they have merged into a single, ongoing serial.
And the story may not end with Martin. Amis notes that his two sons from his first marriage, Louis and Jacob, each may have a career in letters — Louis as a historian, Jacob as a reporter. And the daughters from his current marriage, both in their teens, have showed enough talent to make the author think they could turn out better than him.
In the house of Amis, the month is ever May.
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