In his latest “novel”, the writer dishes on Christopher Hitchens, Philip Larkin, and Saul Bellow, among others
Even though Martin Amis officially calls his new book Inside Story “a novel”—it’s right there in large print on the cover, under the title and the author’s famous name—and even though Amis himself insists as much, calling the book a novel doesn’t quite do it justice. Some critics have called it “autofiction” or the airy phrase “life writing” but these terms don’t really apply either. Inside Story is a potent mix of narratives. Combining novelistic elements with large sections devoted to memoir, travelogue, political criticism, and writing advice, Amis strikes another blow in his famous “war against cliché.” This time, it’s not just threadbare phrases like “the heat was stifling” or “she rummaged in her purse.” Now he’s taking on the conventions of the novel as we’ve come to know it. Call it whatever you want; Inside Story is as vivid, amusing, and moving as any of his best work.
In one of many authorial interludes, Amis muses about the possible difficulties in reviewing this book might be. Reading it at a steady pace might be a drag. Approaching a text that tends to intuitively swerve and shift, as memories dredged up from the distant past tend to do, also might be a drag.
The chapters alternate between telling the possibly fictionalized tale of the alluring Phoebe Phelps, who kept young Amis enthralled and at arm’s length during his besotted youth, to describing what it was like to watch his old friend Christopher Hitchens die far too young and his literary mentors Philip Larkin and Saul Bellow gradually give way to old age. As someone who read the book with the conscious intention of reviewing it, he shouldn’t have worried so much. The almost chatty authorial voice flows like a rooftop conversation conducted at night, a drink in hand, gazing over a city skyline.
Amis uses this exact situation as a framing device that imagines the reader as a guest in the writer’s home in Brooklyn. The one-liners crackle: “I’d say that Henry James had been working on his last words since about 1870.” “As a non-reclusive man of letters from the British Isles, I could not but have encyclopedic experience of the effects of alcohol.” “I had gone insane. Because I had a secretary.” “My love life Hitchens called Peyton Place, intending to evoke a series of coarsely repetitive encounters between members of the petty bourgeoisie.”
If you’re already a fan of Hitchens, Larkin, or Bellow—and if you’re not fond of at least two of these three, you’re definitely missing out—this is a rare chance to see what it was like to hang out with such illustrious company. Larkin, the poet laureate of quietly desperate English life, comes across as the mopey misanthrope you’d expect, and yet his long frenemy-ship with Kingsley Amis, Martin’s hedonistic comic novelist father, gets a thorough and sensitive treatment. Even with such eminent writers, apparently it’s all about the girls. Kingsley couldn’t and wouldn’t stop his prodigious shagging and boozing while his myopic best friend sat alone most nights, writing lonely poems about how “they fuck you up, your mum and dad” which Larkin’s fascist father certainly did.
Speaking of fathers, Amis was lucky enough to have the eminent Saul Bellow symbolically take on the role after his own father finally shuffled off into that great big pub in the sky. Novelists are uniquely suited to write memoirs, since they are inclined to pay attention to the little glimpses of personality, the way people hold a glass, how they laugh. We learn how contemplatively Bellow took his last years, with a certain wintry grace in Vermont, and how Amis feared that the talent that had produced The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog (an unconventional bestseller in its day) might have left him before everything else did.
With all the different figures in Amis’ life, the most constant was The Hitch, as Amis affectionally calls him. Amis provides a few vivid scenes of what it was like to knock back some Johnny Walker Black and ponder the number of premature ejaculations caused by religious guilt throughout human history during a long lunch while the two worked at The New Statesman in the ‘70s. Amis is affectionately aware of how incorrigibly feisty The Hitch truly was. While everyone else was relaxing in a hotel pool, Hitch would put on a jacket, head to the bar, and seek out as many arguments as he could find. His quixotic support for the Iraq War apparently bothered him more than he would ever admit, and it’s kind of reassuring to see how his sympathetic but wary friends didn’t share his gung-ho attitude towards the war.
Ideology aside, the love that Amis had for the inimitable Hitch is moving. How carefully and lovingly he describes watching the long, slow agony of his great friend’s death. It’s kind of beautiful to hear how The Hitch was writing and reading (and even smoking!) in his last days. No spoilers, but his last words show the old radical street fighter was still down for a good argument, even up to literally his last breath. Amis marvels to Hitch’s son “your father’s not dying at sixty-two. He’s about seventy-five, I’d say—because he never, ever went to sleep…Christ, it’s so radical of him to die. It’s so left wing of him to die.”
For all his skill with words and his eminent coterie, Amis understands that writers aren’t necessarily that special. They do all the things the rest of us do; the muses don’t shoo away the usual chores of life. It’s not enough to repeat the cliché that their work lives on. Usually it doesn’t.
Yet writing creates an invisible circuit with the reader which can overcome any ordinary boundary of space and time. In one poignant scene, an eighteen year old Amis looks up at a random London window and sees a light on, someone reading, oblivious to all the world. “That would enough,” he vows to himself, “even if I never write, complete, publish anything at all, ever, that would be enough. A padded seat and a standard lamp (and of course an open book). That would be enough. Then I’d be a part of it.” Many decades and books later, Inside Man is a powerful testament to a life in literature.
(Knopf, October 27)