‘Anger isn’t my thing’

Martin Amis talks Trump, Brexit, age­ing and par­ent­ing with Emma Brockes

The Guardian - Weekend - - Starters Contents - The Rub Of Time, by Martin Amis, is pub­lished next month by Jonathan Cape at £20. To or­der a copy for £17, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

For the past nine months, Martin Amis has been liv­ing in his mother-in­law’s house, a grand, many-storeyed res­i­dence in down­town Man­hat­tan to which he and his wife, the nov­el­ist Is­abel Fonseca, de­camped af­ter a fire wrecked their home. This was the place in Brook­lyn where they had been liv­ing since 2011, and al­most a year af­ter the fire – the re­sult of a de­fec­tive chim­ney and which, Amis says, broke out on New Year’s Eve like “the last kick in the arse of 2016” – he still looks like a man who has suf­fered a shock. In the gloomy draw­ing room, he moves stiffly around nurs­ing a back in­jury, rue­fully enu­mer­at­ing the ways in which old houses can ruin one’s life. The prop­erty was sal­vage­able, but the cou­ple’s peace of mind was not, and they will soon be mov­ing to a new home, an apart­ment in a skyscraper in down­town Brook­lyn. “It’s on the 20th floor, so you are up there in the clouds,” he says. “It’s go­ing to be very heady, cer­tainly to be­gin with.”

It seems strangely fit­ting that, two years shy of his 70th birth­day, Amis should be plunged into a modern set­ting, al­though the very idea of Amis at 70 is some­how ab­surd. For many, he is frozen in time as he ap­peared in the late 1980s and early 1990s: young, rangy, bel­liger­ent, chuck­ing out ne­ol­o­gisms with a verve read­ers found ei­ther de­light­ful or al­to­gether too much. Amis as el­der states­man doesn’t com­pute, not for any lack of grav­i­tas on his part – he is, as al­ways, eru­dite, thought­ful, dis­in­clined to hold back for the sake of an eas­ier life – but rather for some qual­ity in his writ­ing, a youth­ful elas­tic­ity. He is still very much Amis, slyly com­ment­ing on the ab­sur­di­ties of his adopted Amer­i­can home, but this af­ter­noon his en­ergy seems tempered by a frailty of form. If an oc­ca­sional note of hes­i­ta­tion creeps in, it serves as a re­minder that, for even the bold­est among us, age is a process of be­com­ing steadily less sure.

The Rub Of Time, a col­lec­tion of es­says and re­portage, goes back to pieces writ­ten by Amis →

for Tina Brown while at Talk mag­a­zine – no­tably, a long piece about the porn in­dus­try in 2001 – to an in­ter­view with John Tra­volta for the New Yorker in 1995, to re­cent thoughts for Harper’s about Trump. (“Above all, per­haps,” he writes of Trump, “his an­ten­nae are very sen­si­tive to weak­ness... Trump can sense when an en­tity is no longer strong enough or lithe enough to evade pre­da­tion... The ques­tion is, can he do it with Amer­i­can democ­racy?”) The most com­pelling among these are his pieces about writ­ers, which suf­fer from none of the anx­i­ety that can mar his en­gage­ments with pop cul­ture. There is a crush­ingly good piece on Nabokov’s de­cline, but also won­der­ful es­says on the ge­nius of Larkin and JG Bal­lard, as well as lov­ing trib­utes to Iris Mur­doch, Saul Bel­low, Christo­pher Hitchens and Amis’s fa­ther, Kings­ley. “We are all of us held to­gether by words,” Amis writes in ref­er­ence to his fa­ther’s last days, “and when words go, noth­ing much re­mains.” Per­haps in­ad­ver­tently, the book has an ele­giac tone. In a piece about ten­nis, Amis wryly notes his own en­croach­ing de­crepi­tude: “The ball comes over the net like a strange sur­prise; you just stand there and watch un­til, with a senes­cent spasm, you bus­tle off to meet it.” (The use of “bus­tle”, here, a quin­tes­sen­tial Amis touch.)

If Amer­ica is, for Amis, an eas­ier place in which to grow old – fewer crit­ics, for a start – he re­tains an ex­pec­ta­tion that he and his wife will move home one day. “I miss the English,” he says. “I miss Lon­don­ers. I miss the wit. Amer­i­cans, they’re very, well, de Toc­queville saw this com­ing in about 1850 – he said, it’s a mar­vel­lous thing, Amer­i­can democ­racy, but don’t they know how it’s go­ing to end up? It’s go­ing to be so mushy that no one will dare say any­thing for fear of of­fend­ing some­one else. That’s why Amer­i­cans aren’t as witty as Brits, be­cause hu­mour is about giv­ing a lit­tle bit of of­fence.

It’s an as­ser­tion of in­tel­lec­tual su­pe­ri­or­ity. Amer­i­cans are just as friendly and tol­er­ant as Lon­don­ers, but they flinch from mock­ing some­one’s back­ground or ed­u­ca­tion.”

This is not an in­hi­bi­tion from which Amis suf­fers. His most re­cent spat in the Bri­tish press was over a piece he wrote for the Sun­day Times about Jeremy Cor­byn in 2015, in which he mocked Cor­byn’s lack of ed­u­ca­tion, among other things, and which was con­sid­ered by some to be un­for­giv­ably snob­bish, a case of pick­ing an un­fair fight with the poor man who wants to be prime min­is­ter. “Two E grades at A-level,” Amis says now. “That’s it. He cer­tainly has no au­to­di­dact streak. I mean, is he a reader? Hitler’s ed­u­ca­tion ended when he was 17. Stalin was an in­cred­i­ble reader. Balzac, Dick­ens. I’m go­ing back to all that now, be­cause it’s the an­niver­sary of the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion. Lenin has been very much down­graded and Stalin has been, not re­ha­bil­i­tated for his crimes, but for what he was be­fore the revo­lu­tion. Not just pub­lished, but an an­thol­o­gised poet. A life­long au­to­di­dact. And ca­pa­ble of po­lit­i­cal po­etry in a way Lenin wasn’t. But it does mat­ter if lead­ers have some sort of back­ing.”

Cor­byn’s suc­cess in the elec­tion has done noth­ing to raise Amis’s opinion of him. The Labour leader is, he says, “more cau­tious now, but still grimly ide­o­log­i­cal, and an ad­mirer of tyrants – Chávez, Putin”, the ben­e­fi­ciary of a de­ranged elec­torate that, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, gave rise to Brexit and Trump. “It’s a sort of rest­less de­sire for change,” Amis says. “And also – this sounds like a con­spir­acy the­ory – but the in­ter­net, for all its in­cred­i­ble ben­e­fits, has had a stu­pe­fy­ing ef­fect, I think. It was al­ways a Pan­dora’s box – its part in ter­ror­ism is ma­lign. And it has made it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to con­cen­trate.”

There’s a good line in one of the es­says in the book: “We grant that ha­tred is a stim­u­lant but it shouldn’t be­come an in­tox­i­cant.” Amis is re­fer­ring to the sharp­ness of some of his friend Christo­pher Hitchens’s work, but it might stand as a de­scrip­tion of the in­ter­net. “Isn’t it amaz­ing, the wells of ha­tred? It’s a shame­ful con­fes­sion, in a way, but I’ve never looked at so­cial me­dia.” Mo­men­tar­ily, his con­fi­dence re­treats. “I was amazed when Sal­man did Twit­ter,” he says of an­other friend, Rushdie. But he did quit. Yes, Amis says, but “why take it on in the first place?”

It may be harder, in some ways, to be Amer­i­can than Bri­tish – the terms of suc­cess in the US are nar­rower, with a greater em­pha­sis on in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity, so that, Amis says, there is “no hon­ourable with­drawal” – but it is un­doubt­edly an eas­ier place in which to be a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist. Be­ing the writer son of a fa­mous nov­el­ist fa­ther was al­ways go­ing to play both ways for Amis, al­though he main­tains that most of his early nov­els, from The Rachel Pa­pers on­wards, were writ­ten in rel­a­tive dark­ness. By the time he wrote Money in 1984, and Lon­don Fields a few years later, lit­er­ary nov­el­ists had been co-opted into celebrity cul­ture. These were Amis’s rep­u­ta­tion-mak­ing nov­els in com­par­i­son with which, and with a cer­tain sadistic de­light, re­view­ers judged later books to fall short. (Lionel Asbo, pub­lished in 2012, got a tough time, not least for the ridicu­lous name of its an­ti­hero, but this was noth­ing com­pared with Ti­bor Fis­cher’s as­sess­ment of 2003’s Yel­low Dog, which Fis­cher likened to “your favourite un­cle be­ing caught in a school play­ground, mas­tur­bat­ing”; Amis re­sponded, “He’s a wretch.”)

Among his Bri­tish crit­ics, Amis ex­cites a pe­cu­liarly an­gry com­men­tary, partly on mat­ters of sub­stance and partly for rea­sons of style. No mat­ter how many times he in­sists he grew up in shabby bo­hemia, he is ear­marked as posh, or at the very least grand (he pro­nounces Darth Vader to rhyme with Prada), and whether real or a pose, his louche in­dif­fer­ence to crit­i­cism only adds oil to the fire. When he moved to Amer­ica, it was spec­u­lated with some glee that he was flee­ing the press, which Amis is adamant wasn’t the case.

None­the­less, he is happy to have es­caped some el­e­ments of Bri­tish lit­er­ary cul­ture. Amer­i­can nov­el­ists, Amis says, are less fev­er­ish about peck­ing or­der than the Bri­tish. “They’re more re­al­is­tic about it. Ber­ry­man, when Robert Frost died, said, ‘It’s scary. Who’s num­ber one?’ Very un­sen­ti­men­tal. At least sta­tus anx­i­ety is overt →

‘ The in­ter­net has a stu­pe­fy­ing ef­fect. I was amazed when Sal­man did Twit­ter. Why take it on?’

here. And I think writ­ers have a bet­ter time from the press here than in Eng­land. My his­tor­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion is that Amer­i­cans won­dered what sort of coun­try they were liv­ing in, a new, young coun­try, and sub­lim­i­nally saw that writ­ers would play a part in telling them; not just a col­lec­tion of Ital­ians, Ger­mans, Jews, but a real na­tion. In Eng­land, they don’t want to be told what they are. They’re quite clear on that, thank you very much.”

He gives it a mo­ment’s fur­ther re­flec­tion. “And they think writ­ers are just pre­ten­tious ego­ma­ni­acs.”

If the elec­tion of Trump struck Amis with greater force than the dis­as­ter of Brexit, it is be­cause, it seemed to him, it came more out of the blue. On elec­tion night in the US, he and his wife an­tic­i­pated a win for Hil­lary Clin­ton, and were “rub­bing our hands to­gether over the size of the land­slide”. The next day, he was put in mind of some­thing Se­bas­tian Haffner, the Ger­man his­to­rian, said af­ter Hitler came in. “He said the feel­ing was not of hor­rror; it was of com­plete un­re­al­ity. You go out into the street and peo­ple look dif­fer­ent. The com­merce, the cars; it all looks staged for your ben­e­fit. Com­pletely make-be­lieve. A sick-mak­ing feel­ing. And here it is. And what the fuck did they ex­pect?”

We have walked down the street to a Ja­panese res­tau­rant where pe­ri­od­i­cally, over lunch, Amis will stand up to re­lieve his back. (He has not, his­tor­i­cally, suf­fered from back pain – “the perks of be­ing short” – but he hurt it re­cently.) Look­ing back over the decades, he thinks Trump has suf­fered a hor­rific men­tal de­cline. “If you look at old tapes of him on [US talk­show] Char­lie Rose, us­ing words like ‘cha­grin’ cor­rectly. And with a cer­tain amount of ironic re­serve.” There is, Amis says, a ques­tion of “de­men­tia”.

The Hitler anal­ogy, mean­while, is one that strikes many, even on the left, as un­help­fully in­fla­tion­ary. Ac­tu­ally, Amis says, it is wrong for sev­eral rea­sons, not least be­cause, “It’s al­ways been Mus­solini and not Hitler. Mus­solini was com­pletely ridicu­lous. He claimed he knew every lan­guage on Earth.”

But also, he says, be­cause Trump’s am­bi­tions don’t quite fit the to­tal­i­tar­ian mould. “The slo­gan, which I used to see on bridges in Italy in the 1970s, was Mus­solini Is Al­ways Right. Trump is that crazy, and that boast­ful, and that de­luded. Even Mus­solini had a few good years be­fore he lost it. But peo­ple like Hitler and Stalin wanted to change hu­man na­ture. That’s what to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism is. Trump doesn’t want to make a to­tal claim on you as an in­di­vid­ual. He wants to stay in power, and that’s about it.”

The ques­tion of im­peach­ment, Amis sus­pects, is wish­ful think­ing, though he sug­gests that a par­tic­u­lar or­der of world event could push Trump over the edge. “I am, in a way, thirsty for an in­ter­na­tional cri­sis,” he says, per­haps un­aware of how this comes across. “Not with North Korea; he’s itch­ing to do that and thinks he’ll get the No­bel peace prize if he wipes it off the map. But I want some­thing re­ally tick­lish, like the hostage cri­sis af­ter the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion, where he’s not go­ing to reach for the but­ton, but peo­ple are go­ing to see him un­der stress.”

But, Amis adds, we shouldn’t un­der­es­ti­mate Trump’s tal­ent for stok­ing up un­rest. “Trump is try­ing to stock up an army of neo-Nazis who, if he gets ousted be­fore his term is over, are go­ing to think it’s a coup. They’ve all got huge guns; that’s a sword to hold over the sit­u­a­tion. That’s what they’re scared of.” This neo-Nazi el­e­ment, which pre­dates Trump, but which he has been very shrewd at ex­ploit­ing, is some­thing Amis sees as the last stand against Obama by the kind of Amer­i­can who “be­fore 2008 could look out of his trailer and say, I may not be much, but I’m bet­ter than a black man. Then they see Obama, so hand­some and witty and learned, and think, can I re­ally say that?” Racism ex­ists in Bri­tain, of course, but he con­sid­ers it a cat­e­gory dif­fer­ence. “It’s not to do with ha­tred from the gut.”

He wishes Hitchens could have been around to wres­tle with Trump. In the new book, their friend­ship is very touch­ingly por­trayed – they knocked around in their 20s when they worked on the New States­man and part of the rea­son Amis de­cided to move to Amer­ica was to be closer to Hitchens dur­ing the fi­nal days of his cancer, “hop­ing for a last spell with him. It was un­clear how long he would live.” But Hitchens died in 2011, much sooner than Amis ex­pected. He was in de­nial all through his friend’s last days. At the hos­pi­tal in Hous­ton, Amis spoke on the phone to Ian McE­wan, who brought up some­thing caus­tic Amis had writ­ten in a draft es­say about Hitchens, a cri­tique of his ter­ri­ble puns. “And Ian said, you’re not wrong about that, but does he need that when he’s dy­ing? And I didn’t say it, but I wanted to say, but he’s not dy­ing!”

But he was. “It’s an aw­ful thing, a death watch,” Amis says. “Es­pe­cially now, be­cause you have the ma­chines telling you progress. The blood pres­sure falls. Hu­man na­ture be­ing what it is, you ac­tu­ally want it to end.” He wasn’t there for the very end. It was Hitchens’s son, Alexan­der, who in­formed →

Amis of his fa­ther’s now-fa­mous last words: “Cap­i­tal­ism. Down­fall!” Amis smiles. “Still the street fighter so­cial­ist.”

It sounds sen­ti­men­tal, he sup­poses, but af­ter his friend’s death, Amis felt he had to take on some of his qual­i­ties. “He had a greater love of life than me. He re­ally en­joyed ev­ery­thing, so much. I quite like life, but I’m not as crazy about it as he was. It some­how for­mu­lated it­self in me that, now he was dead, it was my job to love life as much as he did. It hasn’t gone away.”

And in this age of po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion, one thing Amis is adamant about is the ab­sur­dity of los­ing old friends over pol­i­tics. They dis­agreed vi­o­lently about the Iraq war, which Hitchens sup­ported. “He just hated Sad­dam, from the left, not the right. Al­though this drove him into some weird po­si­tions, like sup­port­ing Bush/Cheney in the re-elec­tion year, 2004. He would’ve given any­thing for a good out­come. But you’re not go­ing to get a good out­come if you in­vade a coun­try like Iraq, ex­pect­ing peo­ple to wel­come you for in­vad­ing them.” But to have lost Hitchens as a friend over this would have been “self-right­eous”. He saw it hap­pen to his fa­ther, who “lost a lot of friends over Viet­nam. And great friends, like Al Al­varez and Karl Miller. You can’t af­ford that. As Hitch said, you can’t make old friends.”

Amis is cur­rently writ­ing an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel – “that I in­sist is a novel” – fea­tur­ing not only Hitch, but Larkin and Bel­low, as well as Amis’s late step­mother, the nov­el­ist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who mar­ried his fa­ther in 1965, when Amis was a teenager. The mar­riage lasted un­til 1983, but Amis and Howard were in touch, and close, he says, un­til the end of her life in 2014, though he re­tains some ves­tiges of guilt about an ear­lier phase of their re­la­tion­ship. “One of the perks of be­ing the son of a writer is not that you come au­to­mat­i­cally equipped to write nov­els, it’s that you don’t bother much about praise. Kings­ley never both­ered much about praise and dis­praise. My step­mother did care. She was des­per­ate for praise, and very much wanted it from me.”

But for a while in the 1980s, af­ter the mar­riage ended, Amis en­tirely re­fused to en­gage with her work. “I stopped read­ing her out of spite, be­cause it was so dis­rup­tive when she dumped my fa­ther. His three chil­dren had to ro­tate to look af­ter him.”

Re­cently, Amis read the Caza­let books, Howard’s fam­ily saga that spans five vol­umes, and was “in­cred­i­bly im­pressed, par­tic­u­larly by the first two. Re­ally mar­vel­lous, flashes of ge­nius. In this au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel that I’m writ­ing, I’m go­ing to do some wish ful­fil­ment. The Caza­let nov­els were a fan­tas­tic achieve­ment, and in this novel I’m go­ing to tell her.”

Af­ter the demise of his first mar­riage to An­to­nia Phillips in 1993 – he left her for Fonseca – his own fam­ily life has been low in drama. One gets the feel­ing that Fonseca in­su­lates him from a lot of the both­ers of daily life; he ad­mits she han­dled ev­ery­thing af­ter the fire. He has been a do­mes­tic crea­ture for a long time, even when his chil­dren were young, pre­fer­ring to work in the house, as Kings­ley did, rather than go to an of­fice. His eldest three, two boys and a girl, are now well into adult­hood, but his two youngest daugh­ters, to his de­light, aren’t quite off his hands yet; 21-year-old Fer­nanda is a stu­dent at NYU and Clio, the youngest, is at 18 still liv­ing at home. Amis is hop­ing against hope she won’t opt for col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia.

Be­ing a fa­ther has, he says, been vi­tally im­por­tant to his life as a nov­el­ist. “I know a nov­el­ist who made the de­ci­sion, very much thwart­ing his wife, not to have chil­dren, be­cause he thought it would in­ter­rupt. And I thought: you’re so wrong. It’s a huge part of life that you’re ex­clud­ing your­self from.” Of course, he adds, “quite a few other writ­ers who’ve never had chil­dren – Philip Roth; Don DeLillo – write beau­ti­fully about chil­dren. But I was very broody. I did want kids. I was com­pletely fed up with be­ing sin­gle as well. I wanted to see a fresh face. Hav­ing chil­dren can’t help but open you out.”

What kind of par­ent was he when his kids were young? Not a shouter, he says. “Anger isn’t my thing.” When his boys were mis­be­hav­ing, their mother, his first wife, would tell him to go in and lay down the law, but on the rare oc­ca­sions he did, it didn’t go well. “Both my wives were ca­pa­ble of hav­ing a good shriek, but I can’t do it. It bores me, which is in­fu­ri­at­ing to my wife.” How does he ex­press anger?

“I have a man­ner­ism that drives my wife crazy.” He looks away and does a mild tut. But, he says, “I do feel that, along with a har­mo­nious mar­riage, hav­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with your chil­dren is the main bit.”

He and Is­abel have, he says, been “lucky in all sorts of ways”. They can al­most laugh about the fire now, at least at Fonseca’s ini­tial re­ac­tion. She was in Florida when it hap­pened, and when Amis called to tell her the house was on fire and there were six fire en­gines out­side, she said, in her de­range­ment, “When the fire­men come, could you ask them to take off their boots be­fore they go up­stairs?”

Now in their tem­po­rary res­i­dence, work con­tin­ues. Even here, Amis notices he has mel­lowed some­what. He used to be a ter­ri­ble purist about the terms on which read­ers should en­gage with his work. “Dry­den said in the 17th cen­tury that the pur­pose of art is to de­light and in­struct, with the em­pha­sis on de­light. Be­cause in­struc­tion is not al­ways de­light­ful, but de­light is al­ways in­struc­tive. And it has stood up very well.” He con­cedes it has taken him a while to get there. “I was snooty at some ra­dio event where peo­ple read your novel – it was Lon­don Fields – and then you take ques­tions from them, and a lady said, ‘I’m sorry, but I strug­gled with it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t care about the char­ac­ters.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m afraid you should re­ally not be think­ing about that. You should be think­ing about what the au­thor’s try­ing to do.’ But I think she was dead right.” It is the truth be­fore which all mat­ters of style melt away. “You have to give a shit.” •

‘ It some­how for­mu­lated in me that, now that he’s dead, it’s my job to love life as much as Hitch did’

Young Amis (on right) with his par­ents and sib­lings in 1956; and in the 80s. Right: with wife Is­abel Fonseca

Amis at his moth­erin-law’s house in Man­hat­tan, Au­gust 2017. He and his wife de­camped there af­ter a fire wrecked their home on New Year’s Eve

Amis (right) with Ian McE­wan and Christo­pher Hitchens, 2004. Right: Amis’s step­mother, Elizabeth Jane Howard

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