Martin Amis, Inside Story

Inside StoryInside Story by Martin Amis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never had much luck with Martin Amis. I put down Time’s Arrow for its tricksiness in my teens and have only gotten along with the nonfiction since: I missed Experience, but I like Koba the Dread and I love The War Against Cliché. Then there were political problems. He was a warrior not only against cliché but against terrorism. Let’s do the unpleasantness first. In 2006, Amis told an interviewer, to widespread outrage,

There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.

His politics have shifted, though, which I will discuss. In 2020, he told a New York Times interviewer (to the bemusement, rather than the anger, of social media),

Black identity in America, internally and moment by moment, is a perpetually turbulent state of being, death-haunted, and full of fear and rage…

What I think I have discovered about Martin Amis is that these statements, the racist one and the anti-racist one, are functionally the same. He’s not a political thinker. He has nothing useful to say about politics. He says Hitler’s bad, Stalin’s bad, terrorism’s bad, racism’s bad, Trump’s bad, blah blah blah, with occasional detours into horrorism when the liberal consensus takes a similar turn. He’s only a novelist (only! as if it weren’t the better thing to be). He channels the zeitgeist, or at least that of his class. In 2006 he transmitted the fashionable neoconservatism; in 2020 he transmits the fashionable Afropessimism—in both cases with the blunt, garbled, over-literalism of the boulevardier who picks up ideologies as objets d’art without understanding their inner logic. Which is just what a novelist should do. We read old novels to meet the ghosts of Christmases past, to study moeurs de province. But then the novelist shouldn’t play political pundit; it’s not his place; he has a better place prepared.

But for all this bad blood between Amis and me, how I could resist Inside Story? Autofiction may annoy if I have no reason to care about the writer’s life and friends and family—to say nothing of the writer’s style. But an autofiction promising attendance at the deathbeds of the author’s mentor and father figure Saul Bellow and his best friend Christopher Hitchens, autofiction as funereal celebrity gossip—that is irresistible, at least to bad people like me. And Inside Story goes down easy, a lot easier than Hitch’s beloved Johnnie Walker Black. It’s also very strange.[1]

The title ironically implies not only a behind-the-scenes tell-all, but also a monodrama, a subjective performance, an aging author’s late fantasy. When he was finished solving the riddle of African-American identity, Amis also told the Times interviewer that he’d been reading Melville’s swan-song Billy Budd, but he didn’t mention its mysterious subtitle: An Inside Narrative.[2]

This novel, or whatever it is, is one side of a conversation: Amis greets his reader, presumably a budding novelist, and promises to tell not only the story but also to dispense writing advice throughout. From here, Inside Story quickly becomes bizarre. Among Amis’s first pieces of literary wisdom is to avoid dreams, sex, and religion as subject matter; as for religious novelists—save Saul, of course—he even spares a moment to denounce Graham Greene, who “could hardly hold a pen,” whose “verbal surface is dull of ear,” and whose plots are “crassly tendentious.”

Yet pages later, we are dropped into this autofiction’s one apparently fictional strand, the tale of Amis’s youthful affair with the older businesswoman and escort Phoebe Phelps, an affair in which Phoebe, from some initially mysterious religious scruple, withholds sex from her young lover after their explosive initial foray. When Amis describes her clitoris as “a fist in a mink mitten” we may appreciate anew his counsel against dramatizing intercourse. So Amis dismisses erotic subject matter and derides Graham Greene—then flings a sex-farce update on The End of the Affair at us.

In The War Against Cliché Amis contrasts the Hispanophone novel, “playful, self-conscious, magical-realist,” with the “North Atlantic mainstream,” for which “realism provides a heavier undertow, modified not by fantasy but by irony.” I suspect that this ironic performance, this undermining of the novelist’s stodgy dicta by his free and effervescent narrative, is meant to be Inside Story’s real master class. The ironic pattern repeats even in his minutely verbal recommendations, as when he advises that prose should be free of “rhymes and chimes.” At first, I thought, “I like prose that rhymes and chimes! And anyway, what a thing for a Nabokovian to say, as if Lolita doesn’t rhyme and chime its way from ‘light of my life’ clear through to ‘aurochs and angels’!” Then I got the joke: “Don’t rhyme and chime,” the master rhymes and chimes.

Irony is not for its own sake. Or maybe it is in postmodern productions, but not in the “North Atlantic mainstream.” So what values is Amis so carefully guarding behind the hedge of ironic misdirection? You might not guess from the reviews, but his irony works to route us around the patriarchy, to topple his own posture of mastery.

The sex-farce of the Phoebe plot discloses a grimmer subtext when Amis learn, not very late in the novel, that his paramour’s hang-ups derive from early sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. When Phoebe returns in the middle of the novel to revenge herself on Amis for breaking up with her to start a family, she does so (on the day after 9/11 no less) by sending him a letter in which she claims to have heard from Kingsley Amis, in an attempt to seduce her, the secret of Martin’s parentage: Philip Larkin, not Kingsley, is our Mart’s real father! Larkin, the “poet from Hell,” or rather, Hull (“Hull is other people. Don Juan in Hull. The road to Hull is paved with good intentions”).

If the novel’s heroes are the life-loving Bellow and Hitchens, the perfect father and the ideal friend, then Larkin, poet of the unlived and unlivable life, stands in counterpoint. Larkin is not our villain, though, despite the well-known failings that Amis duly rehearses here. No, the villain is Larkin’s own father, Sydney, a Nazi sympathizer and tyrant of the private life. He was the one who made Philip that way (Amis doesn’t fail to quote it: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”), and he inspires Amis midway through the novel to this philippic:

Goodbye to the patriarchs, the little overlords, the goosers and gropers, the disseminators of disquiet, the wife crushers and daughter torturers, the fathers that everyone fears, the enemies of ease, the domestic totalitarians of the mid-twentieth century.

The problem for the younger reader is that the midcentury fathers are long gone, and their descendants—the sexually insurgent Boomers—seem the monuments to be pulled down now. Amis himself, for instance, and his elder mentor Bellow. Their revolution, the one that, per Larkin, allowed sexual intercourse to begin at long last in 1963, didn’t it curdle into tyranny almost right away? A few references to Roman Polanski in the text show some awareness of the general issue, but that Bellow may be such a monster to be slain, at least in some eyes (“How young was his last wife when he met her? and where did he meet her?” I imagine Twitter inquiring), is only ever whispered between the lines.

For all this novel’s showy hijinks, it is subtle. Lurking in its subtext are quiet intimations that for all their beautiful vitality, all their indispensability to Amis’s bildung, Bellow and Hitchens were wrong about some things. The novel’s first half, before the illness and death set in, and around the Phoebe Phelps thread, narrate Amis’s time in Jerusalem with Bellow in the ’80s and his time in France with his wife, Isabel Elena Fonesca, during the start of the Iraq War.[3]

Amis implies that Bellow was wrong to say, “It’s a garrison state…but it’s here. And without Israel, Jewish manhood would have been finished,” that this judgment, however historically explicable, involves a moral insensibility that Amis can no longer ignore, a “selective blindness” to Palestinian suffering. In the novel’s latter half, Bellow’s own manhood deliquesces under Alzheimer’s assault; the old man is presumably forgiven his transgressions, and his funeral scene—with Philip Roth plunging his bare hand into the grave-destined earth to strew it on the casket—is one of the novel’s best moments.

Samuel R. Delany pointed out somewhere that late-20th-century America was not a patriarchy—it would be run more reasonably, he said, if it were. Instead, it was a male filiarchy, governance by the sons, the sons of those cruel fathers dispatched by Amis, Hitchens, and Co.’s cultural revolution. Inside Story is one son’s valediction as those boys, now senescent, themselves shuffle off history’s stage.[4]

We turn now to the heart of the book, both thematic and emotional: Amis’s mesmerizing portrait of Hitchens in sickness and in health, of Hitchens at the end of his life.[5] For my generation, Hitchens was what Wordsworth was for Browning, “The Lost Leader,” as a few clever quoters have preceded me in saying: “Just for a handful of silver he left us, / Just for a riband to stick in his coat.” But Amis wouldn’t think this is fair, and neither do I. Hitch didn’t do it for money or to be on TV. Read more of Browning for the difference:

Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
—He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

So much for the tolerant left! “Slaves” there connotes, I assume, not the literally enslaved and oppressed, but rather conservatives, whom Browning saw as mindlessly enthralled to custom and tradition. Hitchens never stopped seeing himself in the vanguard, as the people’s crusader. Amis accurately captures Hitchens’s position on Iraq as “a neocon experiment that he supported (no, championed) from the standpoint of the hard left,” in contrast to his own role as a “quietly constant ameliorative gradualist of the centre-left.” To wax auto- myself: my own break with Marxism came with the understanding that Hitchens was right. He was no turncoat, no Judas: there is a solid Marxist case for the Iraq War. Why else, as I’ve asked here before, did Marx praise the British in India? You have to bring about—you even have to complete—the bourgeois revolution before socialism is possible, and the bourgeois revolutions of old, as much as any other revolutions, were made by force of arms, sometimes the arms of invaders.

I remember quarreling in about 2007 with a friend who was lustily denouncing Hawthorne’s skepticism about the Civil War. I asked him if he opposed the Iraq War. “Of course!” What did I think he was—a rube, some kind of Republican? And yet. Which of Hawthorne’s objections to the Civil War—to the Republicans—did not recur in our objections to Iraq? I remember coming back to my dorm from an anti-war protest in the winter of 2003 and turning on the TV to hear Bill Kristol smugly exclaim, “The left sounds like Henry Kissinger now!” Talk of imperialism just clouds the issue, as if “imperialism” is not how the Southern gentry saw “Northern aggression.” Throughout history conservatives warn against democratic violence, while radicals cry freedom over the bomb-blasts. With this Gordian Knot seen in its proper intricacy—I hope you don’t think I will loosen or sever it: no political punditry from novelists, remember?—I can stop berating the shade of Hitchens.

As Amis recounts, Hitch at least had the decency to be waterboarded—to give himself a taste of the savagery he’d summoned. I wish all intellectuals who advocate any form of political violence would do the same: let the revolutionaries bomb your country, burn down your house, torture your body. Yet Amis allows—an allowance tucked naturally in a footnote—that his and Hitch’s response to 9/11 may have been mistaken:

It would seem to follow that any generalised fear of Muslims—and all talk of a Third World War or even a ‘clash of civilisations’—is caused either by delusion or by political opportunism. A terrorist WMD will remain a possibility, but September 11 is already unrepeatable (in other words, the culmination came first, and out of a clear blue sky). Islamism has indeed changed the course of history, by scarring it with additional wars. For the West the lesson is this: the real danger of terrorism lies not in what it inflicts but in what it provokes.

Amis calls Hitchens “the essayist”—parallel to the novel’s other terminal cases, Bellow “the novelist” and Larkin “the poet”—and notes that few essayists are beloved as Hitchens was. Inside Story, despite its genre-bending, is a defense of the novel form. Amis’s theory of the novel implicitly pits comic reformist morals against tragic revolutionary or reactionary politics, the latter akin to the dead-end of literary fantasy or experiment:

Human beings are essentially social animals, and the anglophone novel is essentially a social form; it is in addition a rational form and a moral form. So one shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that, on the little planet called Fiction, social realism is the lone superpower. And although most modern writers, once or twice in their writing lives, will want to get out from under it and go off somewhere else, social realism still stands as their primary residence—their fixed address.[6]

Literary experimentalists can do anything they want—indeed, they have already done just that by confronting you with a literary experiment. Literary social realists are temperamentally drawn the other way: they embrace solid conventions, and then work within and around them; and as they embark on a novel they reflexively accept that certain social norms will still apply.

A strange passage in so experimental, if sociable, a novel; “experiment,” we recall, was also Amis’s word for the Iraq War. A decidedly non-moral, non-English Nietzschean or Freudian reading of Inside Story might emphasize Amis’s ambivalence, his disavowed will-to-power, his aggression against all his fathers and brothers, and see in his novelization of Larkin and Hitchens an assertion of positional superiority as novelist—as Kingsley’s and Bellow’s usurper/heir—against poet and essayist. He dissolves Larkin’s reactionary brittleness and Hitchens’s revolutionary solidity in the novel’s slow wash of time. With whatever unconscious motivation, he does it beautifully. Will Hitchens ever have a finer memorial than this, from a friend with whom he heard the chimes at midnight? Hitchens’s last words:

Yesterday Christopher was lying there alive but unstirring, with his mind in that region between deep sleep and light coma, and he softly articulated something. Alexander (and Steve Wasserman, also in attendance) drew closer and urged him to repeat it. He did so: ‘Capitalism.’ When Alexander asked if he had anything to add, he said faintly, ‘…Downfall.’ That was the Hitch, comprehensively unconverted—except when it came to socialism, and utopia, and the earthly paradise.[7]

[…]

‘Christ, it’s so radical of him to die,’ I said. ‘It’s so left wing of him to die.’

Socialism and utopia are death; the novel is life. Even the immortal life of the utopian socialist. Hitchens on his deathbed, almost unbearably poignant:

How young and handsome he was. How calmingly young and handsome. He looked like a thinker, a hard thinker, taking a brief rest, his neck bent back—to ease the strain of prolonged and testing meditations…Now reason slept, now the sleep of reason; he looked like Keats on his white bedding in Rome; he looked twenty-five.

The liberal novelist may quarrel with the left-wing essayist, but in prose he keeps his friend alive, a thing of beauty and a joy forever. What pundit could boast of such a miracle?
____________________

[1] Amis also includes plenteous footnotes; they contain some of the book’s best writing. It also has an index, which I haven’t checked yet for any Pale-Fire-style tricks.

[2] Amis mentions “autofiction,” but he mainly calls it “life writing,” apparently oblivious that this term is already in use to refer to biography, autobiography, memoir, diary, etc., not fiction inspired by life, and he traces it back, strangely, to Lawrence, not to the more obvious candidates Joyce, Proust, or Richardson (Dorothy, not Samuel, but we’ll have cause to mention the latter later).

[3] Incidentally, in conversation Amis calls his wife “Pulc,” short for pulchritude, which, okay, is pretty cute, but do people really talk this way?

[4] To leave us in the new era of female filiarchy, the command of the daughters. Not those “daughters of educated men” Virginia Woolf summoned to her side for a march through the institutions a century ago, but their daughters, the daughters of the educated feminist women Amis and Hitchens praised in their ’70s salad days with ironical fondness as “terrorists.” Will the daughters’ reign (e.g., “How women took over the military-industrial complex”) prove any less a disappointment than the junta installed by the midcentury tyrants’ randy sons? I suspect not: the problem with all -archies is not their opening gender and age modifications but rather that syllable in the middle: -arch, Greek for rule. Whereas I am with an earlier age’s son-in-revolt, Percy Shelley: “the man / Of virtuous soul,” he writes in Queen Mab, though I would not restrict it to men, “commands not nor obeys.”

[5] Amis’s portrait of Hitchens is so good that you can always see and hear the man in your head—but can Amis really take credit for capturing so famous a persona? Couldn’t we all venture an impression? On the other hand, is this a fair complaint? A reader couldn’t have made it before film, TV, and Internet. If YouTube were packed with clip after clip of Sir John Oldcastle’s antics, we might not be so impressed by Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

[6] That this isn’t strictly true—that modern realists are probably outnumbered by science-fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and pornographic writers—need not detain us: we know he means “The Great Tradition.” And there is a remarkable ideological consistency in the great tradition of the English novel that runs right from Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen through E. M. Forster and Iris Murdoch to Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith, nearly three centuries of “quietly constant ameliorative gradualis[m] of the centre-left”—though Amis dismisses Richardson as too boring to read and nominates Fielding instead the fount of the institution. The English dissidents to this consensus prove the point by seeking inspiration from other countries’ fiction: Virginia Woolf in the Russians, D. H. Lawrence in the Americans, Angela Carter in the French. Amis’s taste, too, ran to Jewish Americans, but this isn’t as far afield as it may seem. Cynthia Ozick observed that the 19th-century English realist novel was a Hebraicized form. And not only the 19th: distinct as they might have been stylistically and even thematically, was their any real disagreement between Iris Murdoch and Saul Bellow—whose dementia-ridden final days Amis compares and contrasts—about the nature and purpose of fiction?

[7] When Melville was writing Billy Budd, when he was an old and broken and forgotten man on the verge of death, he had pasted to his desk a motto from Schiller: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”