Saturday, June 3, 2023

Martin Amis, Remembered by Writers

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In 1987, when I was at university studying English literature, Martin Amis came to town for a reading and signing at the student bookstore. He was a literary celebrity, this being an era in which those two words could be juxtaposed without irony, and we undergraduate fans were so numerous that—in my memory, if probably not in actual fact—some of us, finding no chairs available, resorted to sitting cross-legged at his feet, like eager children in a kindergarten class. That would be an unusually swear-filled, scabrous kindergarten class, naturally. Though Amis was there to promote “Einstein’s Monsters,” his very bleak, very scary, very scared book about nuclear weapons, he was at the time best known for his dark comic novel “Money.” That book had been published three years earlier, and was avidly passed around among my peers, to be read between our assignments on Chaucer or Coleridge.

To an English student studying English at an English university—an institution that Amis, too, had attended a generation earlier—Amis exuded a kind of transatlantic glamour, despite being thoroughly English himself. Later that night, I wrote in my diary that, during the Q. & A. session at the bookstore, “Amis had been talking about a New York expression, ‘schmoozing,’ which is like talking business in semi-social situations, making contacts, learning names.” I’d never heard the word before, and was delighted, as Amis clearly also had been, by its concision and felicity. I’d never been to New York, or even read much American literature. My impression of the city at the time was to a disproportionate degree informed by “Money,” which opens with its antihero, John Self, getting into an altercation with a cabdriver on the “industrial corsetry of FDR Drive”—perfect expression—before landing at his hotel in midtown. “I heard the ragged hoot of sirens, the whistles of two-wheelers and skateboarders, pogoists, gocarters, windsurfers,” Amis had written. “I saw the barrelling cars and cabs, shoved on by the power of their horns. I felt all the contention, the democracy, all the italics, in the air.” A year later, I would move to that irresistible city and spend the next three decades of my life there, learning American; and although it would not be entirely true to say that every single time I schmoozed, or was schmoozed, I remembered Amis’s language tutorial, I’ll say it anyway. —Rebecca Mead

“Martin Amis has died.” Those four words were—are—so shocking because they contain a contradiction. Seventy-three seems a reasonable age to reach—it’s not as though his career was nipped in the bud—but his work was so indelibly associated with the energy and vigor of youth that it seems as if he was cut down in a prime that had, in fact, passed. It was as though he were still smoking in the bike sheds when he had become the headmaster, at once rebellious and stern. The writing had an inimitable (if much imitated) swagger even after it started to shuffle and falter. He made writing, and reading his writing, seem such fun that it was easy to forget the formidable work ethic that fuelled such a prolifically unrationed body of work.

He was the most American English writer there has ever been. It’s hard to imagine any writer enjoying greater success, acclaim, fame, and influence, but among his group of pals—Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes—he was the least rewarded with prizes. The only one of his novels to have been short-listed for the Booker was “Time’s Arrow.” “Money,” unbelievably, didn’t make the list. (Equally mysterious, “Yellow Dog,” which was terrible, somehow appeared on the longlist.) It’s not hard to fathom the reasons for this gap between scale of reputation and relative dearth of prizes. The white-water torrent of work was amazing, but no big novel, considered on its own, achieved anything like formal perfection. Being able to out-paragraph everyone does not mean you can out-book them. And prizes, anyway, are often awarded on the basis of a consensus. Judges need first a list and then a winner they can all live with. Amis’s work elicited such strong feelings for and against that, I’m guessing, someone always over-my-dead-bodied the book in question. He was such an exceptional writer that there was always something to take exception to. That’s part of his greatness and legacy. —Geoff Dyer

I first read the novels of Martin Amis in the mid-two-thousands. He existed for me at the other end of a long pair of mental barbecue tongs. My friends and I missed school to protest the U.K.’s declaration of war on Iraq in 2003. Amis, along with Christopher Hitchens, was among the loudest of the many adults who discussed Islam in public, in ways that made it seem that they did not know what they were talking about.

His literary criticism hardened my bias against him. This century saw him often quoted in the newspapers railing against cliché and proclaiming his commitment to “style.” His novels abound, however, in repetition. Everybody is deliquescent to him, everything a cassoulet. Feeling something like pity, I closed “House of Meetings” and then the markets crashed.

Inside Story,” published in 2020, changed my mind. Amis writes conversation—real conversation, recalled—the way a bell rings. People say they love the “casualness” of Amis’s writing, but I think they often mean that he wrote dialogue properly, the way people actually talk. It can be tricky to connect with a writer walled off from you by circumstance. It’s not impossible. As a young person, I had little appreciation for the nuances of written conversation, and no patience for my elders. Now that I can read differently, I’m excited to start again. —Jo Livingstone

Finding out that Martin Amis had died felt like the moment on the first page of “Money” when the taxi John Self is taking from J.F.K. to midtown Manhattan hits a divot in the road, causing his head to thud against the roof. “I really didn’t need that, I tell you, with my head and face and back and heart hurting a lot all the time anyway,” the hard-living, jet-lagged Self complains. Amis was one of my heroes, the living writer who’d brought me more delight than any other, an unfailing source of laughter and courage. So, no, I really didn’t need this at all.

Fittingly enough, his death has precipitated an orgy of quotation, as people return to the books and share their favorite passages online. For me, however, this describes an ordinary week: I am always rereading Amis, especially the journalism. I do it for pleasure, of course, but not only for pleasure. Writing book reviews and interviewing authors is my means of livelihood; insofar as I know what I’m doing, I’ve learned it from studying the pieces in “The Moronic Inferno,” from 1986, and “The War Against Cliché” (2001). Amis was an ambidextrous critic-practitioner: his newspaper and magazine work (“written left-handed,” he said) was as well-done, as “nubile and unwitherable” (to borrow a bracing adjectival pairing), as his fiction. Whenever I am stuck on an assignment, I turn to this prose as to a favored amphetamine. It never fails to pick me up and set me buzzing.

When I worked at the New Yorker, in the early twenty-tens, I had the good fortune to serve as one of Martin’s editors. It is hard to imagine a less taxing role. I asked him in an e-mail if he’d like to write about the new Don DeLillo book (“The Angel Esmeralda,” a short-story collection); he replied that the idea was “appealing,” and several weeks later I received a typically immaculate slice of Amis prose. A few days before the review went to press, he asked me to give him a call so we could go over the page proofs—a nerve-racking prospect for my twenty-six-year-old self. I’d heard the story (possibly apocryphal) that he’d once conducted such a phone call from the bath. There was, thankfully, no sloshing to be heard when I rang him. “Let me just summon up the document here,” he said, in his deep, dry voice, as though opening a PDF were some kind of magic trick. The call went fine. He was polite, charming, fastidious. He even complimented the subhead I’d come up with, which contained an allusion to Shakespeare—“my favorite writer,” as he said in the piece. I was quietly ecstatic.

Although we worked together again a few years later (he wrote a very funny piece on then candidate Donald Trump for Harper’s, where I was editing the reviews section), I never met him in person—not quite. At a party one evening, not so long ago, I looked up to see him standing on the other side of the room. I thought about going over to introduce myself—and hesitated. I was fairly drunk, I realized, drunker than I wanted to be. I remembered the scene in “Money” (p. 121 in the Penguin Classics edition) when a plastered John Self makes an ass of himself at a Manhattan soirée not unlike the one I was at. (“Go home, John. Just go home.”) I decided to get a glass of water and sober up. By the time I was feeling more lucid, Amis had left the building.

I’ve been regretting my hesitancy this past week. But what was best in Amis—the pungent humor, the wry sanity, the rapturous alertness and responsiveness—remains present in his books. As I write this, they are splayed open all over my desk. I expect them to remain there for some time. —Giles Harvey

I want to put it right out there: I feel privileged to have been Martin Amis’s friend and was delighted every time I was lucky enough to be in his company.

I met him forty-two years ago, when I was living in England, running a literary magazine that ended up publishing quite a lot of his fiction. Among his first pieces, in early 1983, was a seventy-five-page manuscript that I read late on the night it arrived, barking with uncontrollable laughter. It made me kick my feet with joy. (The pages would be the opening chapters of Amis’s novel “Money.”) In nineteen-eighties London, Amis was a literary pop star, cooler than cool, seemingly incapable of a misstep, publishing long, knowing pieces in the Sunday papers—on the Americans (John Updike, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Elmore Leonard), on the English (Muriel Spark, J. G. Ballard, Philip Larkin), on soccer, on burgers, and on anything else that engaged his anthropologic curiosity—while also writing sassy, knowing fiction about bad sex, bad behavior, and loathsome characters, in a crackling prose that seemed distinctly not British.

In person, Amis appeared to live so comfortably in his own head that he wasn’t always in touch socially. At the height of his youthful swagger, he published a kind of how-to book for video games: “Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines,” which, toward the end of his life, even he grudgingly admitted wasn’t, you know, his best work. (And Amis rarely admitted he wrote anything less than perfect—this was an unexpectedly endearing quality.) To this day, I still smart from my first visit to the Bayswater flat where he did his writing. We sat chatting. He rolled a cigarette and spontaneously revealed that he had just looked at how much money he had in his bank account. “I had an idea,” he said. “I was wrong . . . by a factor of ten.” I took this in, doing various calculations in my head. After all, I was the guy with an overdraft trying to put out a literary magazine.

We played tennis. He whupped me. We played poker, a gaggle of friends, a highlight of my time in London. He whupped me there, too. He once challenged me to arm-wrestle and stared at me in disbelief when I beat him. I apologized. “It’s because I’m American,” I said. I met him at parties, and meals, often with his friends—Christopher Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Tina Brown. I cooked for him once. We did Q. & A.s in front of a live audience. I remember one—held at N.Y.U.’s Bobst Library, in Washington Square—that mesmerized everyone, including me. He spoke about the music of sentences and the rewards of writing fiction. He went deep. I thought, Please don’t stop.

Amis’s persona—the unsmiling photos, the upper lip half curling into a snarl, the sense of entitlement—conveyed “I am cool in a way you will never be.” In the flesh, he didn’t snarl. He was tender, deferential, thoughtful, supportive. He enjoyed his large family—he once confessed to me that he loved being the “patriarch”—and was at impressive ease with his children. He was a transparent, warm friend. He lived, more than anything, to read. He conveyed tranquility.

He wrote to be entertaining but also had a remarkable indifference to what others might think. He was, on the page, unapologetically himself. His last book, “Inside Story,” is, frankly, about whatever he wanted it to be at the moment he was writing it: an early romance, his wife, his erections, Saul Bellow’s Alzheimer’s, Christopher Hitchens’s cancer. It is written in the past tense, the present tense, the first person, the third person. It is disliked by just about every one of my friends. I love it. It is so very Martin.

Sometimes I think of Amis’s fiction as akin to opera. And, as with the best operas, the story can sometimes seem beside the point. You’re there not for the plot but for the music and, of course, the voice. I will miss that voice. Oh, Martin, it was such a deep, recurring pleasure to hear it. —Bill Buford

Martin Amis at his best was a thrilling writer, a novelist whose books approximate the pleasures of unwrapping a present. He was also—of a piece, I think—an enduring voice for the idea that sitting down at the desk every day was the highest calling a person could have. As a writer who grew up surrounded by writers, he approached the craft, the writing but also the reading, with serious ambition, and yet without ever losing a hold on its impudence, its play, its creative glamour, its joy. Why on earth would a person do anything else if he or she could join the game of authorship? That was the question that Amis seemed to carry through the world and, even more, across the page. For many of us who encountered his work at a malleable age, this attitude was infectious, and enough.

Writers (to use one of the grand, dubious categoricals that Amis loved) generally have a golden decade, give or take: a stretch when the gears of their talent and imagination fall into alignment and they produce the work on which their reputations rest. Vladimir Nabokov reached his moment in late middle age, from the mid-nineteen-fifties to the mid-sixties (“Lolita,” “Pnin,” “Nabokov’s Dozen,” “Pale Fire”). Saul Bellow probably did around the same time, too (“The Adventures of Augie March,” “Herzog”). Amis’s reputation-making period extended from the mid-eighties into the nineties, when he produced, one after the other, “Money,” “London Fields,” “Time’s Arrow,” and “The Information.” Those novels not only showed his style in all its rhetorical range but followed the energy of a time when Britain, buoyed and buffeted by the Thatcherite push to enterprise and global commerce, found itself reaching toward crass New World ways.

“London Fields,” published in 1989, is perhaps the purest of Amis’s novels, his paean to the British capital in the throes of this awkward transition. Not coincidentally, it is narrated by an American. (The book’s title refers to a green in Hackney, but we’re meant to understand it also as a play on “fields” in the electromagnetic sense, as different spheres of Britain’s old class structure overlap and press uneasily together to create new currents and drives.) Amis said that the real subject of every novel was, as Trollope had it, “The Way We Live Now,” and this one, set in a near future of shifty relationships and misinformation, shows how keen his social vision could be. Like many of his peers, he had bridled against what he felt to be the anodyne imperatives of British realism, but his fiction was not quite fantastical. At its best, it exaggerated what was already there, like a TV with the saturation turned up.

His prose style was a performative oral style, a talking-to-you style filled with wordplay and heavily inflected by what might be called an Englishman’s idea of American speech. (“Just sad dreams. Yeah: oh sure. Just sad dreams. Or something like that,” an opening line in “The Information” goes.) To American ears, his punched-up swagger could sometimes read as affected—but the affectation was authentic in its way. A number of Amis’s London friends landed stateside, as ultimately he did, too. His argot tracked not just that cohort’s westward vector but its influences, put-ons, fascinations. His writing was both intensely ironized and vividly subjective: Amis the author was alienated from the world, and approached it with an alien’s incredulity, but he was never alienated from you, the reader, and in a strange way seemed at core a normal guy with his heart on his sleeve. The valence was theatrical—he was the character and the actor at the same time.

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