Medical science has a lot to answer for. (Creative Commons)
“As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” Martin Amis said. “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”
He was not (to start again), what one had expected.
Amis came to town, and was slight, and witty, and dry, and thoroughly serious despite his zingers. He was not the ferocious, controversial hurricane – he was quiet and scholarly. And he was preoccupied by age.
Amis put it this way in his most recent novel, Pregnant Widow:
Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter…. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.
He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth.”
Although occasionally withering, he was far from withered. As for his way of making a living, “What could be more agreeable?” he asked. Non-fiction, compared with fiction, is a chore: it makes him start the day with “heavy tread and heavy heart.”
Fiction isn't faster. (Photo: Mae Ryan)
Salman Rushdie told him that he writes essays at twice the speed of fiction – “I find that, too,” he agreed. “All creative stuff comes from the spine and up through the head.”
“What a lyric poem does is stop the clock.” Oddly, he did a similar trick with his acclaimed Time’s Arrow (1991), a book that describes the Holocaust, backwards.
In a puzzling move, Amis began the evening with recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow. The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.” (Fine. About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One: Nobody gets over anything. It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”
What’s fiction’s verboten subject? Sex. “It’s too tied up with the author’s quiddity,” he said, although he’s famous for writing about … sex. What else? Religion. “You have to write around religion, although there’s nothing more fascinating, in a way.”
“Writing about religious people is something else a novel cannot do,” he said because you’re taking on all sorts of inherited preconceptions, he said. “It’s not just clichés of the pen,” such as “‘bitterly cold,’” he said, but those of the heart as well. In novels, “a great clattering tea trolley comes in, and it’s religion.”
Off the hook.
Paradise Lost? That’s poetry. “But fiction is a rational form. To be universal, it has to be rational.” (I wanted to shout, “What about Father Zossima?” but restrained myself.)
Questions from the audience inevitably discussed his buddy Christopher Hitchens, who had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person – “not usually consonant with sound mental health.” An example: at the first sign of injustice, he was wont to say, “the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard.”
Another question: what is Amis reading? “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.”
But his finest, and perhaps most unexpected moment, occurred when a man asked why he was turning to events of half-a-century ago to furnish his novels. The question had a slightly belligerent edge – or did we imagine it? In any case, a suppressed collective gasp rippled over the crowd. But Amis, much to his credit, took the question at face value, and answered it earnestly, and utterly without snark.
“It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject. It isn’t the idle selection of a subject – it chooses you,” he said. “My whole body is involved.”
Taking apart Theodor Adorno‘s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Amis responded, “Actually, there was poetry during Auschwitz,” he said. John and Mary Felstiner would have agreed – and were probably somewhere in the audience. Paul Célan comes to mind, but so do many others.
Whither the novel? “There’s been a qualitative change in fiction in the past generation.” It’s the end of the meditative novel, he said. “Forward motion is paramount now.” The future novel will be “more and more streamlined, and aerodynamic, and plot-driven and character-driven.”
All this thanks to “the acceleration of history and the diminishing attention span.”