“The past is an undiscovered continent”: A Discussion with Martin Amis
This past Sunday, I was fortunate to catch a reading and discussion with British novelist Martin Amis when he passed through town. Amis (author of Time’s Arrow, London Fields, Money, and more) was there to discuss his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England. But what was advertised as a promotional stop on a book tour soon became so much more, as Amis touched on everything, eloquently bouncing from Mitt Romney to the Holocaust, and from Space Invaders to “chavs,” with so much in between. Read on for a taste of this master’s thoughts…
On how to be a novelist:
Upon taking his seat before us, an awestruck audience of fanboys and girls, the author brushed over his hellos and immediately launched into unexpected and honest advice. In a total of three opening sentences, Amis remarked on the duties of both a voter in the upcoming presidential elections and on the novelist. A few choice comments about Romney, which I cannot repeat here, made his opinion on that front plainly known. Meanwhile, his comments on the role of an author were actually more astounding, given that he recited W. H. Auden’s “The Novelist” to expound on his thoughts. He preceded this with his opinion that the author must be grounded in his emotions; he must be ordinary to the point of banality. Then, of the poet, he recited,
Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.
Whereas the novelist, he continued, must…
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the
Just Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.
Amis transitioned from there into a topic that has pervaded his work lately: that of the ever-growing past. In fact, in person he spoke almost the exact words that appear at the beginning of his second-most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow:
This is the way it goes. In your mid-forties you have your first crisis of mortality (death will not ignore me); and ten years later you have your first crisis of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me). But something very interesting happens to you in between.
As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick… Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.
When we age, life, Amis says, becomes a retrospection of the past. After a certain age, you come to realize this is a good thing; the past is “an undiscovered continent, which only you can visit.” We fixate on memories, he said, “but most especially erotic memories.” (Makes sense given that The Pregnant Widow is the story of a man thinking back to his twenties, when the world was in the flux of the sexual revolution.) He continued,
You think about how things went with women, how they went with children. Saul Bellow spoke to his friend on his death bed, ‘I’ve been thinking. Now which is it? Is it: there goes a man or there goes a jerk?’ And his friend, Karl, said, ‘There goes a man.’ And Saul said, ‘OK. I’ll take your word for it.’
When you think about the fact that Bellow had five marriages and four children, you know that he wasn’t thinking at that moment of his Nobel Prize, or his career.
With the death of his close friend Christopher Hitchens last December, Amis has had more than his fair share of the weight of death on his mind. In a grave moment, the author touched on his friend’s passing, saying, “Hitchens’ death was an unmitigated disaster… But three weeks later,” he paused to knock on wood, “I inherited his love of life.”
On the source of inspiration and the writing process:
Amis said the best description for the first appearance of inspiration was Vladimir Nabokov‘s–“a throb.” You won’t know when or from where it will come to you, but the moment that you realize it has, an ache will start to pervade your body. And the most abstract ideas can awake a story within you; Amis referenced Nabokov’s inspiration for writing Lolita as an example, which the Russian author famously described himself:
The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris … somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.
“You can almost see how Lolita could have come from that,” Amis remarked, “but still, it’s a large jump.” Clearly, inspiration is a mysterious beast.
The author further mentioned of the creative writing process how his stepmother–his father Kingsley Amis‘ second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard–couldn’t begin a new novel without being able to write exactly what it was about on the back of an envelope. Amis, though he does not follow the exact same process, says he adopts this tactic when editing his final drafts. Anything that doesn’t fulfill the purpose set out in that one sentence summary of the novel must be cut.
From there, Amis read two excerpts from his newly published novel Lionel Asbo: State of England. The title gives two clues to the reader of what to expect. One is of the lead character’s disposition–the professional criminal at the heart of the story renamed himself after Britain’s notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Order. The second is the admission that the novel, in Amis’ mind, encompasses the “state of England” today. Although, asked about what he thought of the country’s decline, Amis spoke with very little disdain. He argues that this “decline” is the natural result of the loss of Britain’s governance in the world, something that was never meant to be. And though the dark characters of his novels, like Lionel, appear distasteful and vulgar, he admitted that he loves every one of them in their own “special way.”
Hearkening in theme to a Dickensian tale while drawing upon almost caricatured pop culture references, Lionel Asbo has already been hailed as the unintended sequel to Money. And that, surely, seals this as a novel Martin Amis fans will not find disappointing.
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