|Martin Amis and Isabel Fonseca|
My life, my work, my women
Martin Amis talks candidly about life, work and women in this compelling extract from an interview which appears in the March issue of GQ magazine
Martin Amis at home with his wife Isabel Fonseca and their daughters Photo: ELEANOR BENTALL
By Alex Bilmes
7:00AM GMT 02 Feb 2010
When Martin Amis's hero and mentor, the novelist Saul Bellow, was on his deathbed in 2005, an old friend came to visit. The friend, Amis tells me, decided to be brisk, since the great man was slipping in and out of consciousness. "Well, Bellow," he says, in Amis's telling, "what have you got to say for yourself?" And Bellow says to his friend, "Gene, which is it? Is it, 'Here goes a man?' Or, 'Here goes a jerk?'" Amis elaborates: "Bellow wasn't thinking about his books, his Nobel Prize and all that. He was thinking about his three children by different women, his four marriages, now a fifth marriage. He was thinking about all that. I just know he was."
There's a passage near the beginning of The Pregnant Widow, Amis's substantial new novel of the sexual revolution and its aftershocks, in which the narrator remarks on the protagonist's prescience: "Unusually for a 20-year-old ... Keith was aware that he was going to die. More than that, he knew that when the process began, the only thing that would matter was how it had gone with women. As he lies dying, the man will search his past for love and life." In the final analysis, acclamation, money and success – even such blazing artistic achievement as Bellow's, or Amis's – count for little, if one's personal history is a cause for regret.
Saul Bellow was not a jerk, as far as I know, and Martin Amis is not dying. (At least, he's only dying in the sense that we all are, in the sense that dying is a process that begins at birth.) But Bellow had his fears – clearly, or he wouldn't have wondered – and Amis has his. He turned 60 last August and if it's true, as Amis has it in the new book and elsewhere, that "sooner or later each human life is a tragedy", then this must have been a sobering birthday.
"It is true," he says. "It all ends in dissolution and chaos and indignity and tears. I'm very conscious of that. I thought it wasn't a big deal, but I've been corresponding with [Christopher] Hitchens [who also turned 60 in 2009] and we both think there's something about 60 that can't be laughed off."
Amis says he doesn't spend much time looking back on his career, spectacular as it has been. But he does think a lot about the past, especially about "amatory matters". What is it, I ask, this need to square oneself with one's romantic and sexual history? "I dunno," he says, "I just think that as you're basically taking your leave of life – no longer saying 'hi' but saying 'bye' – it turns out to be your connections with love and life that are the great things."
Around seven years ago Amis began work on a novel, also called The Pregnant Widow. It was to be the author's reckoning with his own love life, his exploration and consideration of his relationships with women. When I interviewed him in 2006, he described this work-in-progress as "blindingly autobiographical" – a phrase seized upon in fevered anticipation of an upmarket bonkbuster, a roman à clef in which Amis would dish on his famous past lovers – magazine editors Tina Brown and Emma Soames; biographer Julie Kavanagh; the late critic Lorna Sage; the late artist Lamorna Seale, with whom Amis had a daughter, Delilah, now 33 and the mother of Amis's grandson, Isaac, born in July 2008; his first wife, Antonia Phillips, with whom he has two sons, Louis, 25, and Jacob, 23; and his present wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, with whom he has two daughters, Fernanda, 13, and Clio, 10.
Sadly or not, depending on your appetite for the juicy details on ancient media-literary couplings, that is not the book that is published this month. "I was trying to do something impossible," Amis says, "which is not a bad feeling when you're starting out on something. But this really was impossible. It was autobiographical about sex. And pretty soon that's sort of disgusting, really. It's icky." He curls his lip.
Amis and I are speaking on an "unamusingly cold" (his phrase) night in the first week of the new decade, in a large sitting room – really two rooms knocked together – on the raised ground floor of his imposing London town house, close to Regent's Park. The room is hushed and cloistered, with shutters closed against the darkness. It's too uncluttered to be called shabby chic, but there's a careworn elegance to the furniture, and the occasional idiosyncratic touch – the pinball machine in one corner – offers a clue to the identity of the famous, game-playing man of the house.
Amis continues his story. In early 2008 he made the "terrible decision" to abandon the first version of The Pregnant Widow. There was one section of the abandoned novel, "the Italy bit", that he liked because it was the most fictional. "So I thought I'd put all the other stuff in another book, a quite autobiographical book, not much to do with sex, and concentrate on the sexual revolution."
The Italy bit makes up the bulk of the book he completed, still called The Pregnant Widow, a novel set mostly in the "erotically decisive" summer of 1970, but narrated from 2009 by what turns out to be the superego, the conscience, of its antihero, Keith Nearing. (Precisely what Keith is nearing, apart from the end, is seldom what, or who, he thinks.) The novel's central thrust is the pernicious effects of the sexual revolution on a group of ripe young people who gather at a castle in Campania, on Italy's slender ankle.
The title is borrowed from Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century Russian thinker. "The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul," Herzen wrote. "Yet what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of another, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass."
The long night that Amis has in mind is the period between the mid-Sixties and now, as we continue to come to terms with the "sea change" of the sexual revolution. The water is still flowing and will be, Amis thinks, for perhaps another century. "The sexual revolution," he says, "was the greatest social change I lived through. It was a tremendous break with the past. You could feel it in the air. You knew something was happening. It was scary and intoxicating and definitely new. Suddenly you felt all these restraints were lifting and you were wondering how you were going to navigate this." For boys this navigation could be fraught. But "the girls had to make all the difficult choices. And the girls suffered and some of them got a bit twisted out of shape. It was a very difficult manoeuvre for them."
The Pregnant Widow is fiction, not autobiography, but three characters are drawn from life, says Amis: "My sister [Sally], who's Violet [Keith's younger sister], my old friend [Rob Henderson], who's Kenrik, and the guy who comes in late, Neil Darlington, who's Ian Hamilton [the late poet]. The rest is made up."
Sally Amis, recipient at birth of Philip Larkin's famous hopes ("Tightly folded bud/I have wished you something/None of the others would ..."), was a depressive and an alcoholic. She died in 2000. Amis has spoken before of his belief that the sexual revolution was in some senses responsible for Sally's unhappy life and early death. Like Violet, she "had no talent for the modern".
"In fact, Sally was worse," says Amis. "There were things that I couldn't possibly put in." The youngest of Kingsley Amis and Hilly Bardwell's three children (the eldest is Philip, Martin and Sally's brother), Sally was disturbed from adolescence, says Amis: "She went to live in America with my mother when she was about 12, 13, and when she came back she was completely different, also very beautiful, sort of bursting out, and I think she'd taken a lot of drugs. She'd gone to rock concerts in vans full of Hell's Angels. She came back and she seemed to have stopped developing, mentally."
Sally was "pathologically promiscuous", Amis has said. At 24 she gave up a daughter, Catherine, for adoption, and much of her life was spent in a series of miserable relationships. In The Pregnant Widow her story becomes emblematic of the destructive effects of the permissive society. "I felt I could do it because she only looked completely lucid and facing up to reality on two occasions that I saw her," Amis says.
“One was the day my father died [in October 1995]. I saw Sally looking into the future with a really sober, realistic assessment of where she was now. The other was when I’d just rescued her from some sort of hell. She was helpless and then she slept and when she woke up I could see that she wanted to thank me. The way she usually thanked people was to have sex with them, but she obviously wasn’t going to do that with me.
She just looked me in the eye and said, 'Write about me, Mart.’ She said, 'Say anything you like.’ That was her gift to me.” This was “five or six years before she died”, and eight or nine before her brother suffered “a kind of nervous breakdown about it”.
In the novel, Keith suffers a similar delayed reaction to Violet’s death. Why does Amis think he waited so long to fall apart? “Because I’d been training myself not to,” he says. “As [Keith] does in the book, I’d withdrawn. I had a much worse time than my brother or my mother. Because I’d been fending it off, and also kept my distance more than them.”
His own breakdown manifested itself in “a real sort of incredible weariness and grief. I had to sleep almost all the time. And getting up was like a Russian novel, just incredibly arduous. I still didn’t know it was [because of] her. It took me a long time to work out. I kept leaving dinners and restaurants and weeping and walking home. And thinking about her, by then. It went on and on, for several months. You just feel you’re dying, basically, and then it slowly lifted. My brother went sort of crazy immediately after she died. He’d tried hard, harder than I did, to be with her.”
If one were to believe the pre-publicity, one would think that Amis blames the sexual revolution above all else for Sally’s unhappiness, even her death. “I think she would have struggled horribly in any society,” he says. “But if it had been the first half of the century rather than the second, she would have somehow muddled through, I think. She died at 46. She didn’t get very far. There was a sort of complete collapse.”
Whatever its reception, The Pregnant Widow is Amis’ feminist novel, and it’s that “trespassing” on gender studies turf that may prove most provocative to his detractors. He has described himself in the past as a gynocrat – someone who believes the world would be better run by women – but he also takes issue with some of the directions of the women’s movement. “I do think that a great mistake was made when [it] allowed itself to be trumped by any sort of racial or ethnic consideration,” he says. “There are certain values that should be universal. I mean, women are not a minority. Can we just draw a line and say violence against women is something we won’t have?” He goes on to discuss honour killing and the “insane violence” of men taking “nine-year-old brides”.
At length we’ve arrived at Islam, and Islamism. Gloria, in The Pregnant Widow, represents the future of sex, the violence of porn, the idea of sex as a financial transaction. And she has further complications. When we first meet her she is in “sexual disgrace”, having drunkenly disported herself at a house party. She has been “packed off to purdah” in Italy. The early parts of the novel are littered with clues to her true origins, and it turns out her date of birth (earlier) and place of birth (elsewhere – all right, Egypt) set her apart from the other British girls sunning themselves in Campania.
Amis’ real concern here, he says, is to demonstrate that white Western men like himself once enjoyed supremely uncomplicated relationships with Muslim girls. Far from inciting Muslims by making big-bummed, gold-digging Gloria an apostate, he thinks the book promotes a “harmonial” view of interracial or interfaith relationships. Should he choose to, Amis would be able to say, like Keith, that he is “no stranger to Islamic talent”, having, as a young man, dated girls of Persian and Pakistani origin. His point is, “you had warm feelings for someone without being aware of religion. There we all were and it was not considered. The gulf was bridgeable and was quite frequently bridged without any ill feeling or prejudice.
“It was only in the new century, this idea of unappeasable hostility,” he continues. “It is an absolute pillar of al-Qaedaism that we are out to destroy Islam. No we’re not. We never were. We didn’t have any feelings about Islam except that it was not us – obviously. But not that it was a threat to Christianity, or to us. There was peaceful coexistence between us that was exploded in 2001, to the astonishment of the West.”
The presiding spirit of The Pregnant Widow is Narcissus, and Amis quotes liberally from Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid, the poet’s sublime 1997 reworking of the Metamorphoses, in which we meet again the beautiful boy doomed to fall hopelessly in love with his own reflection. Amis argues that never had appearance been so important until the sexual revolution. “Tom Wolfe was right,” he says. “The Seventies was the Me Decade. Every decade is sort of that, but it was a new order of self-absorption and narcissism. Looks mattered more. And they matter even more now. Here [in Britain] at least, there’s a complete obsession with surfaces and facets and textures and superficialities, and you wonder how far it can go. Have looks ever been more important? There’s a great unspoken tyranny of looks now.”
From much of this it’d be easy to assume that Amis regards the sexual revolution as having been a regrettable thing altogether. But he says not. “I don’t think it was a bad thing,” he says. “I think it was a wonderful thing. It was and goes on being an adventure. If offered many more human possibilities, a greater variety of experience, and the life before it seems horribly straitened and grim. But there are no smooth transitions in human nature or human history. And it was not the free ride that some people thought it was.”
Amis thinks that women have been let down by feminism. “I think the absolute first priority should have been fifty-fiftyism in the home. But power is heady stuff and having got a taste of it they accumulated more powers and now they’ve almost got too many powers for the harmony of their own lives. They’ve got jobs, they do most of the children’s stuff, and they now do most of the administration at home. I don’t think I’m alone in never being consulted about any major decisions in this house. She does it.”
He is riveting, and very funny, about the “brutal Philistinism” of our country. “Can we get any more trivial?” he wonders. “The X Factor and Katie Price and Big Brother ... It’s fierce, too, very fierce: the baying for those two boyfriends of Jordan’s to have a fight in the [Celebrity Big Brother] house. Sort of bear pit stuff. There is a lot of that in Britain.
“It’s self-hatred, I think,” he continues. “A sort of wildness to do with marginalisation. I think it must be tied up with Britain’s demotion in terms of a world power. The ideology that started in the Seventies – it’s got a million names, levellism, multiculturalism, relativism – that taught us that we didn’t like empire, we were ashamed we ever had one. But you don't go from being the main power on earth to being a third-rate power without it awakening deep feelings of wounded pride. This triviality and this drunkenness, the yob culture, which is a real thing and not confined to the street. I mean, banking! ... In the City they’ve all got names like Vomit and Cheeseball, and it’s all very violent, and built around terrific bollockings and humiliations. And the politics: Alastair Campbell using the word 'f---’ a lot to show he means business.”
Amis is almost growling by now, but he’s enjoying himself, too. Heh-heh-heh. He loves all this stuff: the ugly demotic, the vicious vapidity, the viscous froth on the contemporary cappuccino. It is, personal relationships apart, the abiding obsession of his life. It is his work. “I’m entirely addicted to it,” he says. “I’m one of those terrible shits who works on Christmas Day. It’s what I want to do.”
The full interview appears in the March issue of 'GQ’, on sale Thursday February 4
Copyright Alex Bilmes The Conde Nast Publications Ltd