In the days when he was the hip young gunslinger of British fiction, the Martin Amis interview tended to follow a certain form. This would involve tyro journalists – Amis wannabes for the most part – joining their subject at the snooker table or on the tennis court, where the author would go through his famously competitive paces, presenting the journalist with the tricky dilemma of whether to throw the game and curry his favour, or beat him and risk his resentment.
'It just got so tragic,’ he says with a sigh. 'I hated it so much – because I wasn’t winning. Isabel says, “Play 80-year-olds, you’ll win against them.” But that’s no good. I can still run – not as fast. My game was built on mobility; didn’t have any big shots or anything. A defensive lob was my big shot. But it’s more to do with reflexes. You shape to do it and you’re not there – you’re crowding it, and the ball’s out of reach, and it fills you with a weird sort of self-disgust. Solemn exasperation and self-disgust.’
Nowadays, he can’t even watch the Premier League because he is unable to operate the television. 'Pathetic!’ He gives a rueful shrug. 'The technology has moved so far beyond my competence.’
Amis relocated to New York some 18 months ago, and now lives in the Cobble Hill district of Brooklyn, in a handsome four-storey brownstone, with his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, and their two teenage daughters, Fernanda and Clio. It is tempting to read something into the move. One of the recurring themes of Amis’s pronouncements over the past few years has been a palpable disenchantment with England and English life: the 'skanky town’ malice of London’s literary world; his bald declaration to a French newspaper that he would 'prefer not to be English’; the sense that his homeland is a busted flush; the fact that his new book, Lionel Asbo, is a satire on the shallowness and vulgarity of celebrity-obsessed Britain. All of this may or may not be true, but it is not the reason he has decamped to America. Isabel, he says, is a New Yorker, and wanted to be closer to her mother and stepfather as they grew older.
'But her stepfather died while we were packing our stuff, so it was even more important for us to come in the end. That was the only reason. It wasn’t any disaffection with England or anything like that.’
In fact, Amis has an almost umbilical connection to America. As a child he lived for a year in Princeton, New Jersey, when his father was lecturing at the university there. His first wife is American; Isabel is half-American, half-Uruguayan. He has been a frequent visitor over the years, and some of his sharpest writing has been journalism on American life, contained in his volume The Moronic Inferno.
But it has been like seeing a completely different country. Outside his door are leafy streets, pretty young mothers with buggies, bijou coffee shops. Its effect has been palpably soothing. He extols its 'prelapsarian feel – like living in the 1950s!’ Even the skies – wide and blue – seem to come from childhood. 'I can’t imagine why New Yorkers don’t go around boasting about it for three or four hours every day.’
Amis has spent the afternoon writing in his study upstairs, and it has left him in a ruminative mood. He is wearing a red and white striped shirt and a fleece waistcoat; with the swept-back wings of grey hair, the high forehead and the slightly grizzled countenance he looks like a rather raffish Whitstable antiques dealer. He potters around the kitchen, makes tea, and wonders aloud about where we might talk until Isabel suggests the sitting-room. Ah yes! The sitting-room.
Light floods in through the sash windows on to whitewashed floorboards. The pale walls are hung with large paintings by Isabel’s two artist brothers: an abstract by Caio and a striking nude by Bruno, who died in 1994 at the age of 36. We seat ourselves at a table.
Three days earlier Amis had spoken at the memorial service for the writer Christopher Hitchens, and the past two days have been a time of 'rather warm and weepy emotion’, remembering 'Hitch’ with family and friends. Hitchens was his closest friend for 40 years, 'the only friend,’ he says, 'to whom you could confess to anything. And I don’t mean particular deeds. I mean to your worst feelings and most dishonourable impulses. And I could say that to Christopher without any fear of disaffection on his part.
'And all my other friends, although I love them, they all have places where I feel I can’t visit, that I can’t say things because they will offend certain assumptions of theirs about me and about life in general. I could be emotionally naked with Christopher, and he could with me. And that’s very rare, I think.’
Amis is – and there is no other word for it – a wonderful talker. His burnished, smoky voice conveys erudition, irony and world-weary sagacity in equal measure. And it seems fitting for Hitchens to appear so early in the conversation, because one is immediately struck by their similarities – the cadences in their speech, the fondness for the skewering put-down (Mitt Romney looks like a man who has 'gone to the dentist one afternoon and come out with his head capped’); the frequent invocation of Nabokov, Conrad, Larkin (Hitchens’ favourite poet, Amis’s godfather). In an essay on the writer Joan Didion, Amis once described her as at no point giving the sense of being someone 'who uses literature as a constant model or ideal’. It has the ring of a moral judgment. For Amis, literature is that model, that ideal.
'Brutally generic’ with his 'slablike body, the full lump of a face, the tightly shaved crown with its tawny stubble’, Lionel Asbo, the eponymous antihero of Amis’s new book, is a subsistence criminal and full-time lout, a seething mass of basic instincts and barely suppressed rage who looks out on the world from his flat on the 30th floor of a council tower block in the loveless London borough of Diston. By random quirks of biology and chance, he is also the guardian of his young nephew, Desmond – a bright-spark 15-year-old of mixed race who happens to be conducting an illicit affair with his grandmother, Lionel’s mum.
When Lionel wins £140 million in the lottery, he sets off on a kind of Yob’s Progress through exclusive hotels, fancy tailors and expensive restaurants, fortified by endless cans of Cobra, torpedo-sized joints and champagne served in pint glasses. He also takes up with a pneumatic celebrity bimbo named Threnody. Under the guidance of Threnody – and a slick, highly priced team of advisers – Lionel goes from national horror to national treasure, a paragon of amoral, solipsistic ignorance, even as Desmond struggles with his conscience and tries to rise out of the sewer of Diston with a crash-course of self-education in the local public library.
The book is a wicked satire on the English class system, the vapidity of celebrity culture and the triumph of selfishness. 'How restful it must be to have no consciousness of others,’ Desmond remarks of his uncle at one point. Lionel is a comic monster for the times, as John Self, the hero of Money was for Thatcher-era greed and boorishness. Amis 'adores’ him: 'You can’t write about characters that disgust you. The whole form of fiction is actually a loving form, and you wouldn’t have the energy to put it down unless you had some, almost erotic affection for your characters. Similarly, I’m not disgusted but amused by the triumph of superficiality. And the egotism of people who are eminent without being in the least distinguished and somehow feeling that that’s their due – that seems to me to be a peculiarly English phenomenon.’
Amis describes it as a book, above all, about intelligence – how it is used, developed and wasted. 'There is a tremendous amount of latent intelligence in England, and it’s awful that we cultivate it so patchily and randomly. So much of it is to do with the socio-economic level – it gets to be much more difficult to be a Desmond in that milieu. And there’s a saturation in values that all point the other way – very much exemplified by the reality show. What are they getting these rewards for? Their personality! It’s delusional. You make a complete chump of yourself, prostitute yourself, for a celebrity that is absolutely weightless; a floating celebrity that has no ballast. But it’s seen as a kind of punishment, not being famous. As a deprivation.’
Fame… '“That last infirmity of noble minds”, as Milton put it. But the idea of Milton being famous for winning the lottery, or a reality show…’ Amis raises his eyebrows, temporarily at a loss for words.
He has a well-rehearsed explanation for this, to do with Britain’s long and slow post-war decline from world power to, as he puts it, 'a second- or even third-echelon state’.
'The whole philosophy that we call “pc”, levelism, cultural relativism and so on has been tremendously handy for England because it got us through the loss of Empire. Because under that ideology you don’t want Empire – so we felt a little bit cleansed by losing it. But it was all illusion. In fact, we thirst for Empire.
'The original meaning of the word “disappointment” is not not getting what you hoped for, it’s having something taken away from you. Dis-appointed. Fired. Sacked. And we are a disappointed nation in that way.’
Amis watched last summer’s riots on his television in Brooklyn from an ironist’s perspective: 'delight’ in the odd spectacle of looters trying on trainers before stealing them – 'I thought that was quite innovatory in the looting line: the looter with the power of choice’ – and in the fact that in a mall of shops the only one that was completely unmolested was a Waterstones. 'But it didn’t – to use the cant word – resonate with me. There is always a population that is going to take whatever advantage it can from what looks like a temporary breakdown of law and order. I don’t think it was a coherent thing at all. I still think the British are on the whole extremely tolerant and polite and friendly. There is a sort of witty civility in England you don’t get in America.’
Lionel Asbo is frequently wincingly funny. Amis’s aim at the totems and mores of common fame is as unerring, and his phrase-making as pyrotechnically dazzling, as ever. 'Diston,’ he writes, 'with its burping, magmatic canal, its fizzly low-rise pylons, its buzzing waste.’ A particularly dour and dispiriting Scottish town is called Souness. (There are some jarring wrong notes: would Threnody really say that 'glamour and myself are virtually synonymous’?) Amis also writes with real – and uncharacteristic – tenderness about Desmond. 'He’s probably the most… I wouldn’t say likeable’ – incest, after all, is rarely likeable – 'but certainly the best-behaved character I’ve ever come up with,’ he says.
The book is subtitled 'The State of England’. But in truth it could have been written any time over the past 10 years. And it seems particularly timeless as a catalogue of Amis’s recurring obsessions: yobbish behaviour, bad sex, porn (which Lionel consumes wholesale: 'With the Mac,’ he exults, 'you can have three new bunk-ups every day – just by using your imagination!’), spiritual vacuity, physical and moral decay. One is reminded of the critic Peter Kemp’s observation that reading Amis’s early novels was like 'being plunged into a septic tank doubling as a Jacuzzi’.
'Yes, not bad,’ Amis says, as if giving marks. 'He’s not a critic I enjoy reading on me, but something like that. All the things I hate in life, I enjoy them in fiction. Vulgarity, cynicism – all those sort of displaced and degraded feelings. I’m a great admirer of incorrigibility, too. People who go on making the same mistakes, I very much admire. Adore incorrigibility. And I delight in stupidity as well.
'But the thing I value most – and this comes out in fiction in a way you don’t think about in your daily life – is innocence. And the trouble with having that as your main value is that innocence is diminishing all the time. The world has got drunk, lost its handbag and been sick in the bus so many times now.’
Somewhere a bell must have rung, for he suddenly says, 'We can have a drink now’, as if the bar has just opened. He fetches two beers from the kitchen, and a bottle of wine for later. The family cat has walked in and is now splayed contentedly on the sofa. A picture of happiness, I say. Amis looks at the cat. 'Borges said, “Every creature is immortal except for man.” We know we’re going to die. They don’t. “Time is a river that is bearing me away, but I am the river.” No animal has to grapple with that thought, because they think they’re eternally alive. Have you noticed, religious people – really religious people – look sinisterly young? Because it’s consciousness of death that draws all these lines on us. Not just the time moving past you, but where it’s headed.’ He takes a swig from his beer.
Amis began writing Lionel Asbo almost three years ago, long before there was any talk of moving to America – 'so it’s not my final V-sign to England or anything like that.’ He wrote it and finished the second draft in a year. 'And I thought, it will take me a few weeks to revise it and then it’s done. Incredible! A whole novel in a year!’ But it then took him another year to revise it. What was missing, he came to realise, was 'anxiety’: 'It just wasn’t good enough. And what it lacked was that I hadn’t worried about it enough.’
It didn’t use to be like this. With his first four novels, he read the completed manuscript in a day, and on the next delivered it to his agent. Money took him three years to write – 'thoroughly enjoying it’ – and three days of agony to read. 'It seemed to me appalling, the whole thing. My blood was the way your blood feels gangrenous when you’re really anxious. That was three days of anxiety from three years’ work, so a huge imbalance.’
Now he has come to believe that the balance has to be 50-50. 'Weighing things so that they measure up and balance out’ – it is, he says, a matter of decorum. 'You’ve got to earn it. And this concept has come to seem very basic to me.’
Earning it. This line of thinking is particularly interesting coming from Martin Amis, of course; because if he has one particular fixation – you might almost call it an obsession – it is to do with being Kingsley Amis’s son and all that grows from it; the uniqueness of it (can you think of another son or daughter of a celebrated novelist who has equalled, not to say surpassed, the achievements of their parent? No, neither can he); the light, or shadow, that it has cast on his own career; and his firmly entrenched conviction that he has been punished for it. It’s what Amis calls 'the curse of Prince Charles – the taint of heredity’; the perception 'that somehow you haven’t earned it, in the sense that it’s a bit like taking over the family pub’.
A fitting analogy. The Amis Arms was a lively, often rackety establishment (where, incidentally, much drink was taken. According to one account, by the end of his life Kingsley was putting away a bottle of Macallan single malt a day, before moving on to gin and Campari). Martin spent his first nine years in Swansea, where Kingsley was teaching at university, then a year at Princeton. When he was 12, his father left the family for the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. Amis stuttered through a series of schools and crammers – one headmaster described him as 'unusually unpromising’ – until his education was taken in hand by his stepmother, who persuaded him to try for Oxford. He left with a 'congratulatory first’ – the university’s highest award.
As a father, Kingsley was 'very minimalist – in other words, my mother did it all. But whenever you did pass him, before he slunk back into his study, he always made you laugh, which went a very long way.
'The great thing about Kingsley was that unlike all the fathers of my male friends, he didn’t resist the sexual revolution when it happened to us. All my friends’ fathers were thinking, “So there is going to be sex before marriage, eh? Why was I told that there wasn’t going to be sex before marriage?” There really was a retroactive envy. But Kingsley was delighted by all that. He’d had that fight with his father, and he wasn’t going to have it with my brother and me.’
Amis allows that the early 1970s was 'a very opportune time’ to be young and single. In adolescence he had been prey to consuming crushes on girls, 'but always completely chaste. I was very frightened of getting hurt, to a perhaps damaging extent, so tended to hold back on feelings. It may be no more than a reaction to parents breaking up, where it makes you distrustful of love. It’s like having the carpet whipped out from underneath you.’
You sense that he quickly made up for lost time as his literary star rose. 'Just average really.’ He thinks again. 'A little over-average, perhaps… A friend of mine, who’s dead now, said that he’d slept with 600 or 700 women in a four-year period in Los Angeles. But that was doing absolutely nothing else. And I don’t think he took many of those girls to the opera more than once. But what inhibits us is that you’ve got so many other things to do, and you like to do – like writing novels.’
He wrote his first book, The Rachel Papers, in 1973, when he was 24. The day after he finished writing it, he began his next book. Dead Babies was published in 1975, Success in 1978. Amis was a glamorous figure, with his Byronic looks smouldering behind a veil of cigarette smoke, the velvet jackets, cuban-heel boots and Beauchamp Place shirts – he was novelist as pop star, as the cliche had it, 'the Mick Jagger of literature’.
'The problem with that,’ he says lightly, 'is why isn’t Mick Jagger known as the Martin Amis of the rock world? It’s a conundrum, that.’
The truth is, he says, when you’re only 5ft 6in you never feel glamorous. 'My first wife, who was taller than me, said to me once, “You should be grateful that you’re short because you’d have been a real pill if you’d been tall.”’ He pauses. 'True.’ A slightly longer pause. 'Maybe. I always felt quite confident, but no airs for that reason, really. It would have been ridiculous to have airs at 5ft 6in. I didn’t have swagger.’
His father always took a slightly equivocal view of his work. 'He thought novels should just be middle-brow entertainments. His favourite living novelist was Dick Francis. He said to me once, “I’m never going to begin another novel unless it begins 'A shot rang out’ or 'A scream rent the midnight air’.” He thought my work was…’ Amis reaches for the mot juste. 'Onanistic. He sporadically liked my fiction, much more perhaps my criticism; but he said, “I do admire you as an adult – you get on planes, you go on trains by yourself, you’re competent” – in a way he never was.’
If Kingsley took an equivocal view of Martin’s work, his growing popularity was evidently a source of rancour. 'Did I tell you Martin is spending a year abroad as a TAX EXILE?’ Kingsley wrote to Philip Larkin in 1978. 'Last year he earned £38,000. Little shit. 29, he is. Little shit.’
So, jealousy then?
'No. Although he did say that he was at a party once and a woman came up to him and said, “How does it feel to have a son who’s much more famous than you?” And he said, “He isn’t much more famous than me.” And she said, “Yes he is, much more famous.” He told me that he thought that was very funny.’
Of course, the woman was right. Martin was much more famous. And then, in the manner of such things, fame turned on him. In 1994 he dispensed with his long-standing agent Pat Kavanagh in pursuit of a publisher’s advance of £500,000 – in the process jeopardising his close friendship with her husband, Julian Barnes. Expensive dental work was trumpeted as a sign of his vanity and profligacy. In 1996 he divorced his wife after meeting Isabel Fonseca. With each successive twist in the tale the balmy breeze of admiration turned to the chill wind of personal attacks and vituperative reviews – what Amis himself described as an 'Eisteddfod of hostility’.
'Nothing is more banal than what your father does for a living,’ he says; and growing up as the son of a novelist takes the edge off the literary life, at both ends. 'You know what it’s like to be attacked and praised, because you’ve seen it happen to your father. So when you get a bad review you don’t seek the foetal position for 12 hours, and when you get a good review you don’t go out and get drunk.’ But then again – as he points out – to accuse a writer of being egotistical is like accusing a professional boxer of being violent. 'You just wouldn’t do it otherwise.’ And you can tell the criticism hurt.
'I won’t be accused of whingeing, I hope.’ He reaches for his glass. 'Everyone was very generous when I started, and then it gets as if I’m Kingsley and I’ve lived for a century. There are certain noticeable anomalies that, if I’d come from nowhere, as is the case with my writer friends – if my father had been a businessman, or a schooteacher or an Army man, for instance – then you’re taken a bit more seriously, I think. Or a bit more on your own merits.’
So you think the hostility derives from being Kingsley’s son?
'Yeah. The subliminal feeling that it was no struggle for me at all. And it’s not conscious, but it’s there. I don’t feel it interferes with my readers at all, but it does with officialdom, including the press and such things. People have asked me, would I accept a knighthood?’ Kingsley was knighted in 1990. 'Well, believe me, it’s not going to come up. I haven’t been offered an MBE, where all my writer friends and peers are either turning down or accepting knighthoods. The only literary prize I’ve won for fiction was 40 years ago.’
He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize only once, in 1991, for Time’s Arrow. (Kingsley, who died in 1995, was shortlisted three times, winning it in 1986 for The Old Devils.) 'But my friends have all been shortlisted, or won it. It does seem to be a bit of a sinister coincidence.’
Did it rankle when Julian Barnes won it last year?
'No. It was the same as when Ian [McEwan] won. You open the paper and say “shit” with a smile on your face, and then you actually feel quite high for a couple of days. It’s more a feeling of “here we go again” when it isn’t shortlisted.’ He shrugs. 'Anyway, I’m delighted with the readers I have, and that is the main thing. That’s what you want: you don’t want money, you don’t want prizes; you want readership.’
I tell Amis that I think he’s got it wrong here. The figure of his father – quite naturally – looms far larger in his mind than it does in anybody else’s. Surely, whatever hostility has come Amis’s way from the press and literary establishment has less to do with his being the son of Kingsley than with his own fame and celebrity. It is the classic case of cutting down to size. He gives me a doubtful look.
'Does that explain why I haven’t been offered an MBE?’
That may be because you once described the Royal family as 'philistine’.
'That’s a possibility.’
We talk about his family. As well as his two daughters by Isabel, he has two sons from his first marriage to Antonia Phillips: Louis, a journalist, and Jacob, an academic. He also has a daughter, Delilah, who was born following a brief affair in the 1970s with the late artist Lamorna Seale, and who was unaware that Amis was her father until she was 19. Delilah has three children.
The only durable word, he says, that has survived from his generation to his children’s is 'cool’. 'That has been the guiding value. And being a grandfather is very uncool, don’t you think? When you were 20, did you think it would be cool to be a grandfather? So uncool.’ He laughs. 'Although, of course, I’m delighted for my daughter. And they’re exceptionally charming children.’
The worst thing about growing old, he says, is the 'fear of declining powers’. For three quarters of an hour each day he does the Times crossword – it appears in the New York Post. On average, he completes half of it; once, all of it. But sometimes none of it. 'And I feel as though I’ve got Alzheimer’s, staring at this for 45 minutes without being able to fill in one clue. In fact, my competence at crosswords is about what it always was, but it’s more the paranoia at this stage; the fear of what’s to come.’
It is a fact, he says, that your vocabulary starts to shrink in your fifties – 'so you reach for the Thesaurus a bit more than you used to.’ Language no longer rushes at Amis like it used to. 'When I look at my early stuff – which I don’t do, but I sometimes have to – I’m amazed by the garrulity; quite impressed, actually, by how I can’t shut up. You do learn how to shut up.’
What you fall back on, he says, is craft. 'I wrote a piece on Nabokov, which was discussing what derives from talent and what derives from genius. Genius is all the God-given stuff – the altitude of perception and articulacy. Talent is craft. And what happens I think is your genius shrinks and your talent expands. You get better at construction and knowing what goes where – pacing, modulation, that kind of thing.’ He mimics a footballer: 'I can still do a job in midfield. A good job too, because you know more about the game.’
The point is, he goes on, whatever the critics may say, he still believes he is on his game. He is happy with Lionel Asbo and 'very interested’ in the novel he is writing now – 'my second visit to the Holocaust’.
'I still feel, when I wake up and all I’ve got to do that day is write, I can’t wait to get down there. It’s a wonderful way of earning a living.’
Getting old, he says, may be very uncool – but the peculiar thing is that it seems to agree with him. 'Because I seem to be happier than I was when I was younger.’ A note of slight disbelief registers in his voice, as if to say, how did that happen? He reaches for the wine and pours two glasses.
At the memorial service for Hitchens, Amis was talking to another friend, who said that Hitchens’ death had left him with the feeling there was now less in life to hang on to. Amis doesn’t see it like that. The 'shameful secret’, he says, is that the death of a friend very much increases your love of life. We grieve for them but by loving life more, because they can’t do that any more. You treasure the moments on their behalf. It’s a great gift from your dead friends that they make life more precious to you. It’s quite a subversive thought.’ He falls silent for a moment. 'It’s very complicated, all this – coming to terms with it. It’s slow and stubborn and will take the rest of my life to process. As Hitch and I used to say, the idea of “closure”, in the vernacular, is disgusting, a wank.
'He grappled with the Nietzsche line, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Amis gives a bleak smile. 'I always thought that was all balls; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, and kills you later on.’