Photo by Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times
Literary Brooklyn Gets
Its Leading Man
By PETER STEVENSON
NY Times, June 22, 2012
ON a late afternoon in May, Martin Amis gestured toward the tall, sun-filled parlor windows of his Brooklyn brownstone.
|Martin Amis at his home in Cobble Hill, Brookly|
Photograph by Jenniffer S. Altman
for The New York Times
“Out there, it’s Arcadian,” he said. “It’s prelapsarian. It’s like living in the ’50s.”
The 63-year-old author was wearing a frayed pink shirt, black pants and black boots. In height he occupies “that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven,” as he wrote of the character Keith Nearing in his 2011 novel, “The Pregnant Widow.” His much-discussed youthful beauty has crashed on the shore of late middle age without too much damage.
“One of the things I like about Brooklyn is you see Manhattan from a distance,” Mr. Amis said. “And it’s magnificent: what a work of man that is. And every time I see it ... And then you visit it and come back here.”
A few weeks earlier, Mr. Amis had eulogized his best friend, Christopher Hitchens, across the East River at a memorial service at Cooper Union in Manhattan. A friendship that he described as “perfectly cloudless — it is a love whose month is ever May,” had come to an end last December when Mr. Hitchens succumbed at 62 to cancer.
“Saul Bellow said there’s no reason to visit the dead, because they visit you,” Mr. Amis said as he drank white wine in his parlor. Mr. Hitchens, he said, “is always appearing in my dreams. Not with anything particular to say. He’s just around the place.”
“Best address I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s a good spondee. Strong. Place. You can’t stress one or the other. Two big stresses.” Asked if the neighbors know he’s there, the author said he is recognized on the street about once every two weeks.
And while Mr. Amis probably won’t be satirizing artisanal cheeses, Bugaboo strollers and the Park Slope Food Co-op anytime soon (he has been working on a novel set in a Nazi concentration camp), he never considered living in Manhattan. “It’s too noisy,” he said. “The city that never sleeps? Well, the city whose inhabitants never sleep, that’s what it is. Terrible, self-righteous municipal clangings and bangings at 3 o’clock in the morning. And the girls, they were always going to go to St. Ann’s, the famous progressive school.”
Mr. Amis came to know Brooklyn slightly by visiting from London at a cousin of Ms. Fonseca’s for Christmas dinners. The couple has also spent summers in East Hampton, where Ms. Fonseca’s mother owns a two-bedroom house and some cabins in a potato field. And when Mr. Amis covered tennis for The New Yorker in the 1990s, he thrilled to the guttural United States Open crowd at Flushing Meadows.
Even before he moved to this country, Mr. Amis nursed a fascination with it in his fiction and journalism. He titled his 1986 collection of pieces about America “The Moronic Inferno,” a phrase he took from his friend Saul Bellow.
These days, he can’t take his eyes off the presidential race, in particular “the incredible convulsions of the Republican Party,” he said. “It’s completely fascinating. What a great time to be coming to America.
“Is Mitt Romney electable?” he continued. “On the face of it, he looks presidential and he’s not stupid. But he lets himself down hideously whenever he has a victory. He looks as if he’s had five grams of coke — he’s shaking with a power rush. And that was always the most impressive thing about Obama: how he didn’t let that happen to himself. As if he didn’t feel it.”
Mr. Amis also knows something about playing it cool. It’s been 38 years since he proved to the world he wasn’t just the heartthrob son of the celebrated comic novelist Kingsley Amis by publishing “The Rachel Papers,” a novel that still sends would-be fiction writers into twisted bedsheets of self-loathing.
He followed with the novels “Money,” “London Fields” and “The Information,” each of which hoisted him higher. He became not only the talk of the town but also the life of the party — a particularly quick-tongued party of rising British writers including Mr. Hitchens, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and the poet James Fenton.
Photo by Lisbeth Salas
The influence went beyond the boys’ club. “Martin was a terror for the women, as they say,” Mr. Fenton said. “And he had as much success as he could possibly have wanted. But when he was in love with someone, it was most passionate. He might well have got himself into awkward situations, but he was not a sort of casual abusive lover.”
Once the dashing enfant terrible, Mr. Amis is now being cast as a dignified, albeit provocative, elder statesman.
A few weeks ago, he and the journalist Ian Buruma chose some of their favorite films for a discussion at the Morgan Library moderated by Antonio Monda, the ebullient Italian artistic director of Le Conversazioni literary festival. Mr. Amis chose “The Godfather,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Raging Bull” and “Blade Runner,” and got things rolling by saying, in his opinion, no good movies were made before 1966.
After the event, Salman Rushdie, a beautiful young woman in tow, sailed up to Mr. Amis and said hello. Then Mr. Amis and Ms. Fonseca headed to Mr. Monda’s Central Park West apartment, where bowls of piping-hot pasta and glasses of Chianti were passed among a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that included Robert De Niro and Isabella Rossellini.
At a certain point Mr. Amis unwedged himself and slipped out to smoke a cigarette on the sidewalk, looking vaguely menacing under a street lamp. “I’ve sort of hung out with a few thugs all my life,” he said later. “I love thugs. I’m keen on them.”
A thug is at the core of Mr. Amis’s new novel, a satire titled “Lionel Asbo,” which will be published in the United States in August. The main character of the title feeds Tabasco to his pit bulls and can’t understand why anyone would have relationships when pornography is available. Given its subtitle (“State of England”), the novel slots neatly into an argument that Mr. Amis’s move to America is a bitter “goodbye to all that” severing from home soil.
The real reason is more pedestrian, Mr. Amis said. Ms. Fonseca was homesick for America, and her husband is mostly happy to let her choose where they live, as long as he can write. “That’s what I do all day, wherever I am,” he said. “By now, where you live has nothing to do with it.”
But it’s unlikely Mr. Amis will miss the British press, whose feverish obsession with the writer exploded like a boil in the mid-1990s. It was a time when his marriage to Antonia Phillips dissolved, as did his long friendship with Julian Barnes, whose wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, Mr. Amis fired in favor of Andrew Wylie, known as the Jackal, who was able to secure Mr. Amis a reported 500,000-pound advance for his novel “The Information.”
“The press are altogether gentler here,” Mr. Amis said. “In Britain, they have more respect for the man in the street than they do for writers. They have deep suspicion of writers. And I think that’s probably because when America was becoming self-aware in the 18th century, they wondered what America was.
“Was it just a collection of Italians and Jews and Brits and Germans, or was it a nation with a soul and an identity? And everyone, not consciously, intuited that writers have something to do with defining what the country was. But England’s never needed any defining, thank you very much.”
He drew himself up in mock seriousness. “We know who we are.”
As he spoke, Ms. Fonseca, a novelist herself and an editor at the Times Literary Supplement when she met Mr. Amis in 1993, came to tell him that she was going out and that he would be giving the girls dinner.
|Martin Amis and his wife, the novelist Isabel Fonseca, with their daughters in London in 2003.|
“I was 50 when Fernanda was born,” Mr. Amis said. “I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to be a very emeritus kind of father.’ I was quite hands-on with my sons. But the girls have had to fend for themselves.” Louis and Jacob, from Mr. Amis’s marriage to Ms. Phillips, are in their 20s and live in London.
“It’s a very different part of the heart that girls appeal to,” Mr. Amis said. “When they cry, you don’t say, ‘Come on, get yourself together, be a woman.’ Although that’s not a bad bit of advice. I was a soft touch with my boys. The first time I tried to read the riot act to them when they were staying up much too late and disobeying their mother, I went in and raised my voice. And Louis said, ‘Ah, taste the wrath of Daddy.’ ”
Asked how he sees the next 30 years (Mr. Bellow was still procreating at age 84, after all), Mr. Amis said: “There are a few more novels I want to write. It would seem to be the case that writers actually go off around the age of 70. The novels die before the novelists do. They’re dead — they haven’t got that insufflation, the breath of life. Once that happens, then I suppose you’ll see if reading, alone, if that’s compelling enough by itself. I think it will be mortifying if you can’t do what you’ve enjoyed doing for 40, 45 years.
“I think when your head goes, there’s no excuse for being alive,” he continued. “But the trouble is, you’ve got to know that that’s what’s happened to you. You’ve got to do a very firm deal with your wife. Help you starve yourself to death like Gogol or something.”
“But what happens — it’s already started happening to me — is that you turn 60 and there’s this: ‘This is going to turn out well. This can’t turn out well,’ ” he said. “But life grows in value because of your leave-taking with regard to it. Not very significant things suddenly look very poignant and charming. This particular period of my life is full of daily novelty. That turns out to be worth a great deal.”
The wine was almost gone and Cobble Hill was receding behind the windows. Asked about his beloved game of tennis, Mr. Amis said: “I hate it, because I always lose. You can still run a bit. It’s just that your reflexes go. And you’re always in the wrong place. And that scything slice backhand I used to have, now it doesn’t matter how I hold the racket, it always goes up in the air.
“My only shot is the lob. And it’s humiliating. I’ve given up tennis. I used to love it and now I hate it, so I’ve stopped it. But there is a tennis court in Long Island, so I may find myself waddling out there.”