November 2, 2020

Twenty years ago in Experience Martin Amis observed that the claim that everyone has a novel in them is slightly untrue. It is more accurate to say, the novelist pointed out, that everybody has a memoir inside them. With Experience the novelist wrote his own memoir, chronicling the story of his upbringing, life, friends and career up till 2000.

Written as the author was turning 50, Experience felt like a book that it would be important for Amis to have written. He described his relationship with his father, Kingsley Amis, in hilarious and often moving detail. He also described his “missing”, including his cousin Lucy Partington who disappeared in the 1970s and whose body turned up two decades later beneath the house of Fred and Rosemary West.

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It had been expected that Experience would unblock something in Amis. His style in fiction and criticism had always been notoriously tinder-dry, as though the novelist could not trust himself to break a smile or laugh in public. In his memoir he trusted himself — and trusted the reader enough — to do this among other things he had not previously done. He was willing to recount details with slapstick humour, such as escorting his father from the pub, so that the reader could burst into generous, unadulterated laughter.

And he opened his heart in a way that was not just surprising but perhaps needed. In Experience he described the emotion that he felt surge through the attendees at the funeral of his cousin. It felt as though for the first time on the page Amis had trusted his readers, and so had given them a glimpse into places that he had spent decades guarding.

But a protective-layer still remained. At this time I shared an American publisher with Amis, and we did the same publicity rounds after each other. I remember a photographer who had done a session with Amis just before me recounting a detail I always found telling. However hard the photographer tried and however much he insisted, he said he could not get Amis to stare straight into the camera. Repeatedly the novelist would make sure that even when he was staring head-on, his pupils would catch just to the side of the lens. It was telling because it spoke to an element that existed in his fiction: Amis had spent years making sure that his readers could never stare — never see — straight into him. Even when they imagined they were doing so he would in fact be slightly evading them.

Twenty years later he has done it again. Inside Story self-describes as a novel, though it is no such thing and after the briefest early protestations never again really tries to be. The result of an earlier false start, it is in fact a follow-up volume to Experience, with all the earlier book’s virtues and occasional flaws.

Perhaps the flaws can be got out of the way first of all. They are of one piece, which is that Inside Story is too long, digressive and takes on too much. Several books lie within. At first it seems to be a memoir of the novelist’s intellectual and emotional engagements over the last two decades. Then a set of accounts of his friendships with Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens take over. Slightly strangely, as Amis writes the late lives and final years of both these men his father’s great friend Philip Larkin gets caught up in the narrative and ends up coming along with the accounts of these other two writers’ final years.

This is slightly strange because Amis has written about Larkin in the past (not least his 1992 essay “Don Juan in Hull”) in a way that could not be improved upon. But there appear two reasons why Larkin intrudes here. The first is an ex-girlfriend of Amis’s who interrupts his fifties — piling turmoil on turmoil — by claiming that Amis is actually the product of a fling between Larkin and Amis’s mother. That claim turns out to be bunk. But the real reason why Larkin intrudes appears to be that he is the poet of decline and death who Amis most carries with him. So as the years creep up on him and various ailments, including the loss of loved ones, come along, so Larkin is the lens through which Amis sees life as well, inevitably, as death.

There is one other component of Inside Story, which is that Amis intermittently takes time out to provide short lessons, of a few pages each, on how to write. As with the best of Amis’s criticism, this is witty, truthful, even practical stuff. And although it may be presumptuous for a critic to return the favour to Amis, there is one tick he has which should not be copied. This is his decision (first rolled-out in Experience) to append footnotes to his text so that each page has one, sometimes more, notes on things that Amis has written in his main text.

These footnotes are salient, often enlightening, digressions on themes (including the Holocaust and Stalinism) that preoccupy Amis. But they interrupt the flow of the narrative even more than the main narrative already interrupts itself. To relay a lesson in turn, I was always taught that you should never even use parentheses unless you absolutely have to, for if there is a detail not worthy of being carried in the main body of the sentence then you should think again over whether it is needed at all. In the far more serious case of Amis’s footnotes the reader might wish that Amis had decided that those things not worth including in the main flow of the page should not be smuggled in on the page’s bottom.

But this is a quibble. The main purpose, and worth, of Inside Story is not just that it appears to be a signing off by one of the most significant figures in modern English fiction. It is that it constitutes his last reflections on three (or arguably four) of the men who formed his literary and other character. The description of Bellow’s decline into forgetfulness is memorable and moving. But as the picture on the dust jacket suggests, it is the description of Hitchens and his more untimely death that will attract many readers.

Detractors of Amis and his circle often remarked on the insular nature of the coterie, and there is something in that. Whenever a new novel by Salman, Martin or any of the others came out it would always be generously noticed by Hitchens, who in turn would have his non-fiction referred to by the others. Outsiders tend to hate this sort of chumocracy, but as Amis shows here the fact could not be helped. Along with James Fenton and others, the Hitchens-Amis circle educated and informed each other. And as the dominant non-fiction writer in the group, it was the force of Hitchens’ political polemic that forced the others into positions and stances they might not otherwise have taken. So much so that when they disagreed (as Hitchens and Amis did very publicly over the latter’s Koba the Dread [2002]) it was noteworthy, even newsworthy.

In death as in life, Hitchens figures large in Amis’s imagination, the formation of his views and the ideas towards which he gravitates. His descriptions of moments in their decades of friendship are almost alarmingly intimate, and those of Hitchens’ last days are hard to read. It seems churlish to claim of a book so personal and self-intrusive that the author holds anything back. And yet he does, in a manner similar to the way in Hitchens himself drew back at moments of his own memoir Hitch-22 [2010]. In this Hitchens interrupts an account of perhaps the most devastating moment in his life to write “A coda on self-slaughter”. Elsewhere, as in his accounts of the Iraq War he evades the obvious question and slips off onto a different matter.

In Inside Story Amis does something similar, interrupting accounts of the demise and loss of the people most close to him, he will suddenly step away and either survey a different scene, reflect on a literary text he feels is related to it or go into a colloquy related to the writer’s art. Perhaps Amis is acting on one of the first lessons for any writer — “show, don’t tell”. Perhaps the problem is that he remains a novelist and is never willing to fully take on the exposure that comes from being a wholly trusted, first-person narrator.

Although there are fairly lengthy recreations of the conversations the two friends had, somehow Amis misses ever saying what it was that made Hitchens the extraordinary person, even force, that he was. What, in the end, was Amis’s understanding of what made his friend, how he changed (if he changed) and what his meteoric impact was all about? Just during the time I knew Hitchens — which was only for a decade — he rocketed from being a famous figure in the literary world to someone you couldn’t walk down a street with, or dine with, without pedestrians and waiters coming over to express some serious admiration. What made him become this, what was he searching for and did he find what he wanted? As before with Amis, you hold out the hope that he is going to look right at the thing.

After Hitchens’ death Amis wrote a piece about him that consisted of a set of anecdotes. Then, as here, Amis (who is better placed than anyone) strangely fails to explain or demonstrate what it was about Hitchens that made an increasing number of people seek him out. Indeed he doesn’t even quite capture what it was about Hitchens that was capable of setting not just the table, but whole arenas, in a roar.

Once again he evades the gaze just slightly, looking off fractionally to the side, hoping not to be caught. But if you are not going to capture yourself and others, and be able to be caught by others, fully and finally in a memoir like this — even while packaged as a novel — then what later opportunity can Amis possibly be waiting for?