Recently in these pages, The L's Mark Martin declared Martin Amis's new novel The Pregnant Widow—"the story of a young man's sexual coming of age during history's sexual awakening"—the best of his career. He spoke to the erudite, inventive, comic, often controversial Amis over the phone last month.
THE L: A lot of people think of you as a man's writer. What are your thoughts on being described as a guy writing for guys?
MARTIN AMIS: I don't think it's true, though it sometimes looks that way. When I started out, people in the signing queue tended to be blokes. But now it's very 50-50, and I think I have plenty of women readers. What I don't have are women reviewers.
THE L: Why's that?
MARTIN AMIS: It's to do with literary editors, thinking, you know, "Stand back, my dear, this won't be a pretty sight!" I think it's a sort of accident, and a general impression that, as usual, isn't really accurate.
THE L: I understand that The Pregnant Widow grew out of a longer, autobiographical novel that you abandoned. Is that right?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, well, I didn't abandon it. I had a bad couple of weeks, and then realized it was two novels and that trying to meld them into one was a disaster. I'm getting away from autobiography, which I found so hideously constricting. The autobiographical novel will be the one after next.
THE L: I remember your father writing that he couldn't put real people in fiction, because they interfered with the structure he envisioned. They did their own thing.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, that's right. They're obtrusive. They don't fit into the scheme of the novel. I discovered, or I already knew, that it's not fidelity to what actually happened that breathes life into a novel. It's contrivance and patterning, which life doesn't have.
THE L: I read some of the British reviews and they all portrayed The Pregnant Widow as very much an autobiographical novel. Would you say that's not the case?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, absolutely not the case. It's palpably not autobiographical. Demonstrably not.
THE L: There is one aspect of the book that seems very autobiographical, and that's the story of the protagonist's sister, Violet. It's a sad strain in a novel with a lot of tremendous humor in it.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah. There are three real figures in the book and they're all dead. My sister, my old friend—who's called Kenrick—and the poet Neil Darlington is based on Ian Hamilton.
THE L: I did wonder whether your sister was as confused about sex, about men, about life, as Violet.
MARTIN AMIS: She was, completely. Actually, the Violet in the book is a toned-down version of my sister [Sally, who died in 2000].
THE L: The new novel's about the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. The protagonist Keith Nearing makes a mess of his youth, and it's an obvious deduction from this, though not necessarily an accurate one, that you regret coming to maturity in the 1970s. Do you think a Martin Amis born in, say, 1980 would have been happier as a young man?
MARTIN AMIS: I don't at all regret being a young man at that time. He regrets it, but he's not me. I wanted to concentrate on the casualties of the revolution as well as the beneficiaries, so I actually turned Keith over into being a casualty. There were casualties, and my sister was one. But she would have struggled in any society, apart from, say, a strict Muslim society. So no, it was a time of tremendous opportunities, and I was absolutely thrilled at the time. I don't have many regrets about anything that came after.
THE L: That brings me to a question about aging, a big concern of this novel. You recently turned 60. I don't think anyone needs reminding of the horrors of getting old. What, if any, consolations have you found?
MARTIN AMIS: Well, I sort of agree with Gogol, who said that old age is bitter and irreducible. It gives nothing back. Nothing. But I do think it gives one or two things back. Apart from my wife and children, the most important thing in my life is writing, and I feel more on top of it than ever before. I don't know how long that will last. Since finishing The Pregnant Widow, I'm coming to the end of another novel that came very quickly. And I know what the next novel is going to be.
THE L: By the way, I really enjoyed The Pregnant Widow. I know this is a dangerous comment to make, but I thought it was your best novel. Loved it.
MARTIN AMIS: Well, thank you very much. Oh and by the way, on the women front, I've still got this misogynist tag. It's sort of a hand grenade that gets thrown now and again. It's like "racist," you know. You're always forgiven for saying it because you can't be too vigilant about these things. I think, honestly, I talk more about women's rights and women's causes than any other novelist of my generation. Ask my wife of 18 years if I'm a misogynist.
THE L: It strikes me that you do have one thing in common with your father on that score. I feel that in both your novels and your father's, the women characters come across most strongly when they are acting as the conscience for the male characters.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, I thought he did that a bit too much. It was all a bit too predictable that the girl would give him a dressing down at the end. But there is something in that.
THE L: I thought that happened a bit with Keith's girlfriend, Lily, in The Pregnant Widow. She has a good sense that Keith seems to lack. And she comes across as a very strong, convincing, likable character.
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah. Men do think of women as their conscience. They do measure their behavior against women.
THE L: In recent years, you've come to be seen as something of a political pundit. You've written a work of non-fiction. You published a selection of essays inspired by the attack on the World Trade Center. Do you see any conflict between those non-fiction activities and your artistic ambitions?
MARTIN AMIS: No. It's only in the last 10 years really that I've had any interest in politics at all, although I wrote a novel about the Holocaust and I wrote a book of short stories about nuclear weapons. But when I wrote the book about Stalin, I realized I was giving myself a political education. And I feel interested and fascinated by all of that. But writing non-fiction is like writing left-handed; it's not the same thing at all.
THE L: There is an argument that a novel achieves an emotional truth through factual lies and that this doesn't leave a novelist in a good position to deal with serious non-fiction. Do you have any sympathy for that point of view?
MARTIN AMIS: I find it fairly seamless going from one to the other. Writing about politics is actually easier than writing literary essays, in my view, because your blood gets up a bit. Writing 5,000 words about Nabokov or someone like that is, by far, the hardest thing I do. Whereas writing about politics involves the passions a bit more.
THE L: There are many nods to Philip Larkin in The Pregnant Widow. Among them is a funny discussion about a place that you call "Larkinland," the land of sexual dearth, where Keith resides for a few years. I've read Clive James on your days as a bachelor. He paints a picture that leads me to think you've never visited Larkinland yourself.
MARTIN AMIS: No, I did visit it. And it was not for very long. It was for about eight or nine months, and it was terrible. And very, very self-perpetuating. And very difficult to get out of once you're there, because it's as if all the girls have been ringing each other up saying, "Don't go near him." No, I did have a very bleak stretch. Long enough to sense that if it had gone on for longer, it would have got much, much worse, much harder to escape.
THE L: How did you pull out of it, as it were?
MARTIN AMIS: When I met Tina Brown. As Gloria [a character in The Pregnant Widow] says, "You can't have a pretty girlfriend until you've got a pretty girlfriend." But Tina was tremendously ebullient and affectionate in public. And there is a strange sort of tom-tom effect when that happens. If a pretty girl likes you, then the other pretty girls begin to think that you might do.
THE L: Larkin's reputation sank for a while after the publication of his letters, but it seems, perhaps since the mid-90s, that critical respect for him has only grown. How would you rank Larkin among the English poets?
MARTIN AMIS: Well, it's been much on my mind, because I've been doing the Selected Poems for Faber. One of the things I'm going to say in the introduction is that I think all novelists love Philip Larkin, but I'm not sure that all poets do. But I would rate him very highly on the grounds of memorability alone. I think it is a measure of something if you read a poem once and you've almost got it by heart. I think it's a tremendous indicator of merit. It's really a magical thing. It's as if those thoughts and rhythms were already in your mind, and there's a certain inevitability in the way he expresses them. I rate him very highly indeed. But he suffers a bit from being enjoyable, and there's a strange prejudice about enjoyable writers. I think it's all nonsense. All the great writers were enjoyable and humorous for the good reason that life is like that too. It's funny, life.
THE L: Do you think it's something to do with the fact that so many of us are taught how to read literature in universities?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, probably. And it's all Beckett's fault, I think. Gloomy cliches are taken to be more honest than what I consider to be really vibrant writing.
THE L: You wrote in Experience that we live in an age of memoir. Do you think novels might go the way of poetry and become the rarified pleasure of a very small audience?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah, I do. I think the literary novel will return to what it was when I began, which was a minority interest sphere.
THE L: That would be when you began to write novels in the early 70s?
MARTIN AMIS: Yeah. No interviews, no photo-ops, no tours, no readings, no parties. No profiles, nothing.
THE L: The Pregnant Widow is chock-full of literary references. It's like a vast echo chamber for English literature. Was that a conscious decision of yours as a craftsman to create that density of literary reference?
MARTIN AMIS: Well, not really. I've since thought about it. That's the way it goes. You do it all on instinct and then a year later you think about it. And I think I did want particularly the Italy bit to have a kind of mythical density, and I am surprised by just how many allusions and references there are. I think I wanted to write about Italy as a sort of suspended world.
THE L:One character, Gloria Beautyman, has an intriguing theory about Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. Essentially that Elizabeth is very highly sexed, almost uncontrollably so. Is that a position you'd defend?
MARTIN AMIS: Well, I think that the quotes that [Gloria] supplies are very startling. And I don't think it's been pointed out. There's nothing like that in any of the other novels. When Mr. Bennet says, "I know with your lively talents you could be neither happy nor respectable in a loveless marriage," what does that mean? Not respectable? She'd look elsewhere. That scene where she comes in covered in mud—the petticoats covered in mud—that's not very Jane Austen.
THE L: So you think Elizabeth Bennet might have been a goer?
MARTIN AMIS: [Laughs] Yes, a complete goer.*
*You know, a goer.