Martin Amis Contemplates Evil

England’s most famous living novelist has moved to America—and tilted the literary world

Martin Amis, England's most famous living novelist, has just moved from London to the United States. (Julian Broad)
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“I’ve just been reminded by Ron that John Self says [in Money] ‘The basic thing is that he can beat them up.’ So dear, I can beat you up,” he says mock-yobbishly, laughing although the outcome doesn’t seem entirely clear-cut to me.

She laughed too and said wryly, “I’ll meekly go make dinner.”

When she departed, a third Martin Amis emerged, one who had nothing to do with evil or bad behavior. The Amis who relishes the love he feels for his children and the greats of poetry.

“[When I talk] about love,” he said, “the positive value is always innocence.”

At the heart of the new novel, he told me, is an innocent couple in love and a threatened child.

“That’s what I seem to prize, the child or the ingénue, the less worldly characters. You can say that the world may not be getting worse—in a pinch you can say that. But it absolutely incontrovertibly is getting less innocent. You get the feeling that childhood does not last as long as it used to. Innocence gets harder to hold on to as the world gets older, as it accumulates more experience, more mileage and more blood on the tracks.

“Your youth evaporates in your early 40s when you look in the mirror. And then it becomes a full-time job pretending you’re not going to die, and then you accept that you’ll die. Then in your 50s everything is very thin. And then suddenly you’ve got this huge new territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn’t there before. A new source of strength. Then that may not be so gratifying to you as the 60s begin [Amis is 62], but then I find that in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it’s imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance, that it’s not going to be around very long, this world, so it begins to look poignant and fascinating.”

I particularly liked “the huge new territory” of the past and the “slightly magical” feel he evoked. Indeed, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s famous “seven ages of man” speech, with a tinge more optimism, and all the more impressive for having been delivered extemporaneously.

Finally we moved on to Philip Larkin, the great British poet who had been a friend to him, and his father, another celebrated and controversial novelist, Kingsley Amis. Martin had edited a selection of Larkin’s poems. I mentioned an essay I’d written about what I thought was Larkin’s single most affirmative line—in a body of work known for its lyric pessimism—the final line of “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love.”

A line that Larkin himself later questioned as being too romantic.


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