Jonathan Cape, $35 pb, 522 pp
During a 1995 television interview on Charlie Rose soon after the publication of Martin Amis’s The Information, another long novel, there is a moment when, as Rose begins to read the opening passage, Amis’s mouth visibly slackens. Silently he intones the first lines. His hand (often tentatively raised toward his chin in interviews) searches out his forehead. There is a spectral waver in his gaze, a registering (as if accommodating, or incorporating, new information). He looks adrift, unmoored. Free-floating. One has the sense of a man assimilating his own self as it is spoken back to him. For a moment, he seems precarious.
Amis once wrote that a writer’s life ‘is all in the novels, at one remove or another, for the not-so-idly curious’. The viewer feels as though here, in close-up, the truth of that sentiment was being comprehensively proven.
The cover of Inside Story dubs the 500-page work ‘a novel’. Amis calls the enterprise a ‘novelised autobiography’. Of Philip Larkin’s ‘Letter to a Friend About Girls’, he notes: ‘The “friend” of the title is only approximately Kingsley [Amis], just as the narrator of the poem is only approximately Philip; but approximation can come very close.’
Here, approximation comes very close, very often.
Is Amis trying his hand at the ‘rather dubious genre’ of life writing or autofiction? Is he giving us his Rachel Cusk impression ‒ his Chris Kraus, his Kate Zambreno, his Ben Lerner? (Or, perhaps more appropriate to the higher autobiography of the 1980s, during which his most acclaimed work was published, his Philip Roth as Nathan Zuckerman ‒ his Marguerite Duras via L’Amant?) Are we in for a Transit to Exit Ghost? Kudos to The Anatomy Lesson of writing advice? (Amis Unbound suggests itself as a probable title.) Is this, at last (and with a due nod to Karl Ove Knausgaard), Martin Amis: My struggle?
In truth, Amis has tried autofiction before: in the ‘flagrantly autobiographical’ The Pregnant Widow (2010) and in a 1997 New Yorker story, ‘What Happened to Me on My Holiday’. (Cusk herself, in a 1998 review of Night Train, noted an ‘ambiguous authorial closeness’ in Amis’s work.) ‘It was clearly long premeditated,’ remarks Amis of another Larkin line. Much the same could be said of Inside Story.
Here, the autobiographical aspect is told primarily through Amis’s reflections on Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens, and Larkin. The ‘palpable occlusion’ of Bellow’s dementia, his death at the age of eighty-nine, informs some of the novel’s most affecting passages (‘his eyes weren’t right ‒ busy, flickering, over-alert [...] as if he was staring into his own brain and wondering what it would do to him next’). These internal betrayals ‒ Bellow’s dementia, Hitchens’s and Larkin’s cancer ‒ give Amis pause. If the mind goes, then the writing, the reading, the inner life, go with it. The prospect, for Amis, is quietly terrifying: akin to the universe shutting down, curtaining itself off from authorial access.
Recollections of women are realised less gracefully. Those who populate Amis’s work ‒ carers, redeemers, conduits, temptresses ‒ wearily resign themselves to their fate, as must the reader. They are there, mainly, to connect the men with the men; to put the ‘probationary intimates’ ‒ all those Roths, Hitchenses, Amises ‒ in touch with the tutelary spirits, the daddies: Vladimir Nabokov, Bellow, Larkin. In a kind of variant failure of the Bechdel test, whenever a woman talks (although not with another woman ‒ that rarely, if ever, happens here), all she wants to talk about is the men in Martin Amis’s life. Not for nothing is the most specific aspect of Germaine Greer’s depiction (‘my host and my nurse’) the fact that she administers a blowjob to the young Amis; or that Gloria Steinem, ‘the world’s second most glamorous feminist’ (guess who comes first), is memorialised mainly for her proselytising ability: ‘the joy of turning me into a true believer devolved upon [her]’.
Much of the novel is devoted to one paramour in particular: ‘Phoebe Phelps’, a businesswoman and former escort whom Amis encounters inside a phone booth, ‘safely encaged in glass’. Like Nicola Six in London Fields (1989), Phelps, a self-described ‘misogynist’ (Amis, chivalrously, tries to talk her round), constitutes an audibly whirring plot machination; a galley slave enlisted to draw Bellow, Larkin, and Hitchens into the novelistic arc. She suggests to Amis that his real father may be Larkin. If true, this would make Larkin’s father, Sydney, a bullying bureaucrat enamoured of fascism, Amis’s grandfather. For Amis, incisive anatomist of Bellow’s work and author of several fictions about the Third Reich, this is something of a problem: it certainly complicates all of the shout-outs to Jewish friends, family, and authors in the acknowledgments of Time’s Arrow (1991) and The Zone of Interest (2014).
Nonetheless, Amis’s house style – ‘a beguiling mixture of confidence and courtesy’ (Clancy Sigal’s enviably accurate formulation) – has a way of drawing the reader in, making you an initiate. It carries the proceedings along even when you feel as if you might wish to get off. The hard bop, the brag and jive, the crotchety pugilism (always ducking and weaving): this is the joy and energy of Martin Amis, his loyal solicitude towards the reader. Between F.R. Leavis and Northrop Frye, he has always chosen Frye, the Romantic: Charles Dickens over Gustave Flaubert, E.M. Forster rather than Virginia Woolf (at one point, he compares the stylistic differences between Nabokov and James Joyce to dinner party savoir faire: while Nabokov would serve you his best meal, Finnegans Wake-era Joyce offers ‘a jam jar of brown whey and a bowlful of turnips and eels’).
Early on in the novel, Amis recounts a crisis of confidence: Inside Story, as a story, was failing to cohere. As Amis furtively grapples with the writing process, a visitation from his younger self offers a Damascene epiphany: ‘Something became undammed. It was me at eighteen, when I used to say to myself, I don’t want to be a writer (or not yet). I want to be a reader. I just want to be a part of it. Humbly resolved [...] Devotional.’
Devotional: this was how the author appeared on Charlie Rose in 1995. Whatever troubles may have attended its birth, there can be no doubt that Amis has been silently repeating Inside Story’s contents (its literary life lessons) to himself for some time. Twenty-five books in, late-period Amis (this, he writes, is ‘almost certainly my last long novel’) bears witness to the end of that gestation, the story of how he became a part of it: the reader, the writer, (the dear, the gentle); one of the humbly resolved.