Despite the variety of subjects, the guiding theme of most of these pieces is the impact of time on talent and the rarity of a long, multichaptered literary career. I spoke by phone with the former Londoner at his home in Brooklyn.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Your new collection includes a few new pieces on Philip Larkin. Has the Big Issue about Larkin — that his often delicate, sometimes sweeping poetry was written by a man with very limited life experience and a true nasty streak — softened at all over time? Is this still held against him?
MARTIN AMIS: It was during the 1990s, after the appearance of his letters and Andrew Motion’s biography, that Larkin’s reputation sank. And it has largely recovered. I’m durably committed to his poetry, but I think his life was a mess. And a terrible failure. So I’m sort of more ambiguous about it than I used to be. I didn’t toe the critical line about his purported racism and misogyny — though those are definitely there. But I find I can separate the man and the work quite easily. It’s never troubled me, except when I consider his life in the absence of his poetry, and then it’s very unattractive.
You have a great line on Larkin in one of your essays, where you say he’s not exactly a poet’s poet — he’s too widely embraced for that — but a novelist’s poet. Tell me what you mean by that.
Well, it was suggested to me by the poet-novelist Nick Laird. We were talking about Zadie [Smith, Laird’s wife] loving Larkin, and Nick said, “All novelists love Larkin.” That resonated for me, and when I came to write that piece I saw just how true it was — that he belongs with the novelists rather than the other poets. “A poet’s poet” is usually very much in danger of being precious, or exquisitely technical. Larkin is technically amazing, but he doesn’t draw attention to it. It’s his character observation and phrase-making that put him in the camp of the novelists, I think.
There’s something oddly visual about Larkin too, for someone who squinted his life away through thick glasses. I feel like I can see those poems, the curtains parting and the little village and the ships on the dock.
Yes — and very thickly peopled. He has a grasp of ordinary character — which is very hard to get. The strangeness of ordinary people.
That may be why people who don’t read a lot of poetry respond to Larkin, if they read him at all. It’s like Auden. You might not understand everything in those guys’ work, but you get something out of it if you try.
Yes — though Auden is a lot more difficult. And a greater poet, I think, in the end. But — yes — Larkin doesn’t need much interpretation from critics in the way other poets do.
The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?
Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.
But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.
It’s amazing how much poetry dropped out of the literary conversation in the States over the last few decades. It’s not gone entirely, but it doesn’t show up very much. I find British and Irish people, especially those born in the 1940s and ’50s, much more engaged with verse. It’s really changed over time.
It really has, and also the huge figures are no longer there, in poetry. Lowell, Seamus Heaney was one of the last. And I’m convinced, for that reason, that we live in the age of acceleration. Novels have evolved to deal with that, as the novel is able to do — just by moving a bit faster. Not being so speculative, digressive, intellectual. But poetry moves at its own pace, I think — and you can’t speed that up.
The novel, then, is a more flexible form, perhaps. With poetry all you can do is mess with the syntax, or something.
Well, D. H. Lawrence said that the novel is great because you can do whatever you like with it. But that’s a freedom, and freedoms carry responsibilities. And various kinds of novels are now extinct: like the stream-of-consciousness novel, the inductive novel, where you have to solve a puzzle — completely gone. Unless it’s stated on the page, it won’t be surmised by the reader. The reader has really committed to an incuriosity about things that aren’t fairly obvious.
So that’s one of the ways it adapts. Novelists are modern people; they’ve evolved too. It’s more difficult for the poet, who’s a bit more in aspic. What they write is more lapidary, it’s more built.
There’s also something about the poetry from the ’50s and ’60s, especially the British and Irish stuff. You can pick up those little Penguin Moderns — there’s something you can take away from virtually any of them. It was like jazz — you can grab a Blue Note record from that period and there will be something pleasing and unpredictable.
Yes, and it was a much more popular art form then, both of the people and more widely read by the people. Something intangible about the rhythm of thought has changed.
Right, that’s what poetry is supposed to mirror. The novel does something different.
I’ve read so many obituaries for poetry. But poetry doesn’t die — it contracts, and its audience gets smaller. And that’s all right. When I began to write novels, they had nothing like the sway they have now. It was still a very satisfying choice of vocation, even then.
Your book is about the effect of time on talent — you take the long view on Nabokov and others. Each career is different, but did you perceive any patterns in the way these things go? Bellow, Nabokov, Roth — they all had robust careers. But we could contrast those with shorter or less successful ones — Joseph Heller, maybe, or Alex Chilton. Musicians, artists, writers who seemed exciting at first, but didn’t really keep up.
You get a sense reading a novel sometimes that this novelist has a big tank. A huge reserve. And some people don’t — and they exhaust it quite quickly. You can watch that process in any artist, I think. They arrive fresh, and then they use up, sometimes, their originality, and then are reduced to rephrasing that. You only see it fully when they’re coming to the end of their careers; then you can assess the size of that tank.
But you do go from saying hi, when you arrive on the scene, to saying bye, making your exit. Medical science has given us the spectacle of the doddering novelist. As I say in the first of the Nabokov essays, all of the great novelists are dead by the time they reach my age . It’s a completely new phenomenon, and it’s a dubious blessing. Novelists probably do go on longer than they ought to, now.
Philip Roth has done the dignified thing, just quit. I know others who’ve done that. It seems to me that rather than gouging out another not-very-original book, you should just step aside.
Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but sometimes it’s harder. If we were reading, back in the 1960s, Goodbye, Columbus alongside Catch-22, would we have been able to tell which of the careers would last six decades and which would peak right out of the gate?
It’s hard to predict. But again, you do get an idea of the size of the reserves. Writers who start late sometimes go on longer, because the tank stays full longer.
My father and I used to disagree about Catch-22. He thought it was crap. He used to say of me that I was a leaf in the wind of trend and fashion.
Every father says that about his son!
I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book. See how it does a couple of generations on.
I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed — I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing — I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think.
Another thing that happens in a long career sometimes is an abrupt move from one place to another. You did that when you moved to Brooklyn in 2012.
Well, one of the reasons I was happy to move from England to America is that I felt I was in need of a change. All the clichés you’ve heard about “change is good” — they’re all true. Just going through your daily life in a new environment is very stimulating; it doesn’t matter what the new environment is. Just the act of, you know, shaving or showering in a new bathroom every day is somehow revitalizing; I don’t know how.
And, coming to America, you move closer to the center of the world. There’s no doubt that imparts something to a writer. When England was the center of the world, in the second half of the 19th century, it produced the novels that go with that: long novels about the whole of society, not just the middle-class echelon.
And after World War II, America became that place, and began to produce the novels appropriate to the center of the world. So certainly that was a motive.
What about the times and their effect on an artist? The Beatles both inspired and drew from the energy of the 1960s; that gave them a world to respond to and decipher. Or Nabokov, who left his country while it was changing even more vastly than postwar England. That kind of convulsion can drive a writer but also perhaps confuse him.
Well, it’s hard to separate the Beatles from the ’60s. It’s a two-way process: they contributed to the time, and the time contributed to them. You have to be with your time; you’re helpless about that.
But Auden did seem to decline when he moved to America — the deeper rhythm of that was probably locked in much earlier. It wasn’t a plane ticket; it was his own evolution. He lost some of the Auden excitement, even if he wrote some terrific poems after the move.
I guess ideally a writer who is fully grounded can handle whatever the world throws at him, or whatever changes arrive along the way.
Yes, and you can also be very lucky in your time. Nabokov lived through the Russian Revolution, and where did he end up when he left? Berlin, and he stayed there perilously late, with his Jewish wife and half-Jewish son. And then came to America on almost the last boat out of Europe — an almost novelette-ish life. Very few pages of his address those huge changes, but there’s no doubt they invigorated the whole corpus.
Right, and part of the differences between a novelist and a pop musician is the weight of trends and keeping up with what “the kids” want.
The big difference between poetry and fiction and every other art — although not the visual arts, so much — is that they are completely non-collaborative. If you look back at collaboration as a distinctive genre, there’s nothing there. Even if your collaborator is Shakespeare, it’s still no good. It’s still an individual talking, or speaking. And that’s exciting, but it’s also a big responsibility. When you start dabbling in screenplays, you see the writer is completely helpless.
You know that old joke about the Polish, or the Irish actress, or the blonde actress, who goes to Hollywood and sleeps with the writer: the wrong choice. The dumb choice.
Yes, not exactly social climbing in Hollywood.
But any kind of collaboration is anathema to a writer who is used to controlling his own budget, controlling the schedule, playing all the parts, doing the weather — doing everything. You are omnipotent within your form.
Even a solo [musical] artist does not have that wild freedom, which is terrifying. Some writers, they get that sheet of paper in front of them, and they see an infinity of possibilities, and it is intimidating.
Nabokov and Bellow are writers with long, rich heydays. Who are some others that demonstrate both longevity and variation — not just doing one damn thing after another?
I think most writers are wedded to social realism, these days — social realism is the only genre left. And there’s been a contraction, as I was saying, of what you can expect from the reader. It’s not a conscious decision to cease to be as complex as you might once have been; it’s just going with the flow of things. It was Trilling, wasn’t it, who said we like complex books? The truth is, we may once have liked them, but we don’t anymore.
Right — how would Gravity’s Rainbow fare if it came out today?
Exactly. Or Ulysses? Definitely not Finnegans Wake. And it does seem to me an incredible assertion of, well, something or other, to announce on the first page that you’re really gonna have to do some work. “I’m in charge, and I’m not gonna make any concessions to, you know…” So you have to be in tune to that.
But I think increasingly the novel is a social form and should absorb some of the decorum of the author — you have to be a good host. If you were to visit Nabokov, he would give you his best chair and his finest wine and all that. And if you went to Joyce he would a) not be there, and when you tracked him down, he would b) address you in a language you’d never heard before.
He’d be at the corner seat in a pub smashed out of his mind …
And he’d serve you disgusting food and disgusting drink.
Novelists write the kind of books they’d like to read, and I’ve come to that consideration that a good host will give you: I just imagine that I’m reading what I’m writing. When you enter a novel, you don’t want to be frozen out by having 15 characters introduced at once. And you should give the reader a bit of air: after a couple of pages there should be a bit of clear white space on the page, not clogged for the reader with your impulsive vividness and fertility and all that. Show the reader that you’re in control, that you have a structure. Structure is so important, because it’s about impersonal forces that will come to your aid. We do want structure, that sense that the writer is in complete control. So I oblige the reader with that in a way I would not have when I was younger.
If part of what we’re talking about is having a literary or artistic career that’s got some range and heft to it, I wonder if it comes from a restlessness — getting bored with what you’ve already done. I think of the writers I really admire, whether it’s Miles Davis or Yeats. Is that part of having a robust career — keeping from getting caught doing the same thing over and over again?
Yeah, definitely. And also you want a change of air within your body of work. So you say goodbye to social realism sometimes. And temperament comes into it a great deal, as it does in political beliefs. The extremist, whether of the political right or left, is responding to something in his or her temperament, it’s not as thought out as people think it is. You’re just that type.
I guess that’s the definition of being doctrinaire. It doesn’t really matter what’s going on in the world. You have the same answer to every question.
Well, anyone who’s ideological is like that. Ideology is sort of violent and tyrannical in its nature — and tends to have the answer to everything. It’s laughable to look at some Marxist writers now: proved wrong in every particular, but still can’t escape the category.
So you do want to escape the categories, and to feel that you’re taking the novel a millimeter forward. But not a mile forward, just edging forward. And that’s my temperament: I’m not an extremist.
You came of age around extremists, didn’t you? You saw a lot of ideologues on both sides, I think. You were at Oxford in the ’60s; there would have been a lot of Trotskyites around …
Yes, like Hitchens.
Right, he was anti-Stalin, but he was a leftist.
Yes, if you called him a Troyskyite, he’d say, “I’m a Trotskyist — only a Stalinist would call me a ‘Trotskyite.’” They loved to be able to categorize.
But I’m a gradualist in politics, and I have been once or twice bold in fiction, but it’s not sustained by any pseudo-religious ideology.
I think Clive James once wrote something about how Trotsky’s followers thought they had found the vegetarian version of Bolshevism.
Yeah, and even that is illusory. Because Trotsky was — as one German historian called him — a scholar of barbarity. He had literary talent, but he was not at all a vegetarian. They said he was tougher than Stalin.
You can’t shake some people — even intelligent ones — out of their youthful infatuation.
My father was that way.
I get the sense he was a stubborn lefty early on, then a stubborn reactionary after that.
Yes, that was my father.
Let’s conclude by going back to your interest in talent versus time. You emerged with The Rachel Papers in 1973, when you were in your early 20s; you’ve gone on to more than a dozen novels, a memoir, nonfiction books, essays. Does it get easier or harder? Do you feel like a footballer who’s losing his wind? Or are you engaging with the world the same way you did when you started out?
Well, I don’t think you are engaging the same way, whether you think you are or not. You’re not sort of breathing it. But the only clear diminution I see is I work fewer hours now. I used to have what Joseph Heller called a “work stand” — four or five hours. Now it’s like two-and-a-half or three. Trollope wrote 40 novels, and most of them 1,000 pages long. And he never worked for more than three hours a day. But I do feel like my stamina isn’t what it was. Otherwise I’m just as devoted to it as I ever was.
Finally, I wonder if it’s hard for you to see this strange turn my country, and your country, have taken, and not wonder what your old friend Mr. Hitchens would have made of it. Do you often hear him commenting on Trump, the Corbynites, the Brexiteers, or wish he had lived to?
Well, first of all, I’d make the distinction between Britain and America. Britain didn’t know what Brexit would look like. If they’d known it would have orange skin and yellow hair, and couldn’t complete a sentence longer than three or four words, I don’t think they would have taken that leap in the dark.
But America wanted that leap in the dark. They knew bloody well what they were getting, and they voted for it anyway.
As for Hitch … there was a Charlie Rose episode about What Would Hitchens Say, and I felt that you should air this a couple of times per week. It’s very hard to predict what he would say. I know his heart would be on the left, and he would see Trump as a monstrous enemy. But I don’t know quite what line he would take. I do commune with him; I’m writing about him as we speak, in a novel. I still can’t fathom some of his positions. Even how he conducted his own life. It’s an intriguing mystery.
Well, for the topic we’re discussing here, longevity, here’s someone who on paper looked incredibly self-destructive. If I were advising young writers on how to have robust careers, I would tell them to not drink that much, not smoke that much, and yet he went down fighting, after, what, four decades of strong work?
Yes, and “don’t get water-boarded,” too.
Ha — right. This would be on the short list of the rules I’d tell young writers, and yet he broke all of them.
He went down in a blaze of fire.
Part of what you write about is how completely opposed his views were to just about everyone he ran with. Was it you who had that great line about Barry Manilow? You were writing about Trump.
Everyone you know thinks he’s absolutely terrible; everyone you don’t know thinks he’s great.
I knew Christopher, and I still don’t know how he’d respond to these developments.
One of my shocks on meeting him was seeing that his stance on the Iraq War was not a debater’s trick, not a stage show. He really meant it.
I never understood it; he could not have been more wrong. But he was very passionate about it. What people probably don’t know is how much he suffered for it.
You mean socially, among friends and so on?
No, not socially; he was perfectly happy with that. Internally, when it went wrong, it really churned him up. It really churned him up.
Well, I’ll look forward to your next rendition of him. This is a novel?
It’s a long autobiographical novel that I’m just seeing my way to the end of now. It’s about him and Larkin and Bellow as my three.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles (2003) and the author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015).