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9 September 2020

Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and the long road to reaction

In his new book Inside Story, Amis morphs from an enfant terrible into a Beefeater guard of the English language.

By Thomas Meaney

It would hardly have surprised Christopher Hitchens, his unsanguine views of the afterlife under no bushel, that among the trials and stations awaiting his departed soul there would be passage through a  Martin Amis novel (he had already endured being packed into The Pregnant Widow in the character of Nicholas Shackleton). Inside Story – the Fleet Street tease of the title notwithstanding – evinces a protective, even proprietary attitude towards the goods to be delivered. The cover features an arresting image of the two grands amis – both formerly of this parish – on the cusp of their prime. Hitchens is on the left, holding his cigarette mid-abdomen like a paintbrush. His as yet unravaged face seems to be gauging whether his last remark has landed with Amis, who looks into the distance, appearing simultaneously satisfied and anxious.

The novel, however, is more than a testament to a sacred bond. Inside Story whiplashes the reader between more decades (roughly from the start of Amis’s career in 1973 with The Rachel Papers, right up to the age of Trump) and more figures than his memoir Experience (perhaps Amis’s best book to date, and certainly his most finely structured). Much of Inside Story is addressed to a kind of disembodied aspiring writer entering Amis’s home, but he changes register throughout, sometimes appearing as “I”, sometimes as “Martin”, sometimes inserting an essay, sometimes novelising, all with exquisite control.

This novel covers much ground: not only Hitchens and the Holy Trinity – Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Larkin – but also evocations of Amis’s early romantic exploits and some higher literary gossip. He is momentarily led to believe his mother may have had a one-night stand with Philip Larkin, which may have resulted in him being Larkin’s son, and hence the grandson of a fascist; the whole premise is preposterous – one glance at Kingsley’s profile is enough – but Amis dilates it for all its worth, to the point of printing a page of photographs of all of Larkin’s girlfriends, including his own mother. Amis also includes his views on the French, on America, Israel, children, death, one large conflagration (the Twin Towers), one small one (a certain Brooklyn brownstone), and an extended homage to his put-upon mistress, the English language (the subtitle of the novel is “How to Write”).

From the outset, Inside Story provokes renewed wonder at Amis’s bottomless capacity for filial piety. Not content with one father to revere, Amis made a point of acquiring others, most prominently Bellow, “a phenomenon of love”. (Hitchens noted this reflex in his friend, and reported being taken aback when, after delivering a negative verdict on a Bellow novel, he was reprimanded by Amis: “Don’t cheek your elders.”) The magnetism of Bellow for Amis’s generation of English writers is well attested: Hitchens, Ian McEwan, and later Will Self and James Wood, all found something in Bellow’s high-calorie sentences that they couldn’t get at home. It was perhaps, above all, the permission to dispense with the rationed intensity of good mid-century British prose – the clean, spare, simplicity of George Orwell’s diction that reached its apotheosis in VS Naipaul and has been  gently ironised by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Amis ran farther than any of his peers in the opposite direction: towards a maximalism that he has never abandoned or so much as questioned. His head-swaying to American street-wise rhythms, albeit leavened by English classicism, is the literary version of Mick Jagger crooning “Hoochie Coochie Man” at the Checkerboard Lounge with Muddy Waters, or Daniel Day-Lewis, son of Cecil, shouting, “I will find you!” in deerskin breechcloths under a waterfall in The Last of the Mohicans.

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Another striking feature of Inside Story is how untouched Amis was by the political passions of the late 1960s. If Hitchens, at least at the time, represented the more politically austere and utopian side of 1968, Amis represents its more purely hedonistic element, which, in its small rebellions against middle-class mores, only came to find itself more entangled within them. There are moments in this book where Amis comes off as a prim society hostess. “But wait,” he writes of an encounter with Bellow and a woman in tow. “Were she and Saul actually married? Was she his wife or was she his fiancée, his cohabitee, his ‘friend’?”

Amis is highly conscious that he is drawn to figures with burning political commitments buried in their pasts: Bellow, Hitchens, Robert Conquest, not to mention Kingsley, were all Trotskyists or communists at one time or another. But instead of merely occupying himself with the trusted liberal beat of policing the divide between literature and politics, Amis has repeatedly marched into established hearts of darkness, writing books about Nazism (Time’s  Arrow), Stalinism (House of Meetings) and Islamism (The Second Plane), as if to prove his mettle, or cover some keenly felt gap in his political education (the crimes of liberalism and colonialism, too close or perhaps too far from home, have rarely aroused anything matchable in him). If Hitchens approached literature primarily though politics, Amis has approached politics aesthetically. This is one of the main differences between the two friends, though Inside Story affords it bafflingly little attention.

The friendship novel in English commands a remarkably narrow berth with not many illustrious passengers. Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies and Bellow’s Ravelstein are worthy recent entries in the genre, but something about their very compression makes it hard for them to capture the full dimension of how the mutual accrual of knowledge and experience can alternatively corrode and nourish a friendship. Outside of a few masterful condensations of lopsided affinities – Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, Sheila Heti’s Ticknor – the friendship novel tends to benefit from the sort of longer exposure that Elena Ferrante exploited in her Neapolitan novels and Marcel Proust achieved with Saint-Loup in À la recherche du temps perdu.

Amis draws some power from this technique as well, and gives us pictures and scenes of Hitchens across the decades. Although not nearly as forensic as Hitchens about the origins of their friendship at the Statesman offices in the early 1970s, Amis ably summons his friend’s presence and is alive to Hitchens’s contradictions. “Everything he said was equivocal,” Amis writes. “Flippant and heartfelt, ironic and serious, whimsical and steely. Even his self-mythologising was also part of a project of self-deflation.” (The more loyal New Statesman readers will be touched by scenes of Hitchens and Amis checking the magazine’s proofs at the printing factory and having the feeling that they are participating in a hallowed rite.) It is to his credit that Amis has managed to make the most moving sentence in this entire book come when Hitchens relates that he has cancer: “It’s my fucking tits now.” (The weight of this line cannot be appreciated out of context.)

The trouble that Amis encounters in his attempt to fictionalise his friendship with Hitchens is that we know too much about him. When Bellow novelised his friendship with Allan Bloom in Ravelstein, he had the advantage of presenting a figure hardly known outside of his one bestselling polemic, The Closing of the American Mind. (The joke in Hyde Park – the other Hyde Park – was that The Closing of the American Mind was one of Bellow’s best novels, marking his turn to a hyper-unreliable narrator in order to outdo Nabokov’s Pale Fire.) But Amis has the opposite problem: he is trying to resuscitate a character who huffs and puffs indefatigably in the netherworld of YouTube, with a new clip of Hitchiana seeming to surface every month.

Amis, who rates his friend higher on the oratory scale than Demosthenes, surely knows that Amis relaying Hitchens-speech is simply not as satisfying as Hitchens relaying it himself, in his prime, on Washington Journal or William F Buckley’s Firing Line (the more staid the setting, the better), long before he became a smooth retailer of sound-bites. Take, for instance, this exchange that Amis serves up. Hitchens begins:

“What’s that line in one of Julian’s early novels? How we are in the sack governs how we see the history of the world. Or words to that effect.”

“I remember. Which sounds like a leap too, but there’s definitely a connection.”

“And it might partly explain why Larkin never had a fucking word to say about the history of the world. His love life was a void, so he…”

“So he didn’t know what the stakes were. Humanly. So he wasn’t moved to speak.”

“Disgraceful, that. Or just pitifully stunted… You know what Trotsky called the Nazi–Soviet Pact? ‘The midnight of the twentieth century’. But that’s a good phrase for what followed – 1941 to ’45. The midnight of the twentieth century.”

“… And we’re midnight’s children. But there’s no reason why a poet should have strong views about it, or any views about it.”

“But you’d think they would.”

This kind of passage is not bad as far as it goes, but it feels like a holding pattern in an extremely narrow orbit: two English writers endlessly expanding on the misery of sex-deprived Philip Larkin from the opposite shore of the sexual revolution, with reference to their friends Barnes and Rushdie, all the while trying to anchor their pub chatter in a world-historical event, preferably Second World War-related, ideally the Holocaust. There is the feeling of a friendship being performed rather than excavated.

But the chief problem with Amis’s revivification of Hitchens is the lurking sense that something is missing from the effort. This suspicion only grows after Amis’s assured treatment of Kingsley and Larkin’s friendship, which slogged on through the decades, and was the occasion of all sorts of piques and disappointments and recoveries. Amis himself once told the Independent that, “My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May.” But the statement is so uncharacteristically and ostentatiously studded with clichés that it rises to a wry smirk. Did they experience no vicissitudes?

Amis’s star far exceeded Hitchens’s in the 1970s and 1980s, until something like the reverse set in in the 2000s, when Hitchens became a public figure in the US as the leading rhapsode of the Iraq War, in part because his combination of lingering leftism and adopted jingoism made him an exotic figure in the American scene, for which he supplied a Churchillian grandeur to the country’s collective criminal idiocy. (Amis is uninterested in Hitchens’s political trajectory, which he basically attributes to a “rebel” gene that expresses itself differently according to circumstances, and while this can probably be chalked up to the fact that one is often incurious about curious aspects of one’s own friends – that incuriosity can be part of the seal of a friendship – it seems like something Amis would be quite good at illuminating.)

It would be cheap to presume that professional jealousies came between Amis and Hitchens. But if the notion that Amis is not quite playing it straight with regard to their friendship – or is unwilling to plumb its depths adequately – seems unfounded, there are at least symptoms of buried tension. Amis, for instance, devotes one of the most powerful sections of the book to an investigation into Larkin’s relationship with his fascist father, Sydney. Hitchens, he alerts us, simply did not know enough when he mistakenly wrote that Larkin detested Sydney. In fact, as Amis shows, Larkin loved him dearly. On literary ground, Amis seems to be saying, however subliminally, it is he, not Hitchens, who will always have the final word.

But the section passes clean over Hitchens’s most intelligent reading of Larkin’s politics, a 1993 essay in which he argued that it was beside the point to condemn Larkin as a reactionary, but rather incumbent on any politically literate Englishperson to understand the retrograde sources of Larkin’s great appeal and talent – which is more or less what Amis himself is trying to say now.

Whenever Amis veers into political terrain, he has a tendency to reduce everything to matters of taste. Hitchens’s youthful commitments to the left become a kind of fashionable attire in this perspective – and so they probably were (though Amis contends that Hitchens essentially broke up with Anna Wintour not because she had the wrong politics, but no politics).

Amis has barely parried the decimation of his own political innocence that appeared in Hitchens’s review of his non-fiction book about Stalin, Koba the Dread. Hitchens exposed not only his friend’s stubborn provinciality (especially in his reading), but also the intellectual poverty of someone who appears content to be labelled a connoisseur of “the excesses of late-capitalist Western society”, with nary a thought about what state his liberalism has sunk into. Politically, Hitchens was capable of simulating dialectical thought, where Amis is Manichean and aesthetic. So Donald Trump, too, in Inside Story, comes across largely as a menace of taste, defiling the language and having terrible hair. Amis’s impression does not distinguish itself much beyond the “basket of deplorables” revulsion. (The Bannon wing manifestly lost the ideological war in Trump’s White House; Wall Street orthodoxy triumphed – what to make of that?) He has previously invoked the banner of the “Resistance” without irony, as if nothing separated liberal writers pining for the pre-Trump status quo behind the barricades of articles in the Atlantic and… the Maquis.

Writing for the Sunday Times, Amis gave the full down-the-nose treatment to Jeremy Corbyn, not on the question of any policy, but on the matter of tone. “Weedy, nervy and thrifty (you often saw a little folded purse full of humid coins), with an awkward-squad look about them (as if nursing a well-informed grievance),” Amis wrote, “the Corbyns [of the 1970s] were in fact honest and good-hearted.” But without the requisite irony, Amis cannot stomach them. It seems no accident that Amis’s temperament would squarely interpret 9/11 as the major event of the 21st century – and be drawn to subject it to fiction. “An act of terrorism fills the mind as thoroughly as a triggered airbag smothers a driver,” he writes in Inside Story.

For Amis, one of the bitterer realisations of Bellow’s mental decline was that the great man could not appreciate 9/11 – could not “take it in” – and thus could not bring his prose to meet the spectacle of horror. Amis has not calcified into a reactionary, incapable of giving wider crises their due; there is, for example, a sharp riff on the state of American healthcare in this book. “American healthcare feels like an assault,” Amis writes. “Hasn’t anyone here realised that money worries are bad for you? Bad for your health? Doesn’t this partly explain why Americans don’t live that long?” But in the Thanksgiving dinners of the future, the cast already wearily assembles itself: the rebarbative (youngest) uncle who speaks only of Covid-19 and quotes Mike Davis; the (middle) uncle who still smarts from the crippling effect of the financial crisis and refers to Joseph Stiglitz; and the (elderly) uncle, forever babbling on about Islam, and citing Bernard Lewis and Martin Amis.

The unexpected gift of Inside Story comes under the heading of “How to Write”. Amis reliably provides synaptic pleasure whenever he pauses to give one of his didactic asides about the English language. It would be worth compiling these in a volume to stand alongside Kingsley’s The King’s English. In these moments, Amis’s fastidiousness becomes purely enjoyable. A pair of late Updike sentences are hauled in for demolition. Elmore Leonard is praised for his unique use of tense:

He uses not the past tense (“he lived in”), not the imperfect (“he was living in”), not the historic present (“he lives in”), and not quite the present tense; he uses – or he invents – a present tense indefinitely suspended (“Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan”, “Bobby saying”, “Dawn saying”).

And Amis’s piety is momentarily checked as he takes on a single letter “m” that bothers him in Bellow’s Herzog:

“Whom was I kidding?” This is grammatically correct; it also leaves the sentence up on one stilt. “Whom the fuck d’you think you’re looking at?”

It has been a strange ride to watch as Amis has gradually morphed from an enfant terrible into a kind of Beefeater guard of grammar – though, in fact, he has changed very little across the decades. “You want rule by yobs,” Amis describes telling Hitchens disapprovingly in the offices of this magazine in the 1970s. “Not just rule in their interests and in their name – but rule by yobs.”

“That’s it,” he’d answer, with his equivocating smile: “I live for the day when the berks are finally in the saddle.”

Amis can breathe easy – the yobs will be kept down yet, the berks stable-bound. At this stage, it’s more poignant than it is regrettable that Amis still mistakes his milieu for the world.

Inside Story 
Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 576pp, £20

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This article appears in the 09 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour