24 May 2023
John Niven, novelist and author of the forthcoming memoir O Brother, has been a life-long reader and fan of Martin Amis. Here he reflects on Amis’s work, his legacy and, above all, his humour.
Hi. I’m John. Your work has been a huge inspiration to me and . . . enclosed . . . a few of my own, uh, jottings ha ha, I wondered if you’d care to . . . of course they can’t possibly . . . next your own . . . but if you had the time to, I mean, perhaps you could cast an . . . No? No. Yes yes, of course no. I apologise for even . . . If you ever find yourself in South Bucks . . . because, you see, no one understands you the way—
I thought about continuing in this vein for a while, the crazed fan, seeking, what? The usual stuff: approval, validation. Friendship. To know exactly what you meant by something. What are you like, really? But the voice isn’t sustainable. It isn’t good for more than a couple of paragraphs.
And sustaining, that’s what really counts, isn’t it?
On Saturday night after the news broke, I went into my study with heavy heart and heavy tumbler of whisky. I pulled it all off the shelves – and there is so much of it – and sat there and tried to write something about him, surrounded by two teetering Pisas of his work. For one proceeds ‘by hard quotation’, as Martin Amis said of book reviewing. ‘The only real evidence we have.’ Very soon it was hopeless. I was drowning. The pages of every novel I opened were pre-scarred by underlining, acned with exclamation points and crabbed marginalia. It suddenly seemed to me that everything he’d written was quotable. After a while, and a couple more trips to the bottle, I found myself just rereading favourite passages. God, how he made me laugh.
But, to paraphrase his father on women’s breasts, why did he make me laugh quite as much as he did?
Amis wrote about humour at some length. In the Observer, in 1984, ‘watch the humourless closely: the cocked and furtive way they monitor all conversation, their flashes of panic as irony or exaggeration eludes them, the relief with which they submit to the meaningless babble of unanimous laughter.’ Later, he went on, ‘the humourless as a bunch don't just not know what's funny, they don't know what's serious. They have no common sense either and shouldn't be trusted with anything.’ More succinctly, he once asked - ‘How do the humourless raise their children? How does it get done without humour?’ (And, on Saturday night, I was feeling acutely what he had once written about John Updike. ‘Watching him strut away, head in air, I felt – suddenly and ridiculously – what it was to have been one of his children, and how I would have hated to see him go’, the thought lent hellish weight as I wondered about how it must have been going for Amis’s five children that night.)
Of course, the fact that he was so wreckingly funny was also the reason he never won prizes. All his peers – McEwan, Rushdie, Barnes – got the Booker. Never him. Indeed, if you fancy building up a goodly head of rage, go and have a look at the Booker Prize history and see what titles were shortlisted the years his great trilogy of London novels – Money (1984), London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995) - were firmly excluded. I look forward to hearing your ‘low whistle’ as he’d have called it. And then depth and urgency of your ‘Who? What? What the actual fuck?’
Why was this the case? Ask any comedy writer who’s never been nominated for an Oscar. Or who has been and then watched the Academy Award go to a movie called ‘Mom and Pop Go for a Walk by The Pond.’ We do not rate funny as we should. Obviously for comic novelists, it is a very rare treat to witness the reaction your work causes. I have written novels and I have written for the screen and there is nothing quite like seeing a joke you have written land exactly as intended in a packed thousand seat theatre. You get letters from readers of course, and they’ll Tweet you and whatnot, but you almost never get to see the thing happening in real life, in real time. They are scattered away out there. The dear, the gentle. It has only happened to me once, by accident, when staying with a friend who was reading a proof copy of my seventh novel The Sunshine Cruise Company. Our bedrooms were across the hall from one another, and I heard the sound coming from his, reluctant at first, then growing fiercer and then propriety (and what’s propriety doing showing her face around here anyway? Get the fuck outta here…) getting completely abandoned as he began screaming with laughter. (If you’re at all interested, the moment comes on pages 124–127 of the British paperback.)
I cannot properly convey how golden this sound was to me. If you’re a comic novelist – and this is precisely what Martin Amis identified as – then this is the reason you are in business. I hope he knew how many, many times he had drawn that same sound out of me and out of someone like me. Reluctant at first, then fiercer and fiercer until helpless. And over what a long period of time he did it. Nearly forty years in my own case.
In 1984, I was an eighteen-year-old freshman undergraduate at Glasgow University, browsing the fiction shelves one December night, up there on the 8th floor of the library, the English literature deck (with the graffiti scrawled above the toilet paper dispenser in the bathroom: ‘arts degrees – please take one’), when my eye caught the spine of a hardback of Money.
Now I’d heard of Martin Amis – an interview in the NME, back when such things would happen in the NME, when there was an NME – and I knew this was his latest book, only out a few months back. I opened the heavy, black cloth Jonathan Cape hardback and I got this in the first sentence…
‘As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows…’
This in the first paragraph…
‘Still drunk and crazed and ghosted from the plane.’
This on the first page…
‘With the right gunge we could do it.’
‘Gunge, yeah. Fifty-sixes. Automatics.’
And then this on the second…
‘They think, you know, you drive a yellow cab, you must be some kind of scumbag.’
‘You know something?’ I asked him. ‘You really are a scumbag. I thought it was just a swearword until you came along. You’re the first real one I’ve met.’
(That ‘are’, in the italics he could do so much with. Later in the same novel John Self watches as ‘a pigeon clockworks by eating a chip. A chip.’ The sheer disbelief the sloping font imparts. The fact that Amis manages to cram total bewilderment at modern, urban life into something as simple as a change of typeface. Similarly, there is Keith Talent’s stark self-assessment in London Fields: ‘I mean, I’m nothing, am I. I’m just a cunt.’ Or Terry Service in Success, saying – ‘He was going tonto.’)
It was the first time I’d been to New York. No travel involved. Just standing there reading that opening on a cold, Scottish winter night, when I was eighteen years old. (Christ.) I turned the pages, feeling what Nabokov called ‘the tingle between the shoulder blades.’ When Amis first read Saul Bellow in the early 1970s - at the suggestion of Christopher Hitchens - he said he felt a weariness, almost a sigh, as he thought something like, ‘Well, here is a writer who I shall have to read everything by.’ There I was, up on the 8th floor, a decade later, feeling the same thing about Martin Amis. I borrowed that copy of Money, which had been signed by the author, and shamefully never returned it. It sits on my bookshelves today, nearly forty years later. The spine is cracked, some of the pages are loose and there are underlining marks on paragraph after paragraph and exclamation points throughout the margins along with my tiny, crabbed remarks in pencil, my doomed attempts to explain to myself why the book is as funny as it is. I read it every four or five years and expect to do so until I die. Self hopelessly squaring up to Feilding Goodney in the tennis match as the first yellow ball comes ‘fizzing’ over the tape. Self, strapped into a tuxedo at the opera with his bladder bursting, the urine when it finally arrives ‘pale and blameless, not the incensed ruby or arterial black that I had feared’. Lorne Guyland’s insane riff as he attempts to elevate the character he’s slated to play in Self’s film, Gary becoming, ‘Garfield,’ becoming ‘Lord Garfield…’
From there, I went back to The Rachel Papers and read all four of the novels he’d published before Money. Howling, broken, over Charles Highway contemplating confronting his girlfriend over the outrage of some soiled knickers, the splayed pants laid out ‘like a vivisected fieldmouse’ (‘Now what’s all this, Rachel?) I flipped to the frontispiece and was stunned to discover the novel had been published more than a decade before, in 1973, when I was seven. Imagine being able to do this to a stranger? I thought. Over that amount of time and distance? Reading the books in sequence, I felt a wave swelling, finally breaking open in the charging form of John Self. For he’d started incredibly young. Money was written when he was in his early 30s, the age, as he’d have told you, that most writers come good.
Like wine, books are living things. A novel is not the same when you open it at forty or fifty as it was in your youth. Some, of course, turn to vinegar. (Kerouac, for instance, is a young man’s game.) And some grow in complexity and power. I remember laughing a good deal when I read The Information upon publication in 1995, when I was still in my twenties. But reading it again in my forties, after I had become a novelist? I was destroyed. I was going tonto.
In the book, a failing novelist called Richard Tull is trying to ‘fuck up’ his friend, a very successful (though useless) novelist called Gwyn Barry. Gwyn is in the running for something called the ‘Profundity Requital’ (that title!): a literary award of devastating power and riches. (And if you are a British novelist of a certain level of success you have been both Gwyn and Richard: you have known what it is to be mildly feted and to have done the bookshop reading to three people.)
Over the course of an American book tour, Richard tries to nobble every one of the judges for the award by convincing them that Gwyn is everything they abhor: trying, for instance, to convince the feminist critic on the panel that Gwyn is a repository of misogyny and sexism that would make Bernard Manning scan like Owen Jones. Finally, he finds himself in conversation with the last judge, Professor Mills, a venerable authority on jurisprudence who has a famously liberal bent. After he goes through ‘the formality of telling himself not to get carried away’, we get this from Richard…
‘Gwyn? You’ve no idea the kind of things he’ll say in private. He actually favours a return to more public forms of punishment … with paying spectators. Rebarbative and exemplary. But with a vengeance. So to speak. Stocks and pillories. Ceremonial scourgings. Ducking stools. Tarring and Feathering. Impalements and flayings. You see, he thinks the mob has had a poor deal in recent years. Public stonings, even lynchings … you must have followed the case – the bomb in the shopping centre. Here’s what Gwyn said. He said: round up all known IRA members and shackle them to the gates of the Tower of London … inviting the public to go ahead and vent their anger. And then, after a couple of months of that, when their arms and their legs, and their ‘cocks’ have been ripped off (do excuse me), string them up for the ravens. Oh yes. That’s friend Barry for you.’
(The faux gentility of those inverted commas around ‘cocks.’ That bracketed, ingratiating, ‘do excuse me’. What an ear for dialogue he had.) What Richard does not know, of course, is that Professor Mills had recently suffered a life experience that had served to radically alter his views.
‘Earlier that winter … Mills had Christmassed with his wife at their holiday home on Lake Tacoe; forcing entry on Christmas Eve, a crew of nomad joyriders had then subjected the Millses to a two-hundred-hour ordeal of abuse, battery, arson and bondage. The Professor was of course aware that a personal experience, however dire, should only carry statistical weight in the settlement of one’s intellectual positions. But he was doing a lot of rethinking, which he was going to have to do anyway, because the many scores of texts he had studied and annotated in preparation for his next book (a lifetime effort provisionally entitled The Lenient Hand) had been mockingly torched by the intruders, along with the rest of his workstation and, it seemed, everything else he had ever cared about.’
Amis has written about when he had a study above his father’s, at Lemmons, the big Georgian house in Barnet, in the early 1970s. Some days, when he was working, he’d hear it coming up through the floorboards from below, reluctant at first, then gathering strength, building: his father’s laughter, at something he was producing on the typewriter. I am imagining the quality – the force – of Amis’s own laughter on the morning he came up with the paragraph above. The cruelty, the savagery, of that ‘two-hundred-hour ordeal.’ The perfection of ‘nomad joyriders.’ And – The Lenient Hand. When the eye moves along the sentence from that title to fall on ‘mockingly torched by the intruders’ (and was there a finer user and abuser of the adverb in modern literature?), you collapse. That’s high cotton. As good as the game. Re-reading this passage on holiday a few years back, my wife had to come outside to check I was ok. She found a fat, middle-aged Scotsman clawing his way to the side of the pool, the drink, the ashtray and the novel all having fallen into the water from the inflatable raft as he thrashed around, begging for oxygen like a gaffed tuna.
Needless to say – Gwyn wins The Profundity Requital.
As we know, within less than a decade of The Information, a few bright sparks had the idea that Amis was finished as a comic novelist, the floodgates opened and the ‘eisteddfod’ of hatred and cruelty was off, from Tibor Fischer’s execrable review of Yellow Dog on down. It was the emergence of the ‘I never cared for the later novels’ crowd, pitchforks glinting and torches blazing. And you think, fuck you. His worst day at the desk beats your best month. I will forever remember my fit of laughter - in a crowded cocktail Greek bar, on holiday - when I came to Xan Meo, contemplating his cocktail menu in the dismal bar by the London canal side …
‘There was a drink called a Blowjob. There was a drink called a Boobjob. He thought: it’s like these companies called FCUK and TUNC. Meo shrugged. It was not his intention, now, to ponder the obscenification of everyday life. He said, ‘I’ll have a Shithead. No, a Dickhead. No. Two Dickheads.’
My laughter built throughout this paragraph, hitting a crescendo on that ‘Two.’ Again, those italics, the vehemence with which we are asked to imagine Xan Meo upgrading that order. And in Lionel Asbo, generally regarded as the nadir of his career, we are gifted this, the demi-witted Lionel trying to explain the complex origins of the Iraq war to his (far sharper) nephew, Des…
‘Course I know about Iraq’, he said without looking up. ‘9/11, mate. See, Des, on 9/11 these blokes with J-cloths on they heads went and – ‘
‘But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.’
‘So? Des, you being very naïve. See, America’s the top boy. He’s the Daddy. And after a fucking liberty like 9/11, well it’s all off. And the Daddy lashes out.’
‘Yeah, but who at?’
‘Doesn’t matter who at. Anyone’ll do…’
‘When it started Uncle Li, I mean, don’t we have allies in the region? They can’t have been too happy about it…’
‘Allies,’ Lionel said wearily. ‘What allies?’
‘Uh, Saudi Arabia. Turkey … Egypt. I bet they weren’t too pleased…what did we tell them?’
Lionel dropped his head. ‘What d’you think we told them? We told them, ‘Listen. We doing Iraq, all right? And if you fucking want some, you can fucking have some and all.’ Now shut it.’
Again, humour is a variable game. That said, if you weren’t doubled up at that, you can fucking have some and all.
‘My English is pat ball to Joyce’s champion game,’ Nabokov said. Amis, in his turn, extended the comparison when placing his own prose next to Nabokov’s. And so it goes. Every novelist is shot through with a degree of imposter syndrome, never quite believing they are worthy of standing alongside the writers who first made them think something like – Yes. God. Here is a thing I would do. It was always Martin Amis for me. In the same way that he would frequently have to remind himself that his hero Saul Bellow was born in 1915 and not 1951, so, when rereading, I struggle to comprehend that Martin Amis was born in 1949, not, say, 1975, or 1982. That he was always closer to my mother’s age than my own. Amis never met Nabokov and I never met Amis. I fear I would have trembled too much, as he himself shook when he met Updike. (‘Only the true fans tremble,’ Amis would later write of his own supplicants.) But I didn’t need to meet him. I already knew him as well as you can know anyone.
He didn’t meet Nabokov, but he did meet Vladimir’s widow, Vera, when he interviewed her in Montreux in 1981, a few years after her husband’s death. ‘Was he great fun?’ Amis asked. ‘Were there lots of jokes? Did you laugh a lot?’
‘Oh yes,’ Mrs Nabokov replied. ‘His humour was delightful. He was delightful. But that you knew.’ (My italics this time.)
You can be sure he knew. Just as I know. It’s all here, all around me as I type. (You never got along with the computer, or ‘ThinkPad’ as you’d have called it, did you? Longhand first draft and then onto typewriter for the second, wasn’t it?) The Information is leaning up against London Fields. Experience sits on top of The Moronic Inferno and Time’s Arrow. The Pregnant Widow is back-to-back with Inside Story, all of it eternally and sleeplessly available to me. He once said that the defining feature of a writer was that they are ‘most fully alive when they are alone’ and that we see them at their best on the page, ‘stretched until they twang.’ I can think of no better epitaph than the one that occurred to Amis himself after Kingsley’s death, when, sitting there grieving, surrounded by all his father’s books, he thought, ‘what a lot of books you wrote, Dad. And what a lot of work you did. All this is you and is the best of you, and it is still here, and I still have it.’
What a lot of work you did, Martin. It is the best of you. And I still have it.