WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT MARTIN
Some writers don’t just inspire you to write - they inspire you to write about them. And in Martin Amis’s case there must’ve been more published words written about him, than by him.
It makes sense that so many found him enthralling. He was the son of literary giant, Kingsley, a bon vivant party boy, an unrivalled raconteur, a wise and vulnerable interview subject, a world champion smoker, handy tennis player and, as an author, was what the New Yorker called “fearless and superbly self-confident”, “rhythmically and musically compelling”, “bleakly comic” and “a master of the lightning paradox.”
He was also a generous source of literary wisdom. Writers of all stripes would sit at his feet and soak in his advice.
Here he is being eulogised by comedian, actor, novelist, screenwriter and playwright, Steve Martin.
“When I was a young-er writer, I was at a small dinner with Martin Amis. A writer’s name came up and Martin said, casually, “well, he’s a sloppy writer.” I said, “What makes a sloppy writer?” He said, “Unintended alliteration, accidental rhyme, repetition of words.”
“A few years later I had dinner with him again and reminded him of this conversation. He said, ‘We’re rethinking repetition of words.’”
We’ll return to Amis-as-guru later. This next bit is about Amis’s ability to smoke. It was penned by The Spectator’s much-loved diarist, Jeremy Clarke. Clarke wrote it in 2010 and, ironically, died two days after Amis.
“I was lolling in a deckchair with a vanilla ice cream, watching the literary types in their interesting shoes pass to and fro along the cobbled path, when, 30 yards away, across the grassy courtyard, Martin Amis appeared in a doorway and lit up. I recognised the face instantly.
“I watched him carefully. He must have been gasping. How many seconds, roughly, do ordinary smokers inhale for at each visit? One second? Two? With Martin Amis I counted up to five. He sucked the guts right out of his fag in about four goes. The last time I saw anyone attacking a cigarette with as much boggle-eyed addiction was on a long-stay ward in a psychiatric hospital in the mid-Eighties.”
The great friendship between Amis and Christopher Hitchens has been pored over in detail. Amis “loved” Hitchens and said that “in debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes. He talks not only in complete sentences but also in complete paragraphs.”
The feeling was mutual. Here’s Hitchens in Hitch 22 explaining Amis’s generosity and literary pedanticisms.
“Martin never let friendship take precedence over his first love, which was and is the English language. If one employed a lazy or stale phrase, it would be rubbed in (there, I have done it again), no, it would be incisively emphasized, with a curl of that mighty lip and an ironic gesture. If one committed the offense in print—I remember once saying “no mean achievement” in an article—the rebuke might come in note form, or by one being handed a copy of the article with a penciled underlining. He could take this vigilance to almost parodic lengths. The words “ruggedly handsome features” appear on the first page of Nineteen Eighty-four and for a while Martin declined to go any further into the book. (“The man can’t write worth a damn.”) He was later to admit that the novel did improve a trifle after that. Years later, when I gave him the manuscript of my book on Orwell, he brought it to our next rendezvous at a Manhattan bistro and wordlessly handed it back. He had gone through it page by page, painstakingly correcting my pepper-shaker punctuation.”
In the early ‘80s, Clive James set up a regular Friday lunch called Modish London Literary World. Guests included Amis, Kingsley Amis, Hitchens, Russell Davies, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.
Said Hitchens: “Clive was in some ways the chief whip of the lunch and would often ring round to make sure that there was a quorum, though I noticed that whenever Martin was away his enthusiasm waned a bit.”
In the fourth volume of James’s Unreliable Memoirs series, The North Face of Soho, he writes about the different techniques Amis and Hitchens would use to entertain the table. It’s a show-stopping bit and illustrates James’s knack for making people sound exactly on the page, as they do in life.
“Martin Amis, in conversation, could translate the circumstances of ordinary life into the kind of phantasmagoria that didn’t show up in his novels until later. When he got going, he was like one of those jazz stars, relaxing after hours, who are egged on by the other musicians into chorus after chorus. He had a favourite riff about the number of thieves in his area. On one occasion the riff developed into a symphony. According to him, he was one of the few non-thieves allowed to live in his district. The thieves did not emerge from their lairs until evening. Then you started seeing them on the skyline, moving, to the beat of tom-toms, in stooped silhouette across the rooftops, on their way to a previously determined destination. During the night, every residence of a non-thief would be visited, even if the non-thief was at home and awake. ‘A pair of white eyeballs at the window,’ Martin would explain, ‘reluctantly absorbing the evidence that the place is inhabited. I look back casually, trying to convey with my lazy sprawl that I would only with reluctance reach for the .357 magnum in my desk drawer. I keep typing away at my article about Henry James. The eyeballs blink.’ By this time the whole table would be helpless, and Martin would be ready for his final evocation of the stooped thieves marching nose to tail along the skyline, ending up in each other’s places, and taking the stuff that had already been stolen from someone else, perhaps even from them. The key to Martin’s style of talk, apart from his protean range of pinpoint mimicry, was the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning. Granted time to think by the massed laughter, he could make the next bit up. Hitchens, on the other hand, did the reverse of economy, or seemed to. At that time his world fame as a political and cultural essayist still lay in the future, as it was bound to, because his style of conversation – the key to his penetrating sarcasm – was too extravagant to be absorbed into a normal paragraph of prose. If he had been leading the conversation, he could have done a ten-minute version of the chicken crossing the road. (‘Blind drunk … drunk as only a chicken with no head for alcohol can be … headless chicken … sobbing, clucking drunk … not shedding the occasional feather as chickens are wont to do … every feather glued to its body by wine-flavoured perspiration … out of El Vino’s with hanging beak … the busy, roaring road looming before it … the broad thoroughfare as an unbridgeable chasm, if I may quote Edith Wharton … doomed from the egg onwards … a fish out of water … standing up to be counted … helplessly victimized in a chicken-hostile environment …’) But he hardly ever led. His decorations and interruptions were applied not to his own monologue, but to someone else’s. Thus, if someone was being straightforward he could make them funny, and if they were being funny he could make them funnier. Since the cause of wit in other men is always popular with the other men, his knack of saying the unforgivable thing was invariably forgiven. To ostracize him would have meant staying away, and nobody wanted to be absent when Martin and the Hitch were head to head.”
James, who could also stick the landing of an anecdote, acknowledged that he was in the presence of greatness when hearing a story from Amis.
“When Martin was on song, men who fancied themselves as wits laughed helplessly, glad to concede that there were in the presence of wits laughed helplessly, glad to concede that there were in the presence of a superior practitioner. Those not so glad felt guilty at their own churlishness.”
I’m sure Amis wouldn’t have minded the compliments and play-by-play descriptions of his wit, but the constant furrow on his brow seemed to represent a man with grander things on his mind.
“I don’t want this to get out of control or I’ll be drowning in schmaltz, but it all starts to look very beautiful now that I know I’m not going to be around indefinitely. You know, the way that to a prisoner condemned to death, water tastes delicious, the air tastes sweet, a bread-and-butter sandwich makes tears spring to the eye.”