Once the rock star of the literary world, Martin Amis has never been one to mince his words. But, on the eve of his much anticipated new book, he spoke to Mick Brown and gave his most candid interview yet - discussing his prickly relationship with father Kingsley, the greatest love of his life and whether Philip Larkin really did have an affair with his mother.
Martin Amis moved to America in 2011. His mother, Hilly, had died a year before. His wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, is a New Yorker and wanted to be closer to her mother and stepfather as they grew older. In normal times, Amis would be at home in the handsome brownstone in Brooklyn where the family lives - "You get too old for Manhattan". But these are hardly normal times and he is presently sheltering, in "semi-quarantine", at his mother-in-law's property on Long Island.
"Can you hear me, now?" he asks. Amis is talking on his mobile phone, crackling and fading. Perhaps it's the weather but we might as well be shouting at each other on two tin cans connected by a piece of string.
Could I call him on a landline, I ask. "There is no landline, I'm afraid." FaceTime or Zoom, perhaps? I can sense the bafflement at the other end of the line. When it comes to technology, he admits, "I'm helpless without a wife or a child."
Amis is the most dazzling prose stylist in post-war British fiction. He is also a wonderful talker. So, crackles and fade-outs notwithstanding, press on we must.
We are speaking on the day before his 71st birthday. Perhaps it's the connection but he sounds somehow older, venerable - the drawled vowels, the burnished, smoky tone that conveys erudition, irony and a sort of world-weary sagacity in equal measure. I can't see him but I can imagine him seated in an armchair, a glass of something at his side, not necessarily welcoming this intrusion into his day but gracious nonetheless.
Amis has published a new book, Inside Story, his first since The Zone of Interest six years ago. Described as "a novelised autobiography", it follows his earlier autobiography, Experience, which dwelt mostly on his relationship with his novelist father Kingsley, by focusing on his relationship with three other major literary figures: Kingsley's closest friend, the poet Philip Larkin; the American author Saul Bellow - Amis' literary idol; and author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, his "closest and longest-serving friend", as he puts it, who died in 2011 at the age of 62 from oesophageal cancer.
"Novelised autobiography" it may be but Inside Story is neither an autobiography nor a novel, in the sense that most would understand it. Rather, it's a collection of meditations and reflections on literature and the art of writing, hinged on a roughly chronological unfolding of Amis' life. Looking back, it seems almost inconceivable that Amis should have become anything other than a writer.
From an early age, he says, he was "incredibly luckily placed" to be in the company of writers - not only his father, Kingsley, who won the Booker Prize in 1986 and was knighted in 1990 but his stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard and their friends, people like Iris Murdoch and Larkin. "They were everywhere in my life. And this is a way of approaching the very odd fact that I've rather warily discovered there are practically no other examples of a writer child from a writer parent - in any language, as far as I can tell ... There are dozens of writers whose fathers were coal miners but hardly any at all who were writers." He laughs. "It makes me feel freakish."
So writing, as he once put it, was "a bit like taking over the family pub" - a fitting analogy. The Amis Arms was a lively, often rackety establishment, where much drink was taken. Amis writes that his father described himself as "one of the great drunks of our time". According to one account, by the end of his life he was putting away a bottle of Macallan single malt a day, before moving on to gin and Campari.
Amis says he never felt daunted by the shadow of his father. He wrote his first book, The Rachel Papers, in 1973, when he was 24. The day after he finished writing it, he began his next one, Dead Babies. "When you're brave and stupid and young, you just charge on, and you're not besieged by small fears or much inhibited by voices hovering over your shoulder questioning this or that sentence. You're not reflective enough. So you get over the hump and you find that, if you've got the commitment, then you proceed from there."
With his Byronic looks, velvet jackets and Cuban-heel boots, Amis was known widely as "the Mick Jagger of literature". ("The problem with that," he once remarked, "is why isn't Mick Jagger known as the Martin Amis of the rock world? It's a conundrum, that.")
His father did not take his success well. "It annoyed him. To what extent I realised when I was watching him on The Russell Harty Show and Harty said, 'Well, we must, of course, mention your son.' And Kingsley's face gave a very familiar to me look of grave irritation, inconvenience and he didn't want to talk about it. But he was funny about it too. A woman came up to him once at a party and said, 'How does it feel to have a son who's more famous than you?' And he said, 'He's not nearly as famous as me.' And she said, 'Yes he is. Much more famous than you.' He thought that was very funny. But it didn't come up much. He liked my criticism but not my fiction. He read two or three of my novels and conceded that I was perhaps some good - but that was the most you'd get out of him."
Kingsley Amis died in 1995. In Inside Story, Amis writes that he called Bellow and told him, "My father died at noon today ... So I'm afraid you'll have to take over now."
Not that he really saw Bellow as a replacement. "But I did say to Saul, 'I'll never feel totally fatherless as long as you're alive.' And I did mean that ... I loved him but it was very much literary, based on that here was a writer whom I found intimidatingly superior to me - and that is a stimulating thought. And I didn't really feel that about my father. He was a terrific novelist but I didn't feel a gulf. I wasn't intimidated by him."
Bellow died in 2005, age 89, of a series of minor strokes, after years of being "becalmed", as Amis puts it, "in the doldrums of dementia". A humiliating fate, he says, for a man who "lived by the mind".
"Saul no longer knew he'd written all those books. It is the vacancy that's so shocking. Because he had such a busy mind, such an interested mind and then it all fades into indifference and gratuity. I've mentioned somewhere that the platonic, the ideal Alzheimer's to get is when you forget to breathe. Something that happens to a man in his 80s cannot be called tragic but it's very poignant. That's what I felt."
Amis' description of Inside Story as a "novelised autobiography" constantly invites the reader to guess which parts are novelised and which are autobiography. "Eighty-five per cent" of the book, he says, is true. The parts that deal with Bellow and Hitchens are "very close to how it went - or my memory of it, anyway". But what of the less well-known characters?
The most provocative is "the seductive' Phoebe Phelps, with whom Amis describes having a long and tempestuous affair when he was a young writer and who keeps him dangling on a string between bouts of impassioned love-making and "sexual-terror famines". Critics have been quick to speculate that Phelps is based on Mary Furness, a femme fatale who cut a swathe through literary London in the 1970s, who Amis dated for a long time and who is widely held to have been the model for the character Nicola Six in Amis' 1989 novel, London Fields.
"Well, there are certainly elements of her in Nicola Six," Amis says. "But Phoebe Phelps is not Mary, certainly not. Mary was not typical of the kind of girl I found myself attracted to in those years - non-literary types, non-readers, even." Rather, Phoebe is "an anthology" of several women in his past. "If I was going to be a slave to reality for 85 per cent of the novel, then I wanted some air for the remaining 15 per cent."
But it is Phoebe who provides what is likely to be one of the book's main talking points when, in revenge for Amis cheating on her, she reveals that Kingsley had entrusted her with a secret: on a night in December 1948, when Kingsley was away, philandering with another woman (like son, like father), Amis' mother Hilly had decided to retaliate, inviting Larkin to stay. Soon after she discovered she was pregnant. And the baby wasn't Kingsley's.
The fact that Larkin is Amis' real father is an invention, he says, but "founded on a suspicion of my own" that the two had an affair. He pauses. "I definitely don't want Philip Larkin to have been my father but I very much like the idea of Philip Larkin and my mother having an affair - just to even it out, in that my father was so promiscuous and Philip Larkin was ... what's the term for reluctantly celibate? Incel." He laughs. "I don't think anything did happen but I just think there would be a certain justice if it had. Since finishing the novel I've come across some letters that my mother wrote to Larkin that are outright flirtatious - even salacious. And there is a quote in the last letter Larkin ever wrote to my father, where he says of my mother, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen without being pretty. And that sounds like a profession of love. So it didn't seem to me to be an outrageous invention, although no one ever tried to tell me it was actually the case."
Larkin was one of the important elements in his friendship with Hitchens - both agreed he was the most important English poet of modern times. It is a friendship that began in the early 1970s when Amis and "the Hitch" were both writing for the New Statesman and held fast for more than 30 years, consummated in pubs and restaurants, where they drank and smoked and had endless conversations about literature, politics and love affairs. (Writing of Anna Wintour, Amis notes, "I have to admit, Anna was the first Hitch girlfriend who aroused envy in me ... So when they broke up, I was relieved to be rid of it - of envy and its skein of wasteful resentments.")
At no point is Amis' love for his friend more poignantly and tenderly expressed than in his description of Hitchens lying on his deathbed in the Houston hospital where he was being treated for cancer. "How young and handsome he was. How calmingly young and handsome. He looked like a thinker, a hard thinker, taking a brief rest, his neck bent back - to ease the strain of prolonged and testing meditations."
So palpable a force of life was Hitchens to the very last, Amis says, that he could never believe his friend was about to die. He remembers writing an appreciation of Hitchens not long before his death, in which he voiced some mild criticism about his minor writings, and their mutual friend Ian McEwan upbraiding him on the phone, saying, "Does he need to hear that now?" I said, 'What do you mean, now?' And he said, 'Now that he's dying.' And I reared back indignantly from the phone and thought, 'He's not dying.' But he was. It was the triumph of hope over common sense."
Nine years on, Amis still thinks about Hitchens every day. "I miss him in the way I would have expected, in that I keep on wanting to ask him things, discuss things with him; I want to ring him up, write him an email. I get that feeling at least once a day, still."
He pauses. "There's no doubt about it that close male friendships are erotic and have an element of a love affair in them. I remember Kingsley saying that when Larkin came to London and he was meeting him for lunch, he would feel the same excitement he did when he was planning some affair with a woman. That same kind of lighter-than-air, helium feeling. And I would feel something similar when Christopher was arriving in England and he'd ring up and say, 'the Hitch has landed' and we'd immediately meet for lunch. Not easily distinguishable from erotic excitement." He thinks about this. "It's not directly comparable but I certainly feel as if Hitch and I were married in some sense."
Turning 71 exacerbates what he has described as his "urgent interest" in ageing. The writer V.S. Pritchett, he says, once wrote that, after 70 you don't really think about anything else but dying. "I don't find that and I certainly have no metaphysical fear of death. But the onerousness of dying, the sweat of death. It is an arduous business. And I'm very afraid of my life becoming medicalised."
His father, who died at 73, was, he says, "a bit of a nutcase" when it came to fears of mortality. "It obsessed him from an early age. Sometimes he used to wake up screaming - this was very present to me because my mother would bring him into my room and he would sit on the edge of my bed and chat and recover. She said, 'He likes being with you because he can't be hysterical.' It wasn't sane at all. He had all kinds of terrors and neuroses about death. Couldn't fly, couldn't drive, couldn't go on a train alone. So that was a bonding thing that I understood instinctively."
Amis has been married twice. His first marriage to the American philosopher Antonia Phillips ended in 1993, after nine years. They have two sons, Louis, 35, a freelance writer, and Jacob, 34, a diplomat. In 1996, he married the writer Isabel Fonseca; they have two daughters, Fernanda, 23, has just graduated from NYU, and Clio, 21, is still there. Amis also has a third daughter, Delilah Jeary, 44, a television producer, from an earlier relationship.
In Inside Story, all of the principals are given their real names but members of his family are given pseudonyms. Isabel is "Elena". Amis describes how in the mid-1990s, Vogue ran a feature called "The World's Hundred Most Alluring Women" and she came 36th. "She was half-Uruguayan and half-Hungarian/American Jewish - a very good mixture, that," he writes, "and just look at it all. Behold the moist brown flesh, the graceful power of the legs, the thick black hair wet and gleaming. Her figure, by the way, had been variously described in print as 'hourglass' and 'pneumatic'." We can only assume that the detail about the Vogue poll is correct.
Amis has now lived in America for nine years. Hitchens became an American citizen, but Amis has no plans to follow him. He always wondered about that decision, he says. "He loved England more emotionally than I ever have. I am completely connected to England but I don't have a passion for it as he did, as indeed he loved America, which I've never loved." The only country he has ever loved, he says, was Uruguay, where he spent three years in the noughties. Nonetheless, America has always fascinated him and been the subject of much of his non-fiction. He is presently writing a collection of short stories about race in America - begun before the murder of George Floyd but lent a topical urgency by it.
"As I say to one of my American cousins [he has 'about two dozen'], I never realised Americans were such a rough crowd. They really are. It's a fascinating but terrifying history ... The incredible savagery in the very recent American past ... Black people don't feel as white people do; they don't trust white people; they fear white people. Every time they leave the house, they fear for their lives. And furious as well. I think they've shown such an incredible capacity for forgiveness."
As the election nears, America is in a state of uncertainty. There is no doubt about who Amis would prefer to win. "I thought before coronavirus that Trump was going to lose, and I still think that. The big surprise about Trump is that he actually attempted anything at all. You'd think if you were a bingo caller who was suddenly made president of the most powerful country on Earth, you'd surround yourself with experts and let them do it all, keep your head down. But not a bit of it. He thinks he's better. And the pathology of whatever it is - people call it narcissism or egotism, the delusions of wisdom, of grandeur - is extreme." The next two months, he says, will be "bluster and division" and "a landslide" for Joe Biden. But even if the President "finagles" his way to a second term, Amis has no plans to leave America. His voice crackles through the ether.
"Trump's not a reason to leave, he's a reason to stay."
Inside Story, by Martin Amis (Penguin Random House) is available on September 29.