In a corner of Martin Amis’s living room in London, watched over by elegantly sombre paintings, stands a bright-orange pinball machine called Eye of the Tiger. “It’s a really good one,” says the renowned novelist. “I’m getting worse and worse at it. All that flow of youth is gone.”
At 60, Amis increasingly finds himself in a retrospective mood. He’s too irreverent to be an éminence grise, but he’s no longer the notorious enfant terrible of English letters. Lately, he’s been helping to nurture the talents of budding authors at the University of Manchester and Toronto’s Humber School for Writers, and in his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, his famously coruscating humour is more benign than ever before, leaving ample room for emotion.
And yet, in the British press, the sport of Amis-baiting, which reached an apex in 1995 (when Amis left his long-time agent and obtained a £500,000 advance for his novel The Information), continues apace. “It happens to me whether I’ve got a book coming out or not,” he notes wearily, his basso drawl barely rising above the sound of the cars passing outside. “And the more I speak in public and give interviews, then obviously the more grist there is.” This January, such grist was provided by a Sunday Times profile, where Amis suggested public euthanasia booths could help Britain deal with the upcoming “silver tsunami” of an aging population. Tabloids immediately stirred up a “feud” by quoting the reactions of anti-euthanasia pressure groups.
“I’m seriously thinking of not doing interviews in this country for the next book,” says Amis, “just to see if it’s any better.” He feels that the British press conceives of him and his late father, Lucky Jim author Kingsley, as “one entity,” and that they’ve had enough of the “Amis franchise”: “I’ve just been around too long. They’ve been telling me since I was 40 that my powers have gone.”
That said, British reviews of The Pregnant Widow have generally been positive. The novel looks back from a contemporary perspective on the sexual revolution of the hippie era. Protagonist Keith Nearing (the latest in a long line of comically treated “Keiths” in Amis’s fiction) spends the summer of 1970 reading canonical English novels in a Tuscan castle where he’s staying with his long-suffering girlfriend, Lily, and their friends. At one point, the 20-year-old university student undergoes a “sexual trauma” which is, we’re told, “the opposite of torture, yet . . . It ruined him for 25 years.”
With an abundance of playful literary allusions, Amis writes of what happens when emotion is dissociated from sex—a theme he first approached in 1984’s Money, his most acclaimed work. In fact, The Pregnant Widow is shot through with elements of his earlier fiction, from its leisurely country house setting (1975’s Dead Babies) to the presence of a duplicitous femme fatale (1989’s London Fields) to bittersweet meditations on mortality (The Information). The lustful, scheming, literature-obsessed Keith recalls the protagonist of his creator’s 1973 debut, The Rachel Papers, a novel which Amis now finds “laughably crude” and “technically clumsy.” In one’s “evolution as a writer,” he says, “the musicality and pyrotechnic prose”—defining elements of his earlier fiction—“sort of thin out. What gets very good is your craft, the sense of what goes where.”
The Pregnant Widow started out as an attempt to recast parts of Amis’s life, which he first chronicled in his memoir Experience (2000), as fiction. And while he eventually shrugged off the “shackles” of fact, a few of the novel’s characters are directly modelled on departed friends and family, including his sister, Sally, who died at age 46 in 2000. Her fictional alter ego’s addictive personality and promiscuity are peripheral to the book’s plot, but she occupies the novel’s emotional centre. Keith, meanwhile, shares Amis’s birthday and his below-average height, but the author stresses his book “isn’t autobiographical.”
Keith, Amis notes, “is a provincial, illegitimate orphan. What I had to attack in that character was any sense of entitlement.” And in doing so, he used the weapon that has served him best over the years, and that allows him to oppose the slings and arrows of the British press: comedy. “When I read these miserable, po-faced, prize-winning novelists,” says Amis, “I think, ‘You’re deluding yourself if you think you’re getting anything out of this.’ It’s a really crippled response to what being alive is, if you don’t find it funny. You’re on the wrong planet.”