Ronald K. Fried on Martin Amis (1949 – 2023): “As a Devoted Reader of His Work, I Am in Mourning.”

GUEST BUTLER RONALD K. FRIED is a veteran TV producer (Dick Cavett, Tina Brown) and the author of three novels, most recently the excellent Frank Costello: A Novel. He is a frequent contributor to the Daily Beast.

Martin Amis is dead. As a devoted reader of his work, I am in mourning.

Amis often came across as arrogant because, for one thing, he was, and also because he never apologized for expressing his strong opinions. There was nothing self-effacing or apologetic about his public self, but really, given his achievements, why should there have been?

In my limited experience of his company, I can report that Amis was unfailingly gracious. I interviewed him four times. After each session, I emerged charmed and exhilarated — and with the knowledge that a very nice hangover awaited me.

At a commemorative event for Bellow at the 92nd Street Y, Amis warned his listeners not to trust any literary criticism that doesn’t quote at length from the author under discussion. So after I heard the shocking news of his death, I took a few of Amis’s books down from the shelf.

The first one I grabbed was “The Information,” and that’s the book I urge the uninitiated to begin with.  For one thing, it’s really funny. It’s also deeply knowing about the lives of writers—two writers in this case.  One writer is stupendously unsuccessful and the other is an absurdly successful, pretentious middlebrow. They’re longtime friends, and, of course, the successful and poor one deeply is jealous of—and out to destroy—the rich one. [On Amazon, the paperback of “The Information” has a crazy price. The Kindle is reasonable. To buy it, click here.]

Here’s a description of the failed writer looking in the mirror:

By a certain age , everyone has the face they deserve. Like the eyes are the window to the soul. Good fun to say, even to believe, when you’re eighteen, when you’re thirty-two.

Looking in the mirror now, on the morning of his fortieth birthday, Richard felt that no one deserved the face he had. No one in the history of the planet.

And here’s Amis’s explanation of why the failed writer’s work fails:

Because you never found an audience—you never found the universal or anything like it. Because what you come up with in there, in your study, is of no interest. End of story. Yes: this is the end of your story.

The next Amis book I took off the shelf is the much-maligned “Yellow Dog,” which for some marked the beginning of a downturn of his work. But Lord knows it contains wonderful moments, including this description of a young couple on the streets of modern London:

And when he saw two teenagers vigorously kissing—an unimaginable mesh of lip-rings and tongue-studs—he felt himself assent to it.  See the young kissing and run it past your heart; if your heart rejects it, retreats from it, then that’s age, that’s time—fucking with you.

As he aged, Amis became very interested in the ways that time fucked with us.  In his 2011 novel, “The Pregnant Widow,” when an Amis character again walks the streets of “the great dig of London Town,” we read:

As always now, he looked from face to face, thinking, Him—1917, Her–1954. Them—1949… Rule number one: the most important thing about you is your date of birth. Which puts you inside history. Rule number two: sooner or later, each human life is a tragedy, sometimes sooner, always later.

I’d be remiss to leave out Amis’s considerable body of literary criticism and journalism. He had a genius for coining phrases which adhere to members of the canon. On James Joyce: “Joyce could have been the most popular boy in the school, the funniest, the cleverest, the kindest. He ended up with a more ambiguous distinction: he became the teacher’s pet.”  About late Henry James, he “fell out of love with the reader.” In an off-handed remark in a collection of essays focusing mostly on terrorism, Amis calls D. H. Lawrence “an obvious sociopath,” a comment that delights me every time I read it.  And about that most non-literary of creatures, Donald Trump, Amis presciently wrote in the summer of 2016 that Trump’s “most defining asset” was likely “a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey.”

In recent years, Amis became increasingly aware of his own mortality, as in this passage from his  2010 novel, “The Pregnant Widow,” which, as I once told Amis, ought to be put in a textbook about what it’s like to be middle aged:

As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING QUICK!!!…  Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence with your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.

True that, as the kids say—or should I say as the kids will learn?

Amis’s final novel—I’m not yet used to writing that phrase—is the oddly titled “Inside Story: How to Write.” It’s an idiosyncratic combination of very useful tips about how to write well and a memoir about his great friends Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and the poet Philip Larkin.  In between is an invented tale of an affair with one of Amis’s femmes fatales. I was especially struck by this passage about Saul Bellow’s last days: “In the end , it’s not your Nobel Prize you’re thinking of, it’s not your three National Book Awards, and all that. It’s your sins of the heart (real or imagined), it’s your wives, your children, and how things went with them.”

I can’t comment on how things went with them.  But for me, as for many of Martin Amis’s readers, he will always be with us, always present, always giving pleasure, which is what literature does, and what Martin Amis will continue to do to those who read his dense, brilliant, complex, militantly ironic, fearless prose. And speaking as a writer, I’ll add that I’ll continue to feel his presence in every sentence I write, inspecting it for its stealthy weaknesses and clichés, urging me to do better, do more with the language.

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