The pose of a master or a master poseur?
By Fiona Russell Powell
Express - Saturday March 25 1995
him here, we see him there, we see him almost everywhere ... That’s right, it's been National Martin Amis’s Week - the
talented, youngish (45) English author (son of Sir Kings ley LuckyJim" Amis)
who recently whipped the literary establishment into a self-righteously
indignant tizz over the record 500,000 advance he demanded for his new
book, The Information, which will be in the shops on Monday.
The last few days have seen the TV and media in a feeding frenzy, subjecting
Amis Jnr to "The Treatment" and lighting over themselves for "The
Martin has had his own South Bank special with Melvyn Bragg. and anyone
who can hold a pen and brag of a close personal friendship with the author
has been after him. Alas, if only I could claim to be a total stranger,
but I can't. At least I got the interview.
Arriving just after the photographer has left. I notice Martin Amts standing
outside in the semi-darkness on his semi-gentrified Victorian balcony,
enjoying the remnants of a beautiful W 1 I (Ladbroke Grove. London) sunset.
puffing away on one of his ubiquitous roll-ups. (I used to think that
was cool, now I would say it's the affectation of a skinflint.) He trots
down to let me in.
We go into the small but adequate kitchen - remember, this used to be
his workplace before he left his art historian wife Antonia and had to
move in here. Mrs Amis has, and no doubt will keep the better house down
the road. He makes me the drink he introduced me to, a Bloody Mary, all
those years ago when I interviewed him for The Face, when his novel Money
was out. Of course- for Amis now, money is in, not that you would know
from the style of the room we adjourn to, his combined lounge and study
- where he writes his masterpieces -- which I would describe as "Cheapskate
My God, but he has changed. Not in appearance: he's still small and
pixie-like. with no sign of the extensive and vastly expensive surgery
his teeth are currently and famously undergoing.
No, it's in his manner. He oozes arrogance. Not the arrogance of knowing
that you're a brilliant wordsmith, but the barely-muted swagger of someone
who has just managed to pull off the deal of the century and thinks that
the whole world and his brother is lull of envy and secret admiration
(don't kid yourself Martin, your book's not that good, it's just that
you have managed to find a publishing house that's prepared to shell
out the kind of dough needed for the cachet of having your name at the
top of its list).
Even the way he talks has changed. Before, he spoke with the languid
drawl of the privileged, not unexpected for someone with Kingsley Amis
for a father and a mother who went on to become Lady Kilmarnock.
Now his speech is suffused with ennui, as if he really can't be bothered,
it's all such a bore. Pretty soon, I find out just how true my impressions
He looked at his watch: "You've got 35 minutes and counting." Countdown
to what? EastEnders? The end of the world/millennium/ time - subjects
he's always banging on about in his novels?
No. After three calls interrupting us in the space of that precious
half-an-hour, all becomes clear. It's the countdown to dinner with his
new lady love, Isobel Fonseca (pronounced Funseeker, and cruelly characterised
as a literary luvvie by the gossipy book world - apparently, Amis is
not her first). This is the young woman who will probably be named as
co-respondent in his first impending divorce.
The reason I say first, is that I doubt it will be his last, given that
his father - his role model - married three times. I have to hand it
to Fonseca, she's obviously
just as talented in her way as Martin is in his. He's well under her
spell, or is it thumb?
Throughout what I shall laughingly refer to as our "interview",
he was twitchy, on edge, leaping up every time a fax failed to get through.
I might as well tell you now that she was the first of several subjects
he refused to discuss.
The man who's having his cake and eating it by getting the money and
the girl is whining about people intruding on his life. How dare they
make him out to be the villain of the piece by leaving his wife and two
young children? It's none of their business! I have to remind myself
that this is the same man who told me that "whereas most writers
stop outside the bedroom door, not only do I like to go inside but also
to go into the bathroom too, and shine a spotlight on all I see
So we discuss this notorious new book of his, which is about two rival
writers - it couldn't be that he's running out of ideas, could it? Its
much quoted opening lines are about Martin s brave, Agony Uncle-ish theory
that "Cities at night contain men who cry in their sleep and then
I'm unsure about the crying, it wouldn't surprise me if one of Amis's
genuinely closest male friends, now firmly in the "ex" category,
fellow author Julian Barnes, has been cursing in his sleep recently and
certainly has plenty to say. Amts axed Barnes's wife, Pat Kavanagh, his
agent more or less since his career began, in order to ensure he got
that famous five hundred grand. Naturally, Martin is remaining tight-lipped
on this one: "I've sat d all I'm going to say on that subject."
We move on to another sensitive area. Who is Richard Tull, the failed
protagonisl author in his book, based on (obviously Amis, which he admits
freely)? And what about Gwyn Barry, Tull's successful rival? Amis likes
to claim it's him too, but nobody believes him.
I ask him if it's really Julian Barnes, the author of A History Of The
World In 10 1/2 Chapters, as everybody thinks? "Well, Pat (Barne's wife) was
the first person to read The Information and she never suggested once that
it was Julian." Whoever Gwyn Barry - a phony who writes bland novels -
is based on, he has my sympathy.
Next, I attempt to tackle the rather amusing hypocritical paradox that someone
who has consistently, and for years, ridiculed America and its "infantile" people,
should now be dating an American, have a new American agent and have moved
to New York.
At first, he says: "It's hardly worth replying to, is it? When pressed,
he insists firmly: "I'm not living there. They ought to cut that out,
it's a slander. The newspapers are always saying I've abandoned my children
and gone to live in America. I haven't. I live with my children here in London."
He gets annoyed when I ask, so why does everyone think you live there? Why
did the Guardian put it in its piece? "That was a joke, I thought
it was quite clear."
Then he admits it was he himself who produced "that self-defeating slander".
We end with Amis reminding me that his wife is a Yank anyway. Surely thus proving
him to have been a hypocrite all along. I'm beginning to feel as if I'm dealing
with one of his typically schizoid characters.
In fact, it's a good opening to ask why he's beginning to behave like a character
in one of his novels, which he is.
Puffing irritatedly on another roll-up, he's incredulous: 'You're not seriously
asking me that question? Yes? Well. I'm trot!' Oooh, a sore spot. I think.
Amis frowns earnestly to indicate he wants to make an important point: -The
thing is, I don't give a bugger what they say about me, but my children might
get teased in the playground.
He must have been bullied, too. Does he give them tips? A pain-filled faraway
expression crosses his face: "Yes, I was and I do."
Now we advance to the question of that famous advance, supposedly needed to
pay for his costly dental work - being done in America, by the way, where orthodontists
don't come cheap.
You must have the most famous teeth in England? "Yeah, I know,' he laughs
modestly, adding: "And in America, too. They even rang up my dentist –oh” he
checks himself, remembering who he's talking to 'I m not going to talk about
it any more. It's been done to death. If people want to go on believing it's
a Hollywood job, then let 'em.'
He continues: "Teeth are really important, it's where you live..: my mouth
has been the scene of great trauma and violence."
What exactly is wrong w i ht them? It's down to bad genes. I've been extraordinarily
unlucky (here. It isn t cosmetic and when I told my dentist that they were
saying that, he burst out laughing ... It's just something I've been putting
off for years. When I sat down in his chair, I said. 'I'm in for a bad time
here but so are you'."
Hmm, I think I know how he felt. This is as bad as pulling teeth, too.
Examples: Do you think your brother (Philip) is as good an artist as
you are a writer? "I'm not going to talk about that."
Softening him up: Is Isobel as beautiful as they say she is? "I'm
not going to talk about her either." The advance: Is it worth it? "The
question is, is the book worth £15.99? That's all the reader has
to worry about." Why do you still roll your own? "Cos it's
the best smoke, the strongest, it's the best sort of hit."
strange man Martin Amis is. All thus concern over his teeth but doesn't
seem to give a damn about his lungs. If he's not more careful,
he'll end up like the Cheshire Cat, with nothing left but a grin.