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Martin Amis in London (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)
Martin Amis in London (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)

Interview

Sex and death and the writer Add to ...

The black-and-white kitten bouncing around the living room is a frenzied stereotype of kittenish behaviour, attacking ankles, pouncing on pens. The little pest's owner picks him up, gently but firmly, and chucks him out of the room. "I'm sorry," Martin Amis says. "He's going through a bit of a bad-boy phase."

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It would have been too easy to say, "Takes one to know one." In any case, the novelist, with his toes on the precipice of his seventh decade, would argue that he's hardly bad-boy material any more. He would tell you, quite seriously, that he's misunderstood, and that he is, and always has been, a feminist writer, a theme that is especially pronounced in his latest book, The Pregnant Widow.

"All my novels are feminist from about 1980 on," he says, in his distinctive, rumbling drawl. "They're about masculinity, but women are the repositories of innocence and goodness."

This is, to say the least, a contradictory view of his output, which is peopled - manned would be a better word - with geezers, wasters and chancers, many of them named Keith. When he's told that one of his admirers has written, "Mart doesn't do girl books," he responds with a snort so eloquent it could fill a library shelf.

"People have said this novel is anti the feminist revolution. Ridiculous." But then, as we will learn, he's become resigned to being misunderstood.

It's true that not since Nicola Six in London Fields has a female character buoyed an Amis novel the way that Gloria Beautyman, a steatopygous vixen with a dark secret, does in The Pregnant Widow. It's 1970, the setting is an Italian castle, and Keith Nearing is struggling to take advantage of the sexual possibilities created by women's liberation while working his way through the masterworks of English literature. Lounging by his side at the pool are the sirens Gloria and Scheherazade, and a very tiny Italian aristocrat named Adriano. You can imagine the comic possibilities; Amis certainly does.

Underneath the satire - it's a funnier book than he's written in years - there's a pervasive, autobiographical darkness, having two do with two things: the loss of his sister Sally, who died 10 years ago and is barely camouflaged as a character called Violet, and his dread of getting old.

"The revolution was thrilling, marvellous," he says. "But there were casualties, and my sister was one. She didn't know what to do with freedom. And she died very young." Did he feel any qualms about taking Sally - wildly promiscuous, by her brother's account, drug-addled and doomed - and using her downfall for his fictional ends?

He pauses for a minute before saying: "I couldn't have written it without the following thing happening. I'd rescued her from some nightmare, sordid complication and I took her back to her flat and I could tell she wanted to thank me. Usually she'd thank someone by having sex with them. But she looked at me really lucidly and said, 'Write about me, Mart. You can write what you like.' "

It's quiet for bit after that, and we can hear Amis's wife, writer Isabel Fonseca, making coffee in the kitchen. The couple have two young daughters, whose unwittingly cruel comments found their way into the novel, in the mouths of Keith's own children. Is it true Amis's daughter said that when he laughed, he looked like a mad old tramp?

"A mad old Chinese tramp, actually," he says, and bursts into a hacking smoker's laugh (okay, maybe the kid was onto something.) "Also, 'You'd look better, daddy, if you grew some more hair.' "

It cannot be easy getting older when you were once the most dizzying, energetic voice of your generation. Amis is preoccupied with the pages whipping off the calendar, and is loath to revisit past glories - he hasn't seen the new BBC adaptation of his 1984 novel Money, for example, and resents the time spent having to correct the pages of a manuscript already finished. The pressure to move on is intense. Unusually, for him, he has already completed his next novel, a satire about modern England in which a young thug wins £100-million in the lottery.

Many of the best lines in The Pregnant Widow arise from Keith's preoccupation with life's shortening shadow: "I had a birthday suit once," he laments. "But it doesn't fit anymore." Amis turned 60 last summer. So how was it - balloons, bubbly, joyous celebrations? He levels a gaze that is only tepidly amused. "It was … not great." When he recently became a grandfather - he has two grown sons from a previous marriage and an adult daughter - "it was like a telegram from the mortuary."

Oddly, in many ways, he's ageless in the British press, which refuses to pass the crown of wickedness to a younger writer. Amis recently wrote an essay lamenting his unique role as Britain's sexagenarian enfant terrible: "I am the bad boy (not even the bad man) of English letters."

Every time he publishes a book, it becomes the centre of a storm. This time, the main controversy raged over his joking assertion that Britain's aging population would soon require "euthanasia booths" on every corner. It was pure Amis: barbed, provocative, painful. The grizzled dog maintains his bite; he was arguing for his right to go while he still has teeth. "The thing is, I wasn't talking about old people," he says. "I was talking about me."

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

 

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