(L-R) Canadian-born American author Saul Bellow (1915 - 2005) (Photo by Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images) and a young Martin Amis circa 1975 (Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Is Saul Bellow Martin Amis’s true father?

Reviews of Martin Amis’s new book prove that the best questions are the ones that no one asks

Artillery Row Books

When Martin Amis started out in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Independent called him “[the] Wild Boy of fiction”, he appeared on The South Bank Show and in 1983 he was chosen as one of Granta’s “Best Young British Writers” with Barnes, Rushdie, McEwan and Ishiguro. There seemed to be a new generation of British writers and Amis was at the forefront.

Things have changed dramatically. For almost twenty years young critics have been having a go at Amis. In 2003, Tibor Fischer wrote his notorious review in the Daily Telegraph, “Someone needs to have a word with Amis”. In 2009, Tom Chatfield asked in Prospect, “Martin Amis: will he return to form?” Michael Hofmann began his review of The Zone of Interest: “I read The Zone of Interest straight through twice from beginning to end and it feels like I’ve read nothing at all.”

Inside Story is full of interesting questions that have passed the reviewers by.

The reviews of his latest book, Inside Story, have been just as terrible but they have largely missed what is best about the book. Amis’s accounts of Saul Bellow’s decline into dementia and Christopher Hitchens’s battle with oesophageal cancer are superb. The darker the book gets, the better it becomes. At one point he compares his father’s death with the loss of his mother, Hilary: “The death of the father kicks the son upstairs. With the death of the mother, the son goes skyward too, clutching the banister, and more or less of his own volition – but he is seeking the childhood room and his childhood bed.”

Inside Story is full of interesting questions that have passed the reviewers by. Why is Amis so uninterested in Philip Roth? Two references and five footnotes. It’s especially pertinent because Inside Story is tricksy and clever-clever in just the way bad Roth, like Operation Shylock, is. Is it a novel or is it a memoir or is it a pantomime horse, part one and part the other? And if he’s going to write about death, why not borrow from Patrimony, Roth’s moving account of the decline and death of his father?

Literary fathers, Englishness, Jews, envy – these are the best subjects in Amis’s new book

If Roth is marginal in the book, there is no doubt that Bellow is centre stage. It has often been asked whether Amis sees Bellow as his literary father, and Amis turns to this twice in his new book. “On the day my father died (in 1995),” he writes, “I rang Saul in Boston and told him the news. And we talked. And he told me what I badly needed to hear … He was never my ‘literary father’ (I already had one) … But I did say to him, a year or two later, ‘As long as you’re alive I’ll never feel completely fatherless.’” He returns to this conversation fourteen pages later. “On the night the clocks went back in 1995 I called Saul Bellow in Boston and after brief preliminaries I said, ‘My father died at noon today… So I’m afraid you’ll have to take over now.’”

Inside Story by Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, £20

The question bothered Kingsley too. Less than two years after his son and Bellow had first met, Kingsley wrote, in Stanley and the Women, “there was a tearing sound and I saw that Steve was in fact tearing the cover off a book. I shouted out to him. Having got rid of the cover he tried to tear the pages across, but they were too tough, and he put the remains of the book down on a cushion on the back of a chair. By the time I went over there he had gone. The book was Herzog, by Saul Bellow.”

Why did Martin want a literary father, when he already had one, and what kind of father did he want Saul Bellow to be? Or, perhaps the better question is: What was wrong with Kingsley Amis as a literary father?

Crucially, he was very English and middlebrow.

Englishness is an interesting word in Inside Story. It comes up a lot, mainly in relation to Larkin and Hitchens, the other two main subjects of the memoir. Amis and Hitchens are discussing Larkin’s Letters to Monica (which Hitchens was about to review in the Atlanticand which Amis had already reviewed in the Guardian). “’[Y]ou like all that Middle England stuff that gives me the horrors,’” Amis says. “’And by Middle England I mean anywhere that’s not in central London. Rustic towns, country houses, weekend cottages.’” “’And Larkin,’” Amis goes on to say, “’was its poet.’”

Amis goes on to write that one of the best things in his friend’s memoir, Hitch-22, was his description of his father’s funeral. Eric Hitchens was a naval officer, Conservative and low church. His funeral, writes Amis, “was a very English occasion: the hilltop, the extreme cold, the ‘misty churchyard’ overlooking Portsmouth Harbour and the sweep of the Channel, the ‘Navy Hymn’, the ‘gaunt Hampshire faces’ …” It is no coincidence that Eric Hitchens and Kingsley Amis (and Larkin) died in England and that their sons both moved to America.

If Kingsley was insular and middlebrow, what kind of literary father was Bellow? American, cosmopolitan, he had found his voice in Augie March, he took on “the deeps”: big issues and big ideas. Bellow was the sort of writer who named one of his most famous characters after a minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses and wrote two novels about friends who had died, Delmore Schwartz (Humboldt in Humboldt’s Gift) and Allan Bloom (the title character in Ravelstein).

Above all, Bellow was Jewish. One of the first conversations Martin Amis describes having with Bellow was about Jews. “’Why don’t Jews drink?’” Martin wants to know. They soon get onto “anti-Semitic culture”, what Bellow calls “the traditional culture of Pound and Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot.” “Well, two nutters and a monarchist,” says Amis.

It doesn’t take long for Martin to get to thinking about Kingsley:

A flying visit to Christmas Day, 1961. After a four-hour lunch I am playing Scrabble with Kingsley and Theo Richmond (an innermost family friend). My father takes two tiles from his rack and for a teasing moment, before withdrawing them, forms the words YID. I am twelve.

In a footnote, Martin explains that thirty-four years later Theo Richmond would publish Konin: A Quest, about a Polish shtetl destroyed by the Nazis.

Almost fifty years later, Martin writes in Inside Story about a conversation with his wife. “‘Did you ring the Jews?’” he asks her. “‘Yes,’ said Elena [his wife]. ‘And they’re all right?’ ‘They’re fine.’ The Jews were their daughters (and they were full Jews too, by the way, by the ancient law of matrilinearity, and could simply walk into Israel as full citizens).”

If Kingsley was the sort of writer who would write, “Yid” in a game of Scrabble, Martin was the sort who would proudly flaunt his children’s Jewishness, just as his best friend, Hitchens, proudly announced in his memoir, Hitch-22, that in 1987 he had discovered he was Jewish. Amis never explains why Jewishness was so important to him or to Hitchens.

He is just as uninterested in why he and Hitchens both left Britain for America. There’s a perfunctory line or two about the death of his mother and the need for his wife to be close to her mother, then in her eighties, in America, and for him to be close to Christopher Hitchens, then seriously ill with cancer. But it’s a big move to leave your home country, a move made by many of our best writers and critics in recent years: Amis and Hitchens, but also Rushdie and Zadie Smith, the film critic Anthony Lane and the literary critic, James Wood, the historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama. Why have so many left? It’s one of many questions Amis leaves unasked.

The theme of rivalry has always been an important feature in Amis’s writing

There’s something striking about the cover of Inside Story, a photo of Amis and Hitchens, then around thirty or perhaps even younger. The photo of Amis on the cover of Experience shows him as a young boy. Will there ever be a third memoir showing him as an old man? Amis was already fifty when Experience appeared and he is over seventy now, as Inside Story has been published. Why these Peter Pan photos of eternal youth? There was always something boyish about Amis and Hitchens, even though Amis is now in his seventies, older than Bellow was when they first met. Inside Story is full of old men and women: Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley, Kingsley, of course, and his old friends Robert Conquest (born 1917) and Philip Larkin (like Kingsley born in 1922), Bellow, Updike and Roth, the grand old men of American literature.

They are all from the generation before Amis and Hitchens and their friends, Rushdie, McEwan and Barnes, all born in the 1940s. Amis and Hitchens seem so much younger, with their banter about sex, drink and smoking. But, of course, they are not. Amis is now seventy-one, and if Hitchens hadn’t died of cancer, he would be over seventy as well.

They only seem so young because Amis doesn’t talk about the next generation. There is just one reference to a younger writer, Zadie Smith, though even she is now approaching fifty. There are no other references to younger British or American writers, Naomi Alderman, Adam Thirlwell, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, all born after Amis published his first novel, let alone the next generation, born in the 1990s, like Sally Rooney. Instead, it’s about old men approaching death: Bellow, Larkin, Hitchens.

Is this why the young critics are so unkind to Amis? Or are they just bemused? Who is this old writer who no longer lives here but seems to have lost his mojo, and, worse, seems oddly irrelevant? Does he even matter to a younger generation of readers? And why don’t any young writers talk about Amis as a father-figure, as he talked about Bellow? This is the elephant in the room. What happened to Amis as a writer? Why isn’t he any good anymore?

One clue is to do with Amis’s friendship with Hitchens. Hitchens is idealised throughout the book. A fine essayist and public intellectual. How fine? Amis writes in a footnote, “In my view he was not a literary critic so much as a political critic of literature.” This is nonsense. Hitchens was an excellent critic and has always been underrated, even here by his dearest friend. Later on, Amis tells Bellow, “’He says he’s going to ease off politics and write more about literature.’” It’s our loss that he didn’t.

What Amis doesn’t say is whether he was ever kept awake at night wondering whether, as his talent ebbed, Hitchens might overtake him, not as a novelist but as an essayist and critic. The theme of rivalry, of one person catching up with and overtaking another, has always been an important feature in Amis’s writing.

Few people write about friendship, one reviewer wrote about Inside Story. Far fewer, he should have said, talk about the envy and rivalry between friends.

Literary fathers, Englishness, Jews, envy – these are the best subjects in Amis’s new book. It is symptomatic of our literary culture that reviewers haven’t addressed them. They are always the best questions, the ones that no one asks.

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