A Relationship Of Literary Parents And Children

A Relationship Of Literary Parents And Children

In From the Inside, his second book of memoirs, Martin Amis (Oxford, 1949) wonders on more than one occasion if this or that writer is “superior” to another if he is “number one”. It is clear that he cares about the rankings: when he introduces us to his wife, the Uruguayan-American writer Isabel Fonseca, he cannot resist the temptation to whisper in our ear the position she occupies (39th) in a certain list of the hundred most attractive women in the world …

Also, Martin’s father, Kingsley Amis, was a noted novelist. And it is no coincidence, taking into account the role that Amis son grants to genealogies and hierarchies, that after the first book of memoirs focused on his relationship with his father ( Experience, 2000), the main theme of this second is the friendship of Martin with a spiritual father (the American novelist Saul Bellow, 1915-2005), a kind of literary uncle (the poet Philip Larkin, 1922-1985, who was his father’s best friend), and a colleague-brother, the brilliant essayist Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011).

Amis’ spiritual father, Saul Bellow; his literary uncle, Philip Larkin, and his colleague-brother, Christopher Hitchens

I reread what I just wrote: “The main theme of this book is…”, and I realize that it is a rash statement. Well, the issues it addresses and the stories it tells From the inside are of amazing abundance and variety. Martin’s relationship with his girlfriend Phoebe Phelps; the discredit of the experimental novel; the State of Israel; how feminists behave in bed (“they don’t mess around and smile all the time”); how Martin and his brother, as teenagers, met his father’s new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Howard; medical expenses in the United States; the last words of great men; etymology issues; how Martin, reporting on “escort girls”, slept with two of them; if it is better, when writing, use long or short paragraphs… and add and go, and go, and go, without apparent order.

From the inside, it is a very entertaining book, at least for those of us who dedicate ourselves to literature. Well, Martin Amis is what they call in English ‘a writers’ writer, a writer for writers: he constantly talks about literature and writers (in the masculine; if by chance he mentions an author, it is not to talk about her books, but another thing: Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s, for example). But the accumulation and disorder of themes make it, at first, overwhelming. Only progressively are the conductive threads seen. The main one is the conversations (sometimes a little too sparkling to be believable) of Amis with Phoebe Phelps, with Isabel Fonseca, and especially with Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens.

A volunteer for torture

Christopher Hitchens liked to provoke. The CIA is right, he declared in 2008 – to the scandal of many – when he asserted that his interrogation methods, such as waterboarding, do not torture. Why don’t you try it? the director of Vanity Fair proposed. He accepted. He let them tie him to a slanted board and have water poured into his airways. The experiment, which can be seen on YouTube, lasted as long as Hitchens lasted: 17 seconds. We don’t know what was more difficult for him: whether to endure it, or to pass the shame of having resisted so little, or to have to admit – he did –: “Yes: it’s torture”.

Bellow and Hitchens fell ill and died. Also Elizabeth Howard; and Phoebe, her former partner, fall into decline. Finally, this is undoubtedly the great theme From the inside: how the people we loved and admired the most crumble, and the emptiness they leave us. It is the treatment of love-friendship and mourning that makes From Within, after all, and despite its dispersion and verbiage, a worthwhile read.


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