Martin Amis on Reading, Writing, and What It’s Like Inside Nabokov’s House

Last night, Martin Amis — the recent Brooklyn transplant, notorious firebrand, and king of “the new unpleasantness” — came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the season’s first installment of the great reading and conversation program Eat, Drink and Be Literary. The controversial Amis showed up in a surprisingly cheery tie, and, while being interviewed by New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, spoke eloquently about his work and the state of fiction, constantly evoking as many of the gods of literature as he could, from Dickens to Nabokov to Sebald. After the jump, we’ve reproduced a few of Amis’ best literary invocations and ideas about the state of writing and reading from the event. Click through to hear a little wisdom from a modern master.

On reading:

“When I taught fiction, as I did for a few years, I told my students, ‘When you read Pride and Prejudice, if you’re a woman, don’t identify with Elizabeth Bennet, and if you’re a man, don’t identify with Fitzwilliam Darcy. In both cases, identify with Jane Austen. Identify with the author, not the character, think ‘what’s the author trying to do?’”

On badness being easier to write than goodness:

“All of Dickens’ genius and energy goes into his bad characters, his vamps and frumps and villains and swine, and there’s nothing left for his good characters, who are all faceless, and indeed body-less, automatons. One critic compared his children to garden gnomes. And it’s true – Little Nell, who turns into an angel at the end of The Old Curiosity Shop is nothing as compared to Quilp, who drinks boiling coffee scraped from the hog, etc.”

“Going back to badness being easier than goodness, is that as Henry de Montherlant said, happiness writes white. It doesn’t show up on the page. And I think in the history of literature, only Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina and the story known as ‘Happy Ever After,’ has made happiness actually swing on the page. So I was pretty aware of this challenge [when writing Lionel Asbo], the greatest one I’ve ever faced, in fact.”

On human nature:

“What people fear above all else is being laughed at. And there comes a moment, slightly different, in Shakespearean tragedy, where in Coriolanus, for instance, they say ‘get your staring done with, get your laughing done with.’ They say this to the mob. As Nabokov again says, you don’t punish the gangster in a short story by having some conspirator tip-toeing up behind him with a derringer. That is a 19th-century idea of punishment. What you do is watch him picking his ear and then picking his nose and then examining the contents of his fingernail. Laughter is our deepest fear. So if a country thinks it’s being mocked, then you will expect a national resistance.”

On writing:

“You can only write in a celebratory spirit. I absolutely, I’ve always agreed and more and more agree with Nabokov on this question, that the novel is a celebratory form, and it took a complete wrong turning with Samuel Beckett, et al, who thought that they had to make it gloomy because the first half of the 20th century was so disgraceful. And it was a wrong turning, and as Nabokov says, those who have or pretend to have a remorselessly nihilistic view of human life are just ridiculously unobservant. The world is, as he put it, jumping up and down like a dog longing to romp with you. That’s the spirit that I follow.”

“My personal motto has increasingly been, the last ten or 20 years, that writing is freedom. And that’s why it’s such agony to contemplate the fates of writers who are trying to write in an unfree society, what an appalling twisting of the creative spirit that that is.”

“I would say that the only power to depress the spirits that literature possesses is by being no good. By being boring, in other words. By being the sort of thing you can’t be bothered to read – that’s depressing. As an idea, it doesn’t work at all in the canon. If it did, every performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown, Kool-Aid and mass suicide. But in fact, you come out of King Lear purged, because the cathartic emotions of pity and terror are cleansing.”

“I think occasional stretches of incomprehensibility, as long as there is coherence there, can be fun for the reader, and to yet again invoke Nabokov, I think the pleasure principle is absolutely supreme. That writing is there to give the reader the best possible time.”

“If you go to Nabokov’s house, metaphorically speaking, you get his best chair, in front of his fire, with his best wine. If you go to James Joyce’s house, you come into this big drafty edifice, and there’s no one there. And then you find him tinkering around in some scullery. And he offers you two slabs of peat around a conger eel, and a glass of mead. This not loving the reader, that’s the real thing. Henry James fell out of love with the reader. His early stuff, up to about Portrait of a Lady, is full of love for the reader. Then, I think out of sheer disappointment at not getting the kind of audience he wanted, the size of audience he wanted, he fell out of love – it was separate beds, then separate rooms, then separate flats. James never gave a damn for the reader in the first place, partially because perhaps he had patrons and never had to think about it. But it’s not that you want sales or anything like that, it’s that you want to do the right thing by your readers, and you want readers. Because a story is nothing without a listener.”

On England:

“It was never my intention to do any kind of diagnosis in England, but I do think this sort of starkly did represent a sort of exhausted culture, basically furious about its decline, its geo-historical decline, but not allowed to say that. Because having ruled a quarter of the world with your empire, there was this change of consciousness in the second half of the 20th century that told them, you don’t want an empire, and you should be ashamed you ever had one. And so the English people went, ‘yeah, all right,’ but in fact in a complete fury about losing their empire. And that’s the country you see there.”

On America:

“Coming to live here is completely different… seeing the six or seven strands of acute irrationality in American life, and having gone down to Tampa, Florida for the Republican convention, and realized that America was that close to electing a man who looks like an evangelical porn star. A president who would have gone around the globe with a faith that he was espousing — you can see it on Facebook or Youtube — hot under the collar he was, as he expounded his view that the returned Christ will spend half his time in Jerusalem, and half his time at the site of the original garden of Eden… in Missouri. This hick, this complete Philistine, was going to represent America on the world stage. And as Clive James, the great poet and novelist and writer said of Barry Manilow, he says, ‘The thing about Barry Manilow is, it’s incomprehensible when you confront it, but everyone you know thinks he’s shit, everyone you don’t know thinks he’s great.’ And that’s what applies to all your right-wing politicians.”

On his obsession with writing about Nazi Germany:

“I was born, interestingly, four years after the suicide of Hitler, and four years before the death of Stalin. So in a way, I was quite close to that era. But I remember becoming aware of the Holocaust as an idea, the smokestacks and the rail tracks, and I said to my mother – I was about eight – what happened, what was all that about? And she said, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about Hitler, Hitler would have loved you. You’ve got blonde hair and blue eyes, as I did then, Hitler would adore you. And I went away feeling very noble. But the fact that ‘Hitler would have loved me’ has stuck in my mind. I think both the Russian revolution and the Nazi revolution are two of the most unbelievably fascinating breaks in history. Also I had a kind of epiphany, having written a novel about the Holocaust in 1990, had gone on reading with considerable increase in knowledge, but no increase whatever in understanding. And I came upon this remark by Primo Levi, where he’s asked, ‘Do you understand, do you understand after all these years that intensity of racial hatred, or whatever we want to call it – ethnic hatred, this sort of fantastic, hallucinatric hatred, which is really what it was?’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t understand it, nor should you understand it. It’s your sacred duty not to understand.’ And when I read that, it was epiphanic for me, and funny enough, once the pressure to understand disappeared, then I felt I did inch forward a little bit in understanding. And as W.G. Sebald, the late German English writer said, of the events in Silesia between 1941 and 1945, ‘No serious person ever thinks about anything else.’”

On Christopher Hitchens:

“I think with Christopher, what it came down to was that he was the greatest debater since Cicero, or perhaps even Demosthenes. I think it bored him to take on — he had good fun, but it bored him intellectually to go to Texas and take on some video vicar. The only person that Hitch really found worth arguing with was Christopher. And that’s why he’s so hugely loved, because he made intellection inherently dramatic, because he was arguing with himself.”

On his father, Kingsley Amis:

“I think [my father and I are] very much the same kind of writer, and I’ve even said that if our dates of birth had been transposed, then I would have written something like his stuff, and he would have written something like mine. It was just the difference between 1949 and 1922. Very similar in the mock epic, dealing in low stuff in quite a high style. Certainly the comic shape of the novels – not just in that they try to be funny, but the old classical definition of comedy, where comedy follows the comic mask, you start at a certain point and then you enter a complication, trouble, usually to do with an older generations views on how you should be behaving. Then you come out of this forest into something like equilibrium.”