Hearing Martin Amis at Stanford
May 21st, 2012 | Blog, Musings/Reminiscences, Novel Authors, Stanford | 7 Comments
When Jeff and I were in Palo Alto on a recent trip, I wanted to visit the Creative Writing Department again, where I had been a Stegner Fellow and taught creative writing for three years back in the early 70s. Alas, it had moved, which didn’t seem right, but only around to the front of the quad facing Palm Avenue, rather than being housed in the inner quad. At least it was still in one of the old, original sandstone buildings.
Inside we saw a small sign announcing that there would be a colloquium with Martin Amis at 11:00 that day. It was then 10:50, so we went up to the 4th floor and took our places in a room with about 30 other people, some of whom were surely current or recent Stegner Fellows and Jones Lecturers. It was fun to see Tobias Wolff, who teaches at Stanford, and most of whose work I’ve read and greatly admired, and the Irish Poet, Eavan Boland, who is now chair of the department. There was a certain thrill in being back at a creative writing event after all these years.
I hadn’t read any Martin Amis, but Jeff had liked The Information, which made him laugh out loud at times. I had meant to read it, per usual, but never did, probably because I sensed that the middle-aged, male angst of his writer protagonist wouldn’t be my cuppa. I had read reviews of his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, of which Graydon Carter said in a comprehensive review in the NYTBR, “However much he fingers the hem of age, it should be said that Amis has still got it — in the sense that he still has what got him here in the first place. Along with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in “The Pregnant Widow.” But this may not be the Roman candle of a novel some of his followers are looking for…” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/books/review/Carter-t.html?pagewanted=all. I knew Amis was Somebody as a writer, and I was happy for the opportunity to learn more about him and his writing.
Since I wasn’t expecting to be attending a lecture, I hadn’t brought any paper. No one around me seemed prepared to take notes, so I had to run down the hall and try to find something to write on. The only open door revealed a man at a desk with a laptop in an empty office, and a very beat-up, scribbled on yellow legal pad. My asking for a piece of paper led to a flurry of pages being turned on the legal pad; apparently only one was yet blank, which he graciously tore out for me. It was very hard to take notes as Amis spoke rather eloquently, so quoting him below is an approximation. When I got home I Googled some interviews with him to supplement my elliptical note-taking, so I’ve included some excerpts from those here. As it turned out, much of what he talked about at Stanford he had covered in an interview at the Hay Festival in Mexico in Oct, 2011, printed in The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/8825242/Martin-Amis-intoxicating-free-the-novelist-life.html
One of the things I like about an event such as this is that I get to stare at someone. It’s just plain interesting to observe someone as much as you like, without being rude. Martin Amis is short and seedy looking, with the look of the lech about him (I don’t mean that as a moral judgment). It goes with his reputation of having been a Bad Boy, with notorious affairs under his belt in the olden days. One of his frequent subjects is sex, including lust and obsession. The Pregnant Widowis about the sea change of the sexual revolution and its consequent aftershocks on a group of young people hanging out at a castle in Campania in 1970. Amis was born in 1949, which makes him two years younger than me, but he seems obsessed with aging. He looks quite handsome in his early photographs, but now he doesn’t have the advantage of youth and apparently misses it. Don’t we all. He looks very British, as compared to the hale, hearty, American look of big Tobias Wolff, with his bald dome, ruddy complexion, white mustache and unabashed laugh. Something dissolute about Amis, bringing to mind too many cigarettes and too much alcohol.
The colloquium was in the form of Q and A. The first question was from a young man named Skip who teaches in the creative writing program. He wanted to know when Amis decides on a new project, where does the idea come from? (Has this question ever been asked of a writer before?)
Amis corrected that you don’t write “about” something, you write “around” something, and “decide” is the wrong word. The main appeal is that you can write a novel about it. You may not want to, but if it’s a novel only you can write, you do it. He told a wonderful story about how Nabokov, whom he considers the greatest novelist of the 21st century, got the idea for Lolita. Nabokov came upon a newspaper article about the first animal, a monkey, to produce a drawing. What it drew were the bars of its cage. Apparently when Nabokov read that, the idea for Lolita was born. Unfortunately Amis didn’t explain the connection, but I imagine it’s that Humbert Humbert is imprisoned by his lust for Lolita. If you have a better idea let me know!
Here’s part of what he said at the Hay Festival regarding the same question:
“…people say, ‘Why did you decide to write a novel about the sexual revolution or the Holocaust or the gulag?”
Decide is always the wrong word. The process of writing a novel begins with a pang, a moment of recognition, and a situation, a character, or something you read in a paper, that seems to go off, like a solar flare inside your head. And you think, ‘I could write a novel about this.’
That’s the first moment. The last moment is when, with great trepidation, you send your novel to your agent, or publisher. You think, ‘I won’t do any more with it, I’ll read it in proof.’ And what happens between that first pang and the final washing of hands of it is getting to know what that novel is.
All novelists write in a different way, but I always write in longhand and then do two versions of typescript on a computer. I realised when I got to the end of the long-hand draft [of The Pregnant Widow] that I knew nothing about this novel when I began writing it.
The process of writing a novel is getting to know more about the novel until you know everything about it. And it’s been described as a kind of dreamlike state where you’re letting the novel make its own shape, and you’re putting into it the pleasure of creation, which is intoxicating.
You can do absolutely anything; you are the freest of all artists. You’re not confined by a square on the wall or musical scales or the disciplines of verse, and you’re certainly freer than a film-maker who is dependent on the weather when he goes out to make his world. And it’s completely uncollaborative – you don’t have actors; producers; money pressures of any kind.
It’s that freedom that is frightening in the end. So you have all that pleasure, but what you’ve also got to put into it – and you can’t do this consciously; it just demands it of you – you’ve got to put anxiety into it.
I’ve just finished a novel [Lionel Asbo, to be published next year] that I wrote very happily in a year, and revised very miserably in another year, and I realised I’d left something out, which is anxiety. So I had a year of terrible anxiety about it, and now it’s all right.
My father [Kingsley Amis] used to say if you write a whole novel feeling pleased with it, it’s no good. And if you write a whole novel feeling miserable and fearful about it then it isn’t any good either. It has to have that mixture of joy and anxiety. As you get older the anxiety gets slightly more predominant.”
The subject of getting older is much on his mind, based on the Q and A at Stanford and in recent interviews. At Stanford he talked about how all writers of any worth have a bit of genius and then talent, by which I think he meant technique. He believes that as you get older, “and this has to be faced,” your genius contracts, all metaphor and music gets weaker, but your talent improves. He was fascinating on how the older writer has learned to rely much more on the subconscious. He said you don’t go at a paragraph the way you would when you were younger. When a problem arises, you walk away from your desk, knowing your subconscious has to fix it, and then your legs take you back to your desk in a day or two. “I don’t work, I wait.” Your respect for your subconscious grows all the time. Being able to humor and coax along your subconscious becomes so important.. He talked about how Updike had such a terrific ear but he lost his ear and his last book of short stories are painful because of it.
Tobias Wolff continued the discussion of the aging writer, quoting Yeats – “I shall wither into the truth.” – by asking when did the vocation of writing come to Amis? Amis commented that when you’re 12 or 13, you begin to commune with the self, an inner voice or consciousness, and you start to write poems and keep notebooks. Novelists and poets never grow out of that—everyone else moves on and becomes an accountant. He said “What you have to be to be a writer is to be most alive when alone.”
Here’s more of his thoughts on aging from the Hay Festival interview. The interviewer asked him about the relationship between beauty and aging:
“… you get ugly when you get old. It’s all perfectly simple. In fact I can tell you how it’s going to go. Everything seems fine until you’re about 40. Then something is definitely beginning to go wrong. And you look in the mirror with your old habit of thinking, “While I accept that everyone grows old and dies, it’s a funny thing, but I’m an exception to that rule.”
Then it becomes a full-time job trying to convince yourself that it’s true. And you can actually feel your youth depart. In your mid-forties when you look in the mirror this idea that you’re an exception evaporates.
Then, you think life is going to get thinner and thinner until it dwindles into nothing. But a very strange thing happens to you, a very good thing happens to you, in your early fifties, and I’m assuming – this is what novelists do, they assume their case is typical: a poet can’t be typical about anything, but a novelist is an everyman, and an innocent and literary being – but you assume that how you feel is how everyone feels, and it’s like discovering another continent on the globe.
What happens is you’re suddenly visited by the past, and it’s like a huge palace in your mind, and you can go and visit all these different rooms and staircases and chambers. It’s particularly the erotic, the amatory past. And if you have children they somehow are very present in this palace of the past.
…Just to go a little bit later, because I’m 62 now… Another feeling comes on you when you’re 60, which can be expressed by the thought, “This can’t turn out well.” And that’s the bit I’m at at the moment. And really that’s the arrival of fear. In my case not fear of death, but fear of getting there.
So to go back to your question, yes you do look back with wonder at your youth, and you know all youth is automatically beautiful in a way. It’s said that youth is wasted on the young, and that’s perhaps true because you don’t feel your beauty until its gone.”
I’ll close with yet another quote from the Hay interview, which is so much better than my scribbled notes on that lone piece of pilfered yellow legal pad:
“I find another thing about getting older is that your library gets not bigger but smaller, that you return to the key writers who seem to speak to you with a special intimacy. Others you admire or are bored by, but these writers seem to awaken something in you.
For me the two, the twin peaks, like two mountains, are Saul Bellow and Nabokov. And those two I go on reading and rereading. And the great thing about the great books is that it’s like having an infinite library, because every five years you can read them again and the books haven’t changed but you have. And they seem to renew themselves, transform themselves for you.
So you can never say you’ve read a novel. Nabokov always said, funnily enough, you can’t read a novel, you can only reread a novel. If you listen to music, you don’t say, “That’s it.” If it speaks to you then you play it dozens of times, and you probably won’t like that piece of music until you get to know it. It’s the same with a novel. You have to know the kind of thing a novel is, you have to know what it’s about, and the second time you read a novel you can see how this is achieved.
When I teach literature I always tell them, these would-be writers (we don’t do workshops, we just read great books), I say, “When you read Pride and Prejudice, don’t if you’re a girl identify with Elizabeth Bennet, if you’re a boy with Darcy. Identify with the author, not with the characters.” All good readers do that automatically, but I think it’s helpful to make that clear. Your affinity is not with the characters, always with the writer.
You should always be asking yourself, if you want to become an expert reader or perhaps a writer, you should always say, “How is this being achieved?” “How is this scene being managed?” “How is this being brought off?” Because the characters are artefacts. They’re not real people with real destinies and I know that feeling, when you’re reading Pride and Prejudice even for the fourth time, you feel definite anxiety about whether they’re going to get married, even though you know perfectly well that they do. There’s a slight sort of, “Come on, kiss her!”
I always used to think that there’s only one flaw with Pride and Prejudice, and that is the absence of a 30-page sex scene between Elizabeth and Darcy. Although of course that wouldn’t have worked either.
And I finally realised why you have this feeling, and this is the great achievement of the novel: here you have two characters who were made for each other, and it’s such a perfect fit, you know she’s going to make him a little more relaxed, a little less stuffy, bring out the playful side of him. And he’s going to make her not only rich, because, let’s face it, there is a vulgar appeal to that, but he’s going to make her serious as well as lively, perhaps curb her high spirits… But a marvelous osmosis is going to take place between these two people.
And it’s so artfully done by Jane Austen that you can’t bear the thought that it won’t come about, and that’s why the suspense renews itself with every reading.”
A thirty page sex scene between Elizabeth and Darcy!
He is…or maybe was…a Bad Boy.
But he was also well worth an hour’s time and attention at Stanford, recalling many other stimulating literary discussions I’d heard there. It was serendipitous to stumble into his colloquium.
Tags: Martin Amis