Buenos Aires, City of Faded Elegance

Martin Amis from the coast of Uruguay

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I generally find little to read in the English-language Buenos Aires Herald but occasionally the Herald surprises me. In the Sunday edition Herald editor Andrew Graham-Yooll has an interview with Martin Amis, who had been living in the Uruguayan coastal resort town of José Ignacio for the last three years.

Amis is married to the writer Isabel Fonseca, author of Bury Me Standing, a very good book about gypsies in Eastern Europe that I do recommend. The couple has two daughters.

I’ve never been a fan of Amis, not even sure if I have ever completed reading one of his books but maybe I need to give his work another chance. Anyway, Martin Amis is a major (and very public) figure in the literary world, as was his father Kingsley Amis.

I couldn’t find a link to the article at the Herald’s web site so I’m going to quote a significant part of it.

On July 3 the fifty-six year old Amis moved back to London because he needed the “energy of the city…After a long stint down here you begin to feel marginalized…You need the city. You need modernity, if it is your subject. And yet I am horrified at the prospect of going back to London….One of the reasons I was pleased to come here was that you get too old to be happy in a city.” Even though he is leaving Uruguay, Amis said, “I’ll come back. I think I would like to die here.”

When asked how much he had written in Uruguay:

“I’ve written a novel, two short stories, and I am on another novel, and a fair bit of journalism. It is a shortish novel, longish short stories, and three quarters of a long novel. That is my schedule…..

“The long novel I am writing is autobiographical and Kingsley is in that, but he occupies less space in this novel than he did in the memoir. It is interesting to come at this in fiction, a different angle.”

In reference to his father, Kingsley Amis:

“It was looking back on The God That Failed, which had Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, and other old boys, that I wondered about the deep temperamental difference between Kingsley and me. He needed Utopian ardour, which has never done a thing for me. I regard it with intense suspicion. It is a temperamental difference, but it is also evolutionary. That kind of thought is now dead. Unless it was forced upon you, as it might be in …Argentina and Uruguay.

“Ideology was doomed to fail. As Utopia it was a sort of historical thing, a great source of energy, for good and ill, through much of the 20th century. It burned out. Now we are back to religion instead of ideology…”

On living in Uruguay:

“The sound of the sea is good for the soul, it strikes you every day several times that you are writing in a form of paradise. But I think the rhythm of writing and creating are deeper than that. Anything that I have got out of here, from this part of Uruguay, I expect to emerge in my writing in two or three years. That seems to be the gestation period between experience and the ability to write about it.

“We saw a good example of that with September 11. Norman Mailer, who is now 83, said the temptation to charge in and write something would be an enormous threat. You have to be able to stand back, and let your body feel. Writing is a much more physical process than many people think. You are obeying your body, in some mysterious way. And you always know when you have gone wrong or take a wrong turn in a novel because your body tells you. You known when an idea, or a paragraph, needs to cook. You don’t feel anxiety about it and, a day or two later, you find the idea flows.

José Ignacio has been atypical for me because I came here and started on this sort of autobiographical novel. I didn’t have any idea about how to do it, but I wrote a lot of stuff. And then I realized that my model for this sort of autobiographical novel was Saul Bellow, who is in it. He writes about real people, not made up. What he does is he arranges them and in that he is artistic. And he is the only one ever who has been able to stare so hard into the particular to reach the universal in that way. For the rest of us, as I saw early on in this new novel, and it is a tremendously invigorating sentence, ‘The truth does not lend itself to literature.’ As soon as I had written that, I could do it. I worked not nearly a year on something completely shapeless, a baggy monster. Then I wrote a couple of short stories. Then I had a really powerful desire to write what I thought would be a novella, and it turned out to be about 220 pages. The idea was very compelling.”

Amis talked about his forthcoming novel titled House of Meetings, which is about conjugal visits in Soviet concentration camps. Amis said that Anne Appelbaum’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Gulag : A History inspired him. The book “has three pages on the ‘house of meetings’. That was the core for my story. I had the worst time I have ever had in my life writing it, and only last month did I begin to feel good about it. I kept on thinking: This piece of work is begging me to abandon it.”

“Perhaps Uruguay, and José Ignacio, played a part in that, because I wondered how could I write about victims of the Gulag, when I am here. I have never been to Russia, I don’t speak Russian, I have read a lot of Russian history…I just had to do so much authorial suffering, not just sitting around grieving for the victims of the Gulag, although from time to time I did grieve because it was just so terrible what people did and what people suffered….But I had to suffer just to earn the writing. And then I was still very insecure about it.

“Now it is back to Stalin again, in a way. Personal, idiosyncratic non universal truth cannot be improved by fiction. The particular is what you are trying to avoid. The autobiographical novel I am writing is sort of historical in that the title I was going to use remains as a subtitle, ‘Inside History’. Isabel’s stepfather, who writes about social justice, said there is a great urge to know where you are inside history. What you have actually lived through.

“The title of my next book is…The Pregnant Widow. That comes from a quote by Alexander Herzen. He is talking about revolutions, and says that normally one would exult to see the old order swept away and a new child replacing it. But that is not what happens, he says. What is left is not a birth but a pregnant widow.”

The interview continued with some comments from Amis about the controversies surrounding him, the bad reviews of his last book, political correctness, and journalism. Amis said, “I think a big part of the resentment is that I am my father’s son. Another, funny little part of it is that among a generation of journalists, many wanted to be me, because I was a journalist and a novelist. That is shaming to want to be someone else. Who could possibly want to be someone else? … It is difficult to write literature now. The media conspires against literature.”

4 thoughts on “Martin Amis from the coast of Uruguay

  1. John says:

    Yes, Martin Amis is a tough read at times, but wonderful. Uncompromising, harsh but mysterious and always entertaining. More of a man’s read, by and large.

  2. Jeff says:

    John – thanks for the comment!

  3. Hillary says:

    I disagree. Amis is only a “man’s read” to the extent that one cleaves to pretty obsolete ideas about gender interests. I, for one, am a woman who’s read everything he’s written and enjoyed the better part of it.

  4. Francesco says:

    It is not about a man’s read.

    Martin Amis writes, and has always written, about what it “means to be a man.”

    That sort of stuff is for everyone, male, female, and certainly everything in between …

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