Martin Amis says that when a man turns 40 he stops saying "hi" and starts saying "bye". So, as a 41-year-old, I now stand unequivocally on the farewell side of the tracks, putting my affairs gradually in order before the eventual arrival of the Grim Reaper – who in an Amis novel would probably be called Keith or Tel and speak an obscure London argot.
Amis himself is 60 today and I wonder how significant a milestone that is for the writer himself. For his father’s generation, 60 was a moment freighted with messages – what Martin calls "the Information" in his novel of the same name – about work, longevity, sex, prospective senility and so forth. For Amis fils and his coterie of friends, ex-friends and writers (mostly alumni of the New Statesman in the Seventies, such as Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes and James Fenton), the moment is less unarguably bleak, offering as it does, in 2009, the comforts of Pilates and good nutrition, the pleasures of middle-aged paternity, and a longer spell at the crease in which to determine the dictates of posterity.
Amis, who, for fairly obvious cradle-born reasons, thinks about such matters more than most writers, believes that posterity is all that counts. But that can’t be quite right, for it was over a review (of his book about the Holocaust, Time’s Arrow, published in 1991) that he fell out with The Spectator. I am pleased to say that this rift has now been healed – indeed, the last time I saw Amis was at a debate sponsored by our magazine, and he was charm itself. But the fact of its existence shows that contemporary reviews, though not of enduring significance, perhaps, matter deeply to the novelist himself. How could it be otherwise?
At the risk of starting an e-riot on Cappuccino Culture – actually, in the mischievous hope of doing so – I should say that I think Martin Amis is our best novelist, a truly great writer and a fabulous presence in the cultural life of the nation. Sure, some of the novels are better than others. But even the widely-panned Yellow Dog was full of terrific stuff. And his most recent work of fiction, The House of Meetings, set in Stalin’s gulag, was a belter. In Money (1984) he wrote an epitaph to that decade much more authentic and searching than, say, The Bonfire of the Vanities or Less than Zero, and in London Fields (1989) the first masterpiece of the post-Cold War era, presaging the tone of foreboding that has helped define the "green" era.
His non-fiction is consistently gripping and distracting: his last collection, The Second Plane, bristles with evolving, challenging, unpredictable thoughts about the scale and meaning of 9/11 and its sequels. Like Updike or his late friend and role model, Saul Bellow, he is a writer who intervenes with passion and impact in political and cultural debate. His first volume of autobiography, Experience, is the best non-fiction book I have ever read about being a man. It repays re-reading and dipping into more than any memoir I can think of, and its structure is extraordinarily brave and meticulous.
What puzzles me is not so much why he has never won the Booker Prize (he soars much higher than that in the pantheon) but why, as a nation, we are so grudging in our celebration of this great author. Is it because we cannot handle the notion of a fiction-writing dynasty? Perhaps. But we seem to have relatively little problem accepting the idea that the identity of the Head of State should be settled by DNA, by chromosomal fit. We wouldn’t refuse to be operated upon by a brain surgeon whose father had been in the same line of work. The words "and Son" still define thousands of trades and businesses across the land. But – oddly – we don’t seem to like the idea that Martin happens to have chosen the same way of earning a living as his Dad. It’s a funny thing to find offensive.
Why else? Is it the countenance: the drawl, the roll-up, the cocky short guy act? The teeth and the tennis and the flash advances? The darts and the girlfriends and the chutzpah? I’ve no idea, because all those things make me like the man even more. But you know: sometimes we Brits – especially those of us who read books and go to the theatre and talk about arthouse cinema – can be a seriously miserable bunch.
Happy birthday, Martin.Tags: Books, Culture