Uand this is supposed to be a novel? A book that begins with the author inviting his reader (he thinks more of a man than a woman) for a glass of single malt whisky, chatting for pages about Hitler and Stalin, digging out an old friend from the drawers of his memory and in between wise advice on the art of novel writing?
The writer Henry James once described novels as “big, loose, baggy monsters” — he had in mind the books of the great Russians of the 19th century, in which narrative and reference passages alternate and uninhibitedly reasoned about God and history becomes. The new novel by Martin Amis consists practically only of loose material that is carelessly draped over objects. Without giving a superfluous thought to structure, the writer allows himself to be driven by his obsessions: Nabokov, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Stalinism, the State of Israel, as well as the triad of father, surrogate father and unholy spirit (Kingsley Amis, Saul Bellow and the poet Philip Larkin).
The most important theme in Martin Amis’ novel “Inside Story” is love. The first third of the novel occupies a concentrated erotic novella, whose heroine is called Phoebe Phelps – for the invention of this name alone Martin Amis would have earned several literary awards. Phoebe becomes an obsession for the hero because she refuses him; The fact that she used to work as an escort lady is still the most boring thing about her. At the end of the novella, Amis climbs onto the trail of her terrible secret, the punchline is – as it should be – presented as a side issue.
Hommage an Christopher Hitchens
The actual love story follows; she connects Martin Amis with the journalist Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was a phenomenon: a Trotskyist Englishman, the son of a naval veteran and a (later revealed) Jewish mother who committed suicide when he was a young man. Hitchens emigrated to America, wrote books about Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and Mother Theresa (he considered them all criminals), then, to the dismay of his former comrades, supported the “war on terror” including the invasion of Iraq and wrote a combat atheist bestseller (“The Lord is not a shepherd”).
Hitchens’ drinking was legendary — he didn’t really come alive until he downed at least three triple whiskeys; he also chain smoked. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010 and dead a year later. And the essays he wrote almost on his deathbed (unconverted, of course — he remained godless and stoic to the end) are perhaps his best.
In Martin Amis’ autobiographical novel, Christopher Hitchens plays almost the same role as Socrates in the platonic dialogues: he explains the world, the big brother in the good sense, the last authority, regardless of whether it’s about big politics, the last things or the each new girlfriend goes. It’s no exaggeration to call the tone in which Amis writes about Hitchens affectionate. He gives him many more sides than his wife, whom he calls Elena; all we really learn from her is that she is beautiful.
What are we to make of all this? First of all, an oddity that hardly catches your eye when you read it: the main character, of all people, remains pale. Martin Amis — sometimes haunting the pages as “I”, sometimes in the third person — is merely the one to whom things happen or are explained; he does next to nothing. And its inner workings remain essentially unfathomable because no one bothers to look inside its skull.
The absent me
If “Inside Story” were really what the subtitle says, namely a novel, one would have to speak of a two-dimensional novel character: The “Martin Amis” of this book is a shadow, not a real person. How was his childhood? What did he experience at Cambridgeshire High School for Boys in the early 1960s? How did England feel back then, what did it smell like? What music was in the air? With whom did Amis spend his first night of love? I dunno, we literally don’t hear about it.
What’s more, Amis goes against much of the wise advice he gives to budding novelists: he rails against clichés and then uses them himself, he pokes fun at linguistic pits dug for writers in the Victorian era and then falls into them himself . The schoolmaster, who is at home in the reviewer’s upstairs room, jumps up and down frantically and shouts: Sit down! Six! Topic missed! And he’d be absolutely right if, yes, “Inside Story” wasn’t so entertaining. The thing is this: Martin Amis is very clever.
When he fumes about anti-Semitism or the State of Israel—whether alone or with friend Hitchens—you listen intently. When he reports on which screws were loose in Philip Larkin’s head, one follows him with profit and enjoyment. In addition, this book is always very touching, namely when it is about death. When Amis tells how he sat in the hotel room with Saul Bellow, who had dementia, and watched the film Pirates of the Caribbean.
When he reports on the last few hours in the hospital, in which Christopher Hitchens dawned on his death. Death, so Amis lets Saul Bellow say, is the dark background in the mirror, without which the glass would be transparent – without which we could not see ourselves. Only death brings life to life; without death, novelists would be unemployed. For this dearly-bought insight, one even accepts the 200 or so pages that Martin Amis’ book could have been shortened without harm.
Martin Amis: Inside Story. A novel. No and buts, 752 pages, 40 euros