Martin Amis’ Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions

I must begin by giving thanks to my brother, Kenneth, for the gift of this book, my first foray into Amis’ writings; few gifts are better than a well-chosen book, and, for me at least, none more welcome.

Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions is a collection of Martin Amis’ nonfiction writings, culled from journals and newspapers, and largely centered around interviews with various writers, among them Graham Greene, John Updike, Isaac Asimov, Philip Larkin and Anthony Burgess. Oddities include a visit to a Rolling Stones concert, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film Robocop II and an early glimpse at Madonna’s semi-autobiographical tell-all Sex. For the uninitiated, Martin Amis is the son of novelist Kingsley Amis, and grew up in the company of his father’s writerly friends: Philip Larkin, for example, was his elder brother’s godfather. This makes Amis rather uniquely placed to interview the authors he does, as many of them knew his father or had prior relationships with Martin.

The essays themselves are very much products of the the times, written between the late ’70s and early ’80s: the possibility of a nuclear holocaust is an omnipresent subtext; China retains a shroud of mystery; the writers he interviews are all long dead; Madonna is culturally relevant. The prose, however, is lively, marked by a gruff, unapologetic wit that dabbles in sarcasm without ever relying on it. Consider this brief digression on rap music:

For months the rap-rhythm lingers in my head. It goes like this: a fashy bashy cashy dashy lashy mashy pashy. Fashy wha, fashy wha. A Fashy bashy cashy dashy lashy mashy pashy. And so on. In your head. There are also unforgettable miracles of scansion. For example: “I took my problem to the EEC, / The European Economic Community…” But don’t mock the rap-artist: envy him. A rap-artist is definitely the thing to be. As well as the affection, reverence and erotic perks traditionally due to the musician, he is also accorded the status of poet, philosopher, dissident and redeemer. Nobody ever had it so good.

Or this brief musing on shifting portrayals of female sexuality, prompted by Madonna’s over-the-top public image:

Female sexual fantasy, or so men tend to believe, has always been a constrained and limited arena. Whereas the fierce specialization of male erotica attests to a ridiculously detailed repertoire (a magazine shelf for every breast-size and leg-length), the female equivalent seems, or seemed, to be confined to variations on the theme of helplessness. In the staple, text-book example, the woman dreamed of abduction and rape (so that if she enjoyed it, it wasn’t her fault), usually at the hands of some glistening exotic (who was therefore outside her own society). Such a story-line is clearly a relic – but where do we go from here? For the politically-correct, feminist-approved sexual reverie is just as obviously a contradiction in terms: person meets person on an equal-pay protest march; he is caring and respects her space; over a nut cutlet she frames the parameters of her erotic needs; he doesn’t see a problem… Sshh. Oooh.

He manages to be witty and observative, two invaluable qualities for any writer, without ever appearing to pander, maintaining his authenticity with a devil-may-care insouciance that disparages political correctness and prefers, at all times, truth to appeasement. In short, he is possessed of all the same qualities that I admire in Christopher Hitchens, and it seems only fitting that the two would share a close friendship for over three decades, beginning during their tenure at the New Statesman – Hitchens a political correspondent, Amis the literary editor.

Amis, however, is primarily a fiction writer, a fact easily forgotten in his editorial writings. At the conclusion to an essay describing his role as a judge in a short story contest, he writes, echoing Prufrock: “I was reminded how astonishingly intimate the business of fiction is, more intimate than anything that issues from the psychiatrist’s couch or even the lovers’ bed. You see the soul, pinned and wriggling on the wall.” This brief excursion into his nonfiction writing has whetted my appetite: my next Amis book will be of the pinned-and-wriggling, soul-baring variety.