Books: Snakecharmers in Texas — N.V. Rampant Meets Martin Amis |
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N.V. Rampant Meets Martin Amis

“This is the big one,” I told myself nervously. “The Martin Amis interview. This is the one that could make you or break you.” As I neared his front door my heart was in my mouth.

No doubt he would have said it more cleverly. He would have said his heart was palpitating with trepidation like a poodle in heat in a monastery of mastiffs. Oh yes, he had the long words, Martin Amis. And he knew how to use them. He not only had the metaphors, he knew exactly what words like “metaphor” meant. He knew what “trepidation” meant. They had told him at Oxford. He had the education. He wasn’t going to let you forget it. I asked myself: Why not cut your losses and get out now? But no, I told myself: because you’ve got something to offer too. Otherwise why would the oh-so-famous Amis be available at all?

“Come in,” said a familiar voice when I knocked with trepidation. (Yes, I knew what the word meant. It was only fooling back there when I pretended I didn’t.) “The door’s open. Just push it.” Yeah, pushing it, I couldn’t help thinking. Maybe that’s what you’ve been doing, Martin, old son. Or Mart, as your friends call you. Your very powerful friends who can make or break a reputation with a flick of the telephone.

On the hallway occasional table was a copy of the collected works of Shakespeare, left oh-so-carelessly lying around so as to impress the less well-read. Well, I had heard of Shakespeare, so no luck there, Martin. But where was Martin?

Then I saw him lurking behind the volume of Shakespeare. Martin Amis, the oh-so-lauded so-called giant of his literary generation, was only four inches high.

“Glad you could make it. Glad in more ways than one,” said Martin in his self-consciously deep voice. “Usually I drop down to the floor on a thread of cotton at about this time and start for the kitchen in the hope of getting a drink by dusk. But I’ve lost the thread.”

Lost the thread in more ways than one, I thought, Martin, old son. Especially in this new book of yours, Money. But I didn’t say so. I couldn’t risk the notorious scorn, the laserlike contempt of his brilliantly educated mind. And I hated myself because I didn’t say so. And I hated him. But not as much as I hated his book. “Congratulations on a masterpiece,” I said non-committally. “I laughed continuously for two weeks and finally had to be operated on so that I could eat.” It was a tactful way of saying that I hadn’t been as bowled over as he might fondly imagine.

“Thanks,” said the oh-so-blasé so-called genius, taking it as his due. “Do you think you could give me a lift?”

He stepped into my open hand and I carried him into the study, where I put him down on his desk beside his typewriter. I could see now that I had been wrong about his being four inches high. He was three inches high. To depress the typewriter keys he must have to jump on them individually, and altering the tab-set would need a mountain-climbing expedition. I began to pity him. I could see now why he had chosen literary success.

But I could also see why I had not chosen it. So I was grateful to him. Grateful to Martin Amis, the post-punk Petronius. Yes, Mart. I’ve heard of Petronius. You didn’t get all the education. There was some left over for the rest of us, right?

Through the ostentatiously open door of the bathroom I had noticed that the bidet was full of signed first editions of books by Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and other members of the most powerful literary mafia to hit London since old Dr. Ben Johnson ruled the roost. When I carried Martin through into the kitchen for that so-long-delayed welcoming drink, the refrigerator was full of French Impressionist lithographs piled up ostentatiously so that the casual visitor couldn’t help seeing them. “Antonia gave me those,” said the would-be neo-Swift oh-so-self-deprecatingly. “She said after Money I should write a book about Monet or Manet.” He chuckled, pleased with his ostentatious modesty. Pleased with the secret language he shares only with his friends. With his friends and the beautiful Antonia Phillips, who just happens to control the Times Literary Supplement.

All of Martin’s friends control something but this is the first time he has married one. Perhaps he will marry them all. I began to wonder who would marry me. Suddenly I noticed that Martin Amis was now only two inches high.

“Look,” said Martin. “I feel I’m sort of disappearing. Do you think we could cut this short?” I was only too glad.

For finally I couldn’t see what it was all meant to prove. Yes, he had published a novel every two months for ten years, was talked of in the same breath as balls-aching old Balzac, and had won the hand of one of the leading beauties of the day. But so what? He had never written a profile for the Sunday Times Magazine. He had spent too much time locked away reading all those books to know what was really going on in the London he was oh-so-celebrated for allegedly knowing intimately. Had he read any of my books, for instance? So far they existed only in manuscript, but they had enjoyed a pretty wide circulation among those not too proud—not too old, let’s face it—to pick up a samizdat without using rubber gloves. Had he read The Sandra Documents? Had he read Offed Infants and Tonto People? Would he even bother to hear about my soon-to-be-forthcoming The Aimed Sock?

I should never have taken this assignment. He was afraid of me. Afraid of what I represented. Afraid of someone who was better at what he had always been best at—being young. Being unknown. Once he had been unknown. That had been what he had been famous for. But now he was not, and it was killing him.

When we shook hands in farewell at his front door, Martin Amis was barely one inch high. There was an empty milk bottle on the doorstep. I started to put him down carefully beside it. Then I changed my mind and put him down carefully inside it. Halfway down the street I looked back. No bigger than a bacillus with delusions of grandeur, he was drumming with microscopic fists as he slid down inside the curved wall where the side of the bottle met its base. His thin voice cried: “I need you! I need you!”

I had him where I wanted him at last.

(London Review of Books, October 18–31, 1984;
later included in Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988)


The many models for this parody barely needed to be goosed. All I had to do was echo their tone: a new and deadly combination of admiration and hatred. When Martin Amis came to his early prominence, the journalists who wrote about him, if they were the same age or younger, invariably discovered within themselves not only his ambitions, but his capacities. Today, young journalists who get fifteen minutes with George Clooney are unlikely to blame him for the slow progress of their film careers. Martin Amis met one undiscovered novelist after another, and in every case was led to deduce, from what they wrote about him, that he was the reason they were undiscovered. It was a new twist in culture-section journalism that I followed with fascination: talent as an object of blame.

More recently, Martin Amis’s position as an object of fame and blame has led to unfortunate distortions in these areas of discussion on which he chooses to impinge as a commentator. A conspicuous example is provided by the publicity surrounding his book on Stalinism, Koba the Dread. Reviewing it, some of the historians pointed out, quite accurately, that its facts were not new. In Britain, a swarm of journalists took the opportunity to say that the information in the book was old hat. In this mini-consensus of the minimally gifted, there were two flagrant lies. One was the lie involved in overlooking the fact that a whole new generation would hear about the subject merely because Martin Amis had taken immense trouble to collate the relevant literature and express the necessary conclusions in a style brilliantly adapted to a general audience. The other lie, however, was the harsher: the quiet suggestion that they themselves, the journalists, had already been in possession of the historical truth. I can think of precisely one journalist for whom that might have been so. All the rest were bluffing.