Book Review: Inside Story

Jan 4, 2021

Prize-winning fiction writer, journalist, and witty, celebrated British bad boy of novels and cultural criticism Martin Amis, 71 now, and a resident of Brooklyn and East Hampton, has just come out with Inside Story. It’s a big autobiographical “compendium” he calls “A Novel” and at other times “life writing” and “a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours.” He says it’s fine if his 538-page book is read in “fitful bursts, with “plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back,” along with “whatever [we’re] drinking.” That’s good because the book begins with a chatty, familial “preludial” section set in 2016 about being ready to write such a book, and it ends with a digressive “afterthought” on Masada and the Dead Sea, and then an “addendum” about the English novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard who was the second wife of Amis’s father, Sir Kingsley Amis, one of England’s Angry Young Men who took the literary world by storm in the `50s. A sprawling, intensely felt, often self-denigrating series of reflections, recollections, anecdotes and musings, Inside Story should be taken in stride, Amis advises, and not always at face value. Some names have been changed, though not those of the two dead friends whom the book lovingly and heartbreakingly eulogizes: Amis’s best friend Christopher Hitchens, known as “Hitch,” whom Amis met when they both worked at the London political and cultural magazine, New Statesman, and Saul Bellow, twice his age, who was godfather to one of Amis’s children, and who, Amis declares, was the greatest American novelist of the 20th century. Amis also particularly admires the English poet, librarian and curmudgeon Philip Larkin, and the brilliant Russian-American novelist, poet and translator Vladimir Nabokov. Inside Story goes back and forth in time from childhood to 2018, focusing in the early parts on an extended affair young Amis had with a free-spirited older woman whom he picked up on a London street who toys with him sexually and psychologically. His obsession with her is a bit much, but the reader does get that Amis voice -- breezy, funny, confessional, mock-confessional. Here, as elsewhere, he trots out erudite and obscene observations and opinions, alternating first and third person points of view, and dramatizing exchanges, mainly with Hitch, that reflect wide reading and critical intelligence. And then there are the special treats throughout the book: comments from Hitch and Bellow and snippets of poetry from Larkin. So many worth reading aloud and remembering Amis quotes Philip Roth in a note to Bellow on the great man’s fifth and last wife, a young woman who gave Bellow a child when Bellow was 84: “Dear Saul, at last you’ve married a woman who understands me.” It was a sentiment deeply felt by Amis. He felt that Bellow’s novels were written for him, and so he read everything Bellow ever wrote. Among the subjects that loom large for Amis in Inside Story are 9/11, the Holocaust and writing good prose, quoting Nabokov that though technique can be learned, talent cannot be taught. But what Amis says in the main never seems enough. Footnotes  adorn almost every page, asides political and personal of whatever has caught his reminiscing fancy. Essentially what catches his heart though is his sense that Bellow, Nabokov, even the dyspeptic Larkin, in spite of the cynicism and darkness that inform their work, “loved the world.” Literature’s “dewy little secret,” Amis says, invoking them, is that the energy of their work is the “energy of love.” Inside Story is a reminder of when literary artists had vision and cared about the world --social realists like Nobel Laureate Bellow, who assumed they had power to affect the human condition they explored; essayists like Hitch whose caustic provocations became admiringly notorious; and poets like Larkin who for all his personal imperfections was almost perfect in writing about death. This last, death, is a subject Amis has on his mind as he looks back on those he loved and lost. Entertaining, meditative, moving, instructive, Inside Story may be just the book to dip into at the close of this tumultuous year and the start of  what one can only hope readers of this funny, free-wheeling, elegiac memoir, trust will be a better one.