In a shady outdoor café in Toronto’s Little Italy neighborhood, Martin Amis is talking about the mysterious fluctuations of sexual desire. The focus of his musings is Richard, the hapless antihero of Amis’s hilarious new novel, The Information. “Poor Richard,” the 45-year-old British writer says, taking a slow pull on his hand-rolled cigarette.
Richard is a loving father, not a pervert, and Amis’s point is that people have an instinctual side that pops up when they want it least—in Richard’s case, erections at totally inappropriate times. He goes on to speculate that political correctness is a way of pretending such impulses do not exist: “Political correctness says that just by an act of will, you’ve cleansed yourself of the atavisms of 450,000 years. No more racial feelings. No more unruly feelings about women.” Adds the Londonbased author, in Toronto last week to promote his new book, “And of course it’s all a lie, so it sets off a great deal of anxiety.”
In a sense, Amis has based his career on exploiting such anxieties. His eight novels, including Money and London Fields, crashed the barriers of decorum with a spiky brilliance that has made him the most exciting British novelist of his generation.
The Information is about hatred and envy—on a scale most people have not allowed themselves to experience since childhood. Richard, a failed writer of unpublishable fiction, loathes his best friend, Gwyn. Gwyn writes bland little novels that have somehow become international best-sellers. Richard sets out to destroy him, eventually hiring a thug to beat him up. The whole business is as funny as only Amis could make it: at his best, he has a genius for satirical exaggeration, flushing his characters’ demons into the sunlight of a harsh laughter.
Like many people with comic gifts, Amis
does not laugh much himself—although he occasionally succumbs to a sardonic chuckle. He is slimly built and, at five-foot, six-inches, a little on the short side, with a largish head and a face in which the sensuous mouth seems at odds with the ferrety intelligence of the eyes. He speaks with a smoke-
enhanced resonance, and an accent that reflects both his education (he won highest academic honors at Oxford) and his distinguished family background (his father is novelist Kingsley Amis). After the sharp edges and low-life characters of his novels, his upper-caste suavity comes as a bit of a surprise. There is a guardedness about him, too—understandably, given that during the five years it took him to write and publish The Information, he watched the media turn his private life into a public nightmare.
The marriage troubles came first. At the same time he was writing about Richard’s
mid-life crisis, Amis himself plunged into mid-career doubts and longings. He left his American wife, Antonia Philips (and their two young sons, Louis and Jacob) and took up with another American, the beautiful New York heiress Isabel Fonseca. This was all too tempting for Britain’s gutter press and its insatiable photographers. “There were guys in a van outside my flat, guys in a van outside my wife’s house, guys in a van outside my girlfriend’s house,” he seethes. But that publicity was nothing compared to the storm that broke when his negotiations over how much money he would get for The Information were leaked to the public. The press quickly accused him of greed for demanding an unheard-of $1.1-million advance from his British publishers. The whole affair was inflamed by novelist A. S. Byatt, who
publicly chastised Amis for seeking an advance larger than he could ever hope (she claimed) to pay back. “I always earn out my advances,” she proclaimed, “and I don’t see why I should subsidize his greed simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone.”
Amis’s literary friends, including novelist Salman Rushdie, quickly rebuffed Byatt (who later apologized) for breaking solidarity with her fellow writer. And they argued that the expensive dental work Amis was having done in New York City was a medical necessity (involving the painful process of having pieces of cow-bone compound grafted into his jaw). The money controversy also cost Amis two of his most important friendships. He alienated his agent, Pat Kavanagh, replacing her with the American agent Andrew Wylie (nicknamed the Jackal by the British press for his skill at driving hard bargains). Ka-
vanagh’s husband, Julian Barnes, broke with Amis, his old friend and frequent tennis and snooker partner, soon afterwards— lending strength to a rumor that Amis had based the character of Gwyn on him. Amis regards that notion as beneath contempt: “The idea that you would spend five years in your study pissing on your friend seems to me frivolous,” he says.
Amis insists that both Richard and Gwyn are based on himself, and certainly similar pairings of characters have cropped up in earlier novels, including London Fields. Gwyn reflects Amis’s smooth social per-
sona, while Richard embodies the jealous insecurity the writer traces back to his own childhood. He recalls an early incident when his father discovered him “sobbing my heart out, so wrenchingly he thought something terrible must have happened.” It turned out that Amis’s older brother, Philip, had been given a biscuit—while Amis had received nothing.
That incident points to Amis’s famous competitive streak, evident in his ferocious dedication to winning at tennis and snooker. The same impulse came into play during the deal-making over The Information. Amis believes that he acted honorably throughout, and traces all problems back to the loss of confidentiality about the amount of money he was seeking. As soon as the figure under discussion was leaked to the press, Amis says, “it did become a sort of horrible competition. I thought ‘Now I’ve got to get it.’ ”
With Wylie’s help, Amis got close to his original asking price from British publisher HarperCollins, although the figure now includes a promised future volume of short stories. Meanwhile, the writer’s life, with the worst of the publicity behind, seems to have returned to a more even keel. Relations with Philips are more amiable, the teeth are looking good. He has just bought a new house near London’s Regent’s Park, down the street from his father’s, and is looking forward to spending more regular periods with his boys. Amis undoubtedly has concerns on their account, since he himself is the child of divorce: when he was 12, Kingsley Amis left Martin’s mother, Hilary, for another woman. “As I remember it,” says Amis, “this is the moment when the child realizes that life isn’t going to be how he wanted it.” Of his own sons’ chances in a split family, he says brusquely, “They’re fine.”
Amis’s evident unease when talking about his family points to a side of the writer that he rarely shows in public, but that informs some of the finest passages in The Information. Reviewers have concentrated on the novel’s wicked comedy, but it is also a book about the tortures of love. Richard, for all his failures, is dedicated to his wife and sons. And that caring builds to a moving epiphany in the novel’s final pages.
Undoubtedly, Amis will be haunted by the irony that, while writing about Richard’s devotion to his family, he was busy leaving his own. “My career is the usual mess of a writer’s life,” the author admits. As for the controversy about his earnings, he takes solace in the notion that it will be posterity— and not moralizing journalists or the size of his advances—that will ultimately determine his worth as a writer. ‘The only thing that matters is what happens after you’re dead,” he insists, “and by definition you’re not going to be around for that. So you’re never going to find out how good you are.” But there is a gleam in Martin Amis’s eye: clearly something in him thinks it already knows.
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