Book recommendation and brief review: “Inside Story” by Martin Amis

August 21, 2023 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: The first reader’s comment below tells me what I didn’t know: that Amis himself died in May of this year. I had no idea. But of course it was esophageal cancer, a common result of excess drinking and smoking.

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Before I went on my Galápagos trip, a friend sent me this book, knowing of my love of Christopher Hitchens. It turned out to be an excellent read, and one that I want to recommend to readers.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Although the book is called a “novel,” I doubt there’s much in it that’s fiction. Perhaps a name or two have been changed, but everything else rings true, and corresponds to what I know.

I’ve never read anything by Martin Amis before (now “Sir Martin,” he’s the son of the famous writer Kingsley Amis), but I do have an autographed novel of his given to me by another friend. It’s also well known that he was the best mate of Christopher Hitchens. They were born within a few months of each other in 1949, also my own birth year. Hitch, of course, died at the ungodly early age of 62; booze and smokes had taken their toll.

The book is about many things: the nature of prose and poetry, advice on how to write, a memoir (heavy on sex and girlfriends) and, above all, a recounting of the life and death of three of Amis’s literary friends: Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and, of course, Christopher Hitchens. It thus has an episodic structure: after you read a chapter on, say Phoebe Phelps (a pseudonym for one of Amis’s greatest loves, and a striking character), you immediately transition to a chapter on what words and phrases you shouldn’t use while writing, even as a layperson.  This structure is not jarring, for it’s a summing up of what Amis sees was important in his life (he avers that, given his age, this will likely be his last novel).

Above all, the book is about death, and the waning of literary power as one grows older. We see Larkin dying of throat cancer, his esophagus removed, Bellow slowly losing it in a battle with Alzheimer’s that he cannot win, and Hitchens, who also died of throat cancer after repeated bouts of radiation, chemotherapy, and proton therapy.  The dying/death scenarios are long, occupying multiple chapters, and are somewhat depressing, but that’s the theme of the book. (Well, the real theme is what writers can leave behind when they die.)

There’s a final chapter on the death of each of the three principals, called “The Poet” (Larkin), “The Novelist” (Saul Bellow) and “The Essayist” (Hitchens). Readers will be most interested in Hitch, whose medical travails are described in gruesome detail.  But you have to hand it to the man—he never kvetched or complained about dying, even though he knew (especially near the end) that he was on the way out.  Amis and six others kept watch for eight hours over Hitchens in the hospital as, comatose with pneumonia, his blood pressure dropped and then his heart stopped.

This is the most complete description of Hitchens’s death, and it also gives his two last whispered words, which you won’t find anywhere else. They were these: “Capitalism. . . . downfall.”

The sad atmosphere of the book is leavened by Amis’s conclusion (there are two postludes after it), which is that great writers are great because they are infused with the love of life—the ability to see in everyday things the wonder that most of us miss. That may sound trite, but Amis tells it with panache. Some final excerpts:

Writers take nothing for granted. See the world with ‘your original eyes”, “your first heart”, but don’t play the child, don’t play the innocent—don’t examine an orange like a caveman toying with an iPhone. You know more than that, you know better than that. The world you see out there is ulterior: it is other than what is obvious or admitted.

He then goes on to show how Nabokov (another writer much discussed by Amis), Bellow, Larkin, and Hitchens saw the world like this because they were in love with life, which makes their deaths even sadder. One more excerpt:

Saul Bellow was a phenomenon of love; he loved the world in such a way that his readers reciprocated and loved him in return. The same goes for Philip Larkin, but more lopsidedly; the world loved him and he loved the world in his way (he certainly didn’t want to leave it), but so far as I can tell he didn’t love a single one of its inhabitants (except, conceivably, my wholly unfrightening mother: “without being in the least pretty” she was, he wrote in his last letter “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen”). Anyway, the love transaction has always operated, to various degrees, with each and every repeatedly published novelist and poet. With essayists, the love transaction was more or less unknown until Christopher Hitchens came along—until he came along, and then went away again.

This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love. All evocations of people, places, animals, objects, feelings, concepts, landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes: all such evocations are in spirit amorous and celebratory. Love gets put into the writing, and love gets taken out. . . .

Take that for what you will, as it may reflect Amis’s own amatory propensities.  There’s no doubt, though, that Hitch had a great gusto for life. But what’s certain is that writers, like painters, see the world in ways that we peons don’t, and so, when they’re apparently doing nothing—just thinking or observing—they’re actually doing the hard work that gets transformed into art.

Others, like the Guardian reviewer above, may not like the book, but it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, gets many stars on Amazon, and got starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist.  So I’m not alone in recommending it.

By the way, Hitchens should have won a Pulitzer Prize for his essays, but he never did.

Here’s a picture of Amis and Hitch (note “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative” and the cigarettes) from a tepid review of the book in The Guardian.

(Caption from The Guardian). Remembered table talk, in particular with Hitchens, is routinely granted Socratic weight’: Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens in Cape Cod, 1975. Photograph: Christopher Hitchens

UPDATE: I just found this review in the NYT, which is mixed but largely positive. A long excerpt:

Don’t be baffling, don’t be indigestible, he warns the young writer. Exercise moderation when writing about dreams, sex and religion. Be a good host to your readers.

It’s sound advice. Why doesn’t he take it?

“Inside Story” is rife with dreams, sex fantasies and maundering meditations on Jewishness, a longstanding obsession. The book feels built to baffle. It is an orgy of inconsistencies and inexplicable technical choices. Why are some characters referred to by their real names (Amis’s friends, for example) and others given pseudonyms (his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, is referred to by her middle name, Elena)? What is the logic behind the sudden shifts into the “loincloth” of the third person? Why does a writer who, on one page, excoriates Joseph Conrad for cliché, for the sin of “in the twinkling of an eye,” so blandly deploy “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” — and worse? What … is … the point … of the … insane … amount … of ellipses?

[The ellipses are explained by Amis as mimicking the pauses in most people’s conversations, and this book, if anything, is a conversation between Amis and the reader, beginning with an invitation to come inside, sit down, and have a drink. I quite like the conversational style. This is NOT your conventional novel!]

The review continues, and this part should make you want to read the book:

Most maddening of all, “Inside Story” also includes some of Amis’s best writing to date.

The sections on Bellow and Larkin, about whom he’s written exhaustively, are warm and familiar. There are scenes of the disorientation of their last days, of Bellow compulsively watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He’s a very brave boy, he’d say of Jack Sparrow, with genuine emotion.

It’s on Hitchens that Amis moves into a fresh register. A writer so praised for his style (but also derided for being all style), Amis accesses a depth of feeling and a plainness of language entirely new to his work. He marvels at his friend’s ability to face death with courage. He puzzles over what he still doesn’t understand — chiefly Hitchens’s support of the Iraq War, which he claims Hitchens deeply regretted.

In one scene, Amis assists Hitchens as he takes a swim. “Do you mind?” Hitchens asked, now ailing. Swimming alongside him, Amis was seized by the memory of helping his son learn to walk in proper shoes. “No,” he responded. “I love it.”

Nothing in Amis prepared me for such scenes, for their quiet, their simplicity. Martin Amis, like Phoebe Phelps, has retained the power to surprise. An unexpected boon of aging? He’ll never admit it. But we might say of him, as he says of Phoebe: “She’s like a character in a novel where you want to skip ahead and see how they turned out. Anyway. I can’t give up now.”

24 thoughts on “Book recommendation and brief review: “Inside Story” by Martin Amis

  1. I’m reading this right now and I concur that it’s a good book. Possibly this is because it’s more like a memoir, or his journalism – I can’t say that I’ve ever had much time for Amis’s fiction, but I enjoyed his memoir and have liked what I’ve read of his journalism.
    Also, we get some insights into the personality and work of Philip Larkin, whom I’ve always found to be enigmatic – apparently a misanthropic ingrown toenail of a man, but he wrote such deceptively simple, beautiful poems. His Collected Poems is in my bedside bookcase.
    Also an additional anecdote or two about Amis’s appalling father, who illustrates how being a bad character is no bar to being a good writer. I guess that that isn’t news, though.

  2. I tried to read “Inside Story” when it came out, but couldn’t get on with it. You’ve convinced me to have another go at it. I did very much enjoy his earlier memoir “Experience”, about his relationship with his father Kingsley amongst many other things.

    1. Do give it another try. I, too, had difficulty with it at first and almost put it down. Particularly if you are a Hitchens fan you’ll ultimately be pulled in. Great book!

  3. A famous Irish lyric about the amber restorative:

    Come guess me this riddle, what beats pipes and fiddle
    What’s hotter than mustard and milder than cream
    What best wets your whistle, what’s clearer than crystal
    What’s sweeter than honey and stronger than steam

    What’ll make the lame walk, what will make the dumb talk,
    The elixir of life and philospher’s stone
    And what helped Mr. Brunnell to build the Thames Tunnel
    Wasn’t it poteen from ould Inisowen

    So stick to the cratur’ the best thing in nature
    For sinking your sorrows and raising your joys
    Oh lord, it’s no wonder, if lightning and thunder
    Weren’t made from the plunder of poteen me boys.

  4. … (he [Amis] avers that, given his age, this will likely be his last novel).

    Amis was ready to quit relatively early, publishing his final book at age 71. Saul Bellow published his last novel, Ravelstein — a roman à clef about Alan Bloom, Bellow’s fellow instructor at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought — at age 85.

  5. Jerry, thank you for the recommendation and excellent review. I love Larkin and Hitchens so I have ordered the book and look forward to reading it. All the best.

  6. By the way, Hitchens should have won a Pulitzer Prize for his essays, but he never did.

    I don’t recall the Pulitzer for General Nonfiction ever being awarded for a book of essays, only for extended works on a single topic.

      1. Oh, as I’ve said here in a number of comments over the years, I consider Hitchens the finest Anglophone essayist of his era. But he was, by training, primarily a literary critic and his writing tended to meld so many genres — politics, current events, personal profiles, philosophy, and history to name but a few, and some of his opinions were so controversial — that his writing didn’t fit neatly into the categories (viz., investigative or international reporting, commentary or feature writing) for which Pulitzer journalism awards are granted. Plus, I think Hitch would be relieved not to have his name associated with many of the hacks who have won Pulitzer journalism awards.

  7. Over recent years I’ve tried to re-read the books of Amis pere et fils that I have on my shelf. One thing they have in common is how much they are of their time. I’m afraid that as a result I find many of the novels of both of them difficult to get into now.

    Having said that, I think I should make an effort to read ‘Inside Story’. In about 2000, Martin Amis wrote a memoir, ‘Experience’, which not every reviewer liked, but which had a moving account of his relationship with his father Kingsley, and of the latter’s death, as well as his memories of his cousin Lucy, who was one of the victims of the mass-murderers Fred and Rose West. A very personal and interesting book.

    If I may be allowed a personal note, my younger sister was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer on the same day as the Hitch. She was opinionated, cynical and forthright; and she died a week before he did. Whenever I think of one, I always think of the other.

  8. As the photo is from 1975, I have the subjective perception that Hitch was “getting away from it all,” what with his horrendous year of 1974 dealing with his mother’s death in Greece.

  9. I came to Martin Amis in 1976, when someone described to me the ‘scene of the sore elbows’ from The Rachel Papers. Of course, I read it immediately, then Dead Babies and Success. A student grant must be spent on something. Juvenile works, showing off to Daddy in all probability. But enjoyable all the same. His later, self-consciously serious books didn’t excite me, but I did appreciate the effort he put into style. As for Kingsley, his works were definitely of an era as suggested above. Apparently hilarious at the time of publication, they struck me as very tame, as I collected them. Remember the uproar at the publication of the ‘misogynist’ Stanley and the Women? Even that seems tame now.

    1. I mostly agree. But if you haven’t read it already, try ‘Ending Up’ (1974). Heartlessly funny.

    2. I recently re-read Kingsley’s “Lucky Jim” and was a little surprised to find how much I still enjoyed it. I also like “The Old Devils”, but don’t care at all for “Stanley and the Women”. I gather from Martin’s “Experience” that it was written in a state of great bitterness after his break-up with his second wife, and the bitterness shows, and wrecks the book for me. My favourites of all Kingsley’s writings are the non-fiction “Memoirs” and “The King’s English”. The former contains brief portraits of a number of people he had known. Some of the subjects objected to their portrayal, and it seems that it is not always factually accurate, but I found it very genial and enjoyable. “The King’s English” is an idiosyncratic, but always stimulating and enjoyable, guide to the use of the English language, similar in spirit to Fowler’s 1926 classic “Modern English Usage”.

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