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Tenderness and sorrow: Inside Story, by Martin Amis, reviewed

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

Inside Story Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, pp.522, 20

Inside Story is called, on the front cover, which boasts a very charming photograph of the author and Christopher Hitchens, a novel. It also has a good and comprehensive (14-page) index. I’ve been a book reviewer for 35 years and I’ve lost count of the number of times I have wished, professionally, for larger novels to have an index; but I’m not sure I can remember seeing one before. A non-facetious one, that is. This index is very much non-facetious.

Novel or not, then? I’ll try to get rid of this question as quickly as possible, but it has to be addressed (as I write these words, I have a feeling most of this review will be taken up with this, one way or another). There are characters called Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens; there is Hitchens’s wife, Carol Blue; there is Amis’s wife, Isabel Fonseca (here called by her second name, Elena). There’s even a photograph of her. I know it’s her: she cooked me dinner once. But Amis often describes himself in the third person — ‘the loincloth’, he calls it at one point, as if he feels exposed unto nakedness by using the word ‘I’. (He is always ‘I’ in the footnotes, though, which are here in glorious abundance; perhaps he feels that the blocks of prose above them offer cover.)

On a first reading, I didn’t let this bother me too much, although it can get mildly confusing at times. I was just in a rush to finish the book, and not just because of time pressure: it was because I was enjoying it so much. Amis’s prose, as you should know by now, has a rush and a power that sweeps you along like surf: you’re never going to get a sentence that isn’t pulling its weight. On a rereading, though, I found myself asking: why’s he doing this? Isn’t this undermining the veracity of his account? And why here, and not there? Is this true? Did this happen?

Well, anyone who read Experience, his 2000 memoir, will be familiar with quite a bit of Inside Story. His father’s infidelities and fear of travel and solitude; his friendship with Saul Bellow; and his friendship with Hitchens. Experience corroborates quite a lot of Inside Story. And if you liked Experience, then you’ll love Inside Story. It has similar rhythms, equally good jokes, equal if not greater poignancies (the scene at Hitchens’s deathbed affected me more than anything else I can remember reading); and, of course, great footnotes.

One character it has that Experience did not is Phoebe Phelps, whom he picks up outside a telephone box in 1976, and with whom he has a five-year affair, much of which, we learn with increasing pity, is spent not having sex with her, at her command. He is warned of this on their first date, which takes place a couple of hours after the phone-box meeting. Invited round to her flat before dinner, he is taken off to the bedroom — for three hours. After smugly escorting her back, post-dinner, expecting more sex, he is left at the front door. ‘Ah, you’re looking all brave … not what you had in mind. What you had in mind isn’t hard to guess.’ But Martin persists in going out with her, despite huge stretches of agonisingly asexual but proximate company… Why, it’s almost as if he’s in a Martin Amis novel.

Phelps is a remarkable character, and he last sees her in 2017, much transformed; Amis tauntingly says ‘now imagine for a moment that Phoebe was herself imaginary…’. But there’s a photograph of her here too, looking exactly as he describes her. And then he recounts an episode between her and his father which I cannot imagine being a fabrication. (For what it’s worth, I think a little bit of Phoebe made her way into John Self’s girlfriend, Selina, in Money.)

But the heart of this book is in his relationship with Christopher Hitchens, and you can tell how much love there was between them. (Their dust-up in 2002 about Amis’s book on Stalin is kept out of here, as is Amis’s right.) Their dialogue, to use a reviewer’s miserable cliché, sparkles; it has the feel of truth, too, and one of the reasons Amis calls this a novel is that it frees him from recalling their chats — or indeed his chats with anyone else — verbatim. It gives him room.

And there is much love here for other people too: his children, his wife, Saul Bellow (whose dementia he describes with great tenderness and sorrow). He gives other people than himself some of the best lines; there’s a zinger from Isabel/Elena on p. 179 which explains everything you need to know about Martin Amis. Novel, shmovel. It works.

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