The State of England
‘What is the state of England?’ an audience member asks Martin Amis directly. ‘Yes,’ he replies dryly, ‘I’m beginning to regret the subtitles. My twelve-year-old daughter has asked me to cut them out. She said, what’s with the subtitles for crying out loud?’ We laugh as the novelist goes on to explain that his latest subtitle, accompanying Lionel Asbo, is ‘not a serious assessment of where England is going.’ But he does go on to talk a lot about how ‘England leads the world in decline.’
Within a minute of his interview with Gaby Wood beginning, Amis is quoting Mailer and Nabokov, and on this subject it is J.G. Ballard that he turns to. Ballard said that when he arrived in London after the war, ‘it looked as though England had lost.’ With the caveat that his mind’s meanderings are ‘a form of amateur social history’, Amis outlines what he sees as the country’s admirable coping with decline. ‘You can’t feel British without feeling disappointed,’ he says – in its original sense of being removed from office. ‘The PC politics of the post-war Left has engendered a sense that empires are bad and we should all feel ashamed of ever having had one.’
It is a surprisingly gentle treatment of his country perhaps from a man who we might expect to be more abrasively belligerent. ‘We can’t pretend that something hasn’t gone terribly wrong in English culture in the last fifty or sixty years,’ says Amis at another juncture. That’s more like it! This is closer to the portrayal he gives of England through the embodiment of his latest grotesque: Lionel Asbo.
Heir to those other Amis anti-heroes, John Self, Keith Talent and Clint Smoker, Asbo is a ‘subsistence criminal’ whose in-and-out-of-prison life changes when he wins a huge sum on the National Lottery. Amis’ anecdotes about Lionel almost have us believing he is a real person, despite that as Amis says, ‘the names of a novelist’s characters are a good index to their level of social realism.’ Self, Talent, Smoker and Asbo are hardly realistic, but they are compelling. As Amis says of Dickens’ ‘frumps and cheats… you find yourself flicking forward to see when the brutes are coming back.’
Born of an agony aunt column in The Sun, ‘or it could have been the Daily Sport’, Lionel Asbo is the middle generation of a family where successive generations have given birth at twelve, culminating in a relationship between a boy and his gran (his gran being ‘only’ 24 years his senior). ‘It’s a mysterious business, where novels come from,’ says Amis, repeatedly referring to Norman Mailer’s book on the subject, The Spooky Art. ‘At bottom, writing is a joyful and erotic business. It comes mostly from the positive side of you.’ Although famed for his satire, Amis does not see himself as in the school of Swift or even Dickens. ‘I don’t expect tangible results,’ he says – in the sense of social consequences – ‘what you hope to do is instil in your readers a heightened sensitivity.
Amis’ own senses have been heightened since the death of his great friend of forty years – and a friend of Hay Festival – Christopher Hitchens. ‘His love of life was stronger than mine,’ Amis admits. ‘When a very loved friend dies, it feels like your responsibility to love life as much as they did. It’s your duty to take pleasure in what you see walking down the street.’
His next book will be another novel that is serious in its examination of life, and loving it. ‘I’m afraid it’s another Holocaust novel,’ says Amis (one of his best being Time’s Arrow), ‘not that it’s a sick fascination.’ Here he quotes W.G. Sebald on the events in Poland of 1941-5: ‘No serious person ever thinks about anything else’. He adds: ‘a lot of good people are fixed on that, for good reason.’ The Holocaust was an exceptional phenomenon, he argues, and however much he reads and researches and writes about it, Amis gets no closer to understanding it. But Primo Levi wrote that ‘it’s your sacred duty not to understand it.’ ‘I sighed with relief when I read that,’ says Amis.
The Jewish connection is important in Amis’ history of the novel too; he reiterates his well-known admiration for Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as the Great American Novel. Amis posits the interesting theory that ‘the novel follows power’, citing the dominance of the English novel – ‘and the Russians’ – in the nineteenth century and the preponderance of Americans (particularly Jewish-Americans: Philip Roth, he says, is ‘last of the Mohicans’) in the twentieth century. By 2040, he predicts, ‘we shall have to start getting used to the Chinese novel.’
All of which brings us back to the state – the decline – of England. Faced with the prospect of the English novel being marginalised as the UK becomes what Amis calls a ‘third-tier’ nation, he nevertheless claims that ‘the depth of English culture is astounding’. In the country of Shakespeare and Milton, despite the Lionel Asbos of the world, as Amis says to an audience appreciative of the typically British sentiment, ‘We’ll muddle through’.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis