Trading Places: ‘Famous Amis’ Runs Into ‘Hitch-22’
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Given the woeful sales for “serious fiction,” the average literary novelist would probably be delighted to receive the critical thrashing that was recently unleashed upon Martin Amis and his new novel, “The Pregnant Widow” (Knopf, 384 pp.), by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times — if only as proof of an otherwise obscure existence. But neither by birth (he is the son of Kingsley Amis) nor by talent can Mr. Amis possibly be construed as an average novelist.
However, the world in which Mr. Amis lives tilts heavily toward the non-fictional, all the way from Twitterish burps and blogs to the kind of magisterial essays penned in a variety of outlets by, for example, his best friend Christopher Hitchens. In a widely noted coincidence, the latter is about to publish his autobiography, “Hitch-22” (Twelve, 448 pp). Mr. Amis plays a prominent role in it, just as Mr. Hitchens himself is granted a hefty cameo in “The Pregnant Widow.”
So how goes it for the two friends, career-wise at any rate? And how goes it for the realm of fiction (Amis) versus non-fiction (Hitchens)? The brute fact is that in the same way that “literary” fiction has increasingly given way to memoirs, mash-ups, and non-fiction of all kinds, “Famous Amis” (as he was once dubbed) has slowly but surely become less famous than the initially much more anonymous Mr. Hitchens. (In terms of Google hits, the former gets 435,000 hits versus over a million for his friend. Mr. Amis’ sales have also been in a lengthy tail spin, whereas Mr. Hitchens’ last book, “God Is Not Great,” was a best-seller. Though yet to be published, “Hitch-22” is already at #383 on Amazon, on last check, while in its first week of publication, “The Pregnant Widow” languishes at #841. ) Perhaps it is in acknowledgment of this change in fortunes that in “Widow” Mr. Amis casts Mr. Hitchens in the role of older, wiser brother to his semi-autobiographical, callow, mixed-up protagonist, Keith Nearing.
Yet the similarities between the two writers are as striking as the differences. They are the Jagger/Richards of contemporary Lit, clutching to a self-dramatizing rock ‘n’ roll swagger even after turning 60. Both are willing to court controversy, whether the subject is sex, politics, religion, dirty jokes, or political correctness. (True story of a conversation between Mr. Amis and an English neighbor. Neighbor: What’s your son studying at university? Amis: Classics. Neighbor: That’s a bit elitist, isn’t it?) Both enjoy thrusting their Oxford accents and mastery of the English language on a world inclined to be suspicious of both.
The crucial difference is that, as a journalist with palatial residences at Slate, Vanity Fair, and the Atlantic Monthly, among other plush ports of call, Mr. Hitchens can be loathed but never ignored: He’s simply there, week in, week out. As someone who writes books more often than articles, Mr. Amis works to a slower clock, and therefore can be forgotten about for long periods.
Paradoxically, Mr. Hitchens’ fame truly took off when he divorced himself from his Leftist fan base and declared his support for the war in Iraq. To the big-city audiences who attend the political debates at which he is a fixture, he was soon placed in the unfamiliar role of villain – even when up against such dubious figures as the Scottish demagogue George Galloway. Yet his fame, like his girth, has continued to expand. He has become both a maker of news and a subject of the news itself.
Over three decades’ of history (1970-2006), or news, is alluded to throughout “The Pregnant Widow,” which deals primarily with the sexual revolution while making frequent references to the various political changes that are normally the province of Mr. Hitchens. In the introduction to the novel, the now middle-aged Keith Nearing settles down at a café with a British broadsheet. It is 2006. “And here it was,” the author writes, “the news, the latest installment of the thriller and tingler, the great page-turner called the planet Earth. The world is a book we can’t put down….”
This was not quite so much the case when Messrs. Amis and Hitchens started out in the 1970s. Back then, the words “Martin Amis” were on the lips of every modish undergraduate studying English Literature, not that many of them did much studying. The young Amis was cocky, funny, satirical, handsome (“Jagger-ish” was the verdict of Clive James), and blatantly, transparently ambitious.
So was Mr. Hitchens, although far less people had heard of him. He was a Trotskyite who worked for the left-wing New Statesman and whose first book was a sober study of Cyprus. In a conversation between Keith and Nicholas, still at the onset of their careers, the Hitchens-surrogate humorously boasts that, among other talents, he is “perfect for television” because he is “very well informed” and “handsomer than any man has the right to be.”
How true that has turned out to be. While Mr. Amis, who is on television far less often, tends to glance at the camera as if he fears it may be emitting deadly rays, Mr. Hitchens stares down the lens as if it were an inferior intellectual combatant about to be drilled full of holes. But then he is in his element — “the great page-turner called the planet Earth.”
In “Widow,” Nicholas mentions that he is off to Iran (it is 1979), where, he adds helpfully for the apolitical Keith, there has been a theocratic revolution. This week in Slate, over 30 years’ later, Mr. Hitchens’ column is devoted to… guess what? The same story, the same revolution, which may be headed to a literally explosive climax. How is the novelist supposed to compete with that?
The way they always do – by exploiting the fabulous freedom given to those who write novels. Near the end of “Widow,” there is a comic passage in which Nicholas – one can only guess whether it is something Mr. Hitchens once said or pure invention on the author’s part — fulminates on the subject of builders or construction workers. In the London of the 1970s they were notorious for taking endless “tea breaks” and tipping off thieves as to who was and wasn’t home. The subject comes up because Violet, the brothers’ sexually hapless sister, is dating a builder, and the two men are concerned.
“Nicholas maintained that builders weren’t just cheats and botchers and all the rest of it. He said that builders were violent criminals at one remove, or psychopaths manqué. They devoted their lives to the torture of inanimate objects – the banging, the clacking, the whining, the grinding. Keith and Nicholas didn’t need to say that Violet would soon discover this.”
That, to take an example at random, is one of the beauties and pleasures of fiction in an era of schizophrenically restricted and unrestricted speech. You can put such thoughts in a novel, but I’m not sure even Christopher Hitchens would dare devote a column – “The Torture of Inanimate Objects” — to them in Slate, amusing though it might be. Far safer to attack the Pope, or God.
Mr. Bernhard writes on culture for The New York Sun.