The literary lineage of Martin Amis, who died last May, derives first of all from his father Kingsley and his great friend Philip Larkin. From them he inherited the satirical humour and cynical realism rooted in the English novel. But his literary style is also influenced by two modern masters, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow.
The families of both Nabokov and Bellow came from St. Petersburg, though from opposite ends of the social scale: Nabokov from the Russian upper class, Bellow from the Jewish working class. Both writers emigrated to America: Nabokov via Berlin and Paris to New York, Bellow via Montreal and Quebec to Chicago. English was their third language: Nabokov first spoke Russian and French, Bellow spoke Yiddish and French. The two most intelligent and impressive postwar American novelists had a dazzlingly allusive high style; they drew Amis to America and made him an international writer. Bellow even became his spiritual father.
Amis was born in 1949, between the births of Bellow’s son Greg in 1944 and Adam in 1957. Greg became a psychotherapist; Adam an editor; Daniel, his third son, a potter. Amis, a brilliant and talented disciple, was the ideal surrogate son. He was unencumbered, and with him there was no rivalry between brothers for their father’s affection, no bitter battles between Bellow and their three divorced mothers. Like Ernest Jones with Freud, Amis was a gentile admirer who balanced Bellow’s cadre of Jewish camp-followers. He felt that Bellow seemed to be “writing just for me” and had already created the high-quality novels that he himself wanted to write.
An influential critic with high standards, Amis praised Bellow in important journals in England and America. Like Bellow, he was the leading novelist of his generation, as well as a glamorous figure whose face on his dust jackets helped sell his books. As Bellow began to decline in old age, Amis loyally defended him against hostile reviewers and gave him emotional as well as critical support. Amis was honoured by his friendship with the Nobel Prize-winner; Bellow was delighted to have such a devotee and publicist. As Bellow settled into his fifth—and first happy—marriage, his sincere and mutually beneficial friendship with Amis gradually evolved into paternal love.
Amis knew Bellow for the last two decades of the American’s long life: from 1986 until his death in 2005. From the start Bellow found Amis a congenial companion. They first met when Amis interviewed him for the London Observer in October 1983; Bellow was 68 and Amis, half his age, was 34. Amis interviewed him on British television in March 1986 when Bellow was in London to lecture at a PEN conference. Bellow seemed both jet-lagged and aged, and his rambling speech was disappointing. (I spoke to him after his talk and he suggested a daytime meeting, but the crowded book tour for my life of Hemingway left no time to talk to the man I most wanted to see.)
Both authors appeared at the Haifa conference on Bellow in April 1987, which was dominated by “structuralists, semiologists and neo-Marxists”. Some academic gave a mind-numbing paper on “The Caged Cash Register: Tensions between Existentialism and Materialism in Dangling Man”. Bellow, agonised by this tribute, told Amis, “If I have to listen to another word of this I think I’m going to die.” Amis often visited Bellow’s summer home in Vermont, and became with Philip Roth the twin pillar of his old age. Bellow and Amis co-taught a seminar on Conrad’s novella “The Shadow-Line” at Boston University in 2004, but the once loquacious Bellow, overwhelmed by Alzheimer’s, was now silent. When Bellow died in April 2005, Amis flew from Paraguay to Buenos Aires, then eleven more hours to New York, and got to Boston just in time for the funeral. He then sat shiva with the mourning family.
The authors corresponded from 1987 until 2000. Bellow, an ideal reader whose opinion Amis most valued, responded to Amis’ work with fine discrimination and personal feeling. Bellow’s first fulsome letter of October 1987 ended with a charming simile: “I already mentioned to two London interviewers that in the younger generation on either side of the Atlantic you stand out like the evening star.” In July 1994 he wrote that Amis’ story “Author, Author” in Granta is “the sort of comic x-ray that . . . fills the connoisseur’s heart with pure pleasure.” In August 1996 he repeated that the style of The Information “page by page gives me pleasure. Your books always do. The words bowl me over.”
Amis liked The Adventures of Augie March (1953) much better than Bellow did. In his long introduction to the Everyman edition, Amis emphasized Bellow’s “marvel of remorseless spontaneity” and liberating “farewell to exactitude and to other constraints”, symbolised by Augie’s wild eagle, his “animation by love as well as pity and protest”. He mentioned that Bellow had teachers and “reality instructors,” but didn’t name his decades of futile psychoanalysis, his weird surrender to the absurdities of Rudolf Steiner, and his dubious friendships with the Romanian ex-Iron Guard Mircea Eliade and the pretentious poseur Allan Bloom. Amis called Bellow’s book the long-sought and elusive “Great American Novel because of its fantastic inclusiveness, its pluralism, its qualmless promiscuity”— his guiltless sex. In September 1995 Bellow responded to Amis by calling his judgment “gratifying and far too generous. I can’t read a page of the book without flinching” at its exuberance and excess. Asked in 2004 what Augie March was “about”, he wittily replied, “It’s about two hundred pages too long.”
In a revealing lament to Amis, Bellow expressed regret about his portrayal of Allan Bloom in Ravelstein (2000). He also confessed his own confusion and weakness: “the mixture of fact and fiction has gotten out of hand. . . . I discovered very early that Allan had enemies who were preparing to reveal that he had died of AIDS. At this point I lost my head; when the New York Times telephoned to have it out with me I fell apart—I was unable to outsmart the journalists. So here I am, the author of a tribute which has been transformed into one of those civilized disasters no one can be prepared for. . . . I was not prepared to [become an outcast and] hear the leper’s bell ring at the crossroads.”
In April 2000, referring to the long and distracting footnotes in Amis’ novel Experience, Bellow focused on the character of his father Kingsley (1922-95) and wondered how his own children would later perceive him: “I was taken by your asterisk-asides. Altogether, you have come up with a way of writing entirely your own. The unit is no longer a sentence but a characteristic utterance. . . . I am trying to account for the strong impression your father made on me, his drinking, his womanising. And his preoccupation with English usage, his absorption, his loyalty—amounting to fanaticism—to the right way with words. I found the man very moving and of course I couldn’t help wondering how I would appear to my own sons in my last days.”
Amis, Bellow’s most perceptive critic, wrote eight essays about him in four different books and devoted 55 pages to him in his fictionalised autobiography Inside Story. Despite his impressive achievements, Bellow had plenty of envious critics; Amis emphasises his merits with full-throated ease. The vitriolic phrase “the moronic inferno,” Wyndham Lewis’ indictment of contemporary culture in his autobiography Rude Assignment (1950, p.169), was quoted by Bellow in The Dean’s December (1982) and became the title of Amis’ book about America of 1986, with chapters about Bellow. Lewis’ phrase defined the violent and hellish world created by brutes, which sensitive and intelligent people are forced to live in. The title of The Dean’s December suggests both the end of Albert Corde’s academic career and the end of his life. Amis notes that “Corde has ‘the restless ecstasy’ common to Bellow’s heroes—a global version of Henderson’s I want, I want, I want. He suffers from ‘vividness fits’, ‘storms of convulsive clear consciousness’, ‘objectivity intoxicated’.” Corde travels to Ceausescu’s Bucharest with his Romanian wife (based on Bellow’s fourth) to say farewell to her dying mother. While there he compares the “peeling stucco, bad food and bad light” of the penitential capital, in which “human beings were faced by the organised prevention of everything that came natural”, to the “super-licensed rat-jungle of Chicago”. Amis concludes, “Far more sombre and less exuberant than its major predecessors, it has every appearance of being an ‘engaged’ novel, a mature novel, a statement, a warning. . . . The fluid musicality of Bellow’s epics has disciplined itself in the interests of literary form. This, it seems to me, is what Late Bellow is going to be like.”
Amis also discusses Bellow’s stories in Him With His Foot in His Mouth (1984), and places them in “the new phase Late Bellow. It has to do with last things, leave-taking and final lucidities.” Bellow now makes “the real world realer (sharper, harsher)”. There are “two changes of emphasis. First, a more formal artistry, with sharper focus, a keener sense of pattern and balance. And secondly a countervailing ferocity in his apprehension of the peculiar disorders and distortions of the modern era.”
In Amis’ interview “Saul Bellow in Chicago” (Observer, December 11,1983), an English outsider places the writer in his context. Before they met, Bellow said he would be identifiable “by certain signs of decay”. His “hair is white and peripheral [balding] but his eyes are still the colour of expensive snuff.” Bellow is “appalled by the ‘micro-inspection’ to which Nobel Prizewinners are subject” and by the mass of deluded scribblers who think he wants to read their manuscripts. More perceptive than ever and prophetic about our own era, Bellow condemns the morally blind self-approval of America: “The US shows a persistent determination to ‘angelise’ herself. No moral ideas; instead, a conviction of her own purity. Pro-good, anti-bad, and right by definition.”
In Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, Amis describes his speech at the Haifa conference. He says Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak (1987) is “a work of inspiration, another great efflorescence. How? Because it changes the way you see everything. It harrows and it enhances.” One of the fictional characters says that “bad as radiation is, he is sure that more die of heartbreak.” But Bellow believes “you need heartbreak, to keep you human. You need it to keep America off your back.” This book has qualities that Amis aspires to, and he enthusiastically announces that “it is as dense, as funny, as thought-crammed, as richly associational and as cruelly contemporary as anything he has written.”
In The War Against Cliché Amis observes that Bellow’s novella The Actual (1997) portrays loss, the dominant theme in modern literature. Amis remarks that Bellow “beautifully registers the weight of what is being lost” and quotes a passage about the tragic “roots of memory in feeling—about the themes that collect and hold the memory. . . what retention of the past really means.” En route, Amis justly condemns two worthless books, “the thoroughly superfluous memoir by Bellow’s former agent Harriet Wasserman. In bed with her client she politely asked, ‘Can I touch this?’” Even worse is the “moral disaster” of the biography by the malignant dwarf James Atlas: “hostile, inaccurate and ill-written, it is a dramatised inferiority complex.”
In The Rub of Time Amis asserts that Bellow’s fiction combines brains and beauty, that its “burning, streaming prose . . . [makes] the rest of us only fitfully sentient; and intellectually too, his sentences simply weigh more than anybody else’s.” Bellow’s awkwardly titled posthumous collection of essays, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About (2015), has “the same strengths as his stories and novels: a dynamic responsiveness to character, place and time.” In an acute and provocative essay Bellow attacks the universities (where he taught) as “anti-free-speech centers” and reprises a theme from The Dean’s December: “the increase of theories and discourse, itself a cause of new strange forms of blindness, the false representations of ‘communication,’ led to horrible distortions of public consciousness.”
In his review of the first volume of Zachary Leader’s Life of Saul Bellow (2015), Amis notes that Leader, a close friend, wrote a much-praised biography of Kingsley. Martin led Leader to Bellow and became an important source. In his loyal but over-the-top praise of Leader’s overlong and rather plodding book, Amis calls it magisterial, stylish, acute and filled with luminous detail. He adds that the Promethean Bellow stole the gods’ artistic fire and that “his creative unconscious was attracted to difficulty”. In fact, Bellow had to suffer through four searing divorces in order to write his major novels.
Amis’ Inside Story (2015) is seriously flawed by comparing Bellow to Amis’ best friend: the parasite, provocateur, plagiarist and political turncoat Christopher Hitchens. When Amis discusses the Jews with Bellow in this book and mentions the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of Bloomsbury — including Virginia Woolf, whose husband was Jewish — Bellow makes light of it and remarks, “It’s a hard life, being a snob. You can’t relax for a moment.” In Haifa Bellow had said that without Israel, which preserves Jewish culture in its purest form, “Jewish manhood would’ve been finished.” Amis thinks this means “Jews would stop feeling the desire to reproduce.” No, Bellow explains, “abject assimilation [would be] the end of the whole story.” It probably means that a devastating defeat by her Arab enemies would repeat the Holocaust and extinguish not only the conception of manhood, but also the state of Israel. Bellow sees the suicide of Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz and wrote about it, as “an act of defiance. A way of saying, My life is mine to take, mine and mine alone.”
Inside Story describes Bellow’s powerful mind descending into the depths of Alzheimer’s disease. He could no longer read, had forgotten how his sentences began, constantly repeats himself and heads for “death, which happens when ‘breathing’ joins all the other activities that the patient forgets to do”. Amis quotes John Bayley’s sharp observation about his wife, Iris Murdoch: “As the condition gets worse, it also gets better; each new impoverishment reduces the awareness of loss.”
Bellow’s most important letter, written on March 13, 1996, a year after Kingsley’s death, gave Martin his biblical blessing and described him as his spiritual son: “I willingly take up the slack as a sort of adoptive father. I do have paternal feelings toward you. It’s not only language that unites us, or ‘style’. We share some more remote but also more important premises,” including commitment to serious literature, fictionalised autobiography and satiric outlook. On August 8 he added, “you did appoint me your spiritual father.” In Inside Story, Amis replied, using Blake’s term for the phantom patriarch: “As long as you’re alive I’ll never feel completely fatherless. And after that, after Saul died, I would have—nobodaddy.”
Amis follows Bellow’s “richly associational” style and loads every rift with ore. He imitates Bellow by enhancing his writing with many silent literary allusions, gives them a comic and ironic twist, and places his Master in the great literary tradition.
Layamon: In More Die of Heartbreak the erratic nemesis (lay-a-man?) and her corrupt father are strangely named after an obscure Middle English poet.
Voltaire, Candide: “to cultivate the little obsessional garden.”
Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life and Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: “Hope triumphed over disappointment, and innocence triumphed over experience.”
Thomas Gray, “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”: “wasting their sweetness on the desert air.”
John Keats, “Endymion”: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”
Keats, Letter of December 1817: “Capability has gone negative.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: “only human, all too human.”
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents: “he is not a discontent: civilization, if he could get any, would suit him fine.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Letter of 1879: “heavily sprung rhythms.”
James Joyce, Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.”
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable: “One must go on. No. One must go further.”
Isaac Babel: Like Babel, Bellow “had glasses on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Babel’s last words before his execution in 1940 were: “Just let me finish my work.” Amis writes that “Bellow looks set to enjoy a Yeatsian old age. Just let him finish.”
Osip Mandelstam, who died in a prison camp in 1938, declared of Russia: “In no country is poetry so highly regarded as here: poets are killed for it.” Amis writes of the novel partly based on the self-destructive poet Delmore Schwartz: “According to Humboldt’s Gift, America is proud of what it does to its writers, the way it breaks and bedevils them, rendering them deluded or drunken or dead by their own hands.”
Jeffrey Meyers will publish both James Salter: Pilot, Screenwriter, Novelist and Parallel Lives: From Freud and Hitler to Arbus and Plath with Louisiana State University Press in 2024.
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