“Writing about writers is a more ambivalent matter than the end result usually allows one to guess.” The phrase is by Martin Amis (Swansea, United Kingdom, 72 years old), and it was one of those he included in a journalistic text about his first meeting with the Nobel laureate Saul Bellow in Chicago in 1982. Almost 40 years later the British writer rescues that observation in From within (Anagrama), his unorthodox last novel, in which the author of Experience uses his life as fictional material with carelessness and without respects.
Throughout 600 pages he alternates his fine eye as a literary critic and an exquisite reader with notes on what the profession of writing consists of, and mixes it with the homage to friends who helped him to forge himself as a novelist (Bellow, among others), his years of revelry with Christopher Hitchens in the New Statesman, and the long friendship that united them when they rampaged through London and the late journalist linked, among others, with Anna Wintour. It also includes a plot thread in which he inserts into his biography a fictional lover, Phoebe Phelps, and the false paternity of Philip Larkin, of whom Amis was supposedly the son, and not of Kingsley, his true father. The veteran voice of Amis guides the reader with kindness and dexterity through these twists and turns. And he responds cordially from New York to a telephone interview.
Question. There has been a lot of talk about autofiction. Did you want to take it a step further by taking your biography as material and inventing characters in this narrative of your life?
Answer. To start writing, the project has to amuse you, and that is why this book is a novel and not a memoir. You have much more freedom with fiction. The main female character, Phoebe Phelps, is totally made up, and it's what makes the book possible because if she were real she would have greatly constrained the story.
P. Write that the unreliable narrator has been replaced by the unreliable reader.
R. The reader has always been unreliable or at least unpredictable. But as time goes by, the reader is less and less willing to go through things that would have been inevitable a few decades ago. Readers are more individualistic and everyone has their own story to tell. They do not behave as obediently as before, this time is more demanding, more solipsistic.
P. Pick up that old postulate that explains the difference between a story and a plot: “the king is dead” is history; “The king is dead, and the queen too, of grief” is a plot. In From within how would this be applied?
R. Few lives have a plot, that's something artificial. It is one of those necessary inventions that connects with the idea of the mobile. Motives in life aren't really that big of a deal, whereas in fiction we are always concerned about this. In real life no one has such a clearly defined motive, you have urges and urges. Similarly there is no plot. In this book I made up an argument about the fatherhood of Philip Larkin. It is something totally invented, although in real life there was the seed for that to have been produced by the flirtation between my mother and him. In fact, after the publication of the book I have received more information. But that was not a concern in my life, it was something I made up as an argument.
P. Was it weird to invent a story with them and not with entirely fictional characters?
R. Everything merges on the page you are writing and on the following pages. In most of the novels you are looking for your way, you are in the sea and there are a series of islets and you arrive at a beach and you feel safer.
P. You claim that the time for experimental fiction has passed, but isn't that what you're trying to do with this book?
R. I would not say experimental but rather that I have tried to do something original. Salman Rushdie said it is a peculiar book, and I agree. Idiosyncratic more than anything.
P. Did it weigh more in the form than in the story?
R. I wanted to control the story and at the same time be inside it. I was not trying to prove anything, but to place myself on unusual ground. It is a way of saying: “this is the mind of a writer.”
P. It tells of a trip to Israel with Saul Bellow and how he said there that writers cannot read their own books, at least for the first two or three years. Have you returned to your work when writing this novel?
R. For a writer as soon as he finishes a book, everything is very volatile, and when it goes to press it begins to settle, although it has not yet settled. Sometimes you are pleasantly surprised, but more often than not, you are scared or gloating, but never sitting in an armchair absorbed in a fictional story. Releerte is more of a psychiatric appointment.
P. Write about a literary world that is seen differently today. The so-called era of the white men's novels is being questioned. He does not go into it in this book and announces from the beginning his incapacity for anger.
R. It's not that I control my anger, it's that I really don't feel it. Anger is a sin. I've always thought about it and it might sound like I don't have blood in my veins and it's something British, but I think it's related to temperament. Either you have fits of rage or you don't. And I don't have them and have always believed that it was a useless and inefficient way of communicating. A predisposition to anger raises all kinds of annoyances that could rest if they were not activated by that anger that, in the end, is self-destructive and empty.
P. Philip Roth chose his biographer and reread his work with him, gave him access to his correspondence, etc. What does he think about that?
R. Roth was focused on directing a posterity in a certain way so that his writing would be seen the way he wanted. I don't know what I think of that exactly, but I do know that I would never have the energy to do something like that. I can't imagine scheming and getting ahead of myself, maneuvering. When something is written I think that either it will speak for itself or it will not.
P. In From within parody and does it lead to the culmination of the idea that biographies are fictions?
R. Biographies, with some exceptions, are a medium or medium-low intellectual task. That genre is inevitably full of vulgarity and banality. A biography is the story of a success, because it would not be written by an irrelevant or untalented figure. What happens is that the biographer begins to feel relegated after spending a year or two focused on that person and, as a reader, you begin to hear that little voice in the books that says: “What's wrong with me? Am I not interesting? Then the biographer begins to turn against the subject of the book. They are resentful of all that attention that they are depositing themselves.
P. 10 years have passed since the death of Christopher Hitchens. Is it weird that this friendship is a memory?
R. One of the great rewards of being a writer and having friends who are also friends is that when they are not around or are no longer alive you can still approach a simulation of what it was like to be with them simply by reading to them. I do this all the time with my father, who together with Christopher are the people I miss to talk, catch up, joke, all those nice continuities that enhance a friendship. You just open their books and they're back.