Martin Amis - House of Meetings
As Martin Amis prepares to launch the Edinburgh Book Festival’s autumn programme, Brian Donaldson considers a wildly fluctuating career.
There are few contemporary British authors whose early literary output was received by the critics as like some unstoppable train only for it to veer horrifically off course and wind up crashing and burning in full public glare. He seems to share a kinship with those whose names are normally uttered in the same paragraph, Hanif Kureishi and Will Self. This triptych were all early chroniclers of a diverse London and trapped the 1980s Thatcherite zeitgeist with perfection. All three would later be castigated by the media (variously for sex, drugs and dentistry) and slaughtered for their faltering later books while the critics who had dubbed them all at one point as enfants terrible simply wanted to drop the enfants.
Then again, it’s not just the lofty literati who have stung him with their barbs recently. When Amis’ short story, ‘The Last Days of Muhammad Atta’ was published in The Observer prior to 9/11’s fifth anniversary, the paper’s blog was rampant with venom. ‘Self-promotion and self-aggrandisement cloud his artistic judgement’, ‘a pointless punt’, and ‘claptrap, boring, depressing’ were just some of the kinder comments.
It all started rather differently. His 1973 debut The Rachel Papers may, by his later standards, have been pedestrian in its subject (boy meets girl) and style, but it nabbed The Somerset Maugham Award, and immediately gained the press attention that has never fled his side since. Dead Babies and Other People were also well received, but the salad days arrived with the 80s publication of Money and London Fields, spawning crudely memorable characters such as the 20th century-obsessed ad man John Self and the darts-fascinated small time crook Keith Talent. The writings of fellow travellers Kureishi and Self have been daubed as misogynistic at times, and Amis had similar accusations flung in his direction for London Fields. Yet bigger storms were brewing.
Time’s Arrow was his most audacious novel to date, telling its story of the Holocaust backwards but when he was preparing to unleash The Information in 1995, the enormity of his book’s advance and the dumping of his long-term agent for a man nicknamed ‘The Jackal’ left Amis reeling. But the ludicrous nature of the criticism for him spending his own money on his own molars is beyond contempt.
Amis knew that the best way to respond to the various backlashes would come by taking a break from fiction with his autobiography, Experience. A few scores were settled and there is lots about his dad, Kingsley, the author of Lucky Jim who was no great fan of his lad’s writing. After more critical thumbs-down for Heavy Water and Yellow Dog, Amis is back with House of Meetings. While he believes that novelists have a ‘duty to write about the near future’, he has dipped back in time once again with this novella about a love triangle set in post-war USSR. There may be no clamour to suggest that this is some return to his late 80s halcyon form but the verve and lo-fi ambition of the book proves that Martin Amis remains one of our most heavily-anticipated voices.
House of Meetings is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 28 Sep; Amis appears at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wed 4 Oct.