Reading Martin Amis--1
[Site manager's note: I encouraged Peg Eby-Jager to submit her account of the April 20 2004 Amis-Hitchens appearance at UCLA after reading an early draft written shortly after the event. In her own words, Peg Eby-Jager "has been a habitué of author-talk venues for ten years, a librarian for twenty and an avid reader for forty." Although she added that "she only recently read Martin Amis," her acute perceptions and discriminating judgments deserve a wide audience. Her essay is divided into five sections, linked by navigation buttons to the left on this page and at the end of each section on subsequent pages].
It was to have been Martin Amis’s night. According to the press release, “The best-selling author of Time’s Arrow, London Fields, Money and Experience: A Memoir, Britain’s Martin Amis creates hypnotically readable novels smoldering with apocalyptic humor and brutal irony. Amis will be joined by friend…Christopher Hitchens….” [for background on the venue and event, click here] The Amis-Hitchens conversation was the year’s final event for Our Favorite Writers, the new literary series sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly and curated by UCLA’s Department of English. Expectations were running high. The venue had been moved from a smaller auditorium to the much grander Royce Hall, and the one-on-one interview format with novelist and UCLA English Department professor Mona Simpson was expanded to include a second moderator.
Simpson and Atlantic Monthly editor Benjamin Schwarz, who was recruited for the evening, entered from the wings and positioned themselves behind impressively large podiums flanking a central pair of clubby-looking upholstered chairs. Simpson and Schwartz explained the evening’s format and provided assurances of their intervention should the need arise. Amis and Hitchens then made their entrance from stage left. We had good seats—just eight rows back—with a clear view of the stage. I could even see facial expressions, and I thought I saw Christopher Hitchens draw a deep breath as he sat down. Looking back now, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d not drawn another during the course of the evening.
The evening’s questions commenced with an easy toss concerning their thoughts about America. Hitchens amusingly lamented the influx of so many Brits that his accent was losing its uniquely posh luster. He spoke of the openness, generosity and hospitality he had encountered when he first came here in 1970, saying also that he would never be bored in America. He added that he “wouldn’t trust anyone who says they know America well.” Amis spoke of America as being more like a world than a country. He told of a childhood Christmas in Princeton, where he’d received “a robot, a knife, an ax and a six-pack of cherry bombs.” At the age of nine, little Martin Amis must have truly felt he was living in the land of opportunity.
Both authors have found much to admire in America, and it was gratifying to listen as compliments were tossed back and forth. Hitchens pointed out that America is a nation “founded on documents”—high praise indeed from such a prolific writer—and that among those documents, the Constitution, he assured us, “is godless.” Amis spoke of a desire to end his days as an American writer, claiming that “colonials healthily mongrelized British fiction.” Hitchens rhetorically asked which country got the better deal in Auden and T.S. Eliot’s trading national identities. Hitchens claimed that he left Britain, a country that has “traditions, not rights,” to escape Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di. Amis said that he sees America as the center of the writers’ world, while England “leads the world in decline.” Jaundiced outlook and curdled opinion settled in around the time that Amis and Hitchens agreed “America is the last hope.”