This semester, I started my graduate writing class on Zoom the same way I begin most semesters: sharing with my students copies of a cherished manuscript page from Saul Bellow’s 1987 novel, More Die of Heartbreak, as an example of how writers, especially great ones, revise. Bellow had scribbled all over it, reworking the typescript in pen. His brilliance was evident in the edits, weaker sections crossed out, phrases circled and arrowed into better corners within the crease of a different paragraph. After a brief discussion, I asked, as I do every semester, if any of my students had read Saul Bellow or even heard of him. Usually they haven’t. It is a game I play with myself, a fervent believer in the sand-mandala school of life—where Tibetan monks will spend days or weeks producing a painting, one grain of colored sand after another, only to destroy the final work of art in order to celebrate the beauty and ephemerality of life. Miraculously, this fall, one student had heard of Bellow. More, he’d also read him. His was the first raised hand I’ve counted in the last decade.
My bet is that fear of this slow fade to erasure of a former literary star is in part what prompted Martin Amis to write Inside Story, which he states, in an opening section, portentously titled “Preludial,” is “about a life, my own.” There are five parts to this “novel” (not counting the Preludial, an Interludial, and a Postludial, plus Afterthoughts and an addendum), and each part contains roughly four or five chapters. Within all of this are bouts of fiction and nonfiction and memoir. There are also photographs and long footnotes, which at times make reading a chore. But, wait, there’s more: “How to Write” passages in which Amis pretends that he is addressing some imagined young writer, inviting him or her into his home, offering a drink, and promising craft lessons, which are then threaded throughout the book.
It’s hard to know what a young writer might glean from all this. Inside Story is one complicated compilation of writing. The word “hodgepodge” comes to mind.
Amis, 71, says that he’d tried to write this same book more than 10 years prior, but failed, and, considering the undertaking, one can see why. What liberated him to complete it were the deaths of the “three principals” of the book’s “life writing” sections, one of whom happens to have been Saul Bellow, a father figure and hero to the author. The other two were the essayist Christopher Hitchens, Amis’s best friend, and the poet Philip Larkin, the best friend of Amis’s writer father, Kingsley Amis. They are the subjects of Inside Story’s most moving and heartbreaking passages. One of the many positive things one can say about Amis as a writer, besides his being smart and possessing a well-stocked mind, is that he loves deeply.
“Life writing” is what many of us would call memoir. The “fiction” bits are written mostly in the third person, with the author referring to his main “character” as “Mart,” who becomes “I” again when Amis switches back to “life writing” sections. Fiction and nonfiction cover such similar territory that I found myself losing track of what it was that his student reader, or anyone, was supposed to learn from the shifting stance, happening sometimes in mid-scene, mid-flight.
A fair amount of real estate is devoted to a relationship with a woman named Phoebe Phelps, who could be a composite of several of Amis’s real-life lovers—this may be why he also writes about her in both the first and third person. To me, all writing is fiction, so I didn’t care. What I did care about was why Phoebe the character withholds sex from Mart. “Blue Moons,” Phoebe calls their infrequent assignations. When Amis finally reveals what makes Phoebe tick, it was so sad it made me shiver. But I couldn’t help wondering why Mart stays with her for five years in a constant state of frustration—and after many intermittent pages, I never found out, although Phoebe manages to jerk his chain in a revengeful manner later on in life.
One of the many positive things one can say about Amis as a writer, besides his being smart and possessing a well-stocked mind, is that he loves deeply.
Meanwhile, the “How to Write” advice disappears for long stretches of pages, only to disjointedly rear its head here and there with grammatical lessons in tow—some more intriguing than others. In a chapter titled “Things Fiction Can’t Do,” Amis lists “Sex” at No. 2, after “Dreams.” At that point I wanted to send him paper airplanes embossed with great sex scenes written by, I don’t know, Toni Morrison, James Salter, Jeanette Winterson, and James Baldwin. Marguerite Duras. Elena Ferrante, whom he dismisses here in an aside.
If you tire of “Mart” and “I,” Amis includes the short story “Oktober,” previously published in The New Yorker and plopped down here, nearly whole hog, in the middle of the book. If you’d rather be reading The New Republic or The Nation, there are long essays about 9/11, the war in Iraq, the horror of the American health-care system, and the Holocaust. Amis, like my gentile husband, appears to be what I call a “Yid-o-phile” in the privacy of our home: he’s a Semitic sympathizer, and he and his Jewish wife refer to their daughters as “the Jews” (which irked me, but then, I call my husband a Yid-o-phile). Amis is also uxorious, and so I first delighted in his heartfelt appreciation and deep regard for his beautiful and brilliant wife—I was happy for them! But many pages in I tired of their witty repartee, and wondered if they ever turned it off.
Same for him and Christopher Hitchens, who apparently referred to himself in the third person as “the Hitch,” so maybe that’s where all this toggling of perspectives started? Here is some dialogue between the two pals about poor Phoebe. (Note: it is in the first person.)
“I can’t give up when she’s all raw like this. Jesus, it’s like having the care of a toddler. What if she hurts herself on my watch? Who can I entrust her to?… On the way back I want you to tell me all you’ve ever learnt about mad chicks.” “Oh I’m supposed to know a thing or two about mad chicks am I?” (said Hitch). “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, mad chicks flock to the Hitch. I don’t mean the ones you end up with, I mean the ones you spurn. The crazed beauties who lash your grim rock. Tell me about mad chicks.”
Misogyny? Last-century masculinity? Boy talk? I dunno. I wearied of it.
But here’s my “still” paragraph: Still, the pages devoted to “the principals” were fascinating and gutting. Amis’s devotion to Hitchens is very affecting, their friendship an everlasting love affair between two people who were meant to go through life together, their habits and language carefully cultivated by the shared time they’ve clocked. The patience Amis shows his hero, Bellow, as the Nobel laureate slips away into a demented fog, brought me to tears, especially the description of Bellow’s famously soulful eyes as having gone “oystery with time.” Somewhere along the way, Amis states that this book is probably going to be his own “last long novel,” and so Inside Story is finally about the writer’s “two deaths,” as he refers to the cessation of work and then, of course, the final end.
But there are three literal deaths in this long, meandering but touching book. Who are we when our closest friends have left us behind? I’m curious to read that novel. I hope it’s coming.
Helen Schulman is a New York City–based writer and professor. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, Come with Me