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On the level

Times Staff Writer

Martin AMIS is so easily articulate, both on the page and in casual conversation, that there can seem to be something mildly sinister behind it. It suggests the literary equivalent of selling one’s soul to the devil, as blues guitarist Robert Johnson was rumored to have done in exchange for instrumental prowess.

He’s developed his reputation first as the “bad boy” son of comic novelist Kingsley Amis and later as the acclaimed author of novels like “Money,” “The Information” and the 2000 memoir “Experience.” His prose is associated with linguistic dazzle, heartlessness, a fascination with lowlife and a powerful, sometimes moralistic intellectualism, as in his recent “Koba the Dread,” a controversial book assailing intellectuals who coddled Stalin.

But in England, the accusations of Amis’ own evil have burst fully into view: His last novel, “Yellow Dog,” which concerns porn, Fleet Street smarm and Neanderthal masculinity, took a beating in the press last year that bordered on a national exorcism.

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In a now infamous review, novelist Tibor Fischer wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph that the book was “like your favorite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.” Liz Jensen of London’s Independent wrote, “I was reaching for my oxygen mask and life vest.”

Some Yanks got in on the action as well. “It bears as much resemblance to Mr. Amis’ best fiction as a bad karaoke singer does to Frank Sinatra,” said the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani. Assessing later, the Nation called him “the most condescended-to novelist of his time.”

However deeply this cut at the time, Amis, 54, is showing few signs of it now. Sipping coffee in shorts and a light blue shirt beside a waterfall and pool at the W Hotel in Westwood, he’s tan and relaxed, with an ironic distance from the fuss in London. He’s a victim, he says, of Britain’s current “egalitarian push,” which both fascinates and repels him.

“It’s a deep reaction to what was, until the ‘70s and ‘80s, a firmly class-based society,” says Amis, suggesting that his countrymen are making up for lost time. “Everybody’s trying to be utterly average and utterly unexceptional. No one’s meant to stick out. You hear about people turning down knighthoods and OBEs,” or Orders of the British Empire.

“And a tremendous interest in celebrity has somehow allied itself with this. They delight in creating completely ersatz celebrities, through reality TV shows -- with enormous ill feeling directed at the less popular members of each show, almost a lynching mood,” he says. “It’s all in parallel with national decline.”

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Hearty debate

Amis, who currently lives with his wife and their two daughters in a quiet part of Montevideo, Uruguay, where he has wintered for the last few years, is in town for The Times’ book festival this weekend and for an appearance this particular night at UCLA’s Royce Hall with contrarian journalist Christopher Hitchens.

A so-called “liberal hawk,” Hitchens is a former socialist who sees the liberal left’s opposition to the Iraq war as a shameful dodge, though he did not manage to engage the antiwar Amis on the issue.

The evening’s conversation leaps from topic to topic as the old friends drink, smoke, curse and weigh in on America, the Iraq war, Amis’ literary mentor Saul Bellow and several issues that lead to unprintable conclusions.

Clad in suits and perched in expensive chairs onstage, these onetime young turks could be curmudgeonly members of Parliament walking down memory lane at a posh West London men’s club. At one point, Amis describes celebrating a childhood Christmas in Princeton and unwrapping “a robot, a knife and an ax, and a six-pack of cherry bombs.... I just thought, ‘This is a wonderful country.’ ”

They play to a large and appreciative audience that includes Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Michael York. The almost shtick-like banter draws hearty laughs.

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Consuming subject

MASCULINITY, Amis says apart from the forum, is “my main subject,” a subject that’s consumed him both in his novels and his nonfiction. (His most recent collection of the latter, 2001’s “The War Against Cliche,” won a National Book Critics Circle Award and leads with a section called “On Masculinity and Related Questions.”)

“It’s my theory that masculinity is the key to the Islamic problem,” he says: Islamic women were gradually ground down and told they were inferior; their dreary lives matched their expectations.

“While in the Islamic world,” Amis says, “the men are the ones who feel the humiliation of political impotence, are told that they are lions and princes and vastly superior to women.” But with their lack of power and wealth, “they can’t look their women in the face. There’s no healthy release of sexuality. So no wonder you crash an airplane into the World Trade Center so you can get [sex] in the afterlife.”

Among his peers, he says, women have taken over. “The women are the shakers and the movers; the men are the wimps. But they like it. If you have any kind of artistic temperament it suits you right down to the ground. It certainly suits me: I don’t even want to be consulted regarding major changes in our lives. Where are we going to live next year, that sort of thing.”

When he thinks about a possible move to New York -- he describes a “ridiculous, semi-serious ambition to be an American writer at the end” -- he worries a bit about the country’s piety. Religion in general, he says, seems to be reasserting itself everywhere.

“Have we ever had a faith-based administration before?” he asks disapprovingly.

“The story of mankind is the story of learning to get by without God. I’m with [Joseph] Conrad, who said, take it whichever way you like it, but religion is a tawdry, human construction that poisons all our most intimate thoughts about the living and the dead. In other words, attack religion from the high ground: You’re irreligious not because you’re a bustling cynic but because you actually have your own spiritual universe.”

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Egalitarian thinking

The subject that most interests Amis right now is the very faux-egalitarian “leveling” that took him down a notch in the London press. It’s especially dangerous, he says, when allied with speed. “I think levelism has started to flatten literature. It’s already flattened poetry. There are other reasons for that -- the speed of contemporary life. A poem is not only trying to slow time down; it stops the clock. It says, ‘Let’s examine this moment.’ When I get to Uruguay, I see I can start reading poetry again.”

He calls the urban West a “post-poetic culture,” one that’s increasingly incapable of introspection. It’s not a dumbing down; it’s a numbing down.

“So having gotten poetry out of the way, the culture will now move on to the literary novel. The literary novel slows things down too.”

Amis says his next project will be an autobiographical novel, on the Bellow model, which will explore this leveling and reflect back on a life that has seemed to slow down as he rounded 50.

“You find you have this new topic in your life, which is, ‘The Past.’ Which you never thought about much. And then you realize, at the end it’s gonna be all you’ve got.”

But first, Amis needs to line up a book contract. His deal with Miramax Books, which has not given him the American hit many expected when he signed in 1998, concluded with “Yellow Dog.” (The house’s publicist, Hillary Bass, says Miramax will re-up with Amis as soon as he decides what he wants to write.)

Hitchens says he hopes Amis, whom he describes as primarily apolitical, will take on the topic that’s consumed his own thinking these days: “The great subject for the rest of our lives is going to be holy war,” Hitchens says as he tears into a Johnny Walker at the hotel’s outdoor bar. (“You’ll be seeing a lot of me,” he says to the bartender as he orders.)

“We’re in a good position to know because we were close to Salman Rushdie’s side” during the fatwa against him, Hitchens says. “So our experience with it goes back to 1989, and not 2001.”

The subject of jihad would suit Amis’ style, his friend says. “It’s got everything he wants: sexual repression, crazy rhetoric, lunatic characters. I have a feeling it’s churning away inside him.”

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Martin Amis in discussion

Where: Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, UCLA campus

When: 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Haines 39 Lecture Hall

Topic: Stalin: Anatomy of a Tyrant

Price: Free


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