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For Martin Amis, it’s OK to lose his cool

Times Staff Writer

He still has the urbane good looks, the edgy bonhomie of a bestselling British author touring the colonies. But as Martin Amis warmed up a Manhattan crowd this week before reading from his latest novel, he apologized for putting on glasses and complained about the indignities of growing old.

“You get balder, bulkier and blinder as the years go by,” he said acidly. “You find yourself starring in a very cynical, low-budget horror film in which they save the worst for last.”

Amis, 57, is graying, not only at the temples but also in the tenor of his writing, which has become more brooding and sober, more overtly political. His newest book, “House of Meetings,” is the fictional memoir of a man who survives Stalin’s slave labor camps after World War II only to betray his brother and the woman he loved. It is a dark, unsettling work, burdened by painful recollection and a longing for death. As Amis read at the 92nd Street Y, the large crowd fell silent; his face grew stern.

Once a satiric, coolly ironic chronicler of the go-go 1980s and 1990s in London and New York, Amis has been hardened by various debacles. His 2003 novel, “Yellow Dog,” was pilloried by critics, many of whom jumped at the chance to skewer one of the reigning rock stars of British literary fiction. And that criticism paled compared with the flak he got in the mid-1990s, when Amis left his wife and two young sons for another woman, abandoned his longtime agent to get a sweeter book deal and spent a chunk of his then eye-popping $800,000 advance from “The Information” to fix his teeth.

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“It’s not enough to succeed; others must fail,” he has said, quoting Gore Vidal’s mantra about schadenfreude. Now, Amis’ fortunes are rising again with “House of Meetings,” which some critics have called his best work in years. But if the author savors this moment, he doesn’t show it. The grim subject of his new novel -- plus the controversy sparked by a lengthy essay he wrote in December blasting the left’s tepid response to the global threat of Islamic terrorism -- has clearly aged the once boyish-looking writer.

Amis, the master of mordant satire in novels such as “Money” and “London Fields,” has become more engaged in serious political debates. He ridicules and deplores the scourge of “Islamic fanaticism.” But he’s also excoriated President Bush as a “dry drunk from West Texas [who] became the most powerful man in human history” and says he is increasingly appalled by the deteriorating state of the U.S.-led conflict in Iraq.

The author, to be sure, has grappled with death and politics, war and peace in previous books and journalism. But the interwoven themes of his new novel and “The Age of Horrorism,” the anti-terrorism essay he wrote for London’s Observer, amount to an urgent public alarm: Fanatic, murderous ideologues cannot be ignored or dealt with in “good faith,” whether they took root in Russia 60 years ago or thrive today in the Middle East.

“Ideology, and I include religion in this, is inherently violent,” Amis said the morning after his book reading, in the lounge of a Midtown hotel. “When an ideology is challenged, fists are tightened. There is no dialogue. So for me the answer is no ideology. You have to get away from mass emotions. That’s the challenge -- to get away from the herd stuff, from the crowd.”

Long-held feelings

The roots of Amis’ Russian novel can be traced to his adolescence, when he was growing up in the shadow of his father, Kingsley, the well-known British novelist and critic. Blame it on Dostoyevsky, the son cracked: “All of his novels are great for those years when you’re having the scowly, nihilistic phase, when you’re full of lassitude and disgust, when nothing in the world makes sense and everything looks very Russian.”

These long-simmering feelings burst into prose in 2002 when Amis wrote “Koba the Dread,” a nonfiction account of Stalin’s slave labor camps, where an estimated 18 million people were incarcerated from 1929 to 1953. The work, which drew on previous research, including Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror,” was also a memoir. The author recounted and tried to explain his father’s ideological support for Stalin’s communist regime -- a phenomenon that included many people on the left in the United States and Europe during the 1930s and ‘40s.

Then, quite unexpectedly, Amis began writing a novel on the same subject three years ago. All of the thoughts and data he had assimilated, he said, “began to marinate in that part of the brain, the subconscious, where most novels take root.”

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“House of Meetings” was written while Amis was living in a Uruguayan home by the sea, with his second wife, writer Isabel Fonseca, and their two young daughters. His genteel surroundings were a distraction, as he tried to imagine the torments of life in a labor camp near the Arctic Circle. But the bigger challenge was in conjuring up the mind-set of victims, which he called “an enormous presumption.” Like other writers who invent imagined worlds, Amis had never been to Russia. He rejected making a two-week trip to collect literary details.

“I didn’t want to clutter up the work with journalistic sense impressions,” he said. “I’d either go for five years or not go at all.”

The novel got its title from the small house in the Norlag labor camp where Soviet authorities allowed some prisoners conjugal meetings. After years of deprivation, Amis noted, a man’s shocking rediscovery of freedom -- and its sudden withdrawal -- could lead to psychological trauma.

As “House of Meetings” went through the final editing process, Amis found himself drawn to similar issues of ideology and fanaticism in the world of modern terrorism. The fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was approaching, and he had already written a short story for the New Yorker, “The Last Days of Mohamed Atta,” imagining what went through the terrorist’s mind leading up to the assault on the World Trade Center.

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“There was a slow pressure building up to the essay I eventually wrote,” he said. “Nobody in the West gave a damn about Islam on Sept. 10, 2001.... The Islamist ideology is that we’re trying to destroy them. But we have no view one way or another. We’re not at all obsessed about them. We really don’t care. And yet there’s this wounded narcissism in the Islamic world, because they want everything to be about them.”

Those feelings, he suggested, are rooted in the fact that Islam has been subordinate to the West since the 13th century, and “there is this bewilderment about why God is rewarding the infidels.” That bewilderment has now led to unrepressed rage.

“We respect Islam, the donor of countless benefits to mankind, and possessor of a thrilling history,” Amis wrote in “The Age of Horrorism.” “But Islamism? No, we can hardly be asked to respect a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination.... We respect Muhammad and do not respect Muhammad Atta.”

Critics on the left attacked Amis. Some called him a right-wing zealot. The controversy might intimidate some, but Amis had a classic writer’s response: If people attack him personally, that’s fine. Just don’t impugn his work. This wasn’t the case with “Yellow Dog” four years ago, when he said critics “were queuing up to dump on that novel.”

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Now, basking in better reviews for “House of Meetings,” Amis promises more political overtones in his next novel. A fictional autobiography, it will focus on modern Islam as one of several themes, along with the 9/11 attacks. He’s deeply engaged in the work and is impatient to finish the manuscript. But don’t expect him to dwell too much on the book when it’s complete.

“The older you get, the shorter the time is,” Amis said. “Even reading proofs of a new novel is a bit of a grind, because you always want to be doing the next one. The larger truth is you spend very little time thinking about the past. The past is gone.”

josh.getlin@latimes.com


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