The America of Martin Amis | The paper
Back and forth from London to “the other side” to stay with Hitchens and then settled in Brooklyn. The reports, the novels, the political curiosity and the literary shock that the British have experienced as a betrayal
There is something, someone missing, lost, at the origin of the removal of Martin Amis from England, especially from his hometown London. There is the painful extinction of a friendship and its meanings, caused by the premature death of his friend Christopher Hitchens, who was not a colleague but a brother, who told different stories from his, but shared to the core what was one lifestyle. Reasoning, saying, exposing oneself, provoking, attacking, understanding, enjoying this dynamic empathy, transfusing it into a disheveled hedonism, chasing life in the Thatcher era, surpassing it in London pubs, European capitals, apartments, stations and airports . America for Chris and Martin is the other side of the moon, the completion of the speech, the term of comparison, the eternal west to explore. And, again, it is America savored by those who experienced this fixation in the second half of the twentieth century, with the distance that can be filled with difficulty, the incomprehensible dimensions, its stimuli so lightning-fast as to seem electric.
Amis experienced it as a boy, following his father, the venerable Kingsley, and his jagged academic career. Between 1959 and 1960 the family lived in Princeton, New Jersey: “America excited and frightened me. Like she never stopped doing,” she recalls. A quarter of a century later, in the crescendo of an effervescent career as a storyteller, Martin returns to America, this time in the role of the racial reporter, privileged commentator with the strength of a literary vision that has found its voice, publishing in 86 The Moronic Inferno, l'inferno idiota, remained unpublished in Italy and whose title it borrowed from Saul Bellow, who in turn borrowed it from Wyndham Lewis: a collection of acute essays, in which he outlines future perspectives of the Great Country, getting excited in the presence of many of its personalities - Nabokov, Didion, Capote, Mailer, Vidal, Reagan, Hefner - but at the same time tracing gloomy scenarios of the American popular climate, already traversed by a silent, determined madness. An inspection carried out with a perspective still imbued with Brit satire, vast areas of self-referentiality and obsessive attention to the air of the times and to the changing trends - it could not be otherwise, since its cultural role is defined precisely in this direction, as the intellectual capable of merging the appearance and substance of the society that formed him.
From then on America becomes the regular destination of the literary superstar Amis, albeit always in the guise of the visitor, while Hitchens sets up home in nothing less than sophisticated-complicated Washington, with the excuse that politics is his core business and what happens in the city is infinitely more interesting than the quarrels of a thin monarchy . It is obvious that the American acceleration, the centrifuge of finance, greed, belligerence and power, also attracts Amis' gaze, but more intermittently, without ever fully capturing it. And soon his travels across the Atlantic become missions of solidarity for his friend, who in the meantime has fallen ill, is consumed, suffers the pains of hell even in Texas, where he tries the cure o-la- go-or-break it, to stem the cancer of the esophagus that will kill him at the end of 2010. Probably, but there is no proof, that it is the definitive shock that pushes Amis – it is 2012 – to in turn do the paso doble to America, moving his sensibility into a brown apartment building in Brooklyn, dragging his tribe behind him and leaving the island where he had scattered so many novels and many more broken hearts.
On this occasion, the distance between the hypotheses built around the choice of an intellectual and the reality of the facts is curious. Martin Amis's transplant to American shores becomes a national case and, in some ways, an affront never digested by his compatriots. What the hell could drive the former boy specialized in alcoholic-humanistic raids in the brothels of the capital to betray Albion, moreover by posing in disgust and denunciation of the death of the real England? It takes little for criticism and barbs to rain down from the London literary salon, which does not forgive him for the inelegance of that exile to the point of forcing him to make hasty clarifications, invoking his mother's death as a spring for the decision, as well as his wife Isabel's requests to reconnect with the family. In an interview with the Nouvel Observateur, Amis tries to rationalize the gesture: the motivations are practical and banal, but it is also true that the moral decadence of his country has offered him one more reason to cross the ocean, even if still english. I have a home in England. My transfer is not permanent, it just doesn't have an expiration date." Instead, the ten years of his life that remain, before dying of the identical death of his friend Hitch, he will spend in Americagradually identifying creative motivations for the choice, connected with what he has always done, writing, and which seems to him to make more sense if put into practice in New York, on the doorstep of America, rather than on the London social stages that he trampled too much.
He himself talks about it in the interviews after the transfer, describing the jolt that can hit the professional novelist when he sets foot in the Big Apple, increasing its production voltage and, for example, making him churn out a series of "fully American" novels in no time at all, before regaining the more nuanced status of "resident alien", of detached observer. In short, the mechanism of stimulation of the writer caused by New York and its atmospheres works for him too: “It happened to Philip Roth and the same thing happened to me. Albeit with some elements of terror,” he recounts. Even indulging in considerations of pure naivety: “Only when you come to live there, do you grasp the continental dimension of this country. You look at a map and think: Ohio? What is Ohio? Yet it is huge. And you feel microscopic.” At home they didn't forgive him for a long time: "There was a recurring attempt to pass it off as disaffection towards my country, as if I wanted to say: England, go fuck yourself!". Instead, he claims to be progressively attracted by American politics as he has never been by the English one. To want to deepen it, in the belief that it represents the gravitational center of the world. He devotes considerable attention and pages (the collection The Friction of Time, 2019) to the advent of American populism of which he describes the instinctive and sentimental datum, which finds triumphant representation in the rise of Donald Trump to the White House. He repeatedly denounces the widespread anti-intellectualism, suffers with annoyance the label of "Mick Jagger of the literary world", now that he is getting on with age and only intermittently feels like playing the star of Anglo-Saxon cosmopolitanism. Withers with dignity in Brooklyn, because perhaps the end would have been unbearable for him to live it as a survivor at home, where the patrol of dazzling English talents – McEwan, Rushdie, James Fenton, Julian Barnes – is dwindling, and becomes more fragile and stranded in own whims and in his disagreements. And like Hitchens, he dies "stateside", on the other side, enjoying the advantages and the discretion of having finally chosen the distance.