May 2, 2012
Controversial author Martin Amis coming to Stanford on May 7
He's famous for his sharp, inventive prose and his barbed public comments. The British author's next novel, about a violent criminal who wins the lottery, will be published this summer.
By Cynthia Haven
Martin Amis has written a dozen novels, as well as a memoir, two collections of stories and six nonfiction works. (Photo: Isabel Fonseca / Courtesy of Stanford University)
Martin Amis is celebrated as one of the leading writers in English today. In Britain, he is almost as famous for his pyrotechnic quips and spats, which regularly launch front-page media frenzies.
He will give a reading at Stanford at 8 p.m. Monday, May 7, in Cemex Auditorium in the Knight Management Center. Amis also will hold an 11 a.m. colloquium the same day in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall. Both events are free and open to the public.
Amis has written a dozen novels, as well as a memoir, two collections of stories and six nonfiction works. His next book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a satirical stab at England through the story of a violent criminal who wins the lottery, will be published by Knopf this summer.
Amis was foremost in a circle of writers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Craig Raine and Ian McEwan. He has had high-voltage quarrels with at least two of those figures. The one with best chum Hitchens healed seamlessly: "My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May," he said in an interview.
He is also famous for being one half of an unusual team, a hereditary novelist. His father, Sir Kingsley Amis, has been called the finest English comic novelist of the postwar era; he wrote 20 novels, six collections of poetry and other works.
The elder Amis, who died in 1995, was also his son's earliest critic, lamenting the "terrible compulsive vividness in his style."
Martin Amis recalled to the New York Times, "He was always saying, 'I think you need more sentences like 'He put down his drink, got up and left the room,' and I thought you needed rather fewer of them."
As a writer, Amis is known for his lifelong love affair with the English sentence, which he calls "a basic rhythm from which the writer is free to glance off in unexpected directions."
Amis considers the English sentence as the essential building block of good prose, telling the Paris Review in 1998, "Much modern prose is praised for its terseness, its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue, etc. But I don't feel the deeper rhythm there. I don't think these writers are being terse out of choice. I think they are being terse because it's the only way they can write."
Charles McGrath of the New York Times said that a typical Amis sentence "tends to be maximalist and attention-grabbing, a riff with all the speakers turned up high."
Here's a sample from his most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow:
"They walked down steep alleyways, scooter-torn and transected by wind-ruffled tapestries of clothing and bedding, and on every other corner there lurked a little shrine, with candles and doilies and the lifesize effigy of a saint, a martyr, a haggard cleric. Crucifixes, vestments, wax apples green or cankered. And then there was the smell, sour wine, cigarette smoke, cooked cabbage, drains, lancingly sweet cologne, and also the tang of fever. The trio came to a polite halt as a stately brown rat – lavishly assimilated – went ambling across their path: given the power of speech, this rat would have grunted out a perfunctory buona sera. Dogs barked. Keith breathed deep, he drank deep of the ticklish, the teasing tang of fever."
The barbed comments have often distracted from the prose. In February, Amis created a literary kerfuffle when he said that only "serious brain injury" would make him write for children. He has tangled with critics Terry Eagleton and Tibor Fischer, columnist Julie Burchill and others.
"What is important is to write freely and passionately and with all the resources that the language provides," he said in the Paris Review interview.
"You're always looking for a way to see the world as if you've never seen it before. As if you'd never really got used to living here on this planet."
Cynthia Haven is director of communications for the English Department and Creative Writing Program.