Visiting Mrs. Nabokov: And Other Excursions

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov: And Other Excursions
Martin Amis
Vintage (1995)
General, Literary Criticism
Generalttt Literary Criticismttt

To this tantalizing nonfiction collection Martin Amis brings the same megawatt wit, wickedly acute perception, and ebullient wordplay that characterize his novels. He encompasses the full range of contemporary politics and culture (high and low) while also traveling to China for soccer with Elton John and to London's darts-crazy pubs in search of the perfect throw. Throughout, he offers razor-sharp takes on such subjects as:

American politics: "If history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, then the Reagan era can be seen as an eight-year blackout. Numb, pale, unhealthily dreamless: eight years of Do Not Disturb."

Chess: "Nowhere in sport, perhaps in human activity, is the gap between the tryer and the expert so astronomical.... My chances of a chess brilliancy are the 'chances' of a lab chimp and a type writer producing King Lear."

From Publishers Weekly

From his visit with Vera Nabokov to comments on RoboCop II, the author of London Fields covers politics, literature, sports and entertainment in this collection of essays.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Above average for its genre, this assortment of essays from the best-selling English author ( Time's Arrow , LJ 8/91, among others) breaks roughly into three groups: literary (generally British, including the title piece and pieces on Graham Greene, Rushdie, Larkin, Burgess, etc.); filmic, including RoboCop II , Cannes (in a note, Amis wonders why toplessness concerned him so, which others wondered at the time), Polanski, etc.; pop culture, including John Lennon, the Rolling Stones (Jagger is a "vitamin-packed unit"), Madonna, games (Kasparov/Karpov, darts, and an odd poker game sponsored by GQ for Amis to cover, with A. Alvarez, David Mamet, and others). Other occasional pieces appear as well (e.g., regarding the 1988 Republican Convention), but Amis's keen insights and keener prose keep them from seeming stale or dated. Recommended for libraries where collected pieces find a readership.
- Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions



Martin Amis


















Warily looking back through these pieces, I glimpse a series of altered or vanished worlds, including those of my younger and much younger selves. Things change. Graham Greene is dead. Véra Nabokov is dead. Salman Rushdie is still alive, and still in hiding: if writing fiction is, among other things, an act of spiritual freedom, then Rushdie is a man who has been imprisoned for the crime of being free. Graham Taylor, one-time manager of Watford Football Club, is now manager of England: for the time being. Monica Seles, whose professional debut I witnessed (she was fourteen), has since won eight Slams; as I write, she is in hospital, recovering from a knife attack at a tournament in Hamburg (her East German assailant was a Steffi Graf fan, and his intention was to pave the way for Steffi's return to the number-one spot). Nuclear deterrence is dead. Or at least Mutually Assured Destruction is dead: this extraordinary edifice — at once massive and notional, and, it appeared, impregnably self-sufficient -was unseamed by three words of diplomacy, from Mikhail Gorbachev (the three words were: This isn't serious.' As a planetary arrangement, four tons of TNT per human being wasn't only uncomic. It wasn't serious). The nuclear age has survived its Deterrence period and is entering a new phase, one which we can confidently - though not safely — call Proliferation. John Braine is dead: as a writer, his dream was to make a great deal of money; but he died in penury. George Bush and Dan Quayle are dead, politically. The star interview is dead, as a form. Sent to New York to interview Madonna, I felt no significant disruption in my plans when Madonna refused to se me. The great postmodern celebrities are a part of their publicity machines, and that is all you are ever going to get to write about: their publicity machines. You review the publicity machine. Even the humble literary interview is dying, or growing old: 'It was with dread/detachment/high hopes that I approached X's townhouse/office/potting shed. The door opened. He is fatter/smaller/taller/balder than I expected. Pityingly/perfunctorily/politely he offered me instant coffee/a cigarette/dinner. Everyone told me how modest/craven/suave/vain/charming I would find him, so I was naturally unsurprised/taken aback by his obvious charm/vanity, etc., etc.' Darts is dead. Its decline followed an opposite course to that of nuclear deterrence. It tried to sanitise or detoxify itself (no alcohol, no tobacco, no obesity); but then it transpired that the prospect of messy self-destruction was the only thing anyone liked about it. Isaac Asimov is dead. Topless sunbathing is no longer remarkable. Roman Polanski no longer makes interesting films. V.S. Pritchett isn't ninety any more: he will soon be ninety-three. I have now been doing this sort of thing for more than twenty years. I don't get around as much as I used to.

Not long ago I saw a book of this kind described by a reviewer as 'a garage sale': the writer was selling off his literary junk, in informal surroundings. Certainly it is considered a nice gesture if, in introducing such a book, the writer abases himself for having assembled it. Actually the authorial motive - or vice or weakness — we are examining here is, I think, dully clerical: an attempt at order and completion. John Updike, an obvious hero of the genre, took this tendency too far, perhaps, when in
Picked-Up Pieces
he reprinted a sixty-word citation to Thornton Wilder, together with a fifty-word footnote doggedly justifying its inclusion. All I can safely promise the reader is that, though much has been left in, much has been left out.

After university I worked in an art gallery (for three months), then in advertising (for three weeks), then at the
Times Literary Supplement
(for three years), and then (for four more) at the
New Statesman.
In 1980 I quit going to an office and became a full-time writer. The main characteristic of this way of life, it seemed to me, was that nothing ever happened to you. Being a novelist, in those days, was not in itself a distraction, as it can be now. Now, if you're not careful, you can spend half your life being interviewed or photographed or answering questions posed by the press, on the telephone, about Fergie or Maastricht or your favourite colour. Nothing ever happened to you — except journalism: the kind of journalism that got you out of the house. Getting out of the house is the only thing that unites the pieces in the present book — an unrigorous arrangement, which I didn't quite stick to anyway.
getting out of the house will be the controlling theme of a subsequent volume, one devoted to the lowest and noblest literary form: the book review. Novels, of course, are
about not getting out of the house.

And so, equipped with some kind of assignment, you get out of the house! This might mean a fifteen-hour flight or a ten-minute drive to the other side of Regents Park. Things can go well or they can go badly. When things go badly, you are simply an embarrassment to your destination. You return hours or weeks later with half a page of notes and the prospect of much cloistered contrivance. When things go well, the necessary elements come together with little or no encouragement. Writing journalism never feels like

writing in the proper sense. It is essentially collaborative:

both your subject and your audience are hopelessly specific.

But the excursion itself (the solitude, the preoccupation, the solving of successive difficulties) —
sometimes feels like writing.


I am grateful to all the journalists who commissioned, retrieved, subbed, improved, bowdlerised or fact-checked these pieces, but I am especially grateful to the late Terence Kilmartin, of the
I think of him as my first and last editor. He started me off and made it easy for me to keep going. Now he too is dead, and I miss his guidance and his friendship; but I will never finish a piece without mentally sending it past his desk.

Special thanks are also due to George Brennan, Emily Read, Pascal Cariss and Chaim Tannenbaum.




'All my friends . . . are dead. One finds that one's acquaintances die at the rate of nineteen or twenty a year. That would include only about four that one has known well. I keep a rather morbid list. Yes, with a cross against the ones I knew really well.'

'How do you feel when another one goes? Does it leave the life that remains feeling thinner?'

'I think it does a bit. Evelyn - I was shocked by his death. One is shocked when a bit of one's life disappears. I felt that with Omar Torríjos [the Panamanian leader]. I think that's why, in the case of Torríjos, I embarked on what I hoped would be a memoir but turned into a rather unsatisfactory blend of things.[
Getting to Know the General,
The Bodley Head, 1984] I felt that a whole segment of my life had been cut out.'

'That list of yours. It must be quite a long list by now.'

'Oh yes.'

It is, I believe, fairly common to feel a tremor of intimate recognition on your first glimpse of Graham Greene. Like most literate residents of the planet, you have known this presence (cool, fugitive, slightly sinister) all your reading life - and now here he is. He stands at the entrance to his Paris apartment, erect and inquisitive. The pale, headmasterly face is impassively well-preserved and, in its outlines, seems no different from the photographs on the three-shilling Penguins of the Fifties: long upper lip, frowning forehead, the moistly clouded stare. His clothes, too, are the expected mixture of greens and browns, the lank tie heavily knotted (with the thin end out-dangling the thick). The only obvious infirmity he suffers is an arthritic little finger; his handshake is gently, and appropriately, masonic.

'Do you have any particular feelings about turning eighty?'

'No, except annoyance at all this fuss and halloo. That business in
The Times .. .
One thing I did enjoy was going up to Bury St Edmunds to the Greene King Brewery and doing a
mash —
the first stage of brewing. By October there will be 100,000 bottles with a special label with my signature on it. It's their strongest beer. They're very good, Greene King. Now
I liked . .. Otherwise, well, I get tired more easily, I begin to forget names. I'm in rather better health than I was five years ago, when I had a cancer and an operation. I'm on a plateau. I'm not as manic and I'm not as depressive.'

The flat is spacious but not airy. Through the closed second-floor windows come the usual sounds (triumphant and hysterical) of mobilettes on the Boulevard Malesherbes. The English Sunday newspapers are fanned on the table, along with a copy of the
open at the correspondence page. Greene's accent is now thoroughly European, and the rs are candidly Gallic; when he says, 'Belief is
and faith is
the stressed words sound exactly the same. He has the demeanour and habitat of a retired civil servant or (just possibly) an exiled spy — a quiet Englishman, a confidential agent, a third man.

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