Martin Amis opens and closes Inside Story by addressing the reader directly. From the beginning, then, we are confidantes of the author and the implied promise of the book’s title is fulfilled—this book really is an inside story. It is deeply personal, often confessional and intensely intimate. But is it really a novel, as the subtitle informs us? Amis insists that it is, while switching between third-person storytelling and first-person autobiography. Let us call it an autobiographical novel, then.
There is a tremendous depth of feeling to be found in the book. The novel is concerned with four main themes: life, love, death and literature. And there are three principal characters, aside from Amis himself: Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens. Amis, now in his seventh decade, reflects at length on his three deceased friends, while mulling over his own mortality and the ageing process. The book is nonlinear, digressive and diverse, taking in Brexit, Donald Trump, guidelines on writing and literature, Islam, Iraq, 9/11, Stalin, Hitler, the European refugee crisis and much, much more. As Amis writes: “The book is about a life, my own, so it won’t read like a novel—more like a collection of linked short stories, with essayistic detours. Ideally I’d like Inside Story to be read in fitful bursts, with plenty of skipping and postponing and doubling back—and of course frequent breaks and breathers.”
This is the only issue I had with the book: it’s incredibly rich and therefore difficult to absorb in one straight readthrough—but it was not intended to be. Amis writes: “My heart goes out to those poor dabs, the professionals (editors and reviewers), who’ll have to read the whole thing straight through, and against the clock.” Despite being one such dab, I still found it a wonderful read, and it is a book I shall often revisit. Because for Amis, the reader is “my guest”; and our narrator lives up to his role as host, proving companionable, wise and funny.
This is a hard book to summarise. It is, inter alia, an inside story of friendship and love (not to mention sex) and a meditation on mortality. It is also, in part, a mystery tale. The book is haunted by Phoebe Phelps, the beautiful lover of the young Amis, a gambler, sexual torturer, former escort, businesswoman, flirtatious minx and much else besides. The truth about her is not revealed until the end so I will only say that it reinforces the affirmation of life to be found throughout. Phoebe, ultimately, is “outside the flow” of life, in which Amis floats along, with children, love and fulfilment (as well as much pain and regret). Phoebe compares herself to Larkin—someone stunted, fucked up by parents and authority figures, who suffers an inner wound early on, which destroys her chances of properly living.
By contrast with Larkin and Phoebe, Amis presents Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, two men who loved everything about life and living, revelled in inhabiting reality and were ecstatic about the very fact of their existence. So it is sad to read of Bellow’s mental decline—“And that’s what I say to Dr Alois Alzheimer. O, damned Alois. O, inhuman dog.”—and the premature death of Hitchens—”My best friend was sixty-two. That is not right, that is not fitting, that is not as it should be.” Yet both men live on, as does Larkin, for they were and are both loved and read. Life is short and often cruel, but it is also wonderful: perhaps that is the main message of Inside Story.
These themes come together in a masterful and moving final chapter. Here, the reader visits the writer for a final chat, and Amis reflects on America, 9/11, life, mortality, literature and love. These are all linked. America, with its mantra of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is a land of freedom—and, writes Amis, “fiction is freedom”—which is also the justification for Amis’s neat refutation of cultural appropriation. 9/11 set the forces of death, literalism and fanaticism against the ideals of life, cosmopolitanism and freedom. Life is to be lived as intensely as it can be—but it must also be finite. Amis has no time for transhumanism or other schemes to attain immortality: “It is right, it is fitting, it is as it should be, that we die.” He quotes Bellow: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see anything.” So we must fight death and the dark and live as much as we can—but in the full knowledge that death will have the final victory, though not, hopefully, the last laugh.
How can one find happiness in the knowledge of death, though? How can Amis, whose closest friend Christopher Hitchens died so young, feel so enamoured of life even when it is so cruel? That friendship, so strong and so deep, is even compared to the relationship between lovers in Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22. Well, Hitch’s “bequest” is movingly described in this scene, which takes place not long after Hitchens’ death:
We [Amis and Carol Blue, Hitchens’ widow] had both experienced it: an infusion, an invasion of overpowering happiness. Happiness: the delight of sentience … All right, this is what seemed to have taken place. The love of life of the Hitch—the existential amour fou of the Hitch, the “uncontrollable or obsessive passion”—had in part transferred itself to us. And henceforth, we agreed, it would be our solemn duty to maintain it and to honour it.
Life can be cruel and short and terrible. But it is also unique, beautiful, full of things to be wondered at, experiences to be had, ideas to imbibe and people to enjoy. And, says Amis, the two great subjects of literature are love and death. I would nominate these as the two great subjects of life, too. We might say, then, that death, as the cessation of living, necessitates the living and celebration of life. We can do no other, for there is no supernatural consolation to be had. The novel form, Amis argues, is secular, rational and social realist (his many pronouncements on literature and writing in this book are bound to precipitate debate). The novel, then, is an examination of the business of living, and thus intimately connected to love and friendship, as well as to death and suffering.
In the final chapter, these threads all come together via our “three principals”:
Saul Bellow was a phenomenon of love; he loved the world in such a way that his readers reciprocated and loved him in return. The same goes for Philip Larkin, but more lopsidedly … With essayists, the love transaction was more or less unknown until Christopher Hitchens came along—until he came along, and then went away again.
This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love … Love gets put into the writing, and love gets taken out.
Love, then, is what remains when all else fades—and in no other part of life is this truer than in literature. After Saul Bellow’s death, recalls Amis, he and Bellow’s friends and family spent a great deal of time reading Bellow’s work aloud, and that made them feel as if the man was still alive, still conversing, still there. Writers live on in their works, and Amis hopes to live on in his, at least for a while.
The literary life constitutes a constant thread in Amis’s life; he informs us that he has many projects he is working on even now. That transfusion of life from the Hitch remains, then. Amis’s hope to be read for a little while longer, and to foster a deep connection between writer and reader, will be fulfilled in me at least. Inside Story is a monumental and deeply moving ode to life—a book that cannot be done justice in a review, but which simply must be read, through laughter and tears, to be appreciated.