Martin Amis: Confessions of a Comic Writer

Laughter in the dark is one way for an author to share his imagination, he says

'I see myself first and foremost as a comic writer,'' explains controversial British author Martin Amis, perched atop a knoll on the Boston Common.

''Reading [Nabokov's] 'Lolita' for the ninth time made me aware of the need to come up with a language that allows laughter its full complexity and range. We don't just laugh out of high spirits. We laugh to express many kinds of emotions -- shame, happiness -- as well as the usual spectrum of irony and comedy.

''Laughter is a very serious matter.''

The court jester who speaks the queen's English, Mr. Amis takes aim at the profound pettiness of the literary world in his new novel, ''The Information.'' He is the sardonic sartor who outfits his characters in recognizable clothing before stripping it off in ways that help to mend a fast unraveling world.

''Without writing -- without that higher layer where you look for form and pattern and timing and humor -- life would seem appallingly random and incomplete,'' says Amis.

''Comedy,'' Virginia Woolf wrote, ''walks the highways and reflects the trivial and accidental -- the venial fault and peculiarities of all who pass in its bright mirror.''

And in the world of letters, shaped indelibly by the trivial and accidental, Amis has found a microcosm for the curious dramas that play themselves out in private lives. Take the protagonists and antagonists in ''The Information.'' In both Richard's waxing misanthropy and Gwyn's waning relevance, readers glimpse, however reluctantly, aspects of themselves. ''The reader is an artist himself,'' Amis says. ''I think it's all to do with an intimate symbiosis with the writer. What you do is spend a chunk of hours in very close contact with someone else's imagination,'' he explains.

''The writer by himself is only three quarters of the circle; he needs a reader to close the circle. A writer is nothing without a reader,'' avers Amis, a devotee of Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow.

''You could almost say that writing is half about writing and half about life,'' Amis suggests. ''With Nabokov, you feel very much that books are about books, that words are about words. With Bellow, you feel very much that books and words are about life. And I think, that in my personal solar system I am in between the two: I write less about books than Nabokov and less about life than Bellow.''

In a New York Times Magazine profile of Amis published more than five years ago, Bellow placed Amis alongside Joyce and Flaubert for his passionate fidelity to language. He also acknowledged the ''very large outline'' of Amis's work to support the lofty comparison.

Bellow's praise, which Amis describes as ''slightly embarrassing and gratifying,'' now appears on the dust jacket of ''The Information.'' The feast of language that is Amis's fiction in part justifies his place among the literary luminaries.

The existence of a grand scheme, however, seems suspect. ''Any pattern my work might have only becomes clear in deep retrospect. You're just writing the novels that are there for you to write,'' Amis says. ''All this talk about development and career curve comes absolutely after the event -- ex post facto entirely. Writing really is a rather romantic and instinctive business.''

Has Amis exhausted what he calls his habitual subjects, namely sex and violence? ''I felt maybe that I was completing an informal trilogy with this book,'' he says, ''but that might be an illusion. 'The Information' may be the kind of novel I'm going to write forever.''

Then mercurial Martin's eyes widen. ''But perhaps something unexpected might happen in my next novel.''

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