Spoiler alert: This column is entirely, unapologetically, about writers and writing.
Last week, three literary lions of late 20th-century London gathered in New York City to read and make merry. “The occasion,” wrote Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times, “was a rare joint appearance by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, the literary equivalent of a concert by the Three Tenors—or perhaps a friendlier version of the Yalta conference, with three longtime allies jostling to carve up whatever territory might still be controlled by big-dude British literary novelists of a certain age.”
For readers of a certain age, too, mention of “big-dude Brit lit novelists” brings up fond memories—in my case, of loitering for hours among the shelves in the British Council, back when it was still in New Manila, and of competing to borrow the latest poetry or fiction in hardback. When I finally saw McEwan and Amis in person in separate events last year, I was struck (and grateful, to be completely candid) by how much they continued to look the part: the austere intellectual, the clever cosmopolitan. Perhaps writers suffer unfairly from their readers’ expectations, not only about what they write (or should be writing about) but even about how they look; McEwan and Amis may well have been indifferent to or even dismissive of these expectations, but in that role of the Writer as Public Figure they sometimes assume, they did not disappoint. (They were also kind enough to sign books I brought with me.)
The Times story skillfully conveyed the sense of joy, the writerly excitement in the “sellout crowd,” that the Roosevelt-Stalin-Attlee of British fiction generated.
One example. Apparently, the late Christopher Hitchens loved word-substitution games, and his three friends still remember many of his winning choices. “One of the more family-friendly ones,” the Times noted, was to “substitute ‘hysterical sex’ for ‘love’ in famous titles, as in ‘Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera.’”
(Here’s another one we can contribute from the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Of Hysterical Sex and Other Demons.”)
The Times then went on to record:
“When he took the stage, Mr. Amis halted the applause that greeted him with a firm ‘Stop, in the name of hysterical sex!’
“But he was perhaps bested by Mr. McEwan, who declared to his two friends, ‘Even though the Atlantic Ocean lies between us, the hysterical sex between us is undying’.”
* * *
Once, I did see a three-star constellation up close: Amis, E. L. Doctorow and Margaret Atwood were guests at a New York Times forum in May last year, moderated by film critic A.O. Scott. They had a political subject—nothing less than the United States of America—to discuss, but their insights were decidedly literary.
The ebullient Atwood used Moby Dick as a metaphor. “I think that Melville designed it very carefully to represent a number of different segments of American society. It wasn’t for nothing that he named the ship after an extinct native tribe and put three harpooners in there from different parts of the empire and made the owners two hypocritical Quakers.” (That quote is from a WNYC report. The following is from the notes I took.) She took aim at corporations which refused to die, and then said: “Just think of Ahab as a CEO who’s gone off the rails.”
Amis was sharp (“with sinister instantaneity, the Americans started writing world novels, these huge bursting novels”) but reserved special scorn for the American strain of racism. In the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, he quoted his child’s black godfather: “The death of a young black male is of not much concern to the police.”
Doctorow was the angry prophet. “We were becoming a distortion of ourselves,” he lamented, saying George W. Bush had “blasphemed, if you think of our Constitution as a sacred document.” And to highlight the absurdity of the security state that the United States had become, he said: “Joseph K in ‘The Trial,’ he had a hard time, but no one ever asked him to take off his clothes.”
One particularly fascinating exchange was the role of time in fiction (Doctorow has written famous historical novels; Atwood is a science fiction pioneer.)
“I think all novels are about the past, actually,” Doctorow said. “You can write novels from a sense of time, not just a sense of place. I don’t write historical novels, I write eternalist novels.” (At this point an impish Atwood interrupted: Well played! Well played.)
Atwood argued for a different view. “Even if you’re writing about the past, you’re writing about the present.”
“The present doesn’t exist either,” Amis said. “It’s always in the process of turning into the past.”
* * *
I joined the line to have the books I brought on the bus from Boston signed. Ladies first, so Atwood was seated at the right of the signing table, where the line began. Doctorow sat in the middle; Amis on the left. When Doctorow saw my battered copy of “Lives of the Poets” (which I had actually reread on the four-hour bus ride), he said: “Oh, I remember this edition.”
I had not known it before the words spilled out of his mouth, but it was exactly what I wanted to hear.
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