Terence Blacker: The funniest writer of our generation

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The Independent Online

In these distinctly unfunny times, it a rare benediction to be able to enjoy one of those unexpected moments of pure comic pleasure which break through like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. It happened to me while reading this weekend's newspapers and, briefly, all was right with the world. Martin Amis was back and making me laugh.

Only later, while re-reading the interview with Amis, did it occur to me that what I had taken to be one of his comic routines - he was once, after all, the funniest novelist of his generation - might actually have been meant seriously.

Talking about his forthcoming novel House of Meetings, Amis revealed that he had gone through a terrible struggle ("a bit like life and death"), experiencing feelings of authorial guilt. "I was writing about penal servitude above the Arctic Circle when I was living in a house in Uruguay with my beautiful daughters and wife, having a stressless existence because that's what it's like down there - beautiful people; superb manners and civility; wonderful attitude to children; park anywhere you like... And I realised when I'd done the book that I had to really suffer as a writer."

This is tremendous, knockabout stuff. Amis has written hilariously in the past about the insecurities and self-importance of writers but this picture of a sleek and successful novelist, blessed with a beautiful, rich wife, sweet children and a colour-supplement lifestyle with nice manners and excellent parking facilities all around, trying to whip himself up into a state of suffering about something he had written was superbly judged. But Amis went further, revealing that his situation had caused him such anguish that at one point, he had begun to think of suicide or, worse, giving up writing. In the end, he recognised what had been happening: he had been "doing the suffering to earn the book".

This was not, I fear, a tease. Martin Amis has always been good at reading the spirit of the moment with the cold eyes of a writer. A couple of books ago, he was telling interviewers that this country leads the world in decline and any serious novelist was looking westward. "English genteelism can be inhibiting, and British writers are gravitating towards America... You need a ladder to write about, not a horizontal surface." Now, living on Millionaire's Row in the "Switzerland of South America" - about as horizontal a surface as can be found anywhere in the world, one might think - he is worried that there is a price to pay. Those spiteful journalists, and possibly even readers, might notice a marked disjunction between what he writes and how he lives.

Personally, I think one can over-play the existential agony of a well-heeled novelist. Guilt is in the air, with our own undeserved ease contrasting uncomfortably with the equally undeserved misery elsewhere, but to think that, in order to understand pain, an author has to go through it is to turn writing into a sort of performance art. The idea of "doing the suffering to earn the book" may conform to a romantic ideal popular in creative courses, but is not actually true.

A novelist has the choice of trudging around the globe in search of material or gazing at the world through an office window or, as in this case, from beside a well-appointed swimming-pool. To choose the second, and then to blub to the press about how it has made you suffer, may be funny but it is also a bit undignified.

Reflection of these wild times

Now the environment is big news, it is odd how often news from the wild seems to reflect everyday prejudices of the human world. A couple of years ago, a middle-brow newspaper reported that a large, black woodpecker was about to invade the country from Germany, threatening indigenous species. Now another dark invader, the American mink, is reported to be "devastating Britain's fish, aquatic birds and mammals".

But there is good news. Otters are fighting back, often chasing off the alien mink. Before this approach to nature's asylum-seekers is too warmly applauded, it should perhaps be pointed out that our brave otters also devastate fish, aquatic birds and mammals, and rather more than mink, needing to eat 20 per cent of their body weight every day.

* No one should try to strangle his wife, but there will be some people who, in their secret hearts, will understand why Mr and Mrs Watson of Northumberland had such a row they ended up in court this week.

The couple, ardent Christians, had been celebrating Mr Watson's birthday by watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Mr Watson took against the way the crucifixion was handled, and pulled leads out of the the TV. Later, when Mrs Watson tried to tune into The God Channel, he attacked her. "It was the devil who made him do it," she said.

Why does poor old Satan always get blamed? Like violence and porn, religion should not be viewed to excess. The Gibson film - blood-soaked, sadomasochistic and biblical - combines all three of these dangerous influences.