Finding success writing of failure Unnecessary details: If you leave out all that extraneous rumpus, Martin Amis' life looks pretty good.

April 15, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Martin Amis regrets everything about the information, but nothing about "The Information" -- except, perhaps, all the extraneous information, those miles of column inches about his personal life that had little to do with his book, and much to do with its subject, literary envy.

"I'm tired of saying I'm tired of saying I'm tired of saying I'm sick of it," the British novelist says quite cheerfully, sitting in a patch of sun in a plaza near his hotel.

The information, which comes at night to men of a certain age, is the certainty of death and the mid-life crisis such knowledge provokes. "The Information," now in paperback from Vintage, is Mr. Amis' darkly comic story of literary envy.

And the extraneous information, what Mr. Amis calls the rumpus? Well, that was basically everything England ever wanted to know about Mr. Amis' marriage (ended), his teeth (fixed), his literary agent (replaced), his advance (fattened), and his friendship with the writer Julian Barnes (ruptured).

"One tends to think with publicity it doesn't matter if it's good or bad, but I think a lot of bad publicity, in the end, is just a lot of bad publicity," he continues. "I would say about a third to a half of the reviews were completely contaminated by it, all that resentment having to do with the rumpus."

It was too perfect: A novel written about literary envy had provoked literary envy, although Mr. Amis demurs at this summation: "That's not for me to say." In a nutshell: Other writers seemed to resent Mr. Amis' $800,000 advance, won after Mr. Amis had replaced long-time agent Pat Kavanagh (who is married to Mr. Barnes) with Andrew Wylie, an American.

The details of Mr. Amis' personal life -- his failed marriage, his expensive dentistry -- were thrown in as a kind of a bonus.

His eighth novel, "The Information" was treated more generously here. The New York Times praised it as a break-through: "Here . . . all the themes and stylistic experiments of Mr. Amis's earlier fiction come together in a symphonic whole."

"Americans sensed this was more a story of England than a story about me -- because it was," he says, somewhat generously, as this American interviewer has just brought it up again. "Talk about a storm in a teacup. This was a tempest in a thimble. The trouble with that rumpus was, unlike other rumpuses I've been in, it raised no issues, it was gossip pure and simple."

Mr. Amis is an old hand at both sides of the interview, a book-tour veteran who also has written profiles of writers such as John Updike, Nicholson Baker and V. S. Prichett (one of two British writers he admits to reading; the other is his late father, Kingsley Amis).

But the balance has shifted. As Madonna once decreed, Mr. Amis is becoming too famous to be the interviewer. And that was before "The Information."

Now 46, he started "The Information" and his own mid-life crisis about the same time, six years ago. "I did lots of things in between, including 'Time's Arrow,' which started out as a short story and turned into a short novel. I wrote a film script.

"And my life fell apart, too." He is talking about the end of his marriage to Antonia Phillips, the mother of his two sons. "That's a little time-consuming. 'The Information' was written in a heat of a crisis. I'm over it now, by the way."

Did he really have a mid-life crisis? "Oh, yeah, big-time. When you're young and you look ahead and you hear about a mid-life crisis, it sounds so corny and undignified, and you think 'Ah that's for weak-minded chumps.' Then, when it happens to you, you realize it is corny and undignified, but it's to do with your own life, it's to do with things you haven't faced."

"The Information," which Mr. Amis describes as a comedy of frustration, was inspired, in part, by a contemporary of Mr. Amis' father, yet another writer. This writer had produced two or three well-received books early in his career, then gone on to write 13 novels, none of which were published.

"We both looked at each other wondering if we would stick at it," Mr. Amis says of himself and his father, whose career spanned 40 years. "We decided we would, or hoped we would."

In "The Information," Richard Tull is struggling with his latest book, "Untitled" and, even less successfully, struggling with his feelings about the writer Gwyn Barry. Gwyn has written a universally inoffensive best seller called "Amelior" and is now a finalist for the Profundity Requital.

In the tradition of Aristophanes and the Road Runner cartoons -- this is Mr. Amis' description -- Richard hits on several plans for revenge, only to be thwarted repeatedly. Meanwhile, "Untitled" is making its rounds of publishing houses, felling virtually everyone who attempts to read it. The rest of the time, as the Boston Globe notes, Richard "smokes and drinks, and drinks and smokes, and thinks about drinking and smoking."

"Nothing ever happens to novelists," Mr. Amis writes. "Except -- this.

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