It's a Great Plot: Two Novelists under One Roof
Sands, Sarah, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
When writers live together there's a race to plunder the family archive for ideas
A t last week's launch party for Standpoint, the right wing intellectual magazine, I said to Marigold Johnson, wife of Paul Johnson and mother of the magazine's editor Daniel Johnson, that she must be proud of her son (an opening line that works with 99.9 per cent of mothers on this planet). Marigold smiled prettily and referred to a letter her husband had written to Daniel to commemorate the occasion. She had been touched and amused by its Victorian formality and its bashfulness about mentioning the magazine itself.
It made me wonder about dynastic pride. If a family member is in the same area of public life, there is both celebration and comparison. I have been trying to decode Isabel Fonseca's description of her husband's response to her first novel, Attachment. Her husband is Martin Amis. She says that he was " circumspect at first", although he was much more positive once she had done " re-drafting", presumably to his specifications. She adds endearingly that it isn't really her husband's kind of book: he prefers non-fiction. Which may mean that he can only stomach his own fiction.
What were Martin Amis's initial reservations? We can surmise that 1) he thought his wife's novel was no good; 2) he saw an unflattering portrait of himself; 3) he thought the novel was good, but could not bring himself to praise it - instead he offered advice about redrafting; 4) he saw it as a betrayal of Fonseca's wifely duties.
The theme of the novel, which did not seem to interest Martin especially, was of a woman engulfed by her husband's greater status. The heroine is a "clever woman ... living through her husband". One turns to Martin Amis, beady-eyed, for evidence that he is repeating the sins of his father. Kingsley Amis is alleged to have had a brusque response to the literary talents of his son. He accused Martin of "breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself". After that he showed no sign of reading his son's works.
Did Martin Amis experience the same irritation at his wife's stylistic difference? Did he resent her attempt, in some way, to usurp him as the novelist of the family, the king of the castle? She ends her interview with The Independent on Sunday on a graceful note. "Martin Amis is the senior statesman as a writer in our household." You had better remember it.
The trouble with having too many novelists swimming in the same pool is that you exhaust your material pretty quickly. I remember John Mortimer complaining, as a technician rather than a husband, about his first wife, Penelope, for writing novels about their family life, and using up precious anecdotes.
Writing partnerships do exist - Richard Holmes and Rose Tremain, Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd - but they tend to follow different disciplines. You can have novelists and biographers or novelists and poets. But can you have two novelists, mining the same experiences, without literary claustrophobia?
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