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  • Writer's pictureWriters In The Mountains

The Conversation by Sema Gurun

I was walking past the Gramercy Tavern during the second year of the pandemic when I saw a familiar face sitting by the table in the second window. I couldn't quite place it at first, but then I realized it was Martin Amis—an exciting coincidence. I was rushing to ABC Carpet & Home to look at sofas, but my determination wavered.


I had just read an essay from his collection of essays called The Rub of Time. This type of synchronicity and encounter always seemed to happen to me. It didn’t alarm me, but I was pleased with the way I was connected to my environment, perhaps to the collective unconscious, as Jung called it.


Whenever I read one of his pieces in The New Yorker or his novels, I had wanted to talk to Amis. In his highly engaging memoir titled Experience, based on recollections of the writers in his circle in London, he had asked his readers to approach him and to comment on his books. It is, nevertheless, a rare opportunity to meet authors in New York, unless you follow them as they are promoting a new book. Of course, most of us are a bit too world-weary to follow authors we’ve enjoyed just to engage them in a conversation.


I kept struggling with my determination to look at sofas and a growing desire to meet him and invite Amis for a drink somewhere. To add to the coincidences of life happenings, I had just been talking about him to an English diplomat I met at a dinner party earlier in the week. The diplomat told me that he had recently met Amis at another dinner, and we exchanged some comparisons between Martin and his father, Kingsley, concluding that the elder was more concrete as a novelist and the younger more brilliantly expressive, if a bit scattered with plot. He surprised me with what seemed a verbatim quote of a New Yorker critic who said, “Amis’s style combined many of the classic elements of English literary comedy, but he was hard to make sense of as a literary presence, because he insisted on throwing fizzing decoys in the path of his reputation.”


That, I thought, could describe some of his later novels.


On an impulse I walked back to the Gramercy Tavern and looked in the window where I had seen him sitting. He was no longer there. I was relieved that I didn’t have to rise above my sense of reluctance and make that bold attempt. I turned to go back to Plan A, that sofa, but found myself face to face with Amis. Backing off a bit, I nodded to him and noted that he had noticed me and smiled.


“Hello,” I said.


“Hello,” he replied with a pleasant smile.


Close up I thought he looked a bit pale and gaunt but put the thought aside in order to engage in some conversation with him.


“What a coincidence to see you in New York. I just finished reading your essay on Saul Bellow this morning. Life seems to be full of random coincidences. I wonder if it could be related to quantum entanglement in some way.” Adding an astrophysics phenomenon seemed a bit much, but I had to come up with something that could quickly fill in this short meeting.


“Do you like Bellow?” He asked.


“I’ve liked the several novels of his that I’ve read. He was philosophical in an understated way, wasn’t he?”


“Yes, that would describe his style.”


I looked behind him and saw a couple smiling. “Oh you’re with your friends.”


“Actually, we were about to say goodbye. I’m staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel nearby and was just headed in that direction.” 


“That happens to be the direction I am headed. Do you mind if we walk together?”

I asked.


“I think I would like that. Nothing much has happened to me since I came to town two days ago except for a meeting with my agent and seeing these friends. A writer’s life never seems to change; it’s the same isolated routine wherever you go. Meeting someone so informally feels youthful.”


I smiled and said, “After a certain age I think we lose our social spontaneity, or we pull back from it.”


I went on, “Ever since I read Experience I’ve been wanting to talk to you. That was some years ago, so I can’t remember what it was that had impressed me at the time. Now I will have to read it again to remember.”


“In that case I might have to read it again, too,” he added, as he turned his head and simultaneously exchanged some words with the attractive couple as they were saying their goodbyes.


Then we slowly headed toward the hotel. My apartment was a bit south, but I liked the idea of walking with him to his hotel. It was a perfect early autumn day and the bird migration going through the city seemed at its peak. A male cardinal landed right on the chain that was around the tree in front of us.


“There is much I would like to talk to you about. I’ve been needing to have an open-ended conversation with you for some time. May I buy you a drink somewhere? It seems you already had lunch,” I said.


“Oh, I just met my friends for some drinks. We had some grilled flatbread with tapenade. We didn’t really eat much. What would you think about an early dinner together? Say about six? Can you make that? I have to go back to the hotel and make some phone calls.”


Slightly taken back by the familiarity of our new encounter and how we were both stepping out of our New York detachment, I brushed off the reluctance. He came with credentials, after all.


“That sounds terrific,” I replied. “I seem to have taken a lead here in approaching you. Since you already tried the Gramercy Tavern, why don’t we wander a bit west and eat in the West Village somewhere? Shall I come by and pick you up?”


“Sounds good. Perhaps you could also tell me your name,” he said.


 “Simone Guerin. Call me Simone.”


“Call me Martin.”


“A pleasure to meet you, Martin. See you in a few hours then. Here is my card with my cell number in case there is a change. I can ring you up at the hotel if I am delayed.”


How odd was it that he was staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel? The hotel where Andrew had stayed when he came down from Toronto for the first visit to see me; yet another coincidence. My first interest in Amis came from Andrew. Amis was Andrew’s favorite author. I could certainly see his appeal as a personality as well as an entertaining writer. He also did look a bit like Mick Jagger—an association journalists made that seemed to fit.


I walked home in a state of discomfort from the excitement I was feeling. Not only had I reached out of myself but possibly opened the door to a new and intelligent friendship.


At home, I dressed in my usual go-anywhere outfit: black slacks, white linen blouse, linen jacket and T-strap sandals. I thought the trattoria Morandi might be a good place to have the conversation I had in mind. Good wine, some Carciofi alla Romana, and a bowl of pasta would be good comfort food and casual.


As I wandered home, walking east on 20th Street, I wondered if the Englishman liked fried artichokes. I also wondered who would pay for dinner. I had invited him to drinks and he invited me to dinner. I would probably do my New York City hosting thing and try to pay.


After Andrew and I broke up, I started to read Amis’ books but just couldn’t find a concentrated interest until I read his memoir Experience. Besides being a social history of the period of his life, it was enticing literary gossip.


I had read several of his father’s novels and essays and could clearly see how the father and son differed in literary style. I also found a copy of a novel his wife, Isabel Fonseca, wrote, titled Attachment. In the story she was plaintive about her husband’s drinking. I remembered how the marriage of Kingsley Amis to Elizabeth Jane Howard had failed due to Kingsley’s drinking. Habits seem to get passed down the generations.


I wanted to give him some feedback on his novels and perhaps address his drinking, which was visible in some of his novels. He called some of them, such as Money, “smirk” novels. Could I do this over one dinner, I wondered. It might seem a bit premature. But then he might like having an encounter with someone who cared about him.


I also looked forward to telling him that I had met his friend the late Christopher Hitchens some fifteen years ago at a New York University panel where I was in the audience. The discussion was the Middle East conflict. The year was circa 2005.


We had a lot to talk about, I thought—at least I did—and we even had some people we knew in common. Christopher was Martin’s best friend.


With the stimulus for our talk over dinner settled in my mind, I happily and a bit anxiously walked toward his hotel. It was not every day that I took up a wish and acted on it. Most probably, after our first glass of wine, we would talk about something entirely different from what I had in mind, but then I had a reservoir of questions to keep us engaged.



From Fiction Writing class with Thaddeus Rutkowski


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