TWENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, Martin Amis wrote, “You can become rich without having any talent (via the scratchcard and the rollover jackpot). You can become famous without having any talent (by abasing yourself on some TV nerdothon: a clear improvement on the older method of simply killing a celebrity and inheriting the aura). But you cannot become talented without having any talent. Therefore, talent must go.”
To illustrate: “Literary criticism, now almost entirely confined to the universities, thus moves against talent by moving against the canon. Academic preferment will not come from a respectful study of Wordsworth’s poetics, it will come from a challenging study of his politics—his attitude to the poor, say, or his unconscious ‘valorization’ of Napoleon; and it will come still faster if you ignore Wordsworth and elevate some (justly) neglected contemporary, by which process the canon may be quietly and steadily sapped. A brief consultation of the internet will show that meanwhile, at the other end of the business, everyone has become a literary critic—or at least a book reviewer. Democratization has made one inalienable gain: equality of sentiments. I think Gore Vidal said this first, and he said it, not quite with mockery, but with lively scepticism. He said that, nowadays, nobody’s feelings are more authentic, and thus more important, than anybody else’s. This is the new credo, the new privilege.” (Foreword to The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000, 2001)
Twenty-three years ago, the literary canon, let’s say the Anglo-American canon, had already begun to be demolished, for overwhelmingly extraliterary reasons. Then the word was “relativism”, or nonsense like “positive reinforcement” (mocked by Gayatri Spivak in a talk hosted by the late Swapan Chakravorty 20-odd years ago where this writer was in the audience) by which professors had to cheer even the stupidest question asked in class. It was the relativism of everything, of my opinion and yours, of fact and fact, of fact and fiction. And yet, this democratisation was a liberal moment, after all, quaintly Voltairesque in its self-delusion. Unlike our Stalinist-woke reign of terror today. Except for the fact that the offence industry, with little irony, was born out of that “equality of sentiments” too, just about the time the twin towers were pulled out of the Manhattan skyline.
Martin Amis’ prose is loud, uncontrollably inventive, unabashedly exhibitionist. ‘Provocative’ does not do it justice. The ‘vow of poverty prose’, as he called it, was not for him. He preferred the ‘king in his counting-house’
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That Martin Amis, who died on May 19 in Florida of oesophageal cancer, the self-same malady that had claimed his dear friend Christopher Hitchens in 2011, and at the self-same age of 73 at which his father, Sir Kingsley Amis, had died in 1995, had a more productive time as a novelist in the 1980s and 1990s than after the dawn of the new century may have had something to do with the entrenchment of the new credo. But then there’s also the fact that Amis—married to the tail-end of the 20th century, the definitive Mick Jagger (oh, the unfairness of it… Amis was surely the better-looking of the two!) of the literary world in the rockstar super generation of Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, and, of course, the Hitch—did with the 1980s what Neruda’s spring does with the cherry trees. You’d be hard put to name a novel that captured the greed and hollowness of Thatcherite Britain before and after Money (1984) with that perfect tool—black comedy. Amis’ prose is loud, uncontrollably inventive, unabashedly exhibitionist. ‘Provocative’ does not do it justice. The “vow of poverty prose”, as he called it, was not for him. He preferred the “king in his counting-house”. Let’s call it the literary baroque of Martin Amis.
After the high of his London trilogy—the transatlantic Money, London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995)—came the fall. London Fields, denied its place on the Booker shortlist by what in retrospect could be called an activist scandal, never left critic and reader in any doubt, unlike The Information (a savage comedy about a novelist’s worst nightmare coming true—his best friend becoming a bestseller) which, partly inexplicably, never won much critical warmth while it justifiably fuelled another scandal thanks to the £500,000 advance its author demanded and secured. By the time Yellow Dog (2003) appeared, the least rewarding decade of Amis’ career as a novelist had already begun—the same decade that would seal his reputation as perhaps the sharpest British critic of his generation on either side of the Atlantic. No irony there. Amis, out of Oxford, began and continued as a critic and a literary editor, notwithstanding the Somerset Maugham award won by his debut novel The Rachel Papers (1973), just like his father’s debut Lucky Jim (1954) had done in 1955. Although few born into literary aristocracy carry on the “family business”, Amis Jr’s talent was the exception that proved the rule. And yet, that would be the only prize he would ever win.
After Amis’ death, Kazuo Ishiguro said, “For all the bite of his satire, the brilliant swagger of his prose, there was always something tender not far from the surface, a yearning for love and connection.” That tenderness was seen not just by his friends and, later, students. In a complicated, even convoluted way, it defined his problematic relationship with his father (who had, in Amis’ supposition, put down Money the moment the character called Martin Amis had walked into the orbit of John Self, with the public denunciation: “Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself”) revisited in his memoir Experience (2000): “two people go into that room and only one comes out”. That was Amis on the death of his father. No loudness, no drawing attention to himself, but an understatement poignant because of its matter-of-factness. Wit, minus the acerbic. The tenderness was evident with Saul Bellow, the real intellectual father-figure in Amis’ life. It permeates his cleareyed appreciation of the genius of Nabokov.
Obituaries of novelists, unlike those of poets, rarely do justice to their critical output, especially if they have been prolific in both arts. Amis the critic brought to the fore the essential morality of a writer who never ceased pulling amoral characters and anti-heroes out of his hat. Perhaps this was a consequence of that tenderness too, a softness that made Amis an idealist. But what is literary morality? Reflecting on the dead pursuit of “literature and society”, or “Lit & Soc” as it used to be called, and his own life in the early 1970s, Amis wrote: “My private life was middle-bohemian—hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube; I always had about me my Edmund Wilson—or my William Empson. I took it seriously. We all did.” Long after the death of Lit & Soc, here’s the first credo that Amis left us with: “You proceed by quotation. Quotation is the reviewer’s only hard evidence. Without it, in any case, criticism is a shop-queue monologue.” Don’t read into your critique what’s not there between the pages. And the second credo: “[A]ll writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.” Two collections, The War Against Cliché and Visiting Mrs Nabokov: And Other Excursions (1993), along with Experience ought to be essential reading beyond tailored courses.
THE AWARD INDUSTRY’S refusal to acknowledge him—Time’s Arrow (1991) did make the Booker shortlist—added to the Amis mystique. The generation of younger writers, most famously Zadie Smith, that Amis, as the arch transmogrifier of Thatcherite and post-Thatcher Britain, influenced, nay begat, wouldn’t have it otherwise. If the “world is like a human being. And there’s a scientific name for it, which is entropy—everything tends towards disorder,” then, in the words of one of those younger authors (Irish writer and academic Kevin Power), “He showed me that literary language could be equal to the chaos and stupidity of contemporary life.” Behind his insistence on post-Dickensian naming (“My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me”), the twin preoccupations of nuclear Armageddon (Einstein’s Monsters, 1987, was the reaction of a life lived under the threat of anytime nuclear war) and the Holocaust, or the state of England as late as Lionel Asbo (2012), or his fulltime obsession with death, life as entropy is the signature theme of Martin Amis.
Obituaries of novelists rarely do justice to their critical output, especially if they have been prolific in both arts. Amis the critic brought to the fore the essential morality of a writer who never ceased pulling amoral characters and anti-heroes out of his hat
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Long before The Zone of Interest (2014), on which Jonathan Glazer’s Cannes-acclaimed film is loosely based, Time’s Arrow used reverse chronology to make a Holocaust doctor return to the womb, that is, become unborn, and thereby undo the Holocaust, creating a new race out of Auschwitz. That’s why, Amis’ move to bigger ‘history themes’ with The Pregnant Widow (2010)—the beginning of his own late style, as Rushdie had famously said of Philip Roth’s American trilogy—was not out of character or out of depth. Like Hitchens, Amis was always political, even when he was accused of dealing with “banalities delivered with tremendous force”. While Hitchens, once the committed leftist attacked by Amis in Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002) for failing to condemn Stalin’s crimes, decidedly moved to the right, perhaps there’s some truth in Amis’ observation that he himself never moved, it was society that did, placing him right of where he had always stood. And yet, after the revelation of the transatlantic aircraft plot, he had to apologise for the comment “There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’” Did that make him Islamophobic? Amis and Hitchens did provide an intellectual ballast to George W Bush when the poor man was being called a war criminal for chasing Al Qaeda.
Going beyond the ashes of Thatcherism was not unbecoming of Amis. If we read some of the last novels as they are—say, House of Meetings (2006) as a gulag romance; Pregnant Widow as the feminist revolution recast as a sex comedy; Lionel Asbo as a return to the satire of yob England; and Zone of Interest as the banality of evil— then we find the old Amis in the new. What matters is being read after you are dead. Rushdie told The New Yorker after Amis died, “He used to say that what he wanted to do was leave behind a shelf of books—to be able to say, ‘from here to here, it’s me’. His voice is silent now. His friends will miss him terribly. But we have the shelf.” And Bellow thought Amis merited comparison with Flaubert.
But what do you do when the canon is smashed? “In the long term, though, literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy. This isn’t the decision of some snob of a belletrist. It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don’t.” That isn’t prophetic but common sense, not least because it came from a writer who had had intimations of his own death even as a young man. Amis’ semi-autobiographical novel and his last, Inside Story (2020), where Hitchens, Bellow and Philip Larkin return from the dead and are then returned to the grave, foreshadowed his departure. He had been practising saying goodbye since at least 1995: “The information is telling me to stop saying hi and to start saying bye.”
Perhaps Amis’ real, and only, enemy were the humourless. In a 1984 Observer piece called ‘No Laughing Matter’ (collected in The War Against Cliché), he wrote: “The humourless have no idea what is going on and can’t make sense of anything at all.”
Less than 30 years ago, in ennui’s dream kingdom between school and college, I had picked up a copy of Success (1978), Amis’ first structural use of the doppelgänger motif. A novel Anthony Thwaite had called, in what could be the last judgment on its author, “a moral homily from which all traces of morality have been removed”. A little more than a decade ago, I ran into Amis in the flesh. There’s his autograph. But what I can’t forget are the intense eyes that seemed strangely lifeless, as if they had seen all there was to see but couldn’t stop looking on.