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An Amis Reader
My thoughts on Martin Amis, followed by some of my favourite Amis bits.
Most of his books go on too long, especially the best ones. He relies on mechanical plot devices, which he barely pretends to care about. His women are sketchy male fantasies, much less charismatic than his men. He reaches for profundity more often than he achieves it. As a social commentator, his ideas are half-formed and deformed. As a critic, he struggles with writers who have legitimate aims different to his own. As a self-critic, or self-reader, he is hopeless.
All this is (mostly) true, so why are we even talking about Martin Amis? Why has his final exit from the scene felt like an oak tree falling? Perhaps it’s simply that he is “overrated”. In recent years this has become a bien-pensant opinion, the thing to say. There is some truth in it. For a time, for quite a long time - say from the late eighties to the late nineties - Amis dominated British literary scene to an unhealthy extent. His remarkable string of Booker Prize losses - totted up like snooker championships - only burnished his anti-hero allure. He was the writer who set the rules of the reputational competition. Novelists and journalists wanted to write like Amis, with his verbal swagger, his elegantly savage wit, his Dickensian ambition to nail everything at once, his minute attention to the cultural zeitgeist. Novelists of comparable or superior talents, who happened to be playing a very different game, like Hilary Mantel, were consequently kept in the shade.
I fell in love with him in the late nineties, when he was still in his pomp. I read London Fields first, then Money. I couldn’t believe how funny they were, how alive and audacious, how brutally honest. I read more of his novels, short stories, and as much of his journalism as I could find. I went to see him talk. I had never - have still never - witnessed such seamless eloquence, perfectly punctuated sentences unspooling in soundly constructed paragraphs, all of it delivered in that thin but satisfying drawl. I later learnt that he always had some ready-made riffs to hand - of course he did, and why not - but the effect was hypnotic and unforgettable.
Everything he said was authoritative, too - the last word. This is how to think about fiction and the novel; this is not. Not that Amis set rules, exactly. Mostly he implored us to pay the closest possible attention, more attention than is reasonable, to the meanings, music and rhythm of words. The War Against Cliché, his anthology of reviews and criticism, basically defined how I think about words and therefore how I think about thinking (others have said similar this week; I guess it wasn’t just me, then). There is his stated case, his “campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” Even more powerfully, there is his example: the way he picks out the fleas from the sentences of Thomas Harris or Michael Crichton, or holds those of Nabokov and Austen up to the light for our admiration. He is earnest and he is funny, and insists that anyone who doesn’t have a sense of humour is not a serious person.
I stopped reading new Amis novels about ten years ago, though I still devoured his articles on literature right up to his twelfth essay on Larkin or fifty-seventh on Nabokov. I lost interest in him as a fiction writer partly because he underwent a long artistic deterioration, becoming more mannered and portentous, and less funny, but also because I was carried, like driftwood, by the current. Amis had become a byword for anachronistic male obsessions, a literary Loaded. The fact that I had more of his books on my shelves than any other author came to seem mildly embarrassing. But if he was overrated once, he then became underrated. Perhaps, after his passing, we can rate him about right.
I didn’t read the The Rachel Papers in my first flush but picked it up a few years ago at the urging of my friend Pam (thanks Pam). I found that I enjoyed it more than anything I’d read in the previous decade. It wasn’t the best novel I’d read. It is limited in the ways I set out above, except that it isn’t too long or too “deep” - those flaws developed later. But every paragraph contains some breathtaking verbal invention, every page overflows with scabrously funny imagery. I read it again this week. It is immoral, unpleasant, shameless, indefensible. It brings out the worst in me. I adore it. Many readers will find The Rachel Papers rebarbative and unreadable. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say I could never be friends with someone who doesn’t love it, but I would say I could be friends with anyone who does.
The revival of my admiration for Amis has been nurtured by the tributes to him written in the wake of his death. That there have already been so many good ones (I suspect they’ve only just started) tells us a couple of things. First, that he was personally liked by other writers. Someone who works on a national newspaper told me that when they put out a call to writers for instant appreciations last weekend, they got far more than they bargained for and had trouble fitting them in. Amis was unfailingly encouraging to younger novelists. He saw novel-writing as a vocation - as the vocation - and if you told him you were launching yourself at it, you were offered a cigarette and a beer and sympathy and welcomed to the tradition.
Second, and more importantly, very few writers have had such an enduring influence on the language, and on the minds of people who love or work with words. The influence extends far beyond male wannabes of a certain age. Zadie Smith was a great admirer (he reciprocated). The Indian-American critic Parul Sehgal declared (in an otherwise critical review of his last book), “I write under the sign of Amis”. I love how, in her piece, she evokes the shocked delight she felt upon reading him for the first time, in her youth - the intensity of it, the feeling that he was writing just for her.
When Geoff Dyer nervously introduced Money to his Californian graduate students recently, he found that one of them - “a radical feminist, stripper and sex worker” - loved the novel so much that she volunteered a long and passionate essay on it. Like Sehgal, she said she felt that Amis was writing just for her. I’ve been happily surprised by how many journalists in their twenties and thirties cite Amis as a touchstone, as James Marriott did this week (Janan Ganesh clearly writes under his sign). The influence extends beyond books. Jesse Armstrong’s dialogue is suffused with Amis; no Succession without Success.
Amis rarely appeared short on self-confidence and could seem maddeningly oblivious to his blindspots as a writer, but I think he knew a little more than he let on. He needed all that front to keep going as long as he did. He hinted at something like this when he said, in what I take to be self-deprecation, slyly and wittily disguised as bravado, “if the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form.”
Those who say he didn’t write great novels are not necessarily wrong, but they are rather missing the point. There have certainly been better novelists over the last fifty years, but none who have composed so many indelible sentences, word pairings, neologisms, paragraphs and scenes; none who generated so much laughter, and few who set so many minds aflame. That counts for something; in fact I think it counts for rather a lot. The prose was there, all right.
Much as I’ve enjoyed the appreciations of Amis this week - and I’ve linked to some of my favourites are below - the best bits in them are always the Amis quotes. I sometimes think that’s all I want from an appreciation, actually. So, having failed to include many quotes above I’m going to lay some out for your delectation below, randomly selected. They’re a combination of quotes that are permanently stuck in my brain with others that I’ve been reminded of or introduced to in the eulogies, and some that made me laugh or shake my head when re-reading this week.
"Hemingway argued that the bull fight was not a sport but a ritual, a tragedy, in fact, because the bull can never win. What, then, is the bull's tragic flaw? That he's a bull?" (footnote, Experience).
On meeting John Updike in the 1980s: “…those busy eyes of his, the set of the mouth (as if containing, with difficulty, a vast and mysterious euphoria), his turban-shaped hair still forcefully thriving, his hands on the tea tray so much firmer than my own.”
“My characters are banalities, delivered with tremendous force.”
(I don’t know if he wrote this down somewhere but I heard him say it on the radio once.)
“I have always derived great comfort from William Shakespeare. After a depressing visit to the mirror or an unkind word from a girlfriend or an incredulous stare in the street, I say to myself: 'Well. Shakespeare looked like shit.' It works wonders.”
“Norman looked up from his paper and said, with scorn but without disapproval: ‘Fuck and coffee is it? Just fuck and coffee.’”
The Rachel Papers
“The reviewer was…a humourless worthy. And by calling him humourless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo.”
From The Rachel Papers, Charles Highway, the narrator, on his older sister: “Even on her vacation visits from Bristol, I never masturbated about her once. However, I did masturbate about her - electrically - all through last Christmas holidays.” (‘electrically’! Better than ‘electrifyingly’).
Interestingly, Mrs Bladderby had an even wreckier mother, who was eighty and had, moreover, during a recent outing, got her left leg slurped into a dreadful piece of agricultural machinery…” (slurped!)
The Rachel Papers
Review of a book by Gay Talese, in The Moronic Inferno: “The trouble is that almost anyone could have written it…The style may be parodied at random: ‘Each evening that summer, Keith Krankwinkel would motor out in his cream convertible to the Santa Monica duplex of Doris Dorkburger. As Doris prepared their first evening drinks, Keith would admire the graceful contours of her…’” Talese doesn’t ‘use’ this style: it uses him.”
From an interview with Truman Capote: “I had read somewhere that Capote’s voice was thin and high. But nothing prepared me for this quavering, asthmatic singsong, a mixture of Noël Coward and Lillian Carter. Turds, ee-bait, innerstain and wide-ass, for instance, are his renderings of ‘towards’, ‘about’, ‘understand’, and ‘White House’.”
The Moronic Inferno.
His name is Norman Mailer, king of kings: look on his works, ye Mighty, and - what? Despair? Burst out laughing?
Review of Mailer biography, The Moronic Inferno. Mailer stayed reviewed.
On watching joggers in Central Park: “Go home, I say. Go home, lie down, and eat lots of potatoes. I had three handjobs yesterday. None was easy.”
“I heard the ragged hoot of sirens, the whistles of twowheelers and skateboarders, pogoists, gocarters, windsurfers. I saw the barrelling cars and cabs, shoved on by the power of their horns. I felt all the contention, the democracy, all the italics in the air.”
Money, in New York.
“As I zipped myself up, a pigeon clockworked past on the pavement eating a chip. A chip. Like horseflies and other creatures who direct and star in their own tiny films, the pigeon lived in fast motion. It naturally preferred fast food. City life was happening everywhere ... Flies get dizzy spells and bees have booze problems. Robin redbreasts hit the deck with psychosomatic ulcers and cholesterol overload. In the alleys, dogs are coughing their hearts out on snout and dope.”
Money, in London. (clockworked!)
Keith in football mode from from London Fields is too much to type out so here it is.
From a review of The Lost World, by Michael Crichton, actually overall positive, believe it or not: “When you open The Lost World you enter a strange terrain of one-page chapters, one-sentence paragraphs, and one-word sentences. You will gaze through the thick canopy of authorial padding. It’s a jungle out there, and jungles are ‘hot’ sometimes ‘very hot’…Out there, beyond the foliage, you see herds of clichés, roaming free.”
The War Against Cliché
Review of Hannibal by Thomas Harris, overall not positive: “‘He plays with his eyes closed. He has no need of the sheet music’…By now, I think it should be clear that Lecter is of that stratospheric breed of men to whom the world is but a gout of pulp, infinitely pliable to their wants and whims. He is (in other words) that awesome presence, a European aristocrat. Supercapable, he has ‘no need’ of this and ‘no need’ of that. In fact, he has no need of ‘need’: Given the choice, he - and Harris - prefer to say ‘require’. Dr Lecter doesn’t really care how aristocratic he is because ‘Dr Lecter does not require conventional reinforcement.’ Out buying weapons - or rather, out ‘purchasing’ weapons - he tells the knife salesman, ‘I only require one.’ Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say ‘How may I assist you?’”
The War Against Cliché
“It occurs to you that Ulysses is about cliché. It is about inherited, ready-made formulations, fossilised metaphors—most notably those of Irish-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. After all, prejudices are clichés: they are secondhand hatreds.”
The Rub of Time
“Conrad was the kind of writer who kept his eyes open when most of us would prefer to keep them shut.”
On his best friend, Christopher Hitchens: “One of the things I’m proudest of is that friendship. We never had even the slightest froideur about disagreements. I think it’s a good rule never to lose a friend over an argument. Never get into those sincerity contests: ‘I feel so strongly about this that I never want to see you again.’ Rubbish.”
And great drunken bees, throbbing orbs that seemed to carry their own electrical resonance; when they collided with something solid—tree bole, statuary, flowerpot—they twanged back and away, the positive charge repelled by the positive.
The Pregnant Widow
“The air itself was thick. Thick and weak, as if the room was about to faint.”
(Not sure of source - quoted by James Parker here).
“Microscopic diffidences”. It’s from a description of a man writing a note to a woman on a business card in tiny writing, I can’t remember where from.
“This is the way that it goes. In your mid-forties you have your first crisis of mortality death will not ignore me.); and ten years later you have your first crisis of of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me). But something very interesting happens to you in between…As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get that sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself; That went a bit quick…Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.”
The Pregnant Widow
“The main events are these ordinary miracles and ordinary disasters. In the ordinary miracle, two people go into that room and three come out. In the ordinary disaster, well, I was going to say that two people go into that room and only one comes out. But in fact only one person goes into that room and none comes out.”
“Ageing isn’t the accumulation of wisdom or knowledge. It’s constantly improvising to meet new circumstances.”
Interview with Jude Rogers.
“I can’t pass a pram without sticking my head in it to have a look. You have to allow yourself to go soft as a father. It just seems obtuse not to.”
“The main thing I’ve learnt in my life is that smoking and drinking is great. The Romany have one word for smoking and drinking, which is ‘rompen’. I love that: rompen.”
His parting gifts to Hitchens, on his deathbed: a kiss and “a skeleton staff of cigarettes”.
“I don’t want this to get out of control or I’ll be drowning in schmaltz, but it all starts to look very beautiful now that I know I’m not going to be around indefinitely. You know, the way that to a prisoner condemned to death, water tastes delicious, the air tastes sweet, a bread-and-butter sandwich makes tears spring to the eye.”
From his review of United 93: “Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes blank. We can’t tell if it will survive us. But we can be sure that it’s the last thing to go.”
A few more Amis resources. My favourite appreciations of him include this week’s tribute from James Wood (who did more than anyone to help me appreciate Amis in the first place) and a 2012 piece by James Parker. Other good ones include Sam Leith from 2014 and Leo Robson from 2020. Parul Sehgal, Dan Kois and Jason Zinoman have done a fantastic (too short) podcast series on Amis books, I love the way they talk about him, full of love, exasperation, and laughter.