Friday 26 May 2023

James Wood on Martin Amis

This is James Wood on Martin Amis-

"Drop me down anywhere in America and I’ll tell you where I am: in America.”

America is vast. Large swathes of it are almost empty. How could one tell if one were in Alaska rather than Canada or Siberia?  What great difference in topography obtains across the Mexican border? Do the stars shine brighter or is the Moon a different shape? 

Perhaps Amis meant that he was ignorant of America and wished to stay that way. He didn't care to learn anything about it. Drop him down anywhere- Mount Rushmore, the Niagara falls, the Grand Canyon- and he'd shrug his shoulders and say 'how banal! Must America insist on being so tediously American?'

Perhaps you need to be a slight stranger to this country to formulate American ubiquity in this way—as comic tautology, as wry Q.E.D.

No. You'd need to be a shithead who thinks that just because all Americans- to some supercilious European snobs- seem alike, therefore that vast land must also be homogeneous in some declasse, if not vulgar or meretricious, manner.

Quite often, in the last twenty years, I’ve found myself driving along some strip development in Massachusetts or New York State, or Indiana or Nevada

or a British motorway or German autobahn

for that matter, and as the repetitive commercial furniture passes by—the Hampton Inn, the kindergarten pink-and-orange of Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-fil-A’s chirpy red rooster—I’m suddenly seized by panic, because for a second I don’t know where I am.

Because, unless you are a highway patrolman, chances are you don't know precisely where you are. I frequently get lost on my morning walk down to the river at Hammersmith. For some reason I keep ending up at Parsons Green.  It's the sort of thing which makes you question your choice of Single Malt as a breakfast beverage. 

The placeless wallpaper keeps unfurling.

More particularly if you have been driving for hours and still haven't got out of the car park. 

And then Martin Amis’s sentence from his great early book of journalism,“The Moronic Inferno” (1986), appears in my mind, as both balm and further terror: well, wherever exactly I am, I’m certainly “in America.”

Though you may have crossed into Canada or Mexico- which isn't a clever thing to do if you are of my complexion and don't have your papers with you.

So at least I laugh.

White privilege! 

One definition of literary value might be the number of any given writer’s phrases or images that appear unbidden in the mind as you are just going about your day.

 That's not a definition. It is a metric. The Bible wins. 

For me, Amisian jokes and tags have for a long time made up part of the useful poetry of existence.

Amis believed that good poets are bad drivers. Novelists are good drivers. Amis didn't want to be remembered as a phrase maker like Fredrick Raphael. He had larger ambitions though what they were precisely none cared to discover.  

When I’m bored or otherwise unhappy about reviewing another book, those wicked lines about the book reviewer Richard Tull, from Amis’s novel “The Information” (1995), swing into view: “He was very good at book reviewing. When he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed.”

Whereas when Woods now reviews a book what stays reviewed is our dim and fading memory of having thought he showed promise. 

I always wondered which Bengali Social Choice theorist Amis was sending up in that book. If it was Sen, Sen got the last laugh. 

Whenever I see a photograph of Saul Bellow, I recall, with a smile, Amis’s description of the American novelist as looking “like an omniscient tortoise.”

Bellow looked....light on his feet. Dapper, I suppose, would have been the mot juste.  

Still, a hunched nebbish wearing outsize horn-rimmed spectacles might- at one time- have answered to Kinglsey's mental image of James Michener or Arthur Hailey. 

Encountering smokers in contemporary novels or movies, I think often of John Self, the narrator of Amis’s novel “Money” (1984): “ ‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.”

I must admit I initially thought Will Self was an invention of Martin's. But Will thought he was an intellectual. The Amises may have had their faults, but that was a solecism they never committed. 

City pigeons, with their dirty gray necks like hoods? The wonderfully silly sentence from “London Fields” (1989) comes to mind: “The pigeons waddled by, in their criminal balaclavas.” Criminal balaclavas!

The SAS wore balaclavas. Thugs pulled nylon stockings over their faces and wore sheepskin jackets because they'd grown up watching the Sweeney. Amis had an international upbringing. He could easily have ended up as a big wheel in Hollywood. London was rather flattered that he chose to write about it. But he was less of it than Will Self.

Or what about that beautiful and complexly funny description, from the memoir “Experience” (2000), of how Amis’s large, ailing father, Kingsley Amis, fell to the ground on Edgware Road, in London: “And this was no brisk trip or tumble. It was a work of colossal administration.”

Colossal administrations collapse in slow motion- I suppose that is why the phrase is effective in context.  

Over the years, in our household, as my wife and I witnessed our own large, ailing fathers fail and fall, how many times did we recite to each other, as rueful comfort, as stinging recognition, and as saving comedy, those words: “a work of colossal administration”?

Colossal administrations are no match for God's mysterious economy. Economia, in this context, means management. I suppose the native English speaker catches nuances in the language which us Babus need spelt out. Sadly, 'White Guilt' means people like Wood will no longer help us in that regard. Instead they wax lyrical about stupid shit by the likes of Megha Mazumdar.  

Amis’s style combined many of the classic elements of English literary comedy:

or just comedy 


monstrous exaggeration- i.e. a thing too big to serve its own purpose

and its dry parent, understatement;

dry nurse, maybe. A sense of weakness, of vulnerability, is what father's exaggeration. It is a childish quality which can be winsome. 

picaresque farce; caustic authorial intervention; caricature and grotesquerie; a wonderful ear for ironic registration.

you can have a ear for a particular vocal register and, by extension, a tone of voice. But registration- i.e. how somebody else is registering what is being said- is something we must intuit or guess at using 'theory of mind'. 

Take that phrase, “a work of colossal administration.” Sterne, Fielding, Austen—above all, Jane Austen—might have recognized its mixture of cruelty and mercy.

One may say to someone you love 'how did you manage to hurt yourself so badly?' The tenderness here is conveyed by suggesting that it would take considerable planning and coordination to defy Providence in so egregious a manner.  

The Austen of “Emma,” the satirist who describes the irritating Mrs. Elton’s large bonnet and basket as her “apparatus of happiness,”

her readers would have taken the use of the Latin word, rather than the more Gallic 'apparel', as itself putting the woman in her place- a job best left to another woman though, no doubt, there were plenty of good female Latinists at the time. 

would have seen exactly what Amis is doing here.

But so would everybody else.  

To fall to the ground massively, slowly, with great difficulty, is an act of labor that wins from the writer that cumbersome word “administration.”

But it fit well with the notion that colossal administrations collapse in a manner as monstrously slow and bureaucratic as the calamities they concoct. The Soviet Union collapsed. Sadly, the CDC did not. 

And the cool Latinate tease of it is funny. But it also hints, more tenderly, at what will be needed of us—our administration, as we struggle to lift the almost deadweight up off the street.

That is work, not administration. But God's mysterious economy is the invisible hand which does the real heavy lifting. Not bodies, it is our grief which no set of sturdy pallbearers can bear away.  

The entire drawling phrase ironically distances something that’s unbearably painful and intimate.

Unless irony is what we do for a living, in which case it is ready to hand as a small pleasure- like rage.  

Or take, as another example, a line from “Experience” that I often think smilingly of. It’s a sentence about travelling with Amis’s friend Christopher Hitchens, and how the two men had to stop regularly “for the many powerful drinks and the huge uneaten meal without which the Hitch could not long subsist.”

You're not an alcoholic if you order a big meal- right? You are a bon viveur, a gourmand, a Regency buck- not a deeply boring wino.   

That’s B-grade Amis, not especially flashy by his standards. But note the way that powerfully drinking

imbibing strong drink with shaking hands is not the powerful draining of the flagon by the bardic hero

and hugely not eating

If you aren't going to eat, why not show you can afford to order plenty of dishes?

comically balance and cancel each other out; and how the genius is all in that little word “long,” with its absurd logical contradiction of Hitchens subsisting—no, needing to subsist—on huge uneaten meals.

But the 'powerful drinks' were needful. It is often thus for those who outlive their promise.  

On page after page of Amis’s work, you find this kind of attention to the comic music, to the careful sardonic orchestration, sounded and built up word by word, that constituted his brilliant style.

Surely there is more to Amis than that? His style was influenced by the 'Martian' poetry of Craig Raine and Christopher Reid. But did it actually have anything to say? Nation may speak unto Nation to some good purpose but, as Reagan's America would discover, if Aliens make contact it is only to probe our rectums. 

But Amis was hard to make sense of as a literary presence, because he insisted on throwing fizzing decoys in the path of his reputation.

He insisted on being paid a fuck ton of money for a shitty book. 

The Englishman’s adoration of the foreignness of Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, the comedian’s yearning for seriousness and soul, the borrowing of deep “themes” (nuclear disarmament, the Holocaust, Stalinist terror, Islamic extremism)—these obsessions were all surplus to his true literary vitality, which was comic and farcical.

But none of his books was laugh out loud funny. Kingsley had Lucky Jim but Martin thought farce was beneath him.  For yucks you were welcome to go to Tom Sharpe. Clive James, I suppose, was witty and erudite. But, like Edmund Wilson, the guy learnt Russian. Come to think of it, Saki must have learned Russian. But he kept quiet about it. There's such a thing as trying too hard.

Like a number of postwar English writers, he chased after the things he flagrantly lacked,

whereas prewar English writers would chase after things they were desperate to get rid off 

idealizing the qualities he found most difficult, or was simply unwilling, to enact in his own literary practice.

Non Christians in this country find it difficult to understand how some native English writers can appear wholly immune to what is finest in their literature.  

(Iris Murdoch’s admiration for the vital and utterly free characterization of Tolstoy and Shakespeare might be another example of this odd English questing.)

It is very odd indeed to admire Tolstoy and Shakespeare unless, of course, you aren't English. Wood himself confines his adulation to the works of Benny Hill. Old Etonians can be very conventional in that way. 

How often, for instance, this most knowing, this least innocent of writers found himself praising—as if in mystified wonderment—the “innocence” of a Joyce or a Bellow.

Too often? Please Sir, is that the right answer?  

But Amis never sounded like a Jewish-American novelist who was almost born in Russia, or a Russian novelist who emigrated into his own estranged English.

who might that be? Nabakov? But Nabakov grew up knowing English. So did Madam Blavatsky. But she had a thick Yorkshire accent.  

He sounded like a funny English writer

who didn't want to be funny because that would be vulgar.  

very keen not to sound like his father, the comic novelist Kingsley Amis—

he wrote one funny book 

and this was all the delight his readers needed or wanted.

His readers suspected he might be smart. The sad thing is, he was smart. 

This writer who wrote so persistently about the “moronic inferno” of the modern (pornography, urban dreck, “America,” the brutal state of the British nation),

could at best aspire to the limbo of virtuosity 

whose novels seemed to abound in postmodern tricks (a novel told backward, walk-on parts for characters named Martin Amis, and so on) wasn’t really modern at all: stylistically, he came cackling and chortling right out of the eighteenth century.

No he didn't. The eighteenth century was a time of expanding horizons when ideas were being cast in Augustan marble. Amis's England was already too little to be usefully belittled.  

In fact, the modern writer that Amis most obviously resembled was quite far from the high pantheon of Bellow and Nabokov, though he was admired by both Amis and Hitchens.

and Waugh and T.H White. Rudyard Kipling praised 'Lord Emsworth and the girlfriend'. 

It was that muscleless magician, that popular purveyor of timeless comic fertility and posh silliness, P. G. Wodehouse.

This is foolish. Wodehouse owed much to WS Gilbert. His plots were all sinew and no fat. He was fond of egalitarian America but considered Dulwich a veritable Eden.  

The clues were littered all over Amis’s work. His first major novel, “Money,” posed as an Englishman’s wised-up attempt to “do” mid-nineteen-eighties New York, seen as a hellish but endlessly alluring island of strip clubs, pornography, and simmering racial unease. But the New York of “Money” isn’t Tom Wolfe’s painstakingly reported dystopia of the same era. It’s an endlessly amusing, wholly invented universe, a world stripped of actual reference and filled with in-jokes and mad wordplay.

It is shit.  

In “Money,” for instance, the city’s hotels are teasingly named after literary models (the Ashbery, the Bartleby, the Cymbeline).

It so happens that I am a very boring and stupid person. Nice English ladies would reproach me for my clumsy conversational overtures by suggesting I was being 'a tease' or, in one case, 'a wag'.  I suppose Wood is doing something similar here. 

Wodehouse invented a magical alternative slang for ordinary objects: in his Jeeves and Wooster stories, the head becomes the onion, the lemon, the bean, the coconut (“I was still massaging the coconut”); beard becomes fungus (“fumbling at the fungus”), and so on.

Wodehouse was doing musical comedy without the music. His Latinate syntax allowed the holding in place of complicated systems of assonance though the thing appeared as effortless as the warbling of a songbird intent on, as so many avians are, a career in Actuarial Science.  

Likewise, in “Money,” Amis swaps words for their sillier siblings: an apartment becomes “a sock” (“I peer through the spectral, polluted, nicotine-sodden windows of my sock”),

which is what good, corn-fed, American adolescents masturbate into 

hair becomes “a rug”

rug was always American slang for wig 

(“His hair was that special mad yellow, like an omelette, a rug omelette”), a bachelor pad (or bachelor sock, indeed) smells of “batch.” And so on.

Because Amis's style was so so.  

Amis wrote a great deal about the decay of the body, about violence, ill health, tawdriness, perversion, and historic nastiness of all kinds,

That's what happens when Narcissus becomes self-aware. His mother, it will be remembered, begged for him the boon of not knowing himself.  

but the atmosphere of systematic and high-spirited comic exaggeration always pulled the sting from his reality:

Otherwise he'd have been Tom Sharpe 

“Refreshed by a brief blackout, I got to my feet and went next door.” “Wearing only a cigarette, I fetched myself some orange juice.” There’s no real distress or danger

and thus no real comedy 

in Amis’s fictional worlds, only words: America is “America.”

and literature merely something that uses up office supplies.  

It’s why his best novel was also his most weightless, and the closest he got to replicating the campus farce made famous by his father in “Lucky Jim.” I mean “The Information,” his ridiculously funny book about literary rivalry and drudgery.

 Max Beerbohm understood mimetic rivalry. He said the last word on the subject back when books mattered and authors were as doves sent out from the Ark while yet waters covered the earth. 

In that novel, the hapless reviewer Richard Tull—he whose reviewed books stay firmly reviewed—finds himself on book tour with his old friend and rival Gwyn Barry, a much more successful writer. The two men are in America, and a stray, rapid, utterly gorgeous sentence is flourished to evoke the bewildering variety of bookshops that Richard will encounter in his swing through the States: “the bookshops he would come to know, the Muzaked and mallish, the underlit and wood-paneled and pseudo-Bodleiaic, the disco-Montparnassian.”

Disco-Montparnassian. . . . Only words? An Arden of words

Adam in Eden gave all things their names. It seems, what Ghalib said of India- that it is an Eden without an Adam- became true of an England shorn of its Empire- but only to its indigenous wits. But only if they didn't have no tits. J.K Rowling showed that the place was as ardent as ever for what Literature needs to save itself from becoming 'Literature'. Stories, good stories, stories which live and grow in the mind, are the hypokeimenon of the soul. Amis's oeuvre, at least in memory, was as but a horcrux of bile. No doubt, that is an unkind judgment. But being a couple of years older than Wood, I feel entitled to make it. The London Amis described was no 'stony-hearted stepmother' to those who possessed talent regardless of gender or color or class. We have all profited from their flourishing.  I myself, thanks to Amazon, can now sell you a book more toxic to read than any Amis could have fathered on Richard Tull. This may not seem a great achievement. The thing is little enough but it is mine and mine alone. 

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