Martin Amis is one of the two classic ‘nepo babies’ of the English literature of the 20th Century. As everyone knows, Evelyn begat Auberon, and Kingsley begat Martin. And what was remarkable is how both the Waugh and Amis sons admired their fathers, and, to some extent, imitated them. I spent this morning looking through about twenty of Martin’s books and saw nothing so clearly as that the novels of Amis fils now remind me of those of Amis père: not in what was perhaps most characteristic of Martin: the turbo-charged and exuberant scabrousness of his whimsical version of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism; but certainly in the sentiment, situation and relentless humour, also the attention to language, and, finally, in the occasional intrusion of weighty themes – admittedly more weighty in the case of Martin than in the case of Kingsley.
Now, in this pantheon of great literary fathers and sons I have to say that I rate Martin the lowest. Evelyn Waugh was unparalleled: there is nothing like any of his early novels; and nothing like what is possibly his best single bit of writing, the long opening musing – essentially autobiographical, despite what he said – of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Auberon rather failed as a novelist in the 1960s, being out of time: but imposed his sense of absurdity more closely on his time, especially in the famous Private Eye diaries in the 1970s, but also in his journalism, where he was a rare case of someone who was able to express serious thought in amusing terms. (Consider Heath in drag; working-class children being supposed to eat lumps of coals, fish fingers and dogdirt; politics identified as a form of displaced psycho-sexual depravity.) Kingsley, of course, made his name with Lucky Jim: which bewildered Waugh as much as Decline and Fall had bewildered G.K. Chesterton. Such was the change in the sense of humour across the generations. But Kingsley wandered closer to his characters than Waugh (or drank with them); and there was more affection, more sentiment, less spite. I think Stanley and the Women was an achievement; not, as Martin thought, a stain. But the Amises both wrote much about cock anxiety, a subject avoided by the Waughs. Martin inherited the humour of his father, the language, and the sentiment: and added to it, as I say, scabrousness and, perhaps, a European or American taste for occasional experiment.
The obituaries and recollections have been almost universally positive: by James Wood, Boyd Tonkin, Philip Hensher, Howard Jacobson and many others. But it seems worth, in the Daily Sceptic, thinking about things a bit more critically.
Let’s begin with the undeniable achievement: this is the language. The language was highly worked: highly self-conscious. It was grounded, for a start, on grammar. This is now necessary to say. But its chief characteristic was brightness of tone. Amis seems to have written mostly in the mornings, and perhaps consequently his writing is almost continually hard, bright and clear. There is no haze (except the deliberate haze of unreliable narration). His father found his style at times too bright – and so threw Money across the room. The passage I remembered most clearly from any of the novels is the following. This is from The Rachel Papers in chapter ‘Twenty To’, where a young man is consulting his notes on how to conduct himself in an interview for Oxford. Under Appearance Change Midway he reads the following:
- Enter without glasses on: put them on a) if don over 50, b) if don wearing glasses.
- Jacket unbuttoned: if old turd, do up middle one on way in.
- Hair over ears: if old turd, smooth behind ears on entry.
This seems to exhibit much of Martin’s humour: the situational worldly-wiseman attitude, having to deal with a world which is pretty much a hall of mirrors in which one can out-think the other narcissi, plus all the side characters (the cabbages, cardboard boxes, crisp packets, mobile phones and mandrake roots). There could be a thousand other examples of his very effective humorous style. Calling a chapter on Bellow’s writing “Bellow’s Lettres”, for instance. Amis did a good job of keeping Gore Vidal-style ‘bookchat’ going, much as his friend Christopher Hitchens did. This was quite something in an increasingly illiterate age.
But let us move onto the next point. Amis was aware, perhaps too aware, of death. There was a lot about life and death in his novels, almost from the beginning. But we may take this to have been a typically literary exaggeration of an awareness of time. Not only the time he could play with in Time’s Arrow, but more emphatically the awareness of time passing in one’s own life. Amis, like a popstar, became famous when he was young, about the same age the Beatles were at the time of A Hard Day’s Night. And, unlike a popstar, he was aware he had to grow up. He was aware of this because his trade – literature – required him to be aware of it. Music is, as Schopenhauer told us, a conceptless art. But if one works with a conceptful art, as literature is, then one continually finds that though words can be played as if they are music, they continually refer to life. And life changes, life passes. It turns into – strange extinction – death. Hence all those lines about life and death, of course in Experience, where his father died, and in Inside Story, where his best friend died. But also about Larkin in The Rub of Time: “The life rests in peace; the work lives on.” (Like everyone else, Amis felt obliged to separate the teller and the tale, as D.H. Lawrence had suggested, and as Larkin’s melancholic and scurrilous life seemed to require.) And also about himself, in effect, as in London Fields: “When middle age comes, you think you’re dying all the time.”
The famous line about Martin’s own awareness of this is found in Experience. He reports there that the novel Money was written to illustrate the fact that if one remained childless one would remain childish. (Money was published at the same time as his first marriage and first child.) This is obviously true: even if Niall Ferguson got in trouble for saying it, with reference to John Maynard Keynes. On the one hand, becoming an adult meant getting beyond love-for-lust’s-sake to love, perhaps. (And Kingsley may not have been the best example here. In Experience Martin records that Kingsley said that sex was intensified if one happened to be in love: as if it was a sort of fuel injection system.) But, on the other hand, it meant something else: putting something in the language. Not just humour, wit, tricks, not just tales and characters, not just ‘voice’. No stream of words could justify itself. So Martin had to grow up. And he did so, for better or worse, by dealing with themes, especially political themes. Unfortunately, and relevantly for the Daily Sceptic, this literary master of the last generation, adopted the standard themes of the bien-pensants.
Kingsley would not have done this. Martin commented that his father’s rule was épater les bien-pensants. When asked about his father (in an interview to be found in The Rub of Time) Martin said that their political histories were antithetical. “I have,” he said, “always been pallidly left-of-centre…” This is it. Relevant in the 1980s and 1990s, Martin was, in his last decade, simply incapable of grasping things that we have to hope Kingsley, Auberon and Evelyn would have grasped. But on all the recent problems, Martin was on the wrong side. He had been a feminist since a conversation with Gloria Steinem in 1984. He was admired by Simon Schama and Ian Hislop. He worried about nuclear weapons, in Einstein’s Monsters: “I am sick of nuclear weapons.” And he worried about climate change. He also had contempt for Donald Trump. He thought Brexit was a denial of British decline. I have no idea what he thought about Covid, though I can guess. In short, on everything that has come to matter in the last 40 years – and particularly the last 10 – Martin Amis was worse than hopeless.
One of the great literary critics of our time, Ian Robinson, who died a few years ago – a very late Leavisite – had an explanation for what was wrong with Martin Amis’s novels. He called the phenomenon “Henry James Misunderstood”. What this phrase denoted was cleverness-plus-moral-emptiness. Robinson thought that the moral effect of reading an Amis novel was one of moral exhaustion: exhaustion by subjection to what, in Time’s Arrow, Amis called “latrine talk”. There was a lot of “Celia shits!” in Martin’s novels, from The Rachel Papers (where it was a chapter title) onwards. On the one hand one had to deal with phrases worthy of Stephen Fry such as “pyorrhoeac toothbrush” in Success, but also, in the same novel, sentences such as, “Did you fuck her, you bastard?” As with many novels of the last few decades of the 20th Century one of the great themes was ‘did-you-fuck-her-you-bastard’ and its correlate ‘I think-she-fucked-him-the-bitch’.
What I want to add to Robinson’s criticism of “Henry James Misunderstood” is an additional one: “Insincere Hitchens Moralising.” Kingsley was the father, and Christopher was the friend: ‘The Hitch’, no less. They emerged from New Statesman as a sort of literary band of brothers, Hitchens, Amis, along with James Fenton, also Clive James, Salman Rushdie and others. Hitchens and Amis had an exemplary friendship. They racked around together. They went through the ‘did-you-shag-her-you-bastard’ phase (presumably in the erudite, bold and gaudy style of 1970s speech) and had children at about the same time: respected each other’s wives, and both ended up in America. But whenever we consider Hitchens we have to consider his remarkable, even glorious, Richard Burtonesque voice, adapted for political irony: drawling continually, with capacious insincerity, pretending to care about Cyprus, Mother Teresa, the Elgin Marbles, Iraq, etc. Christopher Hitchens was a wonderful spectacle, but a terrible example as a friend. For Christopher was wrong on everything, just as his brother Peter, by an equal and opposite reaction, has been right on everything. Peter found something to moralise about. But Christopher had to use his colossal moral style of address to coerce his audience into thinking his opponent (whether Kissinger, Clinton or Blair (on religion, though not on war) was inevitably on the wrong side.
I think Martin rather fell in love with this. Sometimes one could hear Christopher in Martin’s voice: drawling in order to win an argument, or to sound right. But Martin was not a Trotskyist, and so a bit of a coward compared to Hitchens. So Amis had to find some themes: the Jews, the Holocaust, Nuclear Weapons, Environment, and, finally, as his last card, Trump. Martin’s essay on Corbyn is formidable: an analysis of the “undereducated” “awkward squad” only redeemed by a vague desire for betterment; but his essays on Trump are abject. And – pause – Martin cited PolitiFact for support. (How can someone who could write: “Keith Talent was a bad guy. Keith Talent was a very bad guy. You might even say that he was the worst guy”, not see Trump as a possible reader of the audiobook of London Fields?) A lot of what he wrote about politics was what could be described as “Insincere Hitchens Moralising”. Even in those masterful autobiographical works Experience of 2000 and Inside Story of 2018 there was an uneasy – I thought – insincerity, even about his own life. One had the sense that Martin had to pose as ‘Martin’ and make it all up, including the feelings. So I found, though not everyone may have found this, that the interesting stories were interspersed with false notes. False notes are evident throughout his writing, but are concealed in the novels by art or “patterned artifice” as he calls it in The Rub of Time. The closer we get to the ‘real Martin Amis’ – whatever that is, but we suppose that it is clearly evident in some of the essays, in bits of Experience and Inside Story – we find the false notes become false themes.
In the end, Martin Amis may have been – as improbable as this may seem – a combination of Kingsley Amis, Irving Welsh, and George Steiner. The Amis bit was the good bit. The Irving Welsh part was the Swiftian consciousness where “Celia shits” was treated not as a shock but as a complacent observation (and observed in turbulent para-popular hyper-real language). The George Steiner part was the habit of juxtaposing life and art in mind-boggling manner. George Steiner had a habit of opening a lecture by sketching a picture of the Holocaust in relation to, say, Wagner opera (by, as I remember, referring to a train leaving for Belsen as the Tristan chord was heard in the distance). He juxtaposed high art and low death: and offered it up as a sort of modernist shock or short-cut, a simple boggle of absolute moral bewilderment. Amis was fond of the same thing, but his distinctive contribution was in adding touches about things such as, in Time’s Arrow, “the clarity and attack of our bowel movements”.
It’s an odd literature, that comes out of Kingsley’s sentimental observational comedy, the enjoyment of “Celia shits”, and the drawl (or whine, since Martin had lighter artillery) of the “Insincere Hitchens Moralising”. Even as sympathetic a figure as James Wood comments that Martin’s “obsessions were all surplus to his true literary vitality”. We may admire his desire, as he said in Einstein’s Monsters, to give “various kinds of complicated pleasure”. We certainly should admire the glory of a brilliant forger of words. But there is no reason to feel any enthusiasm for his views. It is hard to avoid supposing that he more or less made his views up to feign a solemnity he felt obliged to assume in order to earn a success that must have surprised him. While the words burnt bright, the solemnity was as dull as – forgive the cliché, Master – ditchwater.
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