Picture credit: Johnny Louis/FilmMagic
Artillery Row

Rediscovering Martin Amis

He made reading, and writing, fun

The ghost of Martin Amis looms over his obituarists. You can imagine him seeing their clichés — “renowned author”, say, or “capturing the zeitgeist” — and wincing. God only knows what he would have thought of it being claimed that he has “lost his battle with oesophageal cancer”. It was his best friend Christopher Hitchens who said that when you are dying of cancer “the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you”.

As a friend of Christopher Hitchens — and a rhetorical pugilist in his own right — I doubt he’d want people to pretend not to have had problems with his work just because he has died. I suspect that I have said more bad things about his writing than good things (if only because I was not fortunate to be around when his best work was published). Unsatisfied with being an excellent writer, he wanted to be an important thinker. Hence the bizarre overearnestness and strained pseudo-profundity of Koba the Dread (communism is bad) and The Second Plane (terrorism is also bad). He should probably have stopped talking to journalists as well as giving up cigarettes.

I regret losing sight of his achievements

There’s no point forgetting such problems. After all, it will be fantastically hypocritical if after years of poking fun at Mr Amis the British media pretends to have loved him all along. But as the news of his death echoes around my consciousness, I regret losing sight of his achievements. 

“We read literature to have a good time,” Amis said. It isn’t wholly true. No one would claim that reading Primo Levi, say, is an exactly pleasurable experience. But it is partly true, and at his best Martin Amis was a really fun writer. As fiction sales decline, we don’t have enough of that.

Read Money if you haven’t — or if it has been a long time since you have. It is difficult for me to believe that you will regret it. Amis claims his father Kingsley sent the book hurtling across the room when his clever-clever son introduced himself as a character. Hardly the most experimental books can get. Even so, if Money was at all postmodern it was also proof that that need not prevent a novel from being very funny and compelling.

Read The Information. By 1995, when the book was published, Amis’s career was immersed in idle gossip about his wealth, his teeth and his relationships. The novel was a bit of a sideshow. Well, screw that — the book is hilarious. I could laugh thinking about the passages on the hapless Richard Tull’s unreadable novels and horrendous work sub-editing at a vanity press today, and I haven’t read the book in about fifteen years. I’ve forgotten everything about films I watched last week. 

He awoke at six, as usual. He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed.”

I never agreed with Amis and his peers upholding style as the ultimate virtue in fiction. Still, we could use more style today. Perhaps sauce is not the most important aspect of a meal but if you’re served dry dish after dry dish, day after day, you’ll pine for as much as a drop of jus. His filletings in The War Against Cliché might have involved fish being plucked from a barrel and not the open sea — Michael Crichton’s The Lost World and Thomas Harris’s Hannibal — but young writers who read Amis scorn the glib, the stale and the imprecise will make a few much needed mental notes once they have stopped being amused. He was always at his most profound when he was being funny, and his most foolish when he was being overserious. 

“Meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look, and feel, like shit.” Martin Amis was called “overrated” even at the point when most people had stopped rating him. There’s even a novel called I Hate Martin Amis et al (which was a neat marketing trick). Digby Warde-Aldam’s “Martin Amis may be a pompous arse, but he’s our pompous arse” was one of the kinder articles about Amis in recent years (and when someone called Digby Warde-Aldam is calling you a pompous arse you know you have problems).

An idea remains curiously prevalent that something called the “literary bro” reigns and rules in fiction — as if women have not conquered publishing. Perhaps the flat later works of Amis, Ian McEwan and others have contributed to that phenomenon. But young writers could still learn from Amis’s advice to be good hosts — not sycophantic, patronising hosts, that is, but engaging and compelling ones. If you have something to say it should be said with flair — or else it will slide between the ears, swiftly forgotten.

In his often funny, often moving, sometimes silly memoir Experience, Amis wrote:

The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning, and the same ending.

His gift was to make such material gripping — and to rip it open with his wit to find profundity. (For all his later work could lapse into self-absorption, it is to his credit that at the peak of his success he could offer — in The Information — ageless insights into failure.)

Clichés like “era-defining” will get a moment in the sun as the obituarists slave away, feeling the ghost of their derisive subject smoking down their neck. It is unhelpful. He didn’t have great range (struggling to write about women, and politics, and what family friend Philip Larkin might have called “abroad”). But it also understates — and unfairly — his weirdness. It obscures the depths of his obsessions with masculinity, and with memory, and with success, and the mordant and perverse directions of his pen. Perhaps most of his books — even his better books — will end up being remembered as curiosities rather than classics. But perhaps that is no insult. Who wasn’t excited to find an odd book in the corner of the fiction shelves of a charity shop — and, through its pages, enter an unexpected world.

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