Monday, November 20, 2006

House of Bleatings

Work was even more boringer than usual on Saturday so I spent some time reading the piece on Martin Amis in the Good Weekend. The interview was weighted towards the biographical - apparently the only person not sick of hearing all those painstakingly premeditated insights into Kingsley, Julian, Fred (West), Joe (Stalin) and the gang is Amis himself - with the journalist responsible even admitting that she'd never really liked Amis' fiction. It was a puff piece, really, although it did offer another example of the way Amis is attempting to reposition himself as a grand old poet-statesman. Formerly quick with a cutting phrase or apt metaphor, he now peddles maudlin sentiment and sub-Bellovian generalisations. For example, on the "elderly pleasure" of gardening: "Now the idea of something growing... that's why people take up gardening when they're old. They want to be around growing things." The guy is 57; imagine how insufferably contemplative he's going to be in ten, twenty, thirty years.

Another point of interest was the "revelation" - previously revealed in almost every profile of Amis published in the last decade - that he doesn't read contemporary fiction, or at least none written by people younger than he is. Amis sees literature as an ever-raging, every-man-for-himself contest, the prize being not glory but the preservation of one's ego: "...if there's a new novel that's been much praised, I'm unlikely to look at it, partly because you don't want to think, 'Jesus - he is good... or she is good'..." But he is also, I think, pretty closed-minded about literature in general. He clearly sees himself as belonging to a narrow mainstream strand of Anglo-American post-war writing - Roth, Bellow, Updike, Rushdie, etc. - and his idea of an "ultramundane" writer is Kafka or the thoroughly Anglicised Naipaul brothers. The Amis "canon" is almost Leavisian in its austerity: Bellow and Nabokov, of course, Austen, Fielding perhaps, Amis pere, and, yeah, that's about it. He's obviously read a good deal more than that, but you would hardly know it to listen to him. As much as I enjoy Amis's criticism and reviews, it's disappointing that he seems ever more inclined to shy away from the new, the different. It reminds me of that famous anecdote about Kingsley Amis throwing his son's novel Other People across the room in disgust. Who knew that being a contemptuous snob was a genetic condition?

The article also got me thinking about Amis' steady decline over the past ten, fifteen years. Amis has been accused of narcissim but I think his problem - and, paradoxically, his strength - is closer to solipsism. His intense focus on his own self has allowed him to create some extraordinarily vivid depictions of pathetic little men: Charles Highway, John Self, etc. The result is a clutch of novels that (I think) are hilarious and grotesque, with a refreshing absence of sentiment. I disagree with The First Tuesday Book Club's Jason Stegar who criticised The Rachel Papers' "absence of heart". On the contrary, it's when "heart" starts creeping into Amis' work - when he starts taking not only himself but his subject seriously - that it begins to falter. He just can't pull it off, and the result is a book like House of Meetings in which the lively phrase-making of old is replaced by rote Amisisms that are usually, and unsuccessfully, roped into saying something - about Russia, about the 20th century, about the human condition. It is utterly tedious stuff, pandering to the kind of reviewer who is quoted in the GW article: "his books lack real emotional bite; we do not care what happens in them." I find this absurd. Do we care what happens in Decline and Fall or in Saki's short stories? Not in the sense intended by the reviewer just quoted, but I think we do care - or at least become engaged - on some level, or else we wouldn't read the books. I would argue that the creation of an empathic connection with a reader is simply another tool that the writer may or may not employ. So my criticism of Amis' recent fiction is not merely that he doesn't succeed in creating such a connection, but that he actually attempts to do so in the first place.

I could go on. For a bog-standard magazine profile, the GW piece certainly yielded plenty to ponder. I find Amis difficult to write about, so I hope these thoughts haven't been too hazy or haphazard.


Nick said...

No, I think you said pretty much everything one can about Amis these days. But I'm pretty sure it was Money that Kingsley Amis threw across the room, at the point where the character "Martin Amis" appeared.

Tim said...

Yes, I've checked and you're right. Maybe Kingsley threw Money across the room because it was a lot better than the stuff he'd been reduced to writing by that point. Or maybe he was just insufferably rude and obnoxious.