When I sat down to make notes for this review the first and most pressing problem I arrived at was that Martin Amis is my superior. This is not sycophancy. It is an acknowledgement of where I stand in the pecking order, and an early excuse for any stylistic faults that may undermine my authority to cast judgement on his latest collection of essays. In other words, I surrender. If I could wave a white wordless page at you, I would.
My feelings are similar to those of Salman Rushdie and Amis after they read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Rushdie, on the phone to Amis, said he sat down to write the next day and ‘there was nothing. Not a phrase, not a word.’ Amis told him not to worry. It happens to everyone. ‘That’s what Bellow can do to you, with his burning, streaming prose: he can make you feel that all the phrases, all the words, are exclusively his.’ I read Augie March earlier this year and thanked the gods of print I was not obliged to review it. After all, what would I say? It is simply too good. Also, how could my own paltry prose-style rise to the occasion? Amis declared Augie March the Great American Novel in an essay for the Atlantic in 1995. It is reprinted in The War Against Cliché. At the end of the piece, Amis gives up trying to convince you of Bellow’s genius in his own words. Instead, he consecutively quotes nine paragraphs of the novel.
In some ways, you don’t know anything about Amis’s work if you haven’t read Saul Bellow. He is everywhere in the novels and criticism (someone, somewhere, must have written a thesis on the formal sea change in Amis’s novels circa. 1984. It is here, in Money, when Bellow’s influence clearly moves in). There are three essays on Bellow in The Rub of Time, each one coupled with a piece on Nabokov and included in sections called ‘Twin Peaks’. The title is instructive. Amis consistently erects hierarchies of talent. So, those two Munros of modern American fiction sit alongside the Corbetts of John Updike, Philip Roth, and, occasionally, Don Delillo. Together they form an authoritative vanguard of American novelists.
In the second essay here, Bellow is pitted against his only real competitor for all-time greatness: Henry James (Melville is not far behind). It is also where we first come across Amis giving away his critical hand (now, you see why I gave away mine in the opening paragraph): ‘Praise and dispraise play their part in the quality control of literary journalism, but when the value judgement is applied to the past its essential irrationality is sharply exposed. The practice of rearranging the canon on aesthetic or moralistic grounds (today such grounds would be political – that is, egalitarian) was unanswerably ridiculed by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). To imagine a literary “stock exchange” in which reputations “boom and crash”, he argued, is to reduce literary criticism to the sphere of “leisure-class gossip”. You can go on about it, you can labour the point, but you cannot demonstrate that Milton is a better poet than Macaulay.’
Amis’s position is that ‘Judge Time’ will be the ultimate arbiter of quality. This is slightly disingenuous. After all, what endures nowadays is simply what brings the money in. Amis, however, cannot help himself. He is addicted to his job as a judge of quality. His final decision on Bellow vs. James relies less on the method of ‘philosopher-king’ Frye, who sought to identify grand archetypes and epic patterns, and more on the analytical, William Empson school of criticism. Amis pillories James’s ‘elegant variation’ of style (the phrase is ironic) as a sign of ‘broader deficiencies: gentility, fastidiousness, and a lack of warmth, a lack of candour and engagement.’ Bellow’s ‘verbal surface’, however, is never short of ‘visionary.’ And, unlike James, he did not finish up writing against the reader. To the end, he wrote out of love.
If Bellow is Amis’s novelist par excellence, who is his poet? In the twentieth century, at least, it is Philip Larkin. Any appraisal of Larkin must consider how his peers have derided him since his death. After the private letters and the biographies were published, the demotions came flooding in to the letter pages of esteemed literary journals. In the early 1990s the unedifying picture of the man came to represent his verse. Amis manages to rescue the work whilst acknowledging Larkin’s life ‘was a pitiful mess of evasion and poltroonery’. The poems contain, among so much more, a ‘frictionless memorability’ rare in contemporary verse. Even the most piteously uncultured amnesiac could not fail to remember, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’
Still, we live in an age where writers gain credibility from moral virtue regardless of their technical skill or originality, especially in Scotland, for some reason. Rarely has it been more problematic to cleave, as Larkin did, to the ‘Yeatsian principle: “perfection of the work rather than perfection of the life.”’ (Larkin haters should note: if life was perfect, there would be no art.) Ad hominem assessments of Larkin, and anyone else for that matter, won’t go away any time soon. It is the price we pay for turning writers into celebrities.
For all his conviction and authority, Amis, once again, can’t help but issue the caveat that criticism’s long search for a ‘value system – a way of separating the excellent from the less excellent’ that goes right back to Aristotle’s Poetics is a ‘fool’s errand’. (Yes, it does get tiring: this is from a review of Don Delillo’s The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories: ‘Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable…’) So, it soon becomes apparent that any review of Amis’s non-fiction must be an assessment itself of what makes for good literary criticism. Not many critics could get away with rubbishing the ‘value system’ their own trade depends upon. Amis does, and the reasons why are worth looking at, but they are all sub-categories under the main heading: authority.
There has never been a good critic who has not sought to establish their authority over the reader. Of course, the intention is never obtuse. Critics don’t just pop-up like an old aristocrat and start telling people what’s good and what’s not (at least they don’t anymore). Instead, they employ a whole armoury of stylistic flourishes, subtle knowledge-markers and aesthetic props. One of Amis’s finest weapons is his ability to slide a writer’s sentences under the verbal microscope.
In his four-page review of Updike’s posthumous book, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, for example, he dedicates two and a half pages to demolishing Updike’s prose. There are no references to any secondary considerations, like ‘themes’ plot or character, only a brief aside to remind us that Amis still regards Updike as a titan (he assumes the great man, in his senescence, was ‘losing his ear’). Amis – who has a magpie’s eye for picking up gold nugget quotations – gives us a ‘blizzard’ of them as evidence (quotation, he tells us in the introduction to The War on Cliché, is the only hard evidence a reviewer can provide for their readers):
‘…take this (from the title story) as an example of a sentence that audibly whimpers for a return to the drawing board: “He was taller than I, though I was not short, and I realised, his hand warm in mine while he tried to smile, that he had a different perspective than I.” This isn’t much of a realisation; and by the time you get to the repeated “than I”, the one-letter first-person pronoun (which chimes with “realised” and “mine” and “tried” and “smile”) is as hypnotically conspicuous as, say, “antidisestablishmentariasm”.’
Amis acquired his acute awareness of sentence tone from his father. In The Rub of Time there is a self-castigating and enlivening essay on The King’s English, elder Amis’s guide to modern usage. His father’s battle, which the son has carried on fighting, ‘is in essence directed against the false quantity, in its non-technical sense. I mean those rhymes, chimes, repetitions, obscurities, dishonesties, vaguenesses, clichés, “shreds of battered facetiousness” and “shopworn novelties”.’ From a writer’s perspective, Amis demands you pay attention. After reading him, you sit at your desk a little straighter and concentrate a little harder on your syntax. He also – because of his assiduous command of English – demands the critic’s prose measures up to what is under review.
With great style comes great wit. Amis has said that a joke is an assertion of superiority. In one of his essays on Bellow, he quotes the ‘artist-critic’ Clive James: ‘“A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgement and should be trusted with nothing.”’ There is a long tradition of the critic as joker, and humour is one of best ways for a critic to establish their authority. Dorothy Parker perfected the art. Her weekly book reviews for the New Yorker during the Jazz Age make one hurt with laughter.
Amis is consistently witty, not least when writing about the President of the United States. His May 2016 essay is, in essence, an attempt to read Donald Trump’s books, including The Art of the Deal and Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again. His intention is to understand the character of the man who, on the cover of his world-changing polemic, ‘hammily’ scowls ‘out from under an omelette of makeup and tanning cream (and from under the little woodland creature that sleeps on his head).’ Amis reports back that ‘in the last thirty years Trump, both cognitively and humanly, has undergone an atrocious decline.’ In other words, as Trump has become more powerful, he has become more stupid.
Of course, The Rub of Time is typically erudite on subjects like this, but there are not many perfect books and this one has its peaks and troughs. A few scraps of journalism should have been left in the vaults. Although, Amis’s short piece on ‘The Tims’ of the world is fun hackery at its best. It should be posted up in postnatal wards across the country as a warning for anyone even considering – God help them – Tim as a potential name for their child. The ‘personal’ sections that include answers to questions sent over email from readers should be left open to a passing breeze; that way you can move on swiftly to Amis at his best, when he is assessing the literary greats: Amis on Iris Murdoch, Amis on Bellow, Amis on Nabokov, Amis on Roth.
Come the end, we must ask ourselves what ‘Judge Time’ will make of Martin Amis. There have been years of vicious media attacks on him, which have no doubt dented his reputation and his book sales. Nevertheless, when we look back with a clearer and more honest eye, surely, he will be considered one of the finest novelist-critics of our age? Of course, only the haruspices among us know the answer to that. But, if he does not finish near the top, someone, a critic perhaps (not a follower of Northrop Frye, please), will need to wind back the clock, take a close look at the literary-cosmic order and work out just what the hell went wrong.