Martin Amis Essay

Martin Amis has in his life generally toed what he calls “the Flaubertian line”—the belief that writers generate their boldest imaginative success by keeping things stable and routine at home. His novels contain little coziness and much mass murder, their daring perhaps leveraged by his own domestic regularity. Amis’s more serious tabloid brushes—over a change of literary agents, in the nineties, and a change in residence, from London to Brooklyn, in 2010—have been widely spaced and personally resented. He fights an inclination toward grudges (“acrimony pageants”) and, now and then, with weariness or exasperation, has had to cudgel back against charges of misogyny and, more lately, Islamophobia. (“What I am is an Islamismophobe.”) He remains needlessly concerned about “left-handedness”—the slackening that can happen “when writers of fiction turn to discursive prose.” His nonfiction books now number half as many as his novels, and the connection between both stretches of the shelf is organic and secure.

“The Rub of Time” (Knopf) collects two decades’ worth of Amis’s journalism, including a good deal of what he would call the “ludic” Amis—middle-aged Martin playing tennis or poker, watching football or its hooligans. The reporting pieces have a fair share of old chestnuts (the book-tour essay) and barrelled fish (a Republican Convention), but none is without its stinging pleasures: the “little Restoration” effected by Princess Diana’s death, or the corpulence of Las Vegas, where a casino-goer’s huge wheelchaired body “[seeks] the lowest level, like a domestic flood coming down a staircase.”

Still, the inclusion of many such pieces points to a completist need that Amis himself once noticed in John Updike. (“It is hard not to be startled by a sixty-word citation to Thornton Wilder.”) A salute to John Travolta’s comeback is resurrected, trailing a new penitential footnote that apologizes for the author’s undue optimism about his subject in 1995, and a very dated piece on the pre-Pornhub porn industry grinds on, further distracting a reader from the book’s heart, which is its literary criticism, labor that allows Amis to realize his most comfortable and integrated self: a novelist engaged in the scrupulous appreciation of others’ style.

Closing in on seventy, he has by now spent decades outside Kingsley Amis’s fading shadow, but his literary psychology remains distinctly more fils than père. His deepest considerations and loyalties have all involved literary father figures. Most of those are now dead, but Amis, having sometimes reviewed their books while they lived, still tends and ponders their achievements through the posthumous appearance of letters or adaptations or previously unpublished works. By my count, adding up what’s in this new collection and three previous ones—“The Moronic Inferno” (1986), “Visiting Mrs. Nabokov” (1993), and “The War Against Cliché” (2001)—there are five takes on Philip Larkin; seven each on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth; nine apiece on J. G. Ballard and Updike; and ten on Vladimir Nabokov, the most baroque of all the statues in Amis’s personal pantheon.

Amis has always wanted to see Nabokov as someone resembling his own critical self—essentially, a “celebrator,” a man whose darkness and severities have been overstated. He marvels, for example, at the lambent, kinetic description of a train platform on the first page of “King, Queen, Knave,” where Nabokov seems to bless and improve a world engendered by God and man. In earlier essays, Amis took note of Nabokov’s disdain for sympathetic identification with fictional characters, and also of his belief that artistic effect was everything, the descriptor more important than the described. Nabokov’s declaration that “for me, ‘style’ is matter” remains almost fearfully thrilling to Amis. When writing about Bellow, whose Napoleon Street in “Herzog” feels to him as nourishing and electric as Nabokov’s railway station, Amis goes so far as to declare that style, being “intrinsic to perception,” is, finally, “morality.”

But Nabokov presents a peculiar moral difficulty. In 1987, writing about “The Enchanter,” Amis described “the nympholepsy theme” as being “no more persistent than Nabokov’s interest in doubles, mirrors, chess, paranoia.” By 2009, he is still using the term, but one can feel him struggling toward the concession he makes two years later, when it becomes “the pedophilia theme,” the “only significant embarrassment in the Nabokov corpus,” present as it is in six of the nineteen works of fiction. There is nothing horrified or rejectionist in the critic’s evolution, but there is a distinct and tentative adjustment of the awed appraisal. Still, the “master’s scandalous fecundity” has left much that’s yet to be published, and Amis’s output of Nabokov ruminations will certainly rise further into double digits.

The honoring of style over matter also entails putting art above the artist. In “The War Against Cliché,” the larger and entirely literary predecessor of this new miscellany, Amis almost never concedes a legitimacy to critical biography, more often registering disapproval of the enterprise, which he doesn’t see doing much for Jane Austen or Malcolm Lowry or, when Andrew Field is the biographer, for Vladimir Nabokov. John Carey reads the poems of John Donne “as if they were confidential memos to Donne’s confessor or marriage-counselor, or to some spectral Jacobean psychiatrist.” In “The Rub of Time,” Amis appears to be reading and reviewing the genre a good deal less than before.

Despite all this, he has relished what in-the-flesh hours he was able to spend with his literary fathers, and even with their widows. In the new book, he recalls his “only extended meeting with John Updike,” in the late nineteen-eighties, which allowed him to observe “those busy eyes of his, the set of the mouth (as if containing, with difficulty, a vast and mysterious euphoria), his turban-shaped hair still forcefully thriving, his hands on the tea tray so much firmer than my own.” Years after the encounter, with a sort of sad dutifulness, he wrote about a falling off in felicity that he had noticed in Updike’s late prose. He would not, he says, have published the piece had Updike still been alive, and he scolded his friend Christopher Hitchens for doing such a thing to the aging Bellow. The Updike essay, a delicately brief review of “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories,” is informed by Amis’s own new “urgent interest” in aging—proof, perhaps, that the biographical interpretations of which he remains wary have some relevance to the production of criticism as well as of art.

Bellow is the only abiding literary presence able to reduce Amis, amid much shrewd and illuminating study of him, to fanboy gush. Twenty years ago, he concluded a piece by declaring the writer’s first name to be “a typo: that ‘a’ should be an ‘o.’ ” When writing about “The Adventures of Augie March,” he insists that “you feel no urge to interpose yourself. Your job is to work your way round to the bits you want to quote. You are a guide in a gallery where the signs say Silence Please.” Indeed, by the time this piece is through, he is pretty much content to present Bellow passages without any profaning context. Bellow and Nabokov do not come to most minds as a literary pair. But for Amis they are united by “the sheer visionary affect of the prose,” a holy duo who have not had to admit even Updike into their ranks.

Roth is even further from attaining membership. Since the first of the seven pieces on him, published in 1974, Amis has been up and down about the novelist, and is still presenting him “equivocally” in “The Rub of Time.” The ambivalence is salutary; Amis’s essay on “The Dying Animal,” from 2001, pulls the reader across deeper waters than some of his less mixed tributes do. The novel’s “intimidating illumination” of the lecherous, aging David Kepesh is too repellent for him fully to embrace, as it seems to be for Roth himself, who, Amis writes, “does not equip Kepesh with moral clarity” but with “rationalizations” and “suffering” instead. In 2013, Amis acknowledged that “there are certain motifs that unfailingly ignite Roth’s eloquence,” among them “Israel; aging and mortality; sickness and suffering.” But the writer finally lacks that “sheer visionary affect,” the style-as-morality dazzle to be found on Nabokov’s train platform or along Bellow’s Napoleon Street. That Amis can present “mortality” and “suffering” as “motifs,” rather than subjects, is the surest sign of the primacy he gives to style over matter.

Because of that dominance, he believes, “achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits.” Amis makes this case in an essay on Larkin, whose evocations of the mildewed and the mingy manage to leave us glorified by their oft-thought-but-ne’er-so-well-expressed exactitude: “Larkin’s life was a pitiful mess of evasion and poltroonery; his work was a triumph. That’s the one to choose if (as he believed) you can’t have both.” Writing about his own novelistic labors, Amis presents a process that “often seems to consist of nothing but decisions,” a self-entrancement during which “busy means fascinated to the point of being incapable of doing anything else.” In “The Rub of Time,” he more than once emphasizes writing’s physicality: “What sends me up to my study is a feeling in the back of my throat—like the desire for my first cigarette.” Done properly, writing doesn’t just negate the form-content distinction; it fixes the mind-body problem.

Amis’s efforts toward precision and freshness—an explicator’s attempt to “make it new” whenever he can—are everywhere apparent. He may, like most writers, aspire to aphorism (“envy being best understood as empathy gone wrong”), but, by the nature of its brevity, aphorism is evidence-free, and what Amis enjoys most—outside those priestly moments of Bellow recitation—is offering the proof of things: opening up the patient, putting the organs on the table, and taking a poke at the evidence. The critic had better have a bill of particulars, especially if he’s declaring something to be a bill of goods. “The War Against Cliché” fulfilled its title through the critic’s weeding and plucking at the language of his subjects, as if he were depilling a sweater. Amis will make even writers whom he on the whole admires stand there and submit to the grooming: Cyril Connolly’s “The Rock Pool” suffers from “many a reflexive cliché (‘moody silence,’ ‘a grip of iron’) and factotum adjective (‘charming,’ ‘pleasant’)”; Angus Wilson is guilty of “scruffiness,” “the word ‘delicious’ appearing seven times in as many pages, the whole book riddled with repetitions, unintentional rhymes, jangles, even solecisms.”

Amis returns to the dangers of staleness and repetition again and again, and there is no cheap irony in that, because none of it is finally a matter of surface appearance: “Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does.” It is not even a mere structural issue; like style itself, it’s a moral one: “It occurs to you that Ulysses is about cliché. It is about inherited, ready-made formulations, fossilized metaphors—most notably those of Irish-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. After all, prejudices are clichés: they are secondhand hatreds.” Larkin, the only poet with a bust in Amis’s prose shrine, lets him down in his letters to Monica Jones, the longtime, long-suffering girlfriend who deserved better than the epistolary crumbs she was made to put up with:

Larkin’s prose [in the letters to her] is habitually perfunctory and pressureless: “Sun still shining here, but ‘not for long’ I fear”; “Of course, I might have been peevish anyway. More than likely!”; “Sheldon [the new sublibrarian] has started: seems all right, but nothing to write home about”; “Oh dear. I don’t seem to be able to write you the interesting sort of letter I should like to.” “Aren’t I writing badly,” he writes—and quite rightly.

It’s a slapdash cruelty.

“The King’s English,” Kingsley Amis’s book on usage, remains one of his son’s favorites, and “The Rub of Time,” like Martin Amis’s other critical collections, is itself something of a style manual, with corrective passages that fall somewhere between patient mini-lectures and readings of the riot act: if you want to avoid repetition without falling into the pseudo-freshnesses of “elegant variation,” then just use pronouns instead of synonyms.

Amis will sometimes, in his own quest to innovate and startle, take things to a point where the descriptive phrases or metaphors are so vivid that they reduce the significance of what they’re describing: the vehicle crushes the tenor, and brilliance blinds one to aptness. The reader never experiences boredom, even in the seventh Bellow piece or the tenth Nabokov one, but understatement can shout: “Steinberg writes as if he honestly didn’t know anything about the great census-slashing deformity that was about to unfold.” Amis is describing here the mass exterminations of the gulag, a subject that, almost alone among imaginative writers of his generation, he remains admirably preoccupied with. The difficulty is not that the phrase “census-slashing deformity” is irreverent but that it’s a distraction, a squawking bird perched on the cenotaph. The style becomes more than the matter. As flaws go, this one is on the order of a Midas touch, an over-blessing. But on a macro scale, in Amis’s fiction, the exuberance of the means can similarly capsize the ends: the special effects required by the backward chronology in “Time’s Arrow” (1991) can for pages at a time seem more important than the Holocaust itself.

Among his own favorite adjectives, Amis seems to have retired “footling” (four instances in “The War Against Cliché”; none that I can find in “The Rub of Time”) but developed a great fondness for “frictionless.” It’s the most slippery of modifiers: a compliment when applied to Nabokov’s technical mastery—“his pacing, his modulations, his stage management, his ever-alerting shifts of perspective”—but elsewhere an insult, something to be paired with “facile” and deployed with the back of the hand. (“Zuckerman Unbound is a frictionless read: indeed, it’s over before you know it.”) In “The Rub of Time,” the word is lobbed with passive aggression into an essay on Jane Austen: “Elizabeth Bennet is the most frictionlessly adorable heroine in the corpus.” The word has its uses—perhaps too many of them.

Austen may now be on the ten-pound note, but even she has yet to gain admission to Amis’s all-male temple. His appreciation of her skill doesn’t overcome his impatience with the worshippers of her “six samey novels.” In Austen’s case, style has never been enough for Amis, who levels more or less the same charge at her in “The Rub of Time” that he did in “The War Against Cliché”: “ ‘Change’ is the business of satire. Satire is militant irony. Irony is long-suffering. It doesn’t incite you to transform society; it strengthens you to tolerate it.” This is a quietism that Austen never went beyond, and that Amis, who says he has “always been pallidly left-of-center,” rather wishes she had.

He can exhibit a near-nasty streak in dealing with his correspondents—the new collection includes two samplings called “You Ask the Questions”—but more typically Amis cherishes the most cosmopolitan virtue of all, humor. The critical pieces in this new collection, for all their seriousness of vocation, are full of fast, lighthearted phrasing, such as when he describes Iris Murdoch and John Bayley’s household “commitment to extreme squalor.” The essays recognize that fiction, the work of Amis’s right hand, “is comic because life is comic . . . fiction, unlike poetry and unlike all the other arts, is a fundamentally rational form.” He approvingly quotes Clive James’s observation that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing.” To be without one is to be without the other, a double lack that would doom a writer to the worst frictionlessness of all—the inability to rub up against human nature, to strike the sparks of awareness and style that here illuminate everything, especially the books in Amis’s firm grip. ♦

Some writers make poor critics because they can only ever describe themselves, so it is greatly to his credit that Martin Amis really does write about Nabokov in his essays about Nabokov, and about Roth in the pieces about Roth. His portrait of Iris Murdoch is more about her presence in life than on the page, and this gap allows in some other thing that is hard to identify – is it sorrow? “I knew Iris; I have respectfully kissed that cunning, bashful, secretive smile” – maybe it’s just Oxford.

His piece on JG Ballard is sublime for managing to illuminate the work of both writers at once, and should stand as a classic in any discussion about influence, but it is hard to see anyone other than Amis in a piece about Saul Bellow’s essays. This reads like a manifesto, a note to self. Bellow is “abnormally alive to social gradations”; a highbrow writer who nonetheless has “a reflexive grasp of the street, the machine, the law courts, the rackets”. He is a “rampant instinctivist”, whose “fictional and non-fictional voices intertwine and cross-pollinate”. Bellow had certain core principles: The writer must “resist the heavy influences” of people such as Flaubert and Marx as well as “the savage strength of the many”, because the imagination has an “eternal naiveté” that he cannot afford to lose.

This advice about authority as well as about the ravening crowd is possibly something Amis could have taken more to heart. For Amis, there is Daddy and there is hoi polloi, there is genius and the tabloids, art and controversy, single and many (you might carefully add Stalin and the masses here). The reader, however, is your friend. According to Bellow, the writer should assume “a certain psychic unity” with his readers, the idea that “others are in essence like me and I am basically like them”.

But, are you, dear reader, like Saul Bellow? Are you, in essence, like Martin Amis? You wish. Dream on.

When I was 20, I picked up Amis’s early novel The Rachel Papers in a bookshop, opened it halfway through, and finished it where I stood. Then I bought it in order to read the first half. It was all voice, all personality, completely thrilling. As a fiction writer, Amis writes close to opinion. He is always putting it up to you somehow, making the reader feel brilliant too. Or a bit stupid. This is the best fun going when everyone is drunk, as they seemed to be in the 1980s, and literary London was like one long dinner party in which everyone knew where you went to school. Amis lets the reader inside, at the table, talking first and checking after, clever as two sticks.

Fiction loves a bit of bullshit, or a character who is full of it, so arguing through fiction allows the writer to be right, even when he is being wrong. The essay form is not so capacious, requiring, as it does, a single persona, if not entirely a single point of view. The Rub of Time is Amis at his considered best, witty, erudite and unafraid. You can sit and be like Martin Amis all day, wondering how he could be so right about the Republican party in 2011, so prescient about Trump as early as May 2016. The hierarchy thing, that need to revere older writers, may be a little bit male for some, but male is the way that Amis rolls, which makes him one of the best people on the planet to write about the porn industry (a chivalrous piece, as it happens). He is sweetly sentimental when it comes to the British royal family (why?), funny about tennis, always brilliant about the body, scorching in his refusal of death, its sorrows and humiliations.

There are moments of uncertainty. About “Trump and women”, he says: “This isn’t new.” It must be the simplest sentence in the book and yet we don’t know what he is referring to. “This is a wound with the scab off.” Hard to say where the hurt lies; the women thing is just, perhaps, a general suppuration in the body politic. Any reasonably energetic baby boomer “behaved far more deplorably than Trump”, women included. Did you? Did you really? Trump is, besides, actually a sexual coward. Ah, there you go. Amis is always begging for interruption and fending it off at the same time, busking his way to the best bit, fighting with shadows to snatch the prize.

Sometimes, the feints are just too large. In 2006 he goes to play poker in Las Vegas, and describes the city as “Un-Islamic”. Surely, you think, the word he is looking for is “anti-Puritan”, but the lack of historical or geographical connection does not stop Amis from dragging the wrong world religion through the fleshpots of the Strip. This is less than brilliant, for being specious, and Amis can be brilliant. He is a great believer in semantic rigour; every sentence snaps with an accuracy that is fresh and fierce.

When he is being dodgy – as he has every right to be – he switches tack on either side of a comma, and lets the cadence carry him through. Amis is always getting away with things and then saying, “Who, me?” The problem is surely about authority: this is is the kind of energy you get from people who have been bullied, or indeed from bullies themselves.

Why we love to hate Martin Amis

In 2010 he complains that a perfectly reasonable opinion about euthanasia results in his being dubbed controversial, then quotes the source of the difficulty, a “sardonic novel” in which he wrote of old people “stinking up the clinics”, and predicted “age wars and chronological cleansing”. Impossible to tell, in this sardonic mode, whether he is accusing society of prejudice against the old, or accusing old people of being unhygienic, or just flailing around. Whatever this is, it is not an argument for euthanasia. It is tedious to unpack all this except to point out that the word “stinking” is the trigger for the “controversy”, which is shorthand, these days, not for argument, but for shame unleashed, hence the general air of shouting and the feeling that we are no further on. Also, and by the way, Amis, in this passage, defaults to images of mass slaughter, the way you do.

Amis is fantastic company until he isn’t. The drop can sometimes be severe, though never so steep as with his friend Christopher Hitchens, another writer who makes the reader feel smart, energised, enlarged, or does until he says something stupid in a really clever way. Take the line that “Women aren’t funny,” by which Hitchens meant, not that women weren’t funny (of course not!), but something else altogether about fucking and showing off and women being enormously and fundamentally in charge of men, which is when you realise that you, the reader, are a woman (I never used to check) and that he is not talking to you, he is talking to someone (Hitchens, Amis himself) born in 1949.

For the most part, with Amis, it’s not so much the woman thing. He does mention and write sympathetically about women, though they tend to be either posh or porn stars (Jessica, Diana, Temptress, Chloe). He suffers from a hyperactive dystopian sense of what Ballard calls the “near after”. His anxieties place him on the edge of the future, which makes him interested in war (and not in a good way). So it is more the religion thing, added to the race thing, complicated by the need to go huge. Maybe you could call it the “rampant instinctivism” thing. Or, the prejudice thing.

Martin Amis rounds on Donald Trump and his 'army of neo-Nazis'

“Is Terrorism About Religion?”, asks one of the titles here, giving a whole new meaning to the word “about” (was the Omagh bomb about transubstantiation? Were the Shankill Butchers defending Luther’s 95 theses?) This essay might have been a proper look at the concept of jihad, but it isn’t that. It is an opinion about how hard it is to have a certain kind of opinion, these days. In it, Amis complains about the difficulties of maintaining a discourse that includes “less than reverent generalisations about non-white foreigners” (his italics). “Reverent” is good: there is no doubt that blasphemy is a great subject, but why do you need to make generalisations, and – hang on – who are these foreigner chaps?

Amis has lived in London, Uruguay and New York, which makes him a global citizen, or perhaps a “white foreigner” (or is the term for that an “expat”?). So maybe I am not like Amis, after all, because the first and last time I typed the word “foreigner”, my computer tells me, was in 2002. It is, perhaps, a uniquely British word. And then there’s “non-white”: where does that start – Naples? Really, no one living in Brooklyn talks about foreigners any more, let alone (wow) “non-white foreigners” and just, come on.

And you know I wish I was like Amis, I really do, because, damn, that fool can write, but I am not 20 years old any more, standing in a bookshop all afternoon, trying to afford a book I could not put down. I will, like many of his readers, grow old in a different direction. Still, this collection is full of treasures. And, if you want a good scrap, if you want to feel like Martin Amis while fighting with Martin Amis (which is possibly how he also spends his day), a couple of these pieces will keep you going for a long time.

The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump and Other Pieces, 1996-2016 is published by Jonathan Cape. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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