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Who will review the reviewer?

Toby Lloyd

Martin Amis
The Rub of Time
Jonathan Cape
2017
368 pp
£20

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is something nerve-wracking about reviewing Martin Amis. You worry that he is going to make you feel stupid. You worry he is going to make you look stupid. Never mind his towering stature as a novelist, Amis also happens to be a brilliantly perceptive and sometimes waspish critic. Surely Geoff Dyer—no slouch himself in the reviewing game—was speaking for many readers when he said, “Whatever the book, there’s no one whose review you’d rather read.” Any journalistic nerves one feels approaching The Rub of Time are not allayed by the author’s note which precedes the main text. Amis explains that there are various “repetitions and duplications” across the essays, but he has decided to “let them stand.” Why? “I assume that most readers will pick and choose along the way in accordance with their own enthusiasms (only the reviewer, the proofreader, and of course the author will ever be obliged to read the whole thing straight through.)” Right then, before we’ve even started Amis has pointed out the artificially meticulous nature of my reading of his book, that merely by dint of my position I prevent myself from taking it in the spirit in which it was offered. More than that, he’s equated my job, my obliged reading, with that of the sorry chap who has to scan the thing for spelling mistakes. Nice work, Mart. As if this weren’t enough, a few pages later he reminds us that by reviewing a prose writer you’re entering the field on which they are most ready to meet you. After all, “you don’t review poetry by writing verse (unless you’re a jerk), and you don’t review plays by writing dialogue (unless you’re a jerk)”. Weighing up Amis’s book in the same medium it’s written in might not make you a jerk, but you do run the risk of looking like a fool. You feel his breath on your neck.

Many of the trademarks of Amis’s critical sensibility are on display here. He’s intelligent, wide-ranging, funny, and above all readable. He is one of those rare critics who is worth reading even when writing about subjects you have no interest in; you’d happily read his review of a novel you never intend to open. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is at his most lucid when talking about other writers. With some essayists it is difficult to extract chunks of prose that are both small enough to reproduce and can stand up on their own. You look up a quotation you were sure sounded good when you read it, but stripped of context is as useful as a handful of sand to a person trying to describe a beach. There is no such problem with Amis; he is sickeningly quotable. Once again, the reviewer feels anticipated, and therefore redundant. How many writers could do better than this in summing up Nabokov’s achievement in a single sentence?

The Nabokovian essence is a miraculously fertile instability, where without warning the words detach themselves from the everyday, and streak off like flares in a night sky, illuminating hidden versts of longing and terror.

Here, as throughout his work, Amis does not simply celebrate Nabokov, he emulates him. A cynic might wonder if he had his eye on some imminent new edition of Pale Fire say, and had set his hopes on seeing his name on the back cover. He is equally good on the poetry of Philip Larkin, which he praises for its “frictionless memorability,” a perfectly formed phrase. He elaborates:

[Larkin’s] greatest stanzas, for all their unexpectedness, make you feel that a part of your mind was already prepared to receive them—was anxiously awaiting them. They seem ineluctable, or predestined. Larkin, often, is more than memorable. He is instantly unforgettable.

One can’t help but be seduced by Amis’s judgements; the precision of the language he expresses them in makes them seem irrefutable. How can someone who writes with such enviable clarity—who must therefore think with such enviable clarity—be wrong about anything? But he is wrong now and then, badly so. We will return to this theme later.

If Amis is most lucid writing about writers, he is at his funniest writing about sports. Who else would write a whole piece about Tim Henman focused entirely on the wimpishness of his Christian name? Or another in which the sole aim is to develop his thesis that “personality” in tennis-speak, as in “Tennis needs a new star who is a genuine personality”, is an exact synonym for “asshole”? Perhaps genuine tennis fans will be frustrated by such playfully silly “reporting” on the sport. I recommend those people to glut themselves on the humourless post-match witterings of Sue Barker and Pat Cash. Meanwhile, the rest of us can relish such riffs as this:

There’s one thing I’m prepared for: the somewhat boorish suggestion that the Martins aren’t that great either. Not so. A minute’s thought gives me Luther, Heidegger, Ryle, Scorsese, and Martin Luther King. Who can the Tims bounce back with? Tim Calvin? Tim Schopenhauer? Tim Hubble? Tim Ford Coppola? Tim X?

The question which naturally arises is whether the above list of pre-eminent Martins should stretch to include the author of The Rub of Time. If Martin Amis is not a great and important novelist, then he does a very good impression of one. His career started precociously; he published his first novel at the tender age of twenty-three, and was duly awarded the Somerset Maugham prize. Since then he has been prolific enough, penning a further thirteen novels, two books of stories, and eight works of nonfiction. He has written formally experimental novels (Time’s Arrow, Other People), novels that take major historical events as subjects (The Zone of Interest, House of Meetings), novels about novels (London Fields, The Information) and novels that with their portentous one-word titles (Money, Success) are pressingly, almost belligerently contemporary. What can’t he do? As a journalist he has written about the key political events and figures of our times. Donald Trump, who scowls “under an omelette of makeup and tanning cream (and from under the little woodland creature that sleeps on his head)” seems a character to have wandered into the world straight from the pages of Amis’s fiction. His influence as a stylist is already felt among the younger generation. See: Zadie Smith, Will Self, Geoff Dyer. Grey-haired now, and with that unmistakable ridge at the top of his nose (the man looks as though he’s spent his whole life wincing at the last thing somebody said), Amis has achieved something rarer still among novelists: he’s famous. And not just in a literary sense: Christopher Ricks has a well-known name, but does he put on sunglasses to buy his morning paper? Thanks to his irregular appearances on Newsnight and other such pundit fests, Amis has a face that people recognise even if they’ve never read his books. For how many novelists is that true?

And yet, there’s something that seems to exclude him from the top tier of writers, something lacking in his work. The Rub of Time holds the key to what this is. That’s the trouble with being a practitioner-critic. Sooner or later, you are bound to flag up your own faults.

*

“Updike,” Amis writes in an indulgent trashing of the older man’s last book, “is in the process of losing his ear.” It’s difficult to argue with Amis’s well-substantiated claim; anyone who read Terrorist will know just how bad late Updike’s prose could be. I was reminded, reading this essay, of a line in Success. Early on in the novel Terry, who has had the most hideously traumatic childhood, says: “rain on windows always takes me back, or it tries. I’m not going back.” (Incidentally, what a brilliant “fuck you” to Proustian narrative methods.) I first read the book in graduate school, and my professor praised Amis’s ear, remarking “it’s like he hears the thought mid-sentence, and corrects it.” But that’s just it with Amis. He hears everything and everyone brilliantly, with one exception. He has never been able to hear himself.

His latest collection furnishes us with some pertinent examples. When asked by a reader of the Telegraph “Why are you such a snob?” Amis immediately goes on the defensive, pointing out that he does not look down on the “so-called ‘socially inferior’,” and has devoted “many hundreds of pages of fiction to them.” Leaving aside the accusation that may be levelled, i.e. that those pages are dripping with condescension, you have the fact that when Amis writes about his friend Christopher Hitchens, he applauds the Hitch for showing no deference to his “demonstrable inferiors”. By which (in case any ambiguity lingered) he means a cabdriver and a publican. Worse still, he tells us that it was this very quality that made the Hitch a genuine “rebel”. He recounts with obvious delight an occasion on which Hitchens balled out a waiter for the appearance of an “optional” service charge on his bill, surely a result of restaurant policy rather than opportunism. If “personality” is in McEnroe’s lexicon a euphemism for “asshole”, then in Amis’s “rebel” is a euphemism for a word that starts with a “c” and ends in “unt”. He reacts with similar baffled indignation when asked if he might be a misogynist. Such bafflement reads awkwardly in the wider context of the book. In an essay on Nabokov, Amis identifies the only stain on the great novelist’s corpus as a troubling preoccupation with the abuse of little girls. One can’t help but think of the preponderance of abused women in the Amis oeuvre. Off the top of my head, London Fields, Other People, House of Meetings, Success, and at least one story in Einstein’s Monsters all feature the rape and/or murder of women as major plot events, Money, Dead Babies, and The Zone of Interest feature rape jokes and/or rape as minor plot event. (Minor in the sense of being part of more widespread violence, and therefore given less individual attention.) Which is leaving out the ones I haven’t read or have forgotten. If Amis worries about what all those nymphets say about Nabokov’s imagination, isn’t it fair for us to worry what all those raped and murdered women in Amis’s fiction say about his?

Deaf to his own hypocrisy, Amis does not seem to consider the obviousness of his partisanship when it comes to his critical judgements. When in his memoir, Experience, he claimed that his father’s Booker Prize Winner The Old Devils is the equal of any twentieth century novel bar Ulysses, (an opinion shared by no one outside of Martin Amis) the filial bias on display is forgivable, even admirable. I for one like the idea of such a scourge of sentimentality as Amis loving his daddy above all other men. When, however, his personal fondness for Christopher Hitchens leads him to declare his friend a profoundly witty man, and “one of the most terrifying dialecticians the world has even known,” it is simply embarrassing. Embarrassing because of the weakness of Amis’s own evidence. Exhibit A: during a TV debate, a confused host tells Hitchens he does not understand what he is saying. Hitchens responds, “I’m not in the least surprised.” Not bad, but not brilliant either. The sort of comment that might raise a titter, but is hardly worth writing down. Exhibit B: Amis and Hitchens are in a pub, when two blokes try to take the empty seats they are keeping for their dates. One of them says, “You’re going to hate us for this.” Hitchens replies, “We hate you already.” Again, this is moderately amusing. But calling him one of the most brilliant speakers of the age is like saying you’d bet on your mate, who has quite a good back hand, in a five setter against Roger Federer. A minute’s perusal of the wikiquote pages of Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill, or Evelyn Waugh, will put Hitchens’ wit firmly in its place; he is, at best, a promising amateur.

Far more maddening is how Amis’s personal connection to Philip Larkin infects his writing about the poet’s life (although not, curiously, his poetry). Reviewing Letters to Monica, Amis cheaply rehashes one of his father’s old grudges: that against Monica Jones, or Margaret Peel as she is fictionalised in Lucky Jim. The piece begins badly enough, with Amis referring to literary correspondences as a “post-war embarrassment”. Erm, wasn’t there a chap called Keats whose letters are generally thought to be quite good? Not to mention Rilke, Flaubert, Goethe, Madame de Sévigné, Sir Horace Walpole or the Younger Pliny. It’s one of those incidences where one has genuinely no idea what Amis means. (Another comes when he christens the late ‘90s the “Karaoke Age.” The what?) Things go from bad to worse. It is becoming a cliché of Larkin criticism to say what an awful bitch Monica Jones was—James Booth does it with minimum eloquence in his otherwise admirable biography. The trouble with this position is the letters themselves. Taken together they form an extremely moving portrait of a very peculiar love story. When Amis writes “The fact that Larkin made no effort with Monica is everywhere apparent in these pages,” you wonder how he thought he could get away with such a ludicrous statement. The volume, the bulk of which was written by hand, stretches to over 400 pages (no effort!), and represents only a fraction of the total correspondence. Not to mention that it is crammed with shared jokes, cartoons which he drew for her, and the kind of intimacies that are reliant on a language that has developed uniquely between the two of them. The selective quotations Amis uses to rubbish the book amount to no more than petty score-settling, on his own and his father’s behalf. After all, Amis has good reason for disliking Larkin’s correspondence; you need only look at what the poet says about him. In the longer Selected Letters, Larkin writes to Anthony Thwaite, “Martin’s book sounds piss.” (He was talking about Other People. He was right too; it is piss, a miserable trough between the two career peaks of Success and Money.) He later nominates young Martin for membership of his imagined club, “talentless sons of famous fathers”. The letters also complain about Kingsley; no fewer than six times does Larkin write to whinge about Amis Sr. being a shitty friend, who can’t be bothered to make the effort. Most memorably to Robert Conquest, after Larkin was released from hospital:

Glad to hear K is alright. His joy at learning I was discharged without any discoverable defect must have rendered his right hand useless: give him my sympathy. It must be hell not being able to toss off. Not that I really expect him to write now.

So Amis Jr. blames it all on wicked Monica, who ruined the real love of Larkin’s life, the homosocial love with Kingers that began in St John’s College Oxford, and somehow dwindled away over the course of the years. After attending Larkin’s funeral, Kingsley remarked, “I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew him.” Of all the literary pieces in the Rub of Time, the review of Letters to Monica is the least generous, and the least good. Dyer was almost right: whatever the book, there’s no one whose review you’d rather read. That is, unless the writer happens to be someone Amis knew personally.

A lack of generosity, a sneering in the face of romantic love between oddballs: we’re getting close to what is unsatisfactory in Amis’s novels. Admiringly, he quotes the following passage from a story by Saul Bellow:

She was not a lovable woman, but the boy loved her and she was aware of it. He loved them all. He even loved Albert. When he visited Lachine he shared Albert’s bed, and in the morning he would sometimes stroke Albert’s head, and not even when Albert fiercely threw off his hand did he stop loving him.

Beautiful. Similarly beautiful is Amis’s appreciation of the passage, and of Bellow’s work as a whole:

Love has always been celebrated for, among other things, its transformative powers; and it is with love, in concert with his overpowering need to commemorate and preserve (“I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten”) that Bellow transforms the world.

And here, more crucially than anywhere else, we see Amis’s inability to heed his own advice, his failure to hear himself. Such a scene, with the little boy stubbornly expressing his love for his smelly old uncle (or whoever he is) in spite of numerous rebuttals, is unthinkable in Amis’s own fiction. He can do it in his non-fiction. When writing about Kingsley, for instance, he fondly remembers his father singing the praises of his favourite dictionary, while patting the spine of the book “or even stroking it.” When is Keith Talent so affectionately observed by his creator, or John Self, or Terence Service, or Mary Lamb? It is the sparseness of love in the fiction, the absence of that great transformative force, that leaves all those pages of brilliant sentences as they are, a dazzlingly bright surface, that thrills and frightens, but too often fails to move.

~

Toby Lloyd is a freelance writer who studied English at the University of Oxford. He lives and works in London.