St. Martin And Others

10 Jun

Making lists is a hazardous business. But as one bookie remarked – it’s difference of opinion that makes horses race. So a few people on reading my top ten UK living authors list have seen fit to murmur querulously “Wait just a minute. What about -?”

Three names that have been put forward are Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan – and Martin Amis. Okay, here’s my take. With the first writer I have a confession. I hear great things of her two Tudor novels. There was an impressive canonization of her skill in The New Yorker. But I have to admit that I haven’t read her. My feeble excuse, familiar to every historian is the sheepish one – “It’s not my period.” I exit the room writhing under the jeering contumely hurled at me.

Ian McEwan. I think Mac is a wonder. A writer of great gifts. His ability to put you there, “make you see” is almost unrivaled among his contemporaries. Take SATURDAY. I’m not a surgeon. But I play squash and I have been in car jams off the Tottenham Court Road. When he describes the situation and the sensation, I am totally under his spell. But I know what’s coming. It’s been there since the beginning of his published career. The first thing I ever read of his was a short story in Time Out. It was about an acting class. The exercise was miming the sex act. And what happens of course is that the main character crosses the “line” and stops acting, causing squeals of disgust as he gets “real.” That has been the template of pretty much everything of his that I have read. At the end there is always the huge melodramatic and ironic twist to the tale. Clever. Casting into doubt what you have read before. His latest SWEET TOOTH has living characters, a believable world, a gripping story. And if you have read him before, you know it’s always going to come down to that ‘something nasty in the woodshed.’  ATONEMENT or AMSTERDAM, it doesn’t matter. He’s going to have you rapt and then it’s all going to implode. He’s very very good and then he turns into a mandarin.

Martin Amis. Oh, dear – this be complicated. Because judgement spills off the page with this one. Let me tell you my first non literary impression of Martin Amis. It was a TV chat show. I think Michael Aspel was the host. His guests were David Niven who had just published either THE MOON’S A BALLOON or its sequel BRING ON THE EMPTY HORSES and Martin Amis who had published THE RACHEL PAPERS at an alarmingly young age. Aspel spoke of his enjoyment of Niven’s book and asked Amis what he thought of it. Amis said ponderously that as a work produced by someone who was not a real writer, it was quite entertaining. It was the classic case of the little boy invited to sit at the dinner table with the grownups who then made a large mess. Niven and Aspel glanced at each other and then Niven charmingly heaped coals of fire on the hapless Martin’s head. He said how grateful he was for such a positive verdict (I am paraphrasing – it was a long time ago) from a professional and he would be delighted if Martin could deign to give him any tips so he might improve. Amis, realizing how stupid and pretentious he had been, was mumbling and back tracking and squirming. A graceless child being handled with the utmost consideration by his elders. I have never forgotten it. And it has no doubt coloured my view of Amis as a writer.

To be frank, I have always been baffled by his reputation. I have not read all his books. But I think that MONEY, THE INFORMATION, THE PREGNANT WIDOW and a couple of others should provide a fair test. His characters inhabit dyspeptic worlds, depicted in wrought prose and strenuous new coinages that are not likely to become part of the common idiom. His new word for a flat was “a sock” in MONEY. People went into panegyrics, reviewing these turns of phrase. But that’s okay. I get impatient with the mandarins at times. But that just reflects on my particular tastes.

But let us take another book, a collection of Amis’s essays. THE WAR ON CLICHE (a cliched phrase in itself). Amis leading the Crusade, setting the world to rights. Let us browse.

A review of Thomas Harris’s HANNIBAL, the follow up to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Amis takes Harris apart, sneers loftily at his grammatical solecisms. In the self same piece he misuses “swoon” as a transitive verb. Muttering some cliche like “glass houses” we move on.

A piece on Lowry in which Amis, that modern master of English prose comes up with the following phrases that genuinely cause me to shudder. “Liquescent shards.” Ugh. When was the last time you encountered a pottery shard that was dissolving in your hand? And then he talks of Lowry’s prose as having a “tremulous crystalline beauty”.  I shiver like a dog.

Like the proverbial Hun, in these essays, Amis is either at  your throat or at your feet. By that I mean that, depending on the subject at  hand, he deploys one of two approaches. If he is knowledgeable on the matter, he writes from a lofty patronizing point of view. If he is clearly outgunned by the author’s expertise and qualifications, Amis takes the low approach. The cap tipping, mock forelock tugging of his “common man” pose. “Cor, blimey, guv’nor, give us a chance to catch our breath. The air’s a bit rarefied up here.” And he slides away with a wisecrack or two.

Let me close with a review of a study of Nabokov, one of Amis’s idols. Amis parades his own insight into Vlad the butterfly impaler and then finishes off his review of a book that he grudgingly can find little fault in with the completely gratuitous dismissal  (I paraphrase again) – “Despite the author’s best efforts, the book is surprisingly seldom very boring.”

That’s the Martin Amis I saw all those years ago and recognize still.

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