In defence of a great novelist
We should ignore a week of hype and manufactured controversy. Martin Amis remains a literary giant
Saturday 27 February 2010
My enjoyment of the new Martin Amis novel The Pregnant Widow, and it is very good indeed, is being derailed by some or other non-drama about the novelist in the press. In fact, "non-drama" won't quite cover what is currently going on around Amis: "anti-drama" would be a neater fit for all of it, for it contains none of the necessary elements of drama – conflict, tension, action – but instead its opposites: the humdrum, the tedious, the inert.
First there was the "outcry" over his quip (and that's all it was, a quip) about making suicide booths for the elderly available on every corner. As the baloney, the anti-drama, gathered pace around this utterly innocuous comment I thought something like: "Has someone performed a humour lobotomy on the collective consciousness?" Also, and no one seemed to be talking about this, Amis was potentially including his 60-year-old self in the category for euthanasia. We were suddenly, it seemed, at such a remove from humour that you weren't even allowed to joke at your own expense.
Alistair Thompson from Care Not Killing was quoted as saying, "How on earth can we pretend to be a civilised society if people are giving the oxygen of publicity to such proposals? What are these death booths? Are they going to be a kind of superloo where you put in a couple of quid and get a lethal cocktail?" Obviously I found Thompson's statement far funnier than Amis's. Well, if you can't raise a giggle at the mental image of a disabled pensioner trying to fumble the correct change into some mad Westminster Council Death Bog off Piccadilly Circus then the funny bone, I fear, has atrophied.
After all this guff one can only imagine the low whistle or elegiac sigh Amis must have given upon reading Anna Ford's open letter to The Guardian last weekend concerning Amis's behaviour when, more than 20 years ago, he visited his dying friend Mark Boxer, Ford's husband. Her letter was a tawdry little slice of bitterness, its only justifiable element of grievance the fact that Amis neglected his goddaughter. In which case half the people I know will soon be up against the wall. Amis duly admitted (and apologised for) this much in his own letter on Tuesday, along with calmly rebutting Ford's other accusations: of smoking at her husband's deathbed, of overstaying his welcome and of not shedding tears upon leaving the house.
The dreary saga rolled on to Thursday when Ford wrote a conciliatory letter in which she apologised to Amis as she'd suddenly remembered that it had been Christopher Hitchens (who had been with Amis during the visit) who had smoked.
Meanwhile, ludicrously, the attack had actually found a few takers in the press. Libby Purves in The Times managed to convince herself that Ford's first letter displayed "matador deftness" in its skewering of Amis. Matador deftness? It was more like watching a blind, injured circus bear trying to catch an eagle.
Of course, anyone who had read much of Amis's work would already have had a sense of his humanity and, with that sense, the instinct not to trust Ford's claims about his behaviour. Indeed, they would, like Amis, have been left wondering about Anna Ford, wondering about "the personal troubles of the aggressor". Not surprisingly it has been what she has gone on to say in subsequent interviews that have been most revealing. "Martin seems to think that having highly controversial views on a number of subjects – nuclear warfare, Iraq, Muslims – is not going to attract criticism." I don't believe Amis has a problem with anyone criticising his views; he's just less tolerant of them distorting them for their own ends – the egocentric madman that he is. (As for nuclear warfare, is it highly controversial to view it as a total disaster for mankind? What is the opposing, non-controversial view Anna? That nuclear holocaust would be no biggie?)
She went on to say that "as a feminist I don't enjoy reading him". This shows such a poor understanding of what a novel is (and, considering no contemporary writer has done a better job than Amis of vivisecting the reptilian side of the male psyche, a poor understanding of what feminism is) that it at least allows us the luxury of discounting anything else Ford might have to say about his work. She then staggered down memory lane to complain about the atmosphere at the weekly lunches held at Bertorelli's restaurant some years ago by Amis, Hitchens, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and the like. "It was for men only, but I was once invited early on by Mark," said Ford. "All I recall was how blokey it was, with them discussing girls, sex and politics. Martin, of course, ignored me." This is all rather like going willingly on a tour of an abattoir and then complaining at length about the blood.
Anyway, saying that Martin Amis is conceivably a better human being on the page than he sometimes is in his personal relationships will only be worrying to those who do not properly value literature. I first read him in 1985, during the first year of my English degree at Glasgow University. The book I took from the library was Money, published the year before, and my reaction was exactly what Amis experienced the first time he read Saul Bellow. "After very few pages I felt a recognition threading itself through me, whose form of words (more solemn than exhilarated) went approximately as follows: 'Here is a writer I will have to read all of.'" I read all the previous novels and then began the wait – always too long – for new work.
The most recent wait being over I am once again enjoying being back in his company. Appositely enough, one of the many powerful, interesting things the new novel has to say is how unknowably it still goes between the sexes, how much distance lies between. Reading it I have been reminded of yet another Amis quote, again in relation to Saul Bellow. He said that when reading Bellow he often had to remind himself that the author was born in 1915, not 1952. Similarly I have been having to remind myself that the author of The Pregnant Widow was born in 1949, not 1970, such is the modernity, the engagement, the vivid here-and-now of the prose.
Fortunately, the ultimate value judgement on the best novelist of his generation will not be pronounced by a prize committee, or by a journalist, or by the embittered widow of a dead friend. It will be pronounced by the next generation of readers, and the generation after that, as they choose to read the books or not. Many generations after all the anti-drama about overstayed welcomes, suicide booths and sick-room smoking has faded into oblivion, an undergraduate will be picking that copy of Money off the library shelf somewhere and reading: "As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows."
Many of them will feel what I felt, that familiar tingling between the shoulder blades, and they will read on, lost completely within a few paragraphs, within a few pages changed for ever.
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