Posts Tagged ‘Kingsley Amis’

The King’s English: Kingsley Amis corrected the “maladies of the herd” in a posthumous book

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012
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“Has your enormity in the Observer been pointed out to you?”

Martin Amis knew he was in hot water when his father, Sir Kingsley Amis, asked this question over Sunday morning breakfast decades ago.

“‘My enormity?’ I knew he was applying the word in its proper sense – ‘something very bad’, and not ‘something very big in size,'” the younger Amis wrote a year ago in The Guardian.  “And my mistake was certainly atrocious: I had used martial as a verb. Later, while continuing to avoid hopefully (a favourite with politicians, as he insists), I pooh-poohed his reprimand about my harmless use of the dangling thankfully. I also took it in good part when, to dramatise my discipleship, as he saw it, of Clive James (a very striking new voice in the 1970s), Kingsley started reading out my reviews in an Australian accent.”

The occasion for the article was the republication of The King’s English (“King” was a nickname he tolerated, apparently). After the recent Amis visit, I ran across the Guardian article and, inspired, ordered the book.

I’d like to say you won’t find any of the abuses Amis discusses in The Book Haven.

That’s what I’d like to say.  But… there are so many… how could one be guiltless of them all?  Amis classifies  brutalise, decimate, crescendo, dilemma, alibi, avid, oblivious, optimistic, eke out and refute, among many others, as “unusable through ambiguity.”  I’ll have to read the book to find out exactly why.

Here are two abuses in particular:

Filial devotion.

Déjà vu, an uncanny sense of:  Its original application was to a transient psychological state, not uncommon among those under about forty, in which the subject feels that he has seen before some place where he has provably never been in this life (thus providing fanciful evidence for reincarnation). The journalistic contribution has been to apply this feeling to some event or situation a person has witnessed before . . .

The journalistic contribution thus obscures the old meaning, while providing “the needy with a useful and quite posh-looking alternative to ‘this is where I/we came in’ and other tattered phrases”. Similarly with jejune. On its journey from meaning “scanty, arid” to meaning “immature, callow”, jejune has acquired an extra vowel and an acute accent, plus italicisation as a Gallicism. Kingsley quotes the following beauty: “Although the actual arguments are a little jéjeune, the staging of mass scenes are [sic] impressive.” We watch such developments (in this case the gradual “deportation of an English word into French”) as we would watch the progress of a virus; like babesiosis and fog fever, such viruses afflict cattle and buffalo and wildebeest; they are the maladies of the herd.”*

Whatever one thinks or doesn’t think about Martin Amis, his filial devotion is impressive – especially when directed towards a father who was not always, to put it mildly, supportive.  Amis-the-son relates this moving, end-of-life anecdote:

Two months before he died, Kingsley had a heavy fall after a good lunch (“At my age,” as he used to say, “lunch is dinner”) and banged his head on a stone step. Thereafter, by degrees, he became a pitiable and painfully disconcerting madcap. He kept trying, he tried and he tried, but he couldn’t write; he couldn’t read, or be read to; and his speech was like a mixture of The Cat in the Hat and Finnegans Wake. Aged 73, he had just finished a book on the King’s English; and now English was a language the King no longer had. His fate was a brutal reminder. We are all of us held together by words; and when words go, nothing much remains.

After the death, the typescript of the book – “then hardly more than a family rumour” – was delivered to the son’s door.

Says the younger Amis:  “The battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle. It takes place within the soul of every individual who minds about words.”

(The elder Amis’s Paris Review interview is here.)

___

* The Guardian helpfully points out in an afterthought: “While the structure of this sentence is strictly accurate it has led several readers to point out that neither affliction results from a virus – babesia is a protozoan and fog fever is caused by the toxin 3-methylindole. However, like some viruses, they produce illnesses that affect herds.”

 

Britlit’s bad boy is coming to town: Martin Amis reading and colloquium on Monday, May 7

Friday, May 4th, 2012
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Not happy in León, Spain, 2007 (Creative Commons)

Martin Amis is celebrated as one of the leading writers in English today. In Britain, he is almost as famous for his pyrotechnic quips and spats, which regularly launch front-page media frenzies.

He will give a reading at Stanford at 8 p.m. on Monday, May 7, in Cemex Auditorium in the Knight Management Center. Amis will also hold an 11 a.m. colloquium the same day in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall. Both events are free and open to the public.

Amis has written a dozen novels, as well as a memoir, two collections of stories and six nonfiction works.  His next book, Lionel Asbo: State of England, a satirical stab at England through the story of a violent criminal who wins the lottery, will be published by Knopf this summer.

Amis was foremost in a circle of writers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Craig Raine and Ian McEwan. He has had high-voltage quarrels with at least two of those figures. The one with best chum Hitchens healed seamlessly: “My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May,” he said in an interview.

He is also famous for being one half of an unusual team, a hereditary novelist. His father, Sir Kingsley Amis, has been called the finest English comic novelist of the postwar era; he wrote 20 novels, six collections of poetry, and other works.

Everblooming friendship

The elder Amis, who died in 1995, was also his son’s earliest critic, lamenting the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style.”

Martin Amis recalled to the New York Times, “He was always saying, ‘I think you need more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room,’ and I thought you needed rather fewer of them.”

As a writer, Amis is known for his lifelong love affair with the English sentence, which he calls “a basic rhythm from which the writer is free to glance off in unexpected directions.”

Amis considers the English sentence as the essential building block of good prose, telling the Paris Review in 1998, “Much modern prose is praised for its terseness, its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue, etc. But I don’t feel the deeper rhythm there. I don’t think these writers are being terse out of choice. I think they are being terse because it’s the only way they can write.”

Charles McGrath of the New York Times said that a typical Amis sentence “tends to be maximalist and attention-grabbing, a riff with all the speakers turned up high.”

Here’s a sample from his most recent novel, The Pregnant Widow:

They walked down steep alleyways, scooter-torn and transected by wind-ruffled tapestries of clothing and bedding, and on every other corner there lurked a little shrine, with candles and doilies and the lifesize effigy of a saint, a martyr, a haggard cleric. Crucifixes, vestments, wax apples green or cankered. And then there was the smell, sour wine, cigarette smoke, cooked cabbage, drains, lancingly sweet cologne, and also the tang of fever. The trio came to a polite halt as a stately brown rat – lavishly assimilated – went ambling across their path: given the power of speech, this rat would have grunted out a perfunctory buona sera. Dogs barked. Keith breathed deep, he drank deep of the ticklish, the teasing tang of fever.

The barbed comments have often distracted from the prose.  In February, Amis created a literary kerfuffle when he said that only “serious brain injury” would make him write for children.  He has tangled with critics Terry Eagleton and Tibor Fischer, columnist Julie Burchill, and others.

“What is important is to write freely and passionately and with all the resources that the language provides,” he said in the Paris Review interview.

“You’re always looking for a way to see the world as if you’ve never seen it before.   As if you’d never really got used to living here on this planet.”

The Many Masks of Conquest

Sunday, March 11th, 2012
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Hat tip to the incomparable tipster Dave Lull for letting the us know about Robert Conquest‘s newest poems in the March issue of The New Criterion … or rather, the poems of poems of “one Fred Faraday (1917–1979),” in a volume Blokelore and Blokesongs, forthcoming later this year from Waywiser Press.

David Yezzi‘s introductory note is coy:

Readers will be forgiven for divining a greater involvement on Conquest’s part than mere amanuensis. Conquest has worn such masks before. In Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), Conquest’s poems appear under four names: his own, as well as the pseudonyms Ted Pauker, Victor Gray, and Stuart Howard-Jones. To these we must add the limerick writer Jeff Chaucer, whose Garden of Erses (2010) includes poems attributed elsewhere to some of these other fellows.

Old Fred, which is Faraday’s pseudonym de plume, may be Conquest’s liveliest poetic invention to date.

When I asked Bob his advice to young poets in 2010, he replied in a beat: “Write under a pseudonym, and pretend it’s a translation from the Portuguese.” Clearly, he takes his own advice to heart.

Other matters of the heart are included in the poems here and here and here.  A sample:

Was she a rose without a thorn?
Fred asks as one of those
Who’s more than once been scratched and torn
By thorns without a rose.

Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A far cry from Bob’s landmark works, which made him one of our greatest living historians. With The Great Terror, published in 1968, he became the conscience of an era, a historian denouncing Stalinism when communism was trendy with the left in the West.

But maybe it’s not so far a cry, after all.  Said Editor Yezzi, “One cannot read ‘Fred on Fascism’ without recalling Conquest’s great limerick on Communism called ‘Progress,’ which John Gross included in his Oxford Book of Comic Verse (1994)”:

There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
—That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.