Posts Tagged ‘Martin Amis’

Vasily Grossman recalls a bleak Christmas in wartime Russia

Saturday, December 13th, 2014
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nyrbSara Kramer of the NYRB Classics dropped me a line yesterday to let me know that my submission for “A Different Stripe” had worked its way to the top of the “Coffee and Classics” stack (that must be some backlog; it’s been five months); see it online here. (And send your own submissions to this address.) The book I featured is Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate. Helen Pinkerton sent us a mini-review here, calling it “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read”. The wartime book was judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the the state. Many readers are coming to share Helen’s opinion about its greatness. Author Martin Amis, for example, said that “Vasily Grossman is the Tolstoy of the U.S.S.R.”

Meanwhile, the submission gave Sara a chance to reread the bleak Christmas scenes from the book:

The soldiers … dragged another crate up to the stove, prised open the lid with their bayonets and began taking out tiny Christmas trees wrapped in cellophane. Each tree, only a few inches long, was decorated with gold tinsel, beads and tiny fruit-drops.

The general watched as the soldiers unwrapped the cellophane, then beckoned the lieutenant towards him and mumbled a few words in his ear. The lieutenant announced in a loud voice:

“The lieutenant-general would like you to know that this Christmas present from Germany was flown in by a pilot who was mortally wounded over Stalingrad itself. The plane landed in Pitomnik and he was found dead in the cabin.”

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler

Martin Amis: satire as “militant irony”

Saturday, August 25th, 2012
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Getting ink (Photo courtesy Knopf)

Alfred Knopf tweeted this a few days ago, from Martin Amis, who novel Lionel Asbo has been getting a lot of ink of late:

“One definition of satire is that it’s militant irony: It’s irony brought to the pitch where you are actually hoping to bring about change. Irony brushes by a question and leaves you with a thought of it. Satire is meant to be much more vigorous and vehement – the suggestion being that you’re actually wanting to change reality. I don’t attempt to change reality. I would just say that satire is very exaggerated irony and that’s what I deal in.”

I googled, and found that he’d expressed a similar thought, in different ways on different occasions.  I like this one, from a Goodreads interview, which sounds a little less certain:

GR: Goodreads Author Steven Bauer asks, “What do you believe the place of satire is in a society and culture that always seems on the edge of satirizing itself?”

MA: I’ve never been sure what satire is. One of the definitions is that satire is militant irony, which sounds good. The suggestion, though, is that it’s militant and therefore sets the task of bringing about change. I don’t think that satire has actually ever done that. Satire attacks social ill and does it once the injustice has been cleared up, not while the injustice is going on, like imprisonment for debt in Dickens, for instance. I just don’t think that novels have that power. I think novelists are in the education business, really, but they’re not teaching you times tables, they are teaching you responsiveness and morality and to make nuanced judgments. And really to just make the planet look a bit richer when you go out into the street.

"Better than you"

Susan Sontag, I think, expressed the last idea better, from the point of a reader.  In her interview with James Marcus here she said:

“Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too. … But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

Lionel Asbo, at last

Thursday, June 21st, 2012
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Another review from the Times Literary Supplement – however, unlike yesterday’s review of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, this one is online and not behind a paywall.  You can read it here.

We’ve written about Martin Amis and his recent visit to Stanford here and here and here, and that round of talks has piqued my interest in the British novelist – the only thing I had read by him prior to this year is  a short, business-like letter he sent me when he was the literary editor of the New Statesman in the late 1970s (like everything else, it is somewhere in my garage).  I’ve been waiting for reviews of the British edition of the book.  I wasn’t disappointed with the TLS review by  Jonathan Barnes, author of The Somnambulist and The Domino Men.

TLS staffer David Horspool writes, in his introduction to this week’s edition (it hasn’t arrived in American mailboxes yet): “In reviewing the new novel by Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo, Jonathan Barnes introduces us to a character few would want to live next to, either before his National Lottery win, in the ‘knowingly Dickensian’ London borough of ‘Diston’, or in the shallow glamour-world he occupies afterwards. Lionel, Barnes concludes, ‘squats in a line of descent from [other] monstrous slobs’ created by Amis, from Keith Talent to John Self.”

Let me finish with Barnes own words about Amis’s novel:

Expert, finely wrought and unique (as Philip Hensher has noted, “no page of his could be mistaken for anyone else’s”), Amis’s style is so dear to him that he is unwilling to discard it even for a paragraph or a sentence, as if he cannot bear to adopt a mask of any sort.

Unless, of course, his high style is itself the mask that Amis wears – has always worn. Style is the means by which he filters and interprets the world, its traumas and most savage extremes. It often seems as if the application of that remarkable prose helps him to make sense of disaster, even perhaps to feel safe. It is suggestive that his style grows still grander, and the register still higher, when it is applied to those things which are most painful to him. In his memoir, Experience, while waiting to meet his hitherto unknown daughter for the first time in the Hotel Rembrandt, he fusses over the establishment’s name: “A potent name and a challenging spirit, for students of the human face; and very soon two human faces would be opposed, as in a mirror, each addressing the other with unprecedented curiosity”. Describing Frederick West, he produces the following “one-sentence verdict”: “West was a sordid inadequate who was trained by his childhood to addict himself to the moment when impotence became prepotence”. In a piece on 9/11 written in the immediate aftermath of the event he imagines the second plane in the attack first as “eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien” and then as “the worldflash of a coming future”.

His style, perhaps, has always been a shield, a necessary means of protection from a judgemental world, the residents of which seem, no doubt incorrectly, to believe that they know him personally. This most famous quality of Amis’s writing may exist chiefly to provide a carapace for that “pinned and wriggling” soul. That it should also turn out to be so startling, so distinctive and so persistently impressive can be considered a magnificent side effect.

 

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.”

 

Amis: “The world has got drunk, lost its handbag, and been sick in the bus so many times now.”

Saturday, May 26th, 2012
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This long article in The Telegraph on Martin Amis, newly transplanted to New York City, has so many good bits  I couldn’t resist a post.  (If you missed my earlier post on Amis, it’s here.)

Much of the article,  discusses his newest book, Lionel Asbo:

The book is a wicked satire on the English class system, the vapidity of celebrity culture and the triumph of selfishness. …  Lionel is a comic monster for the times, as John Self, the hero of Money was for Thatcher-era greed and boorishness. Amis ‘adores’ him: ‘You can’t write about characters that disgust you. The whole form of fiction is actually a loving form, and you wouldn’t have the energy to put it down unless you had some, almost erotic affection for your characters. Similarly, I’m not disgusted but amused by the triumph of superficiality. And the egotism of people who are eminent without being in the least distinguished and somehow feeling that that’s their due – that seems to me to be a peculiarly English phenomenon.’

Amis describes it as a book, above all, about intelligence – how it is used, developed and wasted. ‘There is a tremendous amount of latent intelligence in England, and it’s awful that we cultivate it so patchily and randomly. … And there’s a saturation in values that all point the other way – very much exemplified by the reality show. What are they getting these rewards for? Their personality! It’s delusional. You make a complete chump of yourself, prostitute yourself, for a celebrity that is absolutely weightless; a floating celebrity that has no ballast. But it’s seen as a kind of punishment, not being famous. As a deprivation.’ …

‘But the thing I value most – and this comes out in fiction in a way you don’t think about in your daily life – is innocence. And the trouble with having that as your main value is that innocence is diminishing all the time. The world has got drunk, lost its handbag and been sick in the bus so many times now.’

He somewhat contradicts his thought at Stanford, that “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end” – or does he?

The Hitch

At the memorial service for [Christopher] Hitch­ens, Amis was talking to another friend, who said that Hitchens’ death had left him with the feeling there was now less in life to hang on to. Amis doesn’t see it like that. The ‘shameful secret’, he says, is that the death of a friend very much increases your love of life. We grieve for them but by loving life more, because they can’t do that any more. You treasure the moments on their behalf. It’s a great gift from your dead friends that they make life more precious to you. It’s quite a subversive thought.’ He falls silent for a moment. ‘It’s very complicated, all this – coming to terms with it. It’s slow and stubborn and will take the rest of my life to process. As Hitch and I used to say, the idea of “closure”, in the vernacular, is disgusting, a wank.

‘He grappled with the Nietzsche line, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Amis gives a bleak smile. ‘I always thought that was all balls; what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, and kills you later on.’

Read the whole thing here.

Martin Amis: “It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

Saturday, May 19th, 2012
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Medical science has a lot to answer for. (Creative Commons)

“As you get older – and this has to be faced – most writers go off,” Martin Amis said.  “I lay the blame at the feet of medical science.”

He was not (to start again), what one had expected.

Amis came to town, and was slight, and witty, and dry, and thoroughly serious despite his zingers.  He was not the ferocious, controversial hurricane – he was quiet and scholarly. And he was preoccupied by age.

Amis put it this way in his most recent novel, Pregnant Widow:

Your hams get skinnier—but that’s all right, because your gut gets fatter…. Shrill or sudden noises are getting painfully sharper—but that’s all right, because you’re getting deafer. The hair on your head gets thinner—but that’s all right, because the hair in your nose and in your ears gets thicker. It all works out in the end.

He cited W.B. Yeats: “Now I may wither into the truth.”

Although occasionally withering, he was far from withered.  As for his way of making a living, “What could be more agreeable?” he asked.  Non-fiction, compared with fiction, is a chore: it makes him start the day with “heavy tread and heavy heart.”

Fiction isn't faster. (Photo: Mae Ryan)

Salman Rushdie told him that he writes essays at twice the speed of fiction – “I find that, too,” he agreed. “All creative stuff comes from the spine and up through the head.”

“What a lyric poem does is stop the clock.”  Oddly, he did a similar trick with his acclaimed Time’s Arrow (1991),  a book that describes the Holocaust, backwards.

In a puzzling move, Amis began the evening with recounting long lists of Nazi atrocities – a return to Time’s Arrow.  The subject matter is timeless, he said, and defies “that greasy little word – closure.”  (Fine.  About time someone took that cliché down.) “Rule Number One:  Nobody gets over anything.  It’s the deaths of others that kill you in the end.”

What’s fiction’s verboten subject?  Sex.  “It’s too tied up with the author’s quiddity,” he said, although he’s famous for writing about … sex.  What else?  Religion. “You have to write around religion, although there’s nothing more fascinating, in a way.”

“Writing about religious people is something else a novel cannot do,” he said because you’re taking on all sorts of inherited preconceptions, he said. “It’s not just clichés of the pen,” such as “‘bitterly cold,'” he said, but those of the heart as well.  In novels, “a great clattering tea trolley comes in, and it’s religion.”

Off the hook.

Paradise Lost?  That’s poetry. “But fiction is a rational form.  To be universal, it has to be rational.” (I wanted to shout, “What about Father Zossima?” but restrained myself.)

Questions from the audience inevitably discussed his buddy Christopher Hitchens, who had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person – “not usually consonant with sound mental health.” An example: at the first sign of injustice, he was wont to say, “the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard.”

Another question: what is Amis reading?  “What I am not reading is 25-year-old novelists.”

But his finest, and perhaps most unexpected moment, occurred when a man asked why he was turning to events of half-a-century ago to furnish his novels.  The question had a slightly belligerent edge – or did we imagine it?  In any case, a suppressed collective gasp rippled over the crowd.  But Amis, much to his credit, took the question at face value, and answered it earnestly, and utterly without snark.

“It’s not that you are desperately searching for a subject.  It isn’t the idle selection of a subject – it chooses you,” he said. “My whole body is involved.”

Taking apart Theodor Adorno‘s famous dictum that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Amis responded, “Actually, there was poetry during Auschwitz,” he said.  John and Mary Felstiner would have agreed – and were probably somewhere in the audience.  Paul Célan comes to mind, but so do many others.

Whither the novel? “There’s been a qualitative change in fiction in the past generation.”  It’s the end of the meditative novel, he said.  “Forward motion is paramount now.” The future novel will be “more and more streamlined, and aerodynamic, and plot-driven and character-driven.”

All this thanks to “the acceleration of history and the diminishing attention span.”

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.”