Posts Tagged ‘Philip Hensher’

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.