Posts Tagged ‘Martin Amis’

Martin Amis on the failure of the intellectuals: “The truth about Russia dawned in cloud and mist.”

Monday, July 6th, 2020
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Martin Amis calls it like it is.

Martin Amis goes on a rant about Lenin and the Soviet Union in the New York Times. As rants go, it’s top drawer. Enjoy for the verbal fireworks.

He begins: “It was a very bad idea from the outset, and one forced into life — or the life of the undead — with barely imaginable self-righteousness, pedantry, dynamism, and horror. The chief demerit of the Marxist program was its point-by-point defiance of human nature. Bolshevik leaders subliminally grasped the contradiction almost at once; and their rankly Procrustean answer was to leave the program untouched and change human nature. In practical terms this is what “totalitarianism” really means: On their citizens such regimes make ‘a total claim.'”

He continues:

As one historian of Russia put it, it is to the intellectuals that we turn for “real prowess of wrong-headedness.” But it wasn’t just the pundits, the writers (H. G. Wells, G. B. Shaw) and the philosophers (J.P. Sartre, A. J. Ayer) who swallowed the Moscow line; so did historians, sociologists, politicians, and even businessmen. To its supporters the allure of the Communist Party was twofold. The secondary appeal was that it gave you the (not quite delusive) impression that you were playing your part in world events; the primary appeal was that the program looked wonderful on paper, and spoke to the optimism and idealism of many of the most generous hearts and minds.

Two of a kind. Read about Lenin’s brain here.

It was vaguely understood that there had been some loss of life: the terror and famine under Lenin, the Civil War, forced collectivization (“Ten millions,” Stalin said to Churchill, holding up both palms, in the Kremlin in 1942), the burgeoning system of state slavery known as the gulag (created under Lenin), the Great Purge of 1937-38.All that could be set aside, for now, because (a) revolutions are always violent, and (b) the ends supposedly justify the means.

As for the first point, the French revolutionary terror lasted from June 1793 to July 1794, and claimed more than 16,000 victims, no more than a busy couple of weeks for the Bolsheviks (and imagine if Robespierre had kept at it until 1830). As for the second point, well, there is a counterproposition: Means shape ends, and tend to poison them. We all know, now, what we think of the Good Intentions Paving Company. Anyway, the means were all the Soviet citizen was ever going to get. Western doublethink and selective blindness on this question is a very rich field; the wisest and most stylish guide to it is Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), by Robert Conquest, to whom we will necessarily return.

Nabokov was the first one to see it with an “illusionless eye,”  the critic Edmund Wilson, his longtime correspondent, indulged the Bolsheviks. Amis does not indulge Wilson:

Conquest working at his Stanford home. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

By 1972 Wilson might have found time to read the three outstanding memoirs of the period: I Chose Freedom, by Viktor Kravchenko (1946), Journey Into the Whirlwind, by Eugenia Ginzburg (1967), and Hope Against Hope, by Nadezhda Mandelstam (1970).

Kravchenko was an apparat high-up who defected immediately after the war; Ginzburg was a provincial don and journalist who was found guilty of Trotskyism; and Mandelstam was the wife, and then the widow, of the great poet Osip (1891-1938). Cumulatively, these books persuade you of a disconcerting truth: Compared with Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany was a terrestrial paradise — except for Communists and Jews (and, later, Gypsies and homosexuals).

Kravchenko, Ginzburg and Mandelstam show us a society from which the concept of trust had been completely excised — a society where the conversational meaning of the question “Do they write?” was “Do they write letters of denunciation to the secret police?” You couldn’t trust your parents; you couldn’t trust your children. In addition, everyone was terrified all the time, right up to and including Stalin, who feared assassination at every waking minute. When he flew to Tehran for the first Big Three summit, his plane was escorted by 27 fighters; when he entrained for Potsdam (the third and final summit), his bodyguards numbered 18,500. By contrast, ordinary Germans knew no panic until 1943, as the reckoning loomed, and as the cities were being bombed nightly, then daily, then daily as well as nightly.

Solzhenitsyn in a long tradition.

The truth about Russia dawned in cloud and mist. The first consciousness-shifting book was Conquest’s The Great Terror (1968). Very soon the samizdat version was circulating in Russia; and freshly enlightened parents would wonder if their growing teenagers were “ready for Conquest” and the attendant shock. Conquest had time to add The Nation Killers and Lenin, but not long enough to add Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1976) — before the translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was complete in its three volumes (1973-75). This was and is a visionary nonfiction epic written by an artist in the Russian Orthodox, old-regime tradition of Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Hereafter the great argument (like the original Marxist idea) had only a vampiric existence — technically dead, but still animate.

Read the whole thing here.

Martin Amis: “I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book.”

Monday, June 25th, 2018
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A talker (Photo courtesy Knopf)

My goodness. Does this man ever have a bad interview? Like him or hate him, agree with him or not, Martin Amis is always fascinating, incisive, opinionated, controversial. The current Q&A at The Los Angeles Review of Books is proof.

“Despite the variety of subjects, the guiding theme of most of these pieces is the impact of time on talent and the rarity of a long, multichaptered literary career,” said interviewer Scott Timberg.

The Book Haven was greedy and wanted to quote everything, but we calmed down and settled for two excerpts. The first discusses poet Philip Larkin‘s appeal for novelists. A timely topic, because Stanford’s Another Look book club recently featured Larkin’s little-known novel, A Girl in Winter:

Timberg: You have a great line on Larkin in one of your essays, where you say he’s not exactly a poet’s poet — he’s too widely embraced for that — but a novelist’s poet. Tell me what you mean by that.

Martin Amis: Well, it was suggested to me by the poet-novelist Nick Laird. We were talking about Zadie [Smith, Laird’s wife] loving Larkin, and Nick said, “All novelists love Larkin.” That resonated for me, and when I came to write that piece I saw just how true it was — that he belongs with the novelists rather than the other poets. “A poet’s poet” is usually very much in danger of being precious, or exquisitely technical. Larkin is technically amazing, but he doesn’t draw attention to it. It’s his character observation and phrase-making that put him in the camp of the novelists, I think.

A grasp of ordinary people

There’s something oddly visual about Larkin too, for someone who squinted his life away through thick glasses. I feel like I can see those poems, the curtains parting and the little village and the ships on the dock.

Yes — and very thickly peopled. He has a grasp of ordinary character — which is very hard to get. The strangeness of ordinary people.

That may be why people who don’t read a lot of poetry respond to Larkin, if they read him at all. It’s like Auden. You might not understand everything in those guys’ work, but you get something out of it if you try.

Yes — though Auden is a lot more difficult. And a greater poet, I think, in the end. But — yes — Larkin doesn’t need much interpretation from critics in the way other poets do.

The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

He reads “The Greats.”

But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.

It’s amazing how much poetry dropped out of the literary conversation in the States over the last few decades. It’s not gone entirely, but it doesn’t show up very much. I find British and Irish people, especially those born in the 1940s and ’50s, much more engaged with verse. It’s really changed over time.

It really has, and also the huge figures are no longer there, in poetry. Lowell, Seamus Heaney was one of the last. And I’m convinced, for that reason, that we live in the age of acceleration. Novels have evolved to deal with that, as the novel is able to do — just by moving a bit faster. Not being so speculative, digressive, intellectual. But poetry moves at its own pace, I think — and you can’t speed that up.

***

Your book is about the effect of time on talent — you take the long view on Nabokov and others. Each career is different, but did you perceive any patterns in the way these things go? Bellow, Nabokov, Roth — they all had robust careers. But we could contrast those with shorter or less successful ones — Joseph Heller, maybe, or Alex Chilton. Musicians, artists, writers who seemed exciting at first, but didn’t really keep up.

Indefatigable Nabokov

You get a sense reading a novel sometimes that this novelist has a big tank. A huge reserve. And some people don’t — and they exhaust it quite quickly. You can watch that process in any artist, I think. They arrive fresh, and then they use up, sometimes, their originality, and then are reduced to rephrasing that. You only see it fully when they’re coming to the end of their careers; then you can assess the size of that tank.

But you do go from saying hi, when you arrive on the scene, to saying bye, making your exit. Medical science has given us the spectacle of the doddering novelist. As I say in the first of the Nabokov essays, all of the great novelists are dead by the time they reach my age [68]. It’s a completely new phenomenon, and it’s a dubious blessing. Novelists probably do go on longer than they ought to, now.

Philip Roth has done the dignified thing, just quit. I know others who’ve done that. It seems to me that rather than gouging out another not-very-original book, you should just step aside.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell, but sometimes it’s harder. If we were reading, back in the 1960s, Goodbye, Columbus alongside Catch-22, would we have been able to tell which of the careers would last six decades and which would peak right out of the gate?

Catch-22? Embarrassing.

It’s hard to predict. But again, you do get an idea of the size of the reserves. Writers who start late sometimes go on longer, because the tank stays full longer.

My father and I used to disagree about Catch-22. He thought it was crap. He used to say of me that I was a leaf in the wind of trend and fashion.

Every father says that about his son!

I think you have to be suspicious of any instant cult book. See how it does a couple of generations on.

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed — I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing — I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think.

Read the whole thing here

Michael Hoffman: “I have mostly ended up translating dead people. They are more appreciative.”

Sunday, May 6th, 2018
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Danke, Herr Hamburger.

My work involves reading poets, essayists, novelists from all over the world, so every day I have occasion to consider how very much I owe to translators – for example, Michael Hamburger‘s translations of Friedrich Hölderlin. I know, I know … Hölderlin is impossible to translate, but the only alternative to reading translations is to give oneself over to learning every European language, and a few Asian ones, or else slide into a sort of literary parochialism.

I haven’t worked with enough German to run across Michael Hoffman, “arguably the world’s most influential translator of German into English, who can single-handedly revive an author’s reputation, as he did with Hans Fallada.” That’s according to Philip Oltermann, writing an article some time ago in The Guardian. The provocative title “English is basically a trap. It’s almost a language for spies.”

Hoffman’s reviews have a reputation for savagery, but he sees it as a form of pruning: “I have a sense of the enterprise being ecological,” he says. “There is so much excessive praise and excessive interest in the books world, and it’s all too focused on too few people. If you cut things down to scale, you do something good.”

A few excerpts:

A reputation for savagery: but “all shy eyes and nervous hands.”

… one of the 58-year-old’s trademark masterclasses in literary evisceration: a forensic demolition job on Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North in the London Review of Books, in which Hofmann had described the 2014 Man Booker winner as “ingratiating”, “gassy” and “lacking the basic dignity of prose”.

It wasn’t Hofmann’s first dismantling, and not even the most vicious. In another LRB review, he had written after reading Martin Amis’s latest, elsewhere feted as a glorious return to form: “I read The Zone of Interest straight through twice from beginning to end and it feels like I’ve read nothing at all.”

His most eminent literary compatriot, Nobel-winner Günter Grass, came under the guillotine in 2007 in this publication: Grass’s confessional memoir Peeling the Onion, he wrote, contained “two pages of failed writing that should be put in a textbook, and quarried for their multiple instances of bad faith”.

Like a Soho drunk stumbling into the National Portrait Gallery in search of a good scrap, Hofmann has battered posthumous reputations with the same glee as those of the living. “Stefan Zweig just tastes fake,” he wrote in another review, dismissing the widely revered Viennese man of letters as the “Pepsi of Austrian writing”.

The real Hofmann doesn’t quite fit with the cartoonish picture of a lit-crit Johnny Fartpants. As he sits in an incongruously rowdy Hamburg bar, all shy eyes and nervous hands, one is reminded that he is also a poet and translator: a humble servant of words, not just their sneering judge.

***

Translators need “an active sense of mischief”

One of his guiding principles for translating, he says, is to avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original. When the opening page of a [Joseph] Roth novel contained the word Baracke, he insisted on going with “tenement” rather than “barracks”. In the second paragraph of Hofmann’s version of Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa doesn’t ask “What happened to me?” (Was ist mit mir geschehen?), but “What’s the matter with me?”. He liked the phrase, he says, because it sounds like someone having trouble getting up after a heavy night.

“Nobody will notice, but you have taken a step back from the original. You have given yourself a little bit of self-esteem, a little bit of originality, a little bit of boldness. Then the whole thing will appear automotive: look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.”

Without an active sense of mischief, he says, translators can easily become bitter people. “Nobody sees what you are doing, and the minute you do something, people cry ‘Mistake, mistake!’. If done in that way, it feels almost parasitic upon literature. You can begin to understand fussy authors such as Kundera, who minimise the space of translators. That’s partly why I have mostly ended up translating dead people. They are more appreciative.”

Read the whole thing here.

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.