Martin Amis’s peaks and troughs

Nabokov, Bellow, Hitchens and other heroes
By Liam Hoare

‘You keep re-reading your personal gods,” Martin Amis once instructed. How you ever find these writers, in libraries and second-hand bookstores, is a mysterious business. It is underpinned by reason but the initial contact is akin to a flash of lightning or a thunderbolt – what Amis called in The Zone of Interest “the meteorology of first sight.” In describing this event, Amis has said:

“It’s the sense when you’re browsing through a library and picking up books and trying on various writers almost like outfits and then suddenly you read someone and you can tell after half a page. You say this one is speaking directly to me. He has me in mind. It’s an illusion. And then with a sudden nod you say to yourself that I will have to read everything they’ve written and then re-read it.”

Some tend to only one god. Others have many. For Amis, there is Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, and his latest collection of essays, The Rub of Time, is framed by ruminations on what he calls his “Twin Peaks”. These totems, however, are not equal in stature. If this book makes one thing clear, it is that in Amis’s mind there has been a clear reordering of late: Bellow has very much eclipsed Nabokov. As he once put it, “When you finish a Nabokov novel you want to write like him. When you finish a long Bellow novel you don't want to write at all because you feel it's all gone. It's all been done.”

Nabokov and the Problem from Hell – a reflection on the slow death of Nabokov’s literary talent, as revealed in his final novel in fragments, The Original of Laura, outlines the case against the Lolita author, which has two parts. The first is literary, that of his six fictions, two or perhaps three are “spectacular masterpieces,” while others are practically unreadable. Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle “is what homicide detectives call ‘a burster,’” Amis says, “a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat,” written “in dense, erudite, alliterative, punsome, pore-clogging prose.”

The second charge is perhaps more serious since it is a moral one. “Writers like to write about the things they like to think about,” and one cannot help but notice that like mirrors, doubles, chess, and butterflies, the “sexual despoliation of very young girls” – and they are nearly always twelve-years-old, Amis observes—is a “part of the Nabokovian furniture,” a theme that envelopes and shadows his fiction. “The nympholepsy novels begin to infect one another,” Amis writes, “they cross-contaminate.”

As Amis wrestles with Nabokov, his love for Bellow remains unspoiled. Bellow is the great exponent of the American novel, Amis argues in Saul Bellow, As Opposed to Henry James, and indeed it was Bellow who always believed (we learn) that Nabokov, as an émigré and not an immigrant, was “artistically weakened by entitlement”. Compared to Nabokov and James, even Roth and Updike, “Bellow sees more than we see—sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches,” Amis writes. “Compared to him, the rest of us are only fitfully sentient; and intellectually, too, his sentences simply weigh more than anybody else’s”:

“‘The flies wait hungrily in the air,’ writes Saul Bellow (in a description of Shawneetown in southern Illinois), ‘sheets of flies that makes noise like the tearing of tissue paper.’ Go and tear some tissue paper in two—slowly: it sounds just like the sullen purr of bristling vermin. But how, you wonder, did Bellow know that torn tissue paper sounds like in the first place.”

Throughout The Rub of Time, which moves between politics and literature, sport and more personal reflections, it is on writing and writers that Amis is consistently most fascinating: lucid, engaged, insightful, if prone to attention-grabbing pronouncements. Philip Larkin’s voice is part of the English language, Amis writes, in an essay that also grapples with Larkin’s personal and political shortcomings (to say the least). “He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.”

There are more of these adages to come. Don DeLillo “is the laureate of terror, of modern or postmodern terror, and the way it hovers and shimmers in our subliminal minds.” Iris Murdoch was “the pre-eminent female English novelist of her generation. There can be no argument about the depth, the complexity, and indeed the beauty of Murdoch’s mind: the novels attest to this on every page.” Beneath the proclamations, though, there is tremendous perceptiveness. In a review essay pegged to the release of the 2001 biopic Iris, which documents Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s-induced decline, Amis sees:

“Returning to her novels, with hindsight, we get a disquieting sense of their wild generosity, their extreme innocence and skittishness, their worrying unpredictability. Her world is ignited by belief. She believes in everything: true love, veridical visions, magic, monsters, pagan spirits. She doesn’t tell you how the household cat is looking, or even feeling: she tells you what it is thinking. Her novels constitute an extraordinarily vigorous imperium. But beneath their painterly opulence runs the light fever of fragility, like an omen.”

Amis is better writing about others than himself

The advantage of coming from an august family is that Amis is also able to inject the personal into literary discussions. His father, Kingsley, loved Larkin “with a near-physical passion,” yet Larkin in his letters “seldom mentions my father without sourness.” JG Ballard was also a friend of Kingsley, though their relationship “did not survive Ballard’s increasing interest in experimentalism,” which Kingsley regarded as “buggering about with the reader”. Writing about Kingsley’s final two months before his passing, during which he was in some fashion brain damaged, Amis observes, “We are all of us held together by words; and when words go, nothing much remains.”

The Rub of Time is interspersed with sections dubbed More Personal. This is misleading, as there is not much self-reflection here. Amis’ narratives about his relationship with the press, for example, are set in aspic. Writing Time’s Arrow is, at least, a window out onto how the novel gets made. He borrows the Nabokovian construction that fiction begins with a shiver or a throb that connects “to something already present in the subconscious”. Amis already had it in his head that he might write a short story about a life lived backwards in time, and reading Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors linked the one to the other, and thus Tod T Friendly/Odilo Unverdorben emerged.

As with his essay on Kingsley, he is better writing about others than himself, including his dearest friend, Christopher Hitchens. “He thinks like a child; he writes like a distinguished author; and he speaks like a genius,” Amis writes, taking the time to admonish Hitchens for his weakness for puns and lack of deference to his literary elders. “In these cases, respect is mandatory, because it has been earned, over many books and many years. Does anyone think that Saul Bellow, then aged eighty-five, needed Christopher’s half-dozen insistences that the Bellovian powers were on the wane?”

These literary insights, whose punch is strengthened by Amis’ authorial voice, are far more valuable than his interventions into politics. It is not that Amis is wrong necessarily. “His intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity,” he writes of Jeremy Corbyn, “and he seems essentially incurious about anything beyond his immediate sphere.” There is a question, though, of how far such observations get us, given Corbyn is on the precipice of high office. Leon Wieseltier wrote of Amis’ The Second Plane, “He appears to believe that an insult is an analysis.”

“When we say that we love a writer’s work—yes even when we say it hand on heart—we are always stretching the truth. What we really mean is that we love about half of it,” Amis writes. So too do I admire about half of The Rub of Time. The pleasure here is all in the literary, as Amis ascends up to the top of his twin peaks and back down again and we are there on the journey with him.

Martin Amis’s The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1986-2016 is published by Jonathan Cape