Kingsley and Martin Amis represent the successes and failures of their respective generations, but they can't match the best American fictionby Andrew Marr / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The survival of the novel-that is, a work of fiction written to do more than while away a few hours of boredom-is rather surprising. As a developing form the novel was pretty much exhausted a lifetime ago-by, say, 1922, the year in which Ulysses was published and Kingsley Amis was born. As with figurative painting, the “modern” novel would twist and struggle to find a way forward and then more or less give up. But whereas the visual arts turned to new forms-pop images, video and installations, the stuff of Tate Modern-the novel settled back into its early-modern or classical form and kept on going. Philip Roth’s last three novels, for instance, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, are rich, high works of a completely traditional kind (silver age if not golden age); they would be completely comprehensible in terms of form, if not history, to a contemporary reader of, say, Emile Zola or Henry James. The experimental novels produced with such excitement by modernists-Celine, Wyndham Lewis, William Burroughs, the French new wave, Woolf, and so on-have gone nowhere.
Why is this? “Because they were all bloody unreadable,” would presumably be Kingsley Amis’s answer. That is not true and, in any case, the triumph of the conventional novel form is a standing refutation of the cultural pessimism that informed Kingsley Amis’s curmudgeonly opinion. More likely, it is to do with the different markets. A Damien Hirst can become successful with the patronage of a single Saatchi, but a novelist needs to find hundreds of thousands of individual patrons in order to live well.
The truth is, the novel remains the handiest tool for millions of us to use when thinking about our lives and their shape-the novels of childhood, of early sex and sentimental education, of family and divorce, the novels of bereavement, old age and loss. Film rarely does this job. It does spectacle and horror, escapism and jokes, but not life. The novel’s nearest rival is the television soap opera; it has bigger audiences but a vacant glossiness and a necessary absence of catharsis. No, the chances are that if you are averagely intelligent and educated you will think about your generation, and what is happening to it, through the eyes of serious novelists-John Updike, Ian McEwan, PD James, Alasdair Gray, Iris Murdoch-very much as the Victorians did. Because of this the novel is required to update its information; the surrounding furniture of music, sexual ritual, social atmosphere, political worry and fashion, everything from e-mails to Aids, has to be right for new readers to turn a page with a whoop and think, “yesss… that’s how it is now, for me, for us.” The great novelists of the canon are essential for an educated mind, but we need the contemporary tellers, too. And the achievements of the latter-the reports they send back to the rest of us about how we’re all getting on-shape our imaginations and choices too.
This is a long way of saying that novelists matter, more than journalists or film-makers, and is a prelude to the subject of this essay: the Amises. It was going to be an essay on failure, but it has turned out rather differently. Its origin was a semi-flip remark I made to the editor of Prospect a few months ago, to the effect that for me the two Amises were “the worst of England” and their half-century of snarl and sneer was the most interesting thing in recent literary life.
Some of this, at any rate, I still stand by. To attack Martin Amis’s novels, as distinct from his dentistry, hauteur, alleged greed and so on is to invite the wrath of a large protective shield of Martists in newspapers, literature and publishing. It’s not done. But surely I am not the only person who has been sent by newspaper reviews to the latest great, wise, hilarious, life-enhancing Martin Amis novel, only to find myself consumed by nausea and boredom after a few chapters. Not all his novels, admittedly: London Fields, his best by far, and Time’s Arrow, a single good idea sustained right through with manic intellectual energy, will stay on the bookshelf. But Money, Success, Night Train? Utterly brilliant phrases, sentences of pure verbal genius, fine paragraphs, so-so pages and, taking them all in all, sloughs of despond, every one of them. As for The Information… a stinker, no?
Kingsley was a different matter. Nobody with any ear for the English language could resist Lucky Jim or The Old Devils. But the succession of women-baiting, self-consciously bufferish performances (the very worst were Stanley and the Women and Russian Hide and Seek) which came garlanded with squeaks of delight from the puff-merchants of the press, plus his apparently serious loathings of great contemporaries, foreigners, Jews and so on, put him beyond the pale.
What slightly spoils this diatribe, however, is that to prepare for it I went back to Kingsley Amis’s novels and enjoyed myself more than was convenient for my purposes. Jake’s Thing, for instance, famously rancid with misogyny, turns out, on re-reading, to be surprisingly tender in parts, and intensely moving on the humiliations of impotence. The Old Devils will last as long as novels do; but it is not the only brilliant treatment of old age-Ending Up is one of the most delicately tragic funny books I have ever read. And so on.
Then came Martin’s memoir Experience, certainly the oddest but also one of the best books he has written. It has terrible flaws and jarring notes, but it is utterly compulsive too. Early on, he throws a pre-emptive punch at any mere critic. There is a good, structural reason, he writes, “why novelists should excite corrosiveness in the press… When you write about a composer, you do not reach for your violin… But when you write about a novelist, an exponent of prose narrative, then you write a prose narrative. And what was the extent of your hopes for your prose-bookchat, interviews, gossip? Valued reader, it is not for me to say this is envy. It is for you to say this is envy. And envy never comes to the ball dressed as Envy. It comes dressed as something else: Asceticism, High Standards, Common Sense…”
This is, of course, mere bullying. The case of Martin Amis would not matter a tinker’s cuss if he was not one of the finest prose performers alive. There are plenty of examples in Experience. His account of his father falling over on a traffic island in the Edgware Road (pages 338 to 339 in the hardback) is a masterpiece of funny-sad writing; if I’d been able to write like that just once I would consider mine a life well lived. So yes: envy. No one who relishes a sinewy sentence and a compacted block of thought, compressed and kneaded into surprising freshness, could resist the tribute of envy. The force is with him.
But that makes what he does with that force even more important. Yes: he has had a lot of rubbish written about him, not least about his avarice. (When you think of the money that company-destroying corporate lawyers, dim crooners and oafish money-traders manage to get their fat hands on, advance payments to serious novelists should be a matter of general relief, not abuse.) But to imply that Martin Amis’s talent should put him beyond criticism is nonsense on stilts, with a scowling mask and an ostrich-feathered hat.
In fact it is a little worse than that. You live your professional life in and around a public family. You have your media and literary friends-polemicists as powerful as Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton, many literary editors, about 5,000 admiring younger writers, your father’s circles of poets and critics. As you say, you’ve been name-dropping ever since you first said “dad.” You would not have grown and thrived without your great gift but, hey, none of the rest has exactly stalled the career, has it?
You have played your image alongside your novels: the tough-kid 1970s literary hooligan, the snooker lout, the charmed circle of brilliant mates, the private slang leaking into the books, the film star friends, the famous women. There has been a violently-coloured penumbra around the actual books which has been, let’s face it, part of the deal. Martin Amis is no Salinger, not a man to lock himself away in the forest. And now, in the memoir, we have further material thrust upon us: the Fred West connection, the lost-and-found daughter, the divorce and remarriage, the struggle and then loss of the remarkable father. And it is all recounted in prose which, while thinned down with white spirit, is still close enough to the clotted writing of his novels for an idle reader to confuse fact and fiction. To turn around now, with injured innocence, and complain about media intrusion into your private life, about “how often my free will has been compromised by fame”-well, it’s rather late in the day, that’s all. Whatever Martin Amis’s problem has been, too much publicity it ain’t.
What, then? The problem is evasion, a cold obliqueness to life which is accomplished in the novels through bravura writing at the expense of closure, genuine catharsis or structure. The energy is intense but febrile, like an opera crammed with thrilling arias but without a plot, heroine or jot of real emotion. This would not matter much, perhaps-after all, nobody is obliged to read the books-except for the suspicion that the problem of Martin Amis is the problem of British men of his generation-many of us, anyway. Like his dad, he is good enough to represent more than himself; he is the message as well as the messenger.
Here is a crude proposition. Kingsley Amis was the worse man but the better writer. That, of course, is a generational judgement made by a 40-year-old. Kingsley Amis had the characteristic virtues and vices of British males of his time; he was still driven, even tormented, by the old British protestant work-ethic, but he was, as his son notes, a baby all his life. The self-pity, the mixture of spite against women and utter reliance on them, the morose hostility to outsiders, the blub-blub pessimism about his country, the conservative timidity in cultural matters, the booze-bottle as teat… none of this is attractive, and it is ruthlessly self-exposed in his letters.
Kingsley Amis may have been a living caricature: the club-man who had little time for “abroad,” the vigorous fucker and drinker who managed to feel oppressed by “the permissive society,” the poet and prose-master who made much of his enthusiasm for dirty limericks and Dick Francis. But he was also somehow emblematic. His post-1945 England was indeed a country that had lost its way and its confidence, a nation of anti-modernists, of mildly resentful, hard-working, women-hating, culturally conservative men redeemed- some of the time-by their quiet, stoical courage and humour. Larkin, bleaker and more courageous than most, was their poet, and Kingsley Amis, funnier than most, was their novelist, and both men were confident about who they were. They were not, in the French phrase, comfortable in their skins-that was part of the point-but they were self-assuredly uncomfortable. This confidence gave Larkin’s poetry its deadly compression, those killer closures; and it gave Amis’s novels their comic structure, their resonant conclusions. These were books which knew where they were going.
Where did this leave Martin Amis? One clear clue is provided in Experience which contains, interleaved through its disjointed narrative, a series of letters he wrote as a teenager to his father and step-mother, Elizabeth Jane Howard. Though he cringes from them now, they are precociously fluent for a schoolboy: “Thanks awfully for your letter. So we all appear to be working like fucking fools. I seem to be flitting manically from brash self-confidence to whimpering depression; the English is all very fine, but the Latin I find difficult, tedious and elaborately unrewarding… In my last few days in London I read Middlemarch (in three days), The Trial (Kafka is a fucking fool-in one day)… Much as I’d love to see you both, it does seem that I’ll be doing too much fire-ironing and pie-fingering (I’m sure Jane could adapt that to one of her swirling mixed metaphors), to be able to get away…” The fluency, of course, is borrowed. Young Martin’s breezy rhythm is remarkably close to his father’s.
He arrives, therefore, as a young writer, with the gift of astonishing loquacity but also the son of a certain kind of Englishman who was, for post-1960s youth, utterly redundant. Kingsley Amis, however, seems to have been a hard man to rebel against-too funny, too tolerant and too lacking in fatherly discipline in the first place. So Martin develops that encrusted rococo English he’s famous for, sentences that preen and double up and go nowhere-a perfect cover for the inherited fluency. His novels don’t have the self-confident structure of his father’s. He creates low-life grotesques and Hogarthian caricatures to replace the plausible, shrewd, just-caricatures of the Kingsley Amis books. He is less naked than his father, less fully confronting life’s trouble.
Some things don’t change: Kingsley Amis’s most compelling novelistic gift was his ear, his talent for mimicry which resurfaces, untouched, in his son’s work. Both are masters of reported inarticulacy. Also, the son, like the father, abandons his family and is tormented by the choice. The son drinks and screws and surrounds himself with a reliable band of male friends to share in-jokes; it’s a snooker club, not the Garrick, but the principle is the same. Julian Barnes seems to perform a similar role for Martin to the one Philip Larkin played for Kingsley, until the rift over Martin dropping Barnes’s wife as his agent. The Kingsley-Larkin friendship also cooled, although less dramatically, and then triumphantly revived later in the two men’s lives. In Martin Amis’s account of that “delightful” rejuvenation, with the return of old endearments and verbal energy, there is perhaps a wistful message for Barnes.
So the son is like the father in much, but he has the liberal politics, the more generous attitude to women (although I still think he’s a poor writer of female character), and the more confused attitude to his own identity which all go with his generation. Again, there is a wider message. Millions of men of roughly his age, say from their mid-thirties to their mid-fifties, broke out of the shell of British post-war maleness, its puritanism and pessimism, its misogyny and insularity, only to find themselves adrift and confused, freed from their fathers but not free, lacking a robust sense of self or purpose. Like Martin Amis, they are not very good at stability, and seem younger at 50 than their parents were at 30. Like him, but unlike their Americo-sceptic fathers, many of them are fixated by US culture. They-we-reject the big picture and struggle to make sense of anything much.
This revolt against structure and therefore meaning is exemplified in Experience, which dodges awkwardly through space and time. There is, after all, an almost too-perfect Shakespearean plot buried in the book: the daughter lost and found; the good cousin lost to unspeakable evil, and not redeemed; the father lost and the other father found; the wife and children abandoned and the wife and children found. The hero errs, is human, is tested (by a dentist) and is reborn. There is even the comic underplot, featuring a comic villain, Eric Jacobs, the biographer. It adds up to a richer stew of plot-lines than The Winter’s Tale. Imagine what Tom Stoppard, say, or Michael Frayn, could do with that on a London stage.
Instead, this-being-here-this-being-now, it has been cut up, disgorged in pieces in newspaper interviews and profiles and presented in a deliberately disjointed book. Experience sets hares running and fails to follow them. It ends on a jarringly discordant and weak account of a trip to death camps in Poland and evades questions any reasonable reader wants to know about. There is a picture of a baby which “cannot be named for structural reasons”-yet dammit, there are no pictures of the main tragic protagonist, Martin Amis’s teeth. He concludes: “My life, it seems to me, is ridiculously shapeless. I know what makes a good narrative, and lives don’t have much of that-pattern and balance, form, completion, commensurateness.”
But nor, characteristically, do Amis’s novels; structure and meaning are joined at the hip, but Martin Amis has always had a structure problem. His novels start, continue and finish; they rarely travel or conclude; they lack completion. Why is this? Experience is a book haunted by at least two other books, Kingsley Amis’s own Memoirs (and, less so, his Letters); and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein. Bellow is a surrogate father to Amis; that friendship, Bellow’s recent illness and quotes from drafts of Ravelstein recur constantly in Experience. And Ravelstein is also a book made on the disputed ground between memoir and fiction, a novel bearing an uncanny closeness to a portrait of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, who died of Aids.
Ravelstein, however, is a book of tremendous confidence: poised and beautifully formed, a model, in Amis’s words, of pattern and balance, form completion, commensurateness. It is spare; but full of sinewy wisdom, a judgement flying high above the ground and missing nothing. The same could be said for late Roth, DeLillo, Ford, and some Updike. Somehow, the male American novelist has an openness to history, to the wider culture and a sense of men’s condition that the British male novelist does not-certainly including Amis, who is probably the most conscious of the American issue. Is it because of the grandeur and glamour of “the American century” or the easily-mocked but triumphant cultural earnestness of part of the US elite? At any rate, our story seems smaller by comparison, our male imagination (for this does not apply to female novelists or less so) inward, pinched, shrivelled, unconfident. And perhaps it is just that Amis is too good a novelist not to reflect those cultural failures-a man whose stylishness is doomed to fail because of his time and place. The dodginess and brokenness of Experience is the brokenness of the experience of many of us.
I am not saying that the Americans are optimistic in a simple way, just big in every way. Philip Roth, whom Amis (rightly) attacked for his postmodern, writing-about-writing novels of the Zuckerman era, has since managed to give triumphant shape to lives lived, to have the boldness and courage to spread his empathy, to make judgements on good people struggling with fate, and to achieve closure. This doesn’t mean a neat, happy, invigorating or simple conclusion. But for some reason, Roth and other male Americans have an openness and a breadth of historical understanding which allows them to make old-fashioned well-built novels about the genuine catastrophe-the one which happens to all of us-while British male novelists have been twisting away into genre and grotesquerie. Not true, I know, of people disdained by the literary set, such as Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons. But it is true of the most talented, Martin Amis above all.
His father is dead. His father’s letters, the last great slew of his writing, are published. The shadow of postwar man, with all its virtue and failure, is lifting from the country. The worst of England, and some of the best. Now Martin has started to write a little straighter-to look his life if not in the eye, at least in the face. Is it possible that he, like Roth, will move beyond a mediocre middle age into a triumphant late flowering? He has the gift and the intelligence, but has he the generosity to get beyond the old evasions, the coldness, the camouflage of that deadly, fish-eyed stylishness? If he does, a generation will be the richer for it.