The New Compass: A Critical Review

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Part of the Trouble: Martin Amis's War
Richard Lansdown

Martin Amis. The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000. 512 pages. £20.

Many years ago, as a young man working in the London book trade on Charing Cross Road, two novelists in particular seemed to me emphatically to arrest the long, genteel decline of English fiction since the heady days of Modernism. James Kelman came, so to speak, from nowhere: a habitué of working-class Glasgow who left school aged fifteen for a series of manual jobs punctuated by unemployment, he was self-taught and apparently quite without support from the metropolitan literary culture. Martin Amis, by contrast, might have been bred for the job: the son of one well-regarded English novelist (and some-time stepson of another: Elizabeth Jane Howard); graduate of Exeter College, Oxford; editorial staffer at the TLS at the grand old age of twenty-four, and at the New Statesman a year or two later. Three years older than Amis, Kelman's first significant publication (a magnificent collection of short stories, Not Not While the Giro) appeared ten years after Amis's first novel, The Rachel Papers, came out in 1973.

It was around the mid-eighties that these two writers achieved parity of status in my mind: Kelman with novels like The Busconductor Hines and A Chancer (and a second collection of stories, Greyhound for Breakfast), Amis in one fell swoop with Money, a novel which did as much to broaden and to re-invent my notion of my native land as the Sex Pistols had done eight or ten years before.

Since then I've come to wonder if the two of them began to take their reviews too seriously. Kelman was told so often that he was a god-given combination of Samuel Beckett and Emile Zola that his novels followed suit, dwindling into ever-longer, ever more solipsistic monologues of the "I can't go on; I'll go on" variety, only in brogue. Amis, too, was told how profound he was, and discovered profundities accordingly: in his case nuclear weapons, the male menopause, and the conjoint sense of anxiety these things were assumed to bring about. Of his trilogy of novels set in West London, Money was a baroque triumph; London Fields was half inspired, half plain silly; and The Information — to coin a phrase Henry James used concerning Our Mutual Friend — was "dug out as with a spade and pickaxe."

James said Dickens's last completed novel was "poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion," but luckily Amis has escaped that fate. His autobiography, Experience, is a serious meditation on good-enough fathers (like his own) and desperately evil ones (like the serial killer Fredrick West, who murdered Amis's own cousin, Lucy Partington), and on daughters lost and found. It may be one-third too long, and it may devote too much space to yet another father-figure — this time a literary one, Saul Bellow — but I remember finding it impossible to put down as I flew from Australia to Britain to attend my own father's funeral. (Amis, as he recorded in Experience, spent a lot of time and money on his teeth, and as I was accompanied on my trip by symptoms of what would prove to be a lengthy and painful cruise along my root canal, I empathized on that score, too.) His latest novel, Yellow Dog — marking a return to the London of his earlier trilogy — also marks a return to the moral triteness that sometimes affected those books. Once again a reasonably civilized male descends into an abyss of bad behaviour ultimately to be saved by what I can only call "family values:" as John Self in Money was rescued by a wholesomely dumpy new girlfriend named Georgina ("a secretary for a dry-goods firm in White City," and the very opposite of his lost love, the pornographic Serena Street), so in Yellow Dog Xan Meo is returned to bourgeois normality by his infant daughter learning to stand at the book's finale. Amis's book on Stalin (Koba the Dread) was a useful history lesson for anyone who'd not got it from the horse's mouth in Solzhenitsyn, but it never quite spelled out the reasons why Hitler's Holocaust remains for most of us a more woundingly scandalous event than Stalin's barbarous career: the general European sense of complicity with anti-semitism, say, or the historical remoteness of Russia, or the Nazis' rationalization of the Holocaust as a social and racial inevitability. None of the problems in all these books can alter the fact that Amis remains one of the most entertaining writers in the language, inexhaustibly readable, no matter how thin occasionally the ice on which he skates.

Which brings me to The War Against Cliché. To say Amis couldn't compose a dull sentence if he tried would be an unpardonable instance of his theme (perhaps I could try "he writes like an angel"), but the rule of debits and credits holds true here, also. Novelists' collections of book reviews are normally items the world could get along without, and this one is 500 pages long, with only the most cursory degree of intellectual organization. (The section boldly entitled "Philip Larkin," for example, is made up of a review of A Girl in Winter from 1976 and another of Philip Motion's biography of the poet from 1993. The section even more boldly entitled "From the Canon" considers a biography of, and a selection from, Coleridge; a continuation of "Sanditon;" an uncompleted Jeeves and Wooster novel; biographies of Milton and Malcolm Lowry; John Carey's studies of Donne and Dickens; and, for no other particular reason, a review of Brideshead Revisited. This is a tenuous connection to say the least, and the amount of light shed on the canon is correspondingly small.) Still, readers should take heart. Elsewhere Amis reviews two miscellanies of literary leavings by John Updike similar to his own; and the industrious American has published no fewer than four such "cuboid collection[s] of higher journalism." Maybe we should congratulate Amis on his thrift!

Two themes do emerge. Amis records his hostility to cliché, for example, with gusto and a remorseless eye. The disease is highly catching, and — here's the fun of it — affects writers quite without their knowledge. Advanced or incurable cases are Cyril Connolly ("moody silence," "a grip of iron"), Fay Weldon ("like a shaft of sudden light from heaven" — that's love, by the way), D.M. Thomas ("Her bosom swelled over the décolletage of her white dress"), and Michael Crichton ("stunned silence," "unearthly cry," "deafening roar," etc.). The hapless Weldon helps point the moral: that "Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does." The number of sinners outweighs the number of saints, needless to say; and all are revealed by the presence of literary übermenschen like Vladimir Nabokov, who "of course, regarded cliché as the key to bad art."

Why "of course?" The critic is an impregnable, not to say incorrigible, Nabokov-infatuee, but — I'm glad to say, as Nabokov is one of the handful of writers whom I just cannot stand and cannot stomach — his fiction has a wholly different and a wholly engrossed relation to the life going on around it. Like Dickens, Amis is utterly hooked on "an age of mass suggestibility" (which he calls postmodern, but which is surely timeless). When he describes the characters of Elmore Leonard, for example, he is also describing his own:

…equipped not with obligingly suggestive childhoods or case-histories, but with a cranial jukebox of situation comedies and talk shows and advertising jingles, their dreams and dreads all mediated and secondhand. They are not lost souls or dead souls. Terrible and pitiable (and often downright endearing), they are simply junk souls: quarter-pounders, with cheese.
Unerringly, albeit through an alter-ego like Leonard, Amis puts his finger on his own pulse. He says of Michael (Jurassic Park) Crichton that "Like all good bad stuff, it is conjured with eagerness and passion," and though this is not Amis's case exactly, his fiction depends to a marked degree on the eagerness and passion for bad stuff that transmutes it into art. In this sense he is much less like Nabokov than Henry James: a novelist who, at his best, would not and could not avert his attention from cliché. Quarter-pounders with cheese might not seem James's stock in trade (though a fair number of them walk the streets of The Bostonians), but he is far less of a literary-intellectual mandarin than we generally believe. He wrote at length and with profound ambivalence about a potential alter-ego of his own, the Nabokov of the nineteenth century, Gustave Flaubert, who shared with Vlad the Impaler this "horror of the cliché, the stereotyped, the thing usually said." But James saw that in Flaubert this amounted to a "puerile dread of the grocer, the bourgeois," a sentiment, he felt, that "sterilized a whole province of French literature." "Flaubert sat, intellectually," he remarked, "in the same everlasting twilight" as Théophile Gautier: "he never got beyond the superstition that real literary greatness is to bewilder the bourgeois." It is exactly James's, and Dickens', and Amis's lack of literary superciliousness that made and makes them blasts of fresh air compared with, say, Tom Wolfe's over-researched fictional constructions:
Dickens was a great visitor of institutions and no doubt he "researched" his Marshalsea Prison, his Chancery, and so on. But he also dreamt them up, and reshaped them in the image of his own psyche, his own comic logic. That is perhaps why they have lasted and why Wolfe's edifices look more trapped in time.
In the same way Amis's relation to the grocer and the cliché remains, in his fiction, genuinely fertile and symbiotic; more complex, at any rate, than the noli me tangere attitude registered in this collection as a literary-critical value.

The other theme that Amis's collection pursues is that of the redundancy of literary biography; and on the basis of the feeble stuff brought up for him to review (Andrew Motion on Philip Larkin, Gordon Bowker on Malcolm Lowry, Andrew Field on Nabokov) it's easy to be sympathetic. Motion, for example, presents "an anthology of the contemporary [1993] tendencies toward the literal, the conformist, and the amnesiac," and so presents modern superciliousness in another form. "How much do we need to know about a writer, personally?" Amis asks, regarding Malcolm Lowry:

The answer is that it doesn't matter. Nothing or everything is equally satisfactory. Who cares, in the end? As Northrop Frye has said, the only evidence we have of Shakespeare's existence, apart from the poems and plays, is the portrait of a man who was clearly an idiot. Biography is there for the curious; and curiosity gives out where boredom begins.
Which is very true. But — for me, at least — Amis mars his case once more by bringing Nabokov into play. "Most literary criticism tends to point beyond literature towards something else," he suggests.
It points towards marxism, or sociology, or philosophy, or semiotics — or even life, that curious commodity to which Dr Leavis always stressed his commitment. Nabokov points to the thing itself, the art itself, trying to make us "share not the emotions of the people in the book but the emotions of its author." He wanted to teach people how to read.
But what if one felt that that most literature tends to point beyond literature towards something else? What then? Would Nabokov be teaching us how to read in that case, or hindering the process? "Life" may be an existentially and intellectually wobbly term, but does calling it a "curious commodity" help resolve the riddle? As a writer of fiction Amis is much to be congratulated — in contrast to so many British post-war novelists — for his refusal to treat life as a "curious commodity." "The thing itself" is something good novelists (and good critics) cannot confidently force behind the wire of aesthetic arrangement or authorial decision-making. It is something that eludes the realm of art; something they pursue into the realm of life — which means the realm of values.

So when Amis speaks of Nabokov "negotiating his chosen books [in his Lectures on Literature] with the confidence, coolness and superlegitimacy of the fellow practitioner" I tend to wonder whether confidence and coolness actually are signs of superlegitimacy or rather merely evidence of pretensions to it; and I also wonder and worry about Amis's other uncritical attachment, Saul Bellow. He spends a good deal of time on The Adventures of Augie March as the Great American Novel ("Search no further," etc.), when many of his readers, surely, will register the Johnsonian objection that if a book hasn't commonly been accepted as a Great American Novel it simply can't be one. It is true there are a fair number of candidates in the field (The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby), but all of them have regularly been seen as such even by people who've read none of them. Augie March doesn't stand a chance even among those few people who have read it; it's the Great American Novel only an Englishman could propose.

But at least Augie March is a strong piece of work. Whatever could possibly be said of Bellow's latter-day fiction, like Ravelstein, which Amis regards as "a masterpiece with no analogues." ("Thank God," a grateful public remarks.) "The world has never heard this prose before," apparently: "prose of such tremulous and crystallized beauty." As if anyone reading Ravelstein could get interested in the prose, indulgent and self-indulgent exercise as the novel — in so far as it is a novel — is. The whole unhappy case of brown-nosing comes to climax when Amis suggests that "Bellow's first name is a typo: that 'a' should be an 'o'."

Whether style is a fatal gift, which of us born without it can say? (When someone makes a ham-fisted joke about "Saul" and "soul" have they left style behind?) Is it Amis's talent, so much more profound and meaningful than his father's, that drives him to strange or exhausted gods like Nabokov and Bellow? (One of the pleasant surprises in the book is that he can (belatedly) see where Norman Mailer's genius lies: the blue-collar America that has obsessed him from The Naked and the Dead to Oswald's Tale, and which is in retrospect so much more interesting than either Bellovia or Updike-land.) In the end, readers may find themselves in a divided state of mind here. Certainly Amis's reviews remind us that such pieces can be "something of a work of art, or at least a worthy vehicle for the play of ideas, feeling, and wit." Certainly in them we are generally spared "the hot snort of the hobby-horse," despite his exaggerated enthusiasms for Messrs Nabokov and Bellow. But we're not sure whether he's best used serving The Guinness Book of Records or Iris Murdoch, or whether in fact we'd like to see him discuss things more demanding than either. I would guess that in his time Amis received many end-of-term reports along the lines typical of the British private school. "Could try harder," maybe?

Lansdown, Richard. "Part of the Trouble: Martin Amis's War." Rev. of The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews, by Martin Amis. The New Compass: A Critical Review 4 (December 2004) []

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Michael John DiSanto and Sarah Emsley