Sunday, May 22, 2011

The irrelevant English letters crowd nips at the heels of Martin Amis

STANDPOINT magazine has a fascinating online article by David Barrett about the argument in England over one of its most talented writers, Martin Amis. You can read it all through this link. Some excerpts below:


"Writers die twice," wrote Martin Amis, "once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies." In the case of Philip Larkin, it was decided that two deaths weren't enough. The dead bores attacked the poems as dead bores do: by trashing the dead man's reputation. When he went to the grave in 1985, Larkin was known by many people to be a great poet. Eight years later — after the publication of the first Collected Poems, the Selected Letters and the Life — Larkin was known by many more people to be a racist, a womaniser, a porn collector and a drunk. It was soon questioned whether Larkin wrote great poetry. Then it seemed irrelevant that he wrote poetry at all.   
A few serious writers stood up for Larkin with sensible words. Martin Amis was one of those writers. Clive James was another. They said what mattered, and what still matters: that Larkin had talent, and that the man's private failures were a private affair, because the man chose to keep them that way. Amis was still defending Larkin in October. On Letters to Monica he wrote that "Larkin's life was a failure; his work was a triumph. That is all that matters. Because the work, unlike the life, lives on." In September, Faber will publish the Selected Poems of Philip Larkin. The poems are chosen by Martin Amis.

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Many people who write about literature think that Martin Amis's talent is dead. That talent, apparently, fell terminally ill about the same time as Larkin's funeral: in the mid 1980s, after the publication of Money. One reviewer, writing in The Sunday Times in 2003, offered a neat summary of this popular opinion in the press. London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995) "threw into embarrassing relief the meagreness of his fictional repertoire". Einstein's Monsters (1987) and Heavy Water (1998) "showed that even the short story format couldn't curb his tendency to meander and repeat". "Two experimental novellas", Time's Arrow (1991) and Night Train (1997), "both proved ill-judged". In Koba the Dread (2002) Amis sounded "even more egotistical than he did in his autobiography, Experience [2000]". Yellow Dog (2003) "ends with a baby getting triumphantly up on to its feet. But the impression it leaves is of a talent on its last legs."  
..True literary style is unique. It's a voice heard above the immense hum of printed words. For Nabokov, style was matter. For Amis, style is perception: "It's not the flashy twist, the abrupt climax, or the seamless sequence of events that characterises a writer and makes him unique. It's a tone, it's a way of looking at things." A unique voice on the page provokes a unique response. No two readers can react to a real prose style in the same way. Yet many literary journalists try to persuade us that that's exactly what happens when they read a new Martin Amis novel. The style they use to describe his work is almost always the same. There are, of course, occasional warm reviews. The Pregnant Widow, rereleased in March in a Vintage paperback edition, was briefly praised in the Guardian and The Independent recently. But it is true to say that there's a consensus on Amis's work that is wholly unrelated to the quality of his words. The tale of Amis's dead talent is so popular in the press nowadays that it's a cliché. The cliché is betrayed by the dead boring style adopted by many writers when they write about Amis.  
Even worse is the consensus on Amis as a person. He's Keith Talent. He's a very bad guy. In Larkin's case, the vicious ad hominem attacks began after he died. In Amis's case, personal abuse already passes for legitimate literary criticism. Critics have accused Amis of racism, misogyny and egotism. He's vain (the teeth), and greedy (the £500,000 advance, the Manchester University salary). He's "ageist", a shameless self-promoter and "past HIS sell-by date" (the euthanasia drama). He sprouts "arrogant twaddle" (the children's writing melee). Professor Terry Eagleton famously shot a rocket at the House of Amis: "[Kingsley Amis was] a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals." Eagleton added that: "Amis fils has clearly learnt more from him than how to turn a shapely phrase."

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