Martin Amis, Style Supremacist

Martin Amis has in his life generally toed what he calls “the Flaubertian line”—the belief that writers generate their boldest imaginative success by keeping things stable and routine at home. His novels contain little coziness and much mass murder, their daring perhaps leveraged by his own domestic regularity. Amis’s more serious tabloid brushes—over a change of literary agents, in the nineties, and a change in residence, from London to Brooklyn, in 2010—have been widely spaced and personally resented. He fights an inclination toward grudges (“acrimony pageants”) and, now and then, with weariness or exasperation, has had to cudgel back against charges of misogyny and, more lately, Islamophobia. (“What I am is an Islamismophobe.”) He remains needlessly concerned about “left-handedness”—the slackening that can happen “when writers of fiction turn to discursive prose.” His nonfiction books now number half as many as his novels, and the connection between both stretches of the shelf is organic and secure.

“The Rub of Time” (Knopf) collects two decades’ worth of Amis’s journalism, including a good deal of what he would call the “ludic” Amis—middle-aged Martin playing tennis or poker, watching football or its hooligans. The reporting pieces have a fair share of old chestnuts (the book-tour essay) and barrelled fish (a Republican Convention), but none is without its stinging pleasures: the “little Restoration” effected by Princess Diana’s death, or the corpulence of Las Vegas, where a casino-goer’s huge wheelchaired body “[seeks] the lowest level, like a domestic flood coming down a staircase.” Still, the inclusion of many such pieces points to a completist need that Amis himself once noticed in John Updike. (“It is hard not to be startled by a sixty-word citation to Thornton Wilder.”) A salute to John Travolta’s comeback is resurrected, trailing a new penitential footnote that apologizes for the author’s undue optimism about his subject in 1995, and a very dated piece on the pre-Pornhub porn industry grinds on, further distracting a reader from the book’s heart, which is its literary criticism, labor that allows Amis to realize his most comfortable and integrated self: a novelist engaged in the scrupulous appreciation of others’ style.

Closing in on seventy, he has by now spent decades outside Kingsley Amis’s fading shadow, but his literary psychology remains distinctly more fils than père. His deepest considerations and loyalties have all involved literary father figures. Most of those are now dead, but Amis, having sometimes reviewed their books while they lived, still tends and ponders their achievements through the posthumous appearance of letters or adaptations or previously unpublished works. By my count, adding up what’s in this new collection and three previous ones—“The Moronic Inferno” (1986), “Visiting Mrs. Nabokov” (1993), and “The War Against Cliché” (2001)—there are five takes on Philip Larkin; seven each on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth; nine apiece on J. G. Ballard and Updike; and ten on Vladimir Nabokov, the most baroque of all the statues in Amis’s personal pantheon.

Amis has always wanted to see Nabokov as someone resembling his own critical self—essentially, a “celebrator,” a man whose darkness and severities have been overstated. He marvels, for example, at the lambent, kinetic description of a train platform on the first page of “King, Queen, Knave,” where Nabokov seems to bless and improve a world engendered by God and man. In earlier essays, Amis took note of Nabokov’s disdain for sympathetic identification with fictional characters, and also of his belief that artistic effect was everything, the descriptor more important than the described. Nabokov’s declaration that “for me, ‘style’ is matter” remains almost fearfully thrilling to Amis. When writing about Bellow, whose Napoleon Street in “Herzog” feels to him as nourishing and electric as Nabokov’s railway station, Amis goes so far as to declare that style, being “intrinsic to perception,” is, finally, “morality.”

But Nabokov presents a peculiar moral difficulty. In 1987, writing about “The Enchanter,” Amis described “the nympholepsy theme” as being “no more persistent than Nabokov’s interest in doubles, mirrors, chess, paranoia.” By 2009, he is still using the term, but one can feel him struggling toward the concession he makes two years later, when it becomes “the pedophilia theme,” the “only significant embarrassment in the Nabokov corpus,” present as it is in six of the nineteen works of fiction. There is nothing horrified or rejectionist in the critic’s evolution, but there is a distinct and tentative adjustment of the awed appraisal. Still, the “master’s scandalous fecundity” has left much that’s yet to be published, and Amis’s output of Nabokov ruminations will certainly rise further into double digits.

The honoring of style over matter also entails putting art above the artist. In “The War Against Cliché,” the larger and entirely literary predecessor of this new miscellany, Amis almost never concedes a legitimacy to critical biography, more often registering disapproval of the enterprise, which he doesn’t see doing much for Jane Austen or Malcolm Lowry or, when Andrew Field is the biographer, for Vladimir Nabokov. John Carey reads the poems of John Donne “as if they were confidential memos to Donne’s confessor or marriage-counselor, or to some spectral Jacobean psychiatrist.” In “The Rub of Time,” Amis appears to be reading and reviewing the genre a good deal less than before.

Despite all this, he has relished what in-the-flesh hours he was able to spend with his literary fathers, and even with their widows. In the new book, he recalls his “only extended meeting with John Updike,” in the late nineteen-eighties, which allowed him to observe “those busy eyes of his, the set of the mouth (as if containing, with difficulty, a vast and mysterious euphoria), his turban-shaped hair still forcefully thriving, his hands on the tea tray so much firmer than my own.” Years after the encounter, with a sort of sad dutifulness, he wrote about a falling off in felicity that he had noticed in Updike’s late prose. He would not, he says, have published the piece had Updike still been alive, and he scolded his friend Christopher Hitchens for doing such a thing to the aging Bellow. The Updike essay, a delicately brief review of “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories,” is informed by Amis’s own new “urgent interest” in aging—proof, perhaps, that the biographical interpretations of which he remains wary have some relevance to the production of criticism as well as of art.

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