Saturday, August 8, 2009

the trouble with martin

The last decade has been tough on the prose styles of two writers I used to admire quite a bit, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis. When I say tough, I mean devastating; when I say devastating, I mean like a bucket of lye is devastating to the face of a raving beauty. I mean like the Johnstown flood was not so kind to Johnstown. I mean like no survivors.

In Hitchens case, at one time the man had almost perfect pitch. I still remember an essay about Isaiah Berlin that was not just damning, but thrilling. Delicious. Of course, back then Hitchens had a different politics. The shift from the far left to the far right did not preclude, however, the sad purge of subtlety, literacy, logic, generosity and that essential tentativeness, that openness to further fact, which is the essayists stock in trade. Hitchens now deals in cliché, a third rater’s egotism, his association with the most corrupt people he can find at any one moment (the Cheneys, the Wolfowitz, the Chalabi, the Mafiosi running Northern Iraq), and one would suspect him of doing it all for some terrible habit, like cocaine – in fact, it would be almost forgiveable, then – but it seems that he has actually chosen to become not only odious, but unreadable.

Yet this is a small loss compared to the loss of Martin Amis.

At one time… ah, but I’m already starting off in the Maerchen mode, as if this were an unbelievable tale for children. But I will bravely carry on: at one time, Amis was genuinely, astonishingly funny. Although his plots were glued together with a gay, pomo carelessness, and his characters were not ‘real’ – the way Wodehouse’s characters aren’t ‘real’ – they were something better. They were perfect. Amis had (he truly did) a deadly sense of the farce of fin de siecle lifestyles. In the days of Money and London Fields, Amis did not pretend to have any moral authority. It was this lack that made him a sort of hybrid in comic lit, neither a pure satirist nor a pure farceur. This was new. And though his novels ran riot with bigotries, bad behavior and the lot, since he’d pulled the rug out from under his own authority, their cruel working out was never interrupted by the authorial superego, creeping out from under the rock to sort out the just and the unjust. The rain it raineth every day, that was the joke.

He is so incredibly bad now that I almost began to doubt my memory of when he was so very, very good. So I’m rereading London Fields and yes, there are passages, there are passages… For instance, this tossaway. Amis is delineating the character of Analiese Furnish. Analiese is a groupie. She’s also into mysticism and tarot. As Keith, her sometimes lover and the thug at the center of the book’s carnival puts it to himself, she’s mental. Here’s Amis:

“‘What you did with famous people just wasn’t your fault. Different rules applied. You were swept away. And when it was over (and it was usually over quickly), well, you were wryly left with your albums and scrapbooks, your poems, your train-tickets, your memories, your dreams, your telephone calls to his wife and children, your letters to the editors of all the tabloids.”

The only miniscule fault here is ‘wryly’ – but it is such a mote, such an infinitesimal massaging of the thing by the author, that it doesn’t spoil the passage in any way, doesn’t get in the way of the contact high. Contact high is good!

Compare this to Amis now. Recently, he effused at great length, and to little point, in the Guardian about Iran. He went there! He knows all about it now! The article is not so much a piece of writing as a piece of fist pounding – which is par for the course for today’s Amis. Here’s a bit:

"In the history of the Iranian plateau," writes Sandra Mackey, in her stylish and magisterial classic, The Iranians: Persia, Islam, and the Soul of a Nation, "the sun has risen and set on nearly a million days." But before we come to the Iranian soul, and the million days, let us examine the Three Lies about the Islamic Republic.”

Oh, let’s… not. If this were written by one of those slippery authors Amis loved to portray in his early work, it would be funny – the drawing out of a sentence of pure filler from a ‘stylish and magisterial’ classic – a classic! I think we can confidently translate this to mean, old book I had an assistant pull out of the library and read all the way through. On Iran. Doing the hard footwork. Doing my homework, see.

The idea that we are going to get a tour of the Iranian soul plus the million days from our tourist gringo author – it is the equivalent of the perfumes that Amis’s character, Keith, pawns off on an unsuspecting, or simply weary, public in London Fields. It is a cheat, and not even a very good one.

Amis’s business with the three lies is not even worth arguing about – it is pointless. The reason the first one exists is solely so that Amis can write a sentence using the term farr – “the inherent aura of kingship.” To give us a whiff of real Persia. Darling, I have the stuff for you. But who cares about that – it is the writing here that stinks:

“On 16 January 1979, Muhammad Reza Shah flew out of Tehran – to exile in Cairo. On 1 February, Ayatollah Khomeini flew into Tehran – from exile in Paris (where one of his more regrettable neighbours, I feel obliged to mention, was Brigitte Bardot).”

I feel obliged to mention that regrettable neighbors (of which, apparently, there is a scale of less to more) makes zip sense. Perhaps Amis regrets that Khomeini didn’t make more of her. Or perhaps Brigitte is busy regretting something on her own. And doing so more, I again feel obliged to tell you, then the regretting done by other of Khomeini’s neighbors. Perhaps this was another detail culled from the stylish classics Amis is cribbing from. But the earlier humorous wouldn’t fumble the detail so badly that one wonders more about Amis’ literacy than about the ironies, if any, to be squeezed out of juxtaposing Khomeini with “And God created Woman.”

Dickens soon got tired of his reputation as the author of the Pickwick Papers. He too wanted to be a novelist in the fullest sense. Luckily, Dickens also had a fine sense of his territory. Yes, he wrote a couple of historicals, but they were mostly set in England. When he departed for foreign shores and dreamt up wicked foreigners, as in Little Dorrit, he soon came home again. Home was large enough to keep him infinitely supplied with material. Dickens certainly did not look at the Crimean war as his chance to report on all things Russian, or dream up a novel set in Turkey. Dickens was a wise man.

Amis is not a wise man. Those who only know Amis in his current incarnation – which can be dated to his discovery that Stalinism was really, really bad – might be excused for thinking of him as a hack. What happened, what incredibly happened, what wryly, regrettably happened, is that Amis, the virtuoso of no moral authority, decided that he was one. A moral authority. He, Amis. And so he churns out essays and bad, bad novels. His last novel, for instance, seems to have been a mash up of Anthony Beevor and Anne Applebaum. It is set entirely in Russia, and it is dreadful from beginning to end. Dickens moral authority was in developing his sense of observation – Amis derives his from a passing acquaintance with secondary sources.

Art is mercurial, and if Amis had the tedious but somehow charming persona of, say, Thomas Mann, perhaps he could sell these goods. It seems to be a well kept secret about Mann that he, too, can be funny. Amis is no Mann. From the beginning, Amis was a brat. This was his charm. Of course, age is a problem for brats. Evelyn Waugh, for instance, was a brat – the biggest brat in British literature – and he, too, grew tired of being funny. But Waugh never tried to rebuild his career on his own moral authority – he was a moral renter, in the house that God built. And this works, more or less. Amis inhabits the house that Amis’s ego built. Which would be an excellent premise for an Amis-like novel. To bad that nobody’s around to write it.

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