I’ve never got much out of Martin Amis’ novels. They seem to want to be both ludicrous (farcical plots; characters called ‘Russia’) and very, very earnest (“She wondered where the end of the world was and what the world ended with- with mists, high barriers, or just the end of everything” Other People, p.56). The only books of his I’ve enjoyed were Experience, a memoir, and The War against Cliche, a collection of reviews and essays, most of which were impressively precise in their attention to language.
I was very snug in this opinion (fiction- no thank you; non-fiction- yes, please) until I read a number of articles in which he expressed opinions on Islam and terrorism that suggested he had lurched to the political right. In October 2006 he told the BBC that we should not feel bad about having “helped Iraq scrape a draw with Iran” in the Iran-Iraq war because a “revolutionary and rampant Iran would have been a much more destabilising presence.” Elsewhere he referred to the “extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture.”
It seemed ill-advised for him to be making high-profile pronouncements on subjects as complex as these. It recalled the rightward shift of Christopher Hitchens (who vigorously defended the Iraq war in the pages of Vanity Fair). And because these views were so in conflict with my own, I accordingly (and very conveniently) wrote him off. It was much simpler than trying to reconcile Amis-as-political-pundit with Amis-as-critic.
But this morning, as I clicked my way through today’s Guardian, I saw he had written a piece on Updike’s last book. It begins with a challenge that is hard to turn down, perfectly pitched as it is to the promise of wisdom and the reader’s ego.
The following wedge of prose has two things wrong with it: one big thing and one little thing – one infelicity and one howler. Read it with attention. If you can spot both, then you have what is called a literary ear.
… Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land.
From there it takes sentence after sentence apart, chiding them for repetition and poor word choice (I wonder if he would fail the sentence from Other People quoted above on the same grounds). As Amis himself concedes, it is the kind of demolition that “would have gone unwritten if its subject were still alive”.
But this destruction is wreaked in the most loving, respectful fashion (for Updike’s place in Amis’ canon is almost as assured as that of Saul Bellow), as if by highlighting the flaws of this last book, he means to underscore the quality of all that came before. It is a fine review. It makes me think that his students at Manchester University are very fortunate. They cannot be complacent.