A stylist, yes, but Martin Amis was also right on the money

Which in 1991 a
Amis at the release of “Time’s Arrow” in 1991 © Sophie Bassouls/Getty

Here is an excerpt from Tony Blair’s chatty, unassuming, and therefore un-Amisian memoirs:

“It’s like when people say to me, Oh, so-and-so, they don’t believe in anything, they’re just good communicators. As a statement about politics, this is close to an oxymoron. . . As a politician, if you don’t have basic convictions, genuine path-finding instincts nurtured from conviction, then you will never be a good communicator, because – and this sounds trite, but it’s true – the best communication comes from the heart.”

In other words, style matters. Or at least the two are harder to separate than people make it out to be. The idea that Blair was a shallow milkshake and Gordon Brown a deep but tongue-in-cheek man is primitive analysis. If Brown struggled to communicate, it was precisely because he was a wind-cock, a news-driven tactician who was forever second-guessing a tabloid audience here and a liberal there. Who should I be today?

Martin Amis devoted half a century to developing a version of this argument. (His debut novel, The Rachel Papers, published 50 years before his death last week). No writing is “just” stylish, he thought. If a sentence gives pleasure to the reader, it is because it contains a moral or psychological truth. How about that, from where London Fieldsabout a miserable marriage:

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“When Hope called his name… ‘Boy?’ — and answered Yes? there was never an answer because his name meant it come here.” At 25, I found this quite smooth and graceful. Now that marriages are developing all around me, it’s the insight, the penetration that makes me smile/wince. A good joke often elicits a “how true” after eliciting a “ha ha.”

Amis’s career can best be understood as a lengthy response to George Orwell. (“Man can’t write that much,” said Christopher Hitchens, though his view would soften.) Orwell’s simple prose is still cited as a sign of integrity and clarity: the English abhorrence of bullshit. Except, as his biographers note, with varying degrees of tact, he wasn’t that averse. We still don’t know if he shot that elephant in Burma. Pressed on an alleged fabrication, he reportedly defended himself by saying it was “basically true.” As for clarity of vision, 1984, his account of future Britain was stunningly wrong, and we can’t say that enough. (Unless you’re the kind of person who shakes his head sadly at CCTV cameras and mutters, “Saw that coming”.)

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The point is not that Amis, the great comic writer, and Orwell, the great man of the 20th century, are equal. Only Amis argued better in terms of style. There is no causal relationship between outer light and inner wisdom. And the opposite belief can bring entire societies into trouble. Take back control. Get Brexit done. Make America Great Again. It was simple prose that misled mature democracies over the past decade.

How did Theresa May, that mysterious sphinx, become Prime Minister? Because the British political class assumed that someone so indescribable had hidden depths. It was Brown’s mistake again. This happens in workplaces all over the world. I’m afraid that’s what happens in journalism. They give a false weight to the rough and tumble. This writing should be serious. This is awful.

That doesn’t mean you have to find Amis’s own work stylish, by the way. All these adverbs (“powerfully disheveled”, “conspicuously crass”) can sound a little college-minded when you’re down to a Cormac McCarthy or a John Banville: writers who work hard for effects and never say what they can produce. The bottom line is that Amis was right from about the inseparability of style from content.

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He wrote less and less about sports as he got older, but Amis always reminded me of Pep Guardiola, another man the British accused of going into unnecessary detail. It took a total conquest of domestic football to show how much rigor and seriousness (and oil wealth) lies behind the glitz of the surface. Play the ball out from the back to lure the other team into it, not to make an aesthetic statement. Owning a pig is the best form protection, does not attack. Now give me that fifth Premier League title out of six and don’t call me a show off.

Amis said that writers die twice. First, talent goes. Then the body does. So when did the talent scout come for him? Obviously, something changes after that The information in 1995. Street slang catches your ear. He was so good at capturing the texture of London and New York in the polluted, dangerous phase of the 1980s, he was bewildered when each became a sanitized, booming city. In Lionel AsboReleased in 2012, it goes ahead and pretends nothing has changed.

Kingsley Amis listens to his son Martin while his wife Hilary and daughter Sally look on

Kingsley Amis listens to his son Martin as his wife Hilary and daughter Sally look on © Daniel Farson/Getty

The ever-present errors became more and more prominent. It was enthusiastic, but not original to America. (Do you know that people there often carry a small stick?) In the 1980s, it seems that someone pointed out the existence of nuclear weapons. That bee took too long to leave the hood.

But no charge made her moan more than sexism. He had an effective defense: the men in his books fare even worse. His greatest creation, Keith Talent, is a pub crawler who deals in stolen goods and sports. (“Pressure? Shit phrives on it.”) But the physical examination was not the same. The early books are permeated by the sentiment, so recurrent in the canon of British entertainment, that the female body is a dummy. Imagine Little Britain set to prose.

In the end, despite all his Atlanticism, he could not overcome his nationality. Amis argued that Britain’s coping tactic after the loss of the empire was to accept small things. If we can’t control the world, we’ll treat it all as a joke. This is the most burning thing I have heard on the subject of our decline. And he said this long before Boris Johnson came out giggling to the top. The strange thing here – to be completely meta – is that Amis himself was the example of the phenomenon he described. A man who had a penchant for writing in a large register kept returning to the comic grotesque. He couldn’t say no to a joke. Would this have been as true if he had been American or Indian born?

His funny bones have won awards. (Comedies don’t win Bookers, any more than they win Oscars.) It may have cost us, though we don’t know, some great work.

Why the death of Amis so visceral for a certain type of person?” This is not the headline of a newspaper’s arts supplement. This was a message from a banker friend last weekend. Others who have contacted: a lobbyist, a football manager, a civil servant, someone in marketing. What other “literary” novelist (Amis was not a big seller) would elicit such a reaction from men in non-artistic occupations? Not Julian Barnes, although I think he’s written a book or two that outlive Amis. Not Kazuo Ishiguro, who at 35 has won more awards than Amis ever did. Not Ian McEwan, who, now that he has outlived Hilary Mantel, is perhaps the last serious novelist to become nationally known.

So why “Mart”? I think for men raised on YouTube, Jordan Peterson, and wall-to-wall lifestyle advice, he served as a sort of mentor. Pick a male rite of passage—sex, fatherhood, sports failure—and Amis said it most truthfully. He even saw through the eternal lie that male friends don’t tell each other about their inner lives: that it’s all movie recommendations and Declan Rice transfer rumors with us. I’m afraid I’m going to have to get up on my back foot because of this. There are at least 10 people I can and will discuss anything with, to the nth degree, like Amis and Hitchens are doing right now in some heavenly trattoria. It’s not universal, no. But looking around, it’s not that exotic.

Illuminating this and other truths of life made Amis feel like an older brother, passing on his insights as abundantly as clothes. Such as? Being an egg is not good enough in this world. “Alpha” is the state of mind, not the body. (Which was far from strapping.) No, it’s not like that, it’s like that. According to the council, it was cold and bleak. Such was the Peak Amis. But the arrival of the late Amis brought milder advice. On your deathbed, he writes The pregnant widow, the only thing you’ll be concerned with is “how it went” in matters of the heart. So go in a lot. And make sure it sticks to the hippocampus. Here, Amis talks to Esquire magazine about the advice she gives her sons:

“I tell them, if you’re in a relationship or having sex, make sure you make a fist of your mind so you remember it later. It becomes very important in the late fifties and early sixties; you spend quite a lot of time in the past thinking about those moments. . . So I instruct the boys; it’s like a pension when they get old.”

Romantic memories as a pension: wealth to live on at the end of life. This is a stylish line. But it’s also true. How Amis would have resented this “but”.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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Source: https://www.ft.com/content/295c3e9e-0b9a-4c60-bc97-c50fb6567b62