Martin Amis has led one of the most puzzling careers in the contemporary novel business.
He started out of the gate with some obvious advantages. He had a good ear for speech, and an even better ear for caricaturing speech. He could create recognizable types – especially the aspiring Yob – in the great tradition of English comic novelists. And he had a believable misanthropy going for him – like his Dad, and like Evelyn Waugh.
These are great strengths. I tried to re-read Money a year ago, and didn’t get far, cause I wasn’t in the mood. But I could still see what a piece of work, in the good sense, it was.
With all of these qualities, Amis should have gone from strength to strength in Blairite GB. Instead, he jumped the track, and started producing these novels about Stalin’s Gulag and Hitler's concentration camps.
He came to these subjects with heavy handicaps. Amis’s great strength was, as I have said, aural. You could hear a lot of Money. But he has no sense whatsoever for spoken German or Russian. This immediately carves out about two thirds of what he has to work with. And then, who is the competition, here? Well, Russian and German (and Hungarian and Dutch and French) writers who had a very good sense of what the worlds they described sounded like. The competition, in other words, was already at the finish line while Amis was huffing along, getting all his notes in order.
The novels become those notes: oh, here’s the part derived from Anthony Beevor. Here’s the Annie Applebaum part. And so on.
I do not understand this jumping of the tracks. Was it because he sought an American market, one that had only a vague idea of yob culture? I think that might be part of it. I remember a howler of a review in the New Republic when the book section was run by Leon Wieseltier that went on and on about Amis achieving true greatness with the novel about the Gulag. It was as if the novel were a surgical bomb that had hit its target. The Wieseltierish crowd was, of course, not going to be so excited about a novel like Money, cause it wasn’t “serious”. Plus, of course, being anti-Stalin was, for this crowd, an act of political courage.
It is a weird crowd.
But my complaint isn’t political. Amis’s rightwing politics don’t bother me as drivers of fiction – a novel is like a truck, and the drivers are various in their viewpoints, but the point is to drive it well. What I don’t get is the idea that to move into making a SERIOUS novel about ATROCITIES, Amis had to remove himself to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. He could easily have turned to, say, the war in Kenya, or the starvation in Bengal, or Northern Ireland, or any number of theaters where he could both hear the culture and write about it. He could definitely have gotten his anti-Communist jones on by writing about British lefties in the 60s.
It is frustrating to see a good novelist take on subjects that are manifestly not going to pay off, and do it time after time. It reminds me, oddly enough, of the decay of the novel under Stalin, where writers who had avant garde impulses and brilliance were forced to write in a straightjacketed socialist realism mode.
I suppose there is a lesson in here somewhere about one’s convictions and the creation of that enterprise of othering and daydreaming, the novel. Sometimes, you just need to write an essay to give the first driver some road space.