“The British Male!”: On Martin Amis


The Review’s Review

Amis in Léon, Spain, 2007. Photograph by Javier Arce. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

To be British is a very complicated fate. To be a British novelist can seem a catastrophe. You enter into a miasma of history and class and garbage and publication—the way a sad cow might feel entering the abattoir. Or certainly that was how I felt, twenty years ago, when I entered the abattoir myself. One allegory for this system was the glamour of Martin Amis. Everyone had an opinion on Amis, and the strangeness was that this opinion was never just on the prose, on the novels and the stories and the essays. It was also an opinion on his opinions: the party gossip and the newspaper theories, the Oxford education and the afternoon tennis.

The British male! Or at least the British bourgeois male, with his many father figures, both real and acquired. From certain angles, in certain photos, Amis looked like Jagger, and so he became the Jagger of literature. He was small, true—I feel a permanent pang of camaraderie at his line in The Pregnant Widow about a character who occupies that “much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—but he was also hypermasculine. It wasn’t just his subjects: the snooker and the booze and the obsession with judging all women “sack artists.” It wasn’t even just the style: an inability to leave a sentence alone without chafing at every verb, the prose equivalent of truffle fries. It was also the interview persona, all haughtiness and clubhouse universality, however much that could be contradicted in private by thoughtfulness and generosity of conversation.

But most of all, his British maleness was in the purity of his comic perception of the world. He practiced a very specific form of oral literature—anecdote, putdown, punchline, alcoholic joke: monologues from the ruined-dinner table. This morning I picked up an old copy of Money taken from my parents’ house and there they were, the riffs: “You just cannot park round here any more. Even on a Sunday afternoon you just cannot park round here any more. You can doublepark on people: people can doublepark on you. Cars are doubling while houses are halving.” Or: “I should have realized that when English people say they can play tennis they don’t mean what Americans mean when they say they can play tennis. Americans mean that they can play tennis.” Or: “This guy had no future in the frightening business. He just wasn’t frightening.” A novel by Amis is an apparatus for each line to find its best exposure. ” ‘Yeah,” I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.”

This vision of the world as comedy is why the Amis novel that still seduces and alarms me most is Time’s Arrow, his first experiment into Europe. That novel famously tells the life of Tod T. Friendly in reverse, beginning in a postwar American suburb and ending with him transformed into Odilo Unverdorben, one of the psychopathic doctors at Auschwitz. This means that appallingly touching things happen in the camp: gold is carefully placed back into Jewish mouths; smoke becomes a corpse, which becomes a living person, who is then beautifully reunited with their family. Ghettos are dismantled. Meanwhile, everything is narrated in a tremulous high style: there is, for example, the shoe, in an antechamber to the gas chambers, “like a heavy old bullet thrown out of the shadows, and skilfully caught.” Naturally, our narrator is delighted by this beautiful arc of history, always tending towards improvement—“A shockingly inflamed eyeball at once rectified by a single injection. Innumerable ovaries and testes seamlessly grafted into place. Women went out of that lab looking 20 years younger.”

Of course it’s appalling; of course it’s tasteless. But the novel reaches the kind of discovery that’s possible only by way of that mythical vehicle the English Comic Novel—wherein no evil is approached directly and all ethical judgments take place within aesthetic terms. Now, I deeply dislike the so-called English Comic Novel. It is a terrible vehicle: broken down and leaking and inadequate, hopelessly limited as a means for investigating the apparently real. But Amis, strapped into that vehicle forever, somehow had the talent and the intuition to make such limit cases his constant terrain. And what I love about Amis is how—so British, sure; so male—he recklessly drove the English Comic Novel into that insane and treacherous territory, and beautifully smashed it to pieces.

—Adam Thirlwell, advisory editor

I can’t remember hating any book, before or since, the thoughtless way I loathed The Rachel Papers, from the moment my worst ex-boyfriend, a blond aspiring novelist and provocateur, began to read it out loud at me in college. He saved special relish and aggression for the masterfully farcical scene in which the narrator, after using their last condom to cheat on his girlfriend, is caught short when she appears and wants to fuck—he must surreptitiously fish one of the already sodden, shriveled things out of the grimy wastepaper basket and wrestle it back on in order to oblige. Somehow I felt each sentence as a personal attack—the florid snideness, the rollicking physicality—and for years after getting rid of that boyfriend the novel stayed with me, images and phrases coming back unbidden and familiar and savage as vomit: “a fine double-yolker” of a pimple, “beady dread,” “greasy permissiveness,” “yobs” with “faces like gravy dinners,” stomachs laced with “worms of dirt … like baby eels,” naked women smelling like “boiled eggs and dead babies,” youthful “teeming breasts” and older ones “so flaccid you could tie them in a knot,” “dentures clicking like castanets,” a “gash of sunlight” falling “athwart the bed.” It took me some time to register how much more there was to Amis—to that novel, and to his later, stranger, more ambitious books. But this week, even my initial disgust at Rachel is mutating in retrospect. How many contemporary English writers, in those callow days, impressed me only with dullness or mild embarrassment? And here was a mind whose smallest spewings on a page could cause me physical anguish, spike their enlivening way into my everyday perceptions—no wonder so many lesser writers strove to imitate him, from my ex to Jacob Epstein, who apparently resorted to copying out whole passages of Rachel to stuff inside his own debut. Not to mention that the book that so undid me was, by the time I got to it, already some thirty years old—as pungent then as it must have been when the twentysomething enfant terrible had published it in 1973. Age hadn’t withered him; I’m sure death won’t remove his sting.

—Lidija Haas, deputy editor