The Three Virtues of Martin Amis

I have been taking this blogging business too seriously; trying to come up with finished statements, rather than put something out. I doubt I’ll be able to change, but here goes.

It’s usually easier for any generation to acknowledge the qualities of the generation above the one above them – not the mothers, the grandmothers. And so, this isn’t about Will Self, although it might be.

Martin Amis’ literary reputation is not good. You might say that this is simply because his last few books have been not good. Like most people, even most literary people, I haven’t read them. (The same could be said of Rushdie and Self; they fell into the category of inessential. I’m not saying this with delight.) Around Einstein’s Monsters and The Moronic Inferno, I read everything; after Experience, I stopped.

I think Amis now appears a more important non-fiction writer, or at least a more readable non-fiction writer, than novelist. I go back to The Moronic Inferno as I don’t go back to Night Train. I may be weird, but I rate Einstein’s Monsters very highly, including the essay. He was onto something with nuclear anxiety as defining his generation, when this switched to a generalised, intergenerational Time something was lost. As a short story writer, he has one great comic high (‘Career Move’).

Amis is about as out of fashion as could be.

But I think this is because his virtues have, while he stood still and kept faith in them, become sins. For example, density.


Amis came to consciousness within a literary scene where Angus Wilson was still a force. Look at a page of The Old Men at the Zoo. It’s dark in there. Not a lot of paragraphage. Dickensian dozens of characters. Airless syntax. (He’s a worthwhile Amis-comparison, although I think the lineage Wilson-Bradbury-McEwan is more direct, and far easy to demonstrate as Wilson and Bradbury were McEwan’s tutors at UEA.) Amis derives himself, on the page, from Saul Bellow; he doesn’t just confess this, he makes it a credo. And Bellow wanted to load every riff with awe. Bellow, however, managed a certain flexibility of wit and rhythm that means there’s a way of reading him as slippage rather than sludge. This may be to do with his relationship to street-speak, of various sorts. Amis’s ear for London talking to itself was never accurate. I can’t judge Bellow’s for Chicago, but I haven’t read anyone contemporary saying it embarrassed them. Some Amis reviews have depended entirely on dinning his tin ear. (But, he’d say, he’s augmenting what he hears, riffing on it, not just doing pedestrian reportage.)


Amis also has the virtue of High Unseriousness. He inherited a mickey taking aesthetic – both Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis want to take the piss out of the Headmaster, but they still want the Headmaster to be Headmaster, or there’s no-one to take the piss out of. They have the satirist’s distaste for the possibility of utopia (see the imagined utopian novel in The Information), which would make them unnecessary. They don’t believe the leaky and embarrassing human body has any likelihood of perfection, individual or social. At their best, they were funny because disrespectful of almost all sensitivities. (That almost could be expanded.) This unbuttonedness is now rare.


Lastly, Amis worships the god of sentences and, sometimes, his worship has brought him graceful gifts.
You may have favourites of your own. I won’t quote any. Well, except this from Money:

The reason I’m writing this now is that President Trump (I’m sure it’s been said elsewhere a hundred times) is – for me – an Amis character rather than an any-other-fiction-writer-in-the-world character. It’s Amis’s novels – yes, Money – that were on the money about this ludicrous, strutting, wad out, greasy kind of masculinity. Others had stopped taking it seriously, or investing it with pathos and power. It had no future, why bond with it? But for Trump (the name is 1980s Amis) to be up there, in government, using the phrase ‘warmest condolences’ in referring to the Las Vegas Shooting – I feel the need to acknowledge Martin Amis here, to bow in his specific direction. Yes, you were right. This is his reality, as surely as Princess Diana’s death was J.G.Ballard’s, pre-scripted. In that phrase, and in every murderously clumsy verbal gesture and grandiloquent self-serving parp, Trump has been pre-scripted by Amis. Amis pre-understood him. This suggests it’s time to re-read.

2 thoughts on “The Three Virtues of Martin Amis

  1. The only reason I go back to him is virtue 3. It’s there in The Rachel Papers, in Money, in Heavy Water. I envy him the bite of his voice, though I have little interest in either the content or the other clevernesses (I recently gave up on Time’s Arrow). Virtue 3 is why Amis works for me and Self does not. Self has virtue 1. He has virtue 2, but in a way I feel deeply unappealing. He does not, to my mind, have virtue 3.

  2. Fair enough. Actually, damn well said. I feel no need to quibble with specifics as you have read more Martianism than I have.

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