Saturday, December 23, 2006

Martin Amis

In the London Review of Books, Daniel Soar rips into Martin Amis' new novel, House of Meetings (link via Ellis Sharp). It's a convincing review. Asks Soar: "Why is Martin Amis so angry? And why is it all so personal? An unjust but tempting answer would be that he is – as a writer – jealous of the extremity and transgressiveness of his most vicious subjects: Islamism, the concentration camps. He is fascinated by their power, and needs something of it."

In recent years, Amis has turned into something of a tiresome boor, with his harangues about Islam (about which, see Lenin's Tomb) and religion, and his bizarre--and timely--focus on Stalinism and all its horrors. This is a shame, for Martin Amis used to be a literary hero of mine. Granted, it's been years since I've read any of his work, and I don't know how they'll hold up to re-reading. But Amis was the first living writer to excite me. I'd been reading in a scattershot fashion among dead writers, mostly of the 20th century, flitting from Camus to Nabokov to Steinbeck to Faulkner to Kafka and so on, trying to figure out what I liked, how I liked it (incidentally, three of these five still matter to me). Amis focused me on the contemporary scene. I read London Fields about ten years ago and loved it. I thought it was lively, smart, energetic, entertaining. In short order I read most of the rest of Amis' fiction (I never got around to Success), and while it was uneven and at times maddening, the best of it (Money, Time's Arrow, The Information) I felt was as good or nearly as good as London Fields.

So I was primed for new writing from Amis. Night Train was minor, but enjoyable. The Heavy Water story collection was hit and miss, mostly miss. Then came Experience. This is where he started to lose me. I don't generally go for memoirs or autobiographies, and what I wanted from Amis was a novel, one more substantive than Night Train. But this was what we had, so I read it. I was disappointed. There is some great stuff in it; the passages about his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, are often very good, especially in the later portion of the book. But huge parts of the rest of the book did not work. The repeated, defensive, passages about his expensive dental work were boring. The bit where he recounts a time when he hectored Salman Rushdie for liking Samuel Beckett seemed weird to me at the time (I hadn't yet read any Beckett) and in retrospect simply embarrassing. (Amis: "And I really do hate Beckett's prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear.") I grew extremely tired of reading about his relationship with Saul Bellow. (Few things in the literary world are more irritating to me than reading Martin Amis gush about Saul Bellow. Except perhaps when Christopher Hitchens and Ian McEwan do it. Just stop, please.) I gagged when I got to the end of his account of his affair with the girl who inspired the Rachel of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. It was during the Six Day War and she'd donated blood to the Israeli cause. He has "hopes for Israel": "So I will never be entirely reasonable about Israel. I will always think about her with the blood. Not my blood. The blood of my first love." Ick. But the worst aspects of the book, I'm afraid, are about the murder of his cousin, Lucy Partkinson, and what it meant to him. This is probably uncharitable of me, but I did not believe Amis at all here. Instead of seeming to really matter to Amis, these passages instead represented, for me, a straining for gravity and moral seriousness. Her death may have actually meant to him exactly what he claims, but I didn't believe the writing of it.

Next came Koba the Dread, his half memoir, half historical essay about Stalin, and I found that I simply did not have time for Amis anymore. For one thing, the urgency of this task for Amis bothered me. Reviewers were certainly confused about Amis' purpose (see The Complete Review's roundup here and some more links and review excerpts here). I was put off it after reading several of these reviews. Charles Taylor's (positive and problematic in its own right) review in Salon summed up Amis' stance thus:
Amis is asking how anyone in his or her right mind can still consider Marxism as a means to a more just world; how people (like his pal Hitchens) can joke about their communist past without invoking the horror that someone who joked about his fascist past would; how the apologists for Stalin, despite having plenty of evidence as to the truth of Soviet Russia before glasnost, can be thought of any differently from Holocaust deniers.
This irritates, not because I'm interested in defending Stalin (I'm not), or because I don't think his apologists were in error (I do), but because of two things. First is this facile equation of Marxism with communism with Stalinism with Nazism, which is just ahistorical and stupid. The second is the implicit Black Book of Communism (about which, see here and here) idea that lays this huge bodycount at the feet of Communism, by way of arguing that present-day communists should thereby be excluded from current political consideration. But no one ever calls out the apologists of American terror. Well, of course people do, but not so loudly, or in the mainstream. If, for example, George Bernard Shaw ought to have a red mark, so speak, against his name for once having been an apologist for the Soviet Union, then what about, say, John Updike's support for the Vietnam War? In his open letter to Hitchens included in Koba (see one of Hitchens' replies here), Amis writes (quoted in Taylor's review): "An admiration for Lenin and Trotsky is meaningless without an admiration for terror. They would not want your admiration if it failed to include an admiration for terror. Do you admire terror? I know you admire freedom." Is an admiration for America meaningless without an admiration for terror? Does the question sound impertinent re-framed like that? It shouldn't. (Steve Mitchelmore raised a similar point in the context of Amis' above-linked anti-Islam article.)

I was going to make a sarcastic remark about how we'd probably never see a "Black Book of Capitalism"--but it turns out one did appear in French a few years back. How many deaths can be attributed to Capitalism? I suspect that if we spent any serious time looking at it, 20th century Communism's crimes would pale in comparison. I'm talking about slavery, imperialism, the two World Wars, the Vietnam War and other American efforts at "containment", and the kinds of atrocities discussed by Mike Davis in Late Victorian Holocausts (about which, see George Monbiot, link also via Ellis Sharp). And that's just the obvious stuff. I could go on and on, but I don't have all night.

Anyway, I've gotten a little off track here. Back to Amis. He has returned to fiction in the last couple of years, but I have not returned to him. In part, it's true, my recent reading has taken me elsewhere, but if Soar's review and countless others are any indication, he's lost his way. Yellow Dog didn't interest me and disappeared fairly quickly. And I likely won't be reading House of Meetings either. In it, he appears, again, to be straining for significance, and the passages of his prose that I've sampled from both books do not inspire confidence.


Fran├žois Monti said...

You really ought to read "House of meetings", most reviews have been really positive and I would say it's the best thing he has written in the last ten years.
As for the equationb Marxism - communism - Stalinism, it may be simplistic, but to call it ahistorical and stupid strikes me as very strange - and a bit easy.

Richard said...

Granted, my objection to the formulation is not argued out. The equation of Marxism with communism makes some sense, certainly, though even that's problematic, and the surface equation of communism with Stalinism is understandable, given what actually happened. But I think it's, yes, stupid to equate Marxism with Stalinism (and stupider still to say that Marx necessarily leads to Stalin). And of course you're leaving the Nazism off the end of that equation, which was pretty important. Once you've decided that Marxism = Stalinism, and then decide that Stalin was as bad as Hitler, equating Marxism with Nazism seems to come all too naturally. But I think it's clear that it's ahistorical.

As for House of Meetings, I've seen some positive reviews, too. I doubt I'll take the time (again, not just because I'm soured on Amis), but thanks for the good word on it.

Anonymous said...

It is a stupid equation, but so is your attempt to morally equivocate between communism with capitalism. Still this as Amis points out somewhere in Koba is progress of a kind. As thirty years ago wide sections of the left widely saw capitalism as just another formulation of fascism. The full crimes of the Soviet Union have never received the attention they deserved. The fact that they had such noble intentions, just makes the whole thing worse in my book. The left prefers to look away from the slave camps, the terror famines, the quota executions. Amis is to be commended for shining a little light on the realities of communism.

Richard said...

It makes no sense to say that "wide sections of the left widely saw capitalism as just another formulation of fasicsm". Capitalism is the larger entity, of which fascism was a manifestation. Anyway, the Soviet Union under Stalin and later was authoritarian and economically state capitalist. I, therefore, see it as having been an enemy of the left, basically right wing. One of the many tragic aspects of the Soviet Union is the fact that, internationally, local Communist Parties took their walking orders from Moscow. This might appear to confirm the anti-communists' views about these parties, but really the most important thing about it is that CPs stopped being revolutionary forces by the 1930s. Indeed, as even Hitchens points out, it was the Left that made most of the more useful criticisms of the Soviet Union. But people wanted to believe, and so they did. At this point, though, I don't know of a left that "prefers to look away" from the evils of the Soviet Union. In general, in fact, the left has been cowed by the horrible existence of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of Communism, to believe that it represented any real opposition to Capitalism. As a result, the left all too often just accepts Capitialism as a given and bickers over other issues, like identity politics, etc...