The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1986-2016, by Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape, 368 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0224076111
All artists, in a sense, elect their own precursors – declaring themselves for or against this or that canonical idol, promoting (as a rule) those who have proved most useful to their own self-fashioning, and banishing those from whom there is nothing worthwhile to be learned. Novelists in particular are great makers of personal pantheons – although very few novelists have been as consistently frank about their fetishes as Martin Amis. Reading Amis’s literary criticism – the essays and reviews collected in The Moronic Inferno (1986), Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993), The War Against Cliché (2001), and now The Rub of Time – you quickly discover that the Amis Canon shakes down to an austerely cultivated handful of Approved Writers. Shakespeare, John Updike, JG Ballard, William Burroughs (once upon a time), Anthony Burgess (sort of), Philip Roth, Iris Murdoch (maybe), Joseph Heller (the early stuff), James Joyce (ditto), Philip Larkin, Don DeLillo (with reservations), Jane Austen … Oh, and don’t forget Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, whom Amis describes, in the new book, as his “Twin Peaks”.
These are the writers about whom Amis has written most feelingly and most often, and a good number of them duly shuffle onstage in the course of The Rub of Time to be bigged up or shot down, according to the iron laws of the Amisian aesthetic standard. Updike is briefly praised (“Updike’s prose, that fantastic engine of euphony, of first-echelon perception”), before his final volume of short stories, My Father’s Tears (2009), is dissected and found to consist of “a blizzard of false quantities”. DeLillo is admired (“this luminous talent”) but then there are those pesky reservations (“The great writers can take us anywhere; but half the time they’re taking us where we don’t want to go”). Bellow, of course, is handsomely lauded (“His was and is a pre-eminence that rests not on sales figures and honorary degrees, not on rosettes and sashes, but on incontestable legitimacy”), and escapes censure. So too does Nabokov (“the words detach themselves from the everyday and streak off like flares in a night sky”) – although upon revisiting the darker precincts of the master’s oeuvre, Amis finds himself no longer quite so keen to defend or excuse VN’s lifelong fascination with the sexual despoliation of prepubescent girls (“You will, I hope, admit that the hellish problem is at least Nabokovian in its complexity and ticklishness”).
So, as of 2017, the Amis Canon is still in order, with only some mild fluctuations in market value to trouble us (Updike, down ten at close; invest heavily in Bellow futures). With remarkable consistency, Amis has been praising more or less the same small group of (mostly male, definitely straight, definitely white) writers for four decades now. He even uses them to critique one another: “Bellow is quite unlike, say, Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike, to take two artist-critics of high distinction.” His critical insights are drawn from deep familiarity with a rigorously winnowed corpus. There have been no lately discovered enthusiasms; no essays in praise of younger novelists; certainly none in praise of writers from non-Anglophone countries (with the obvious, and meaningless, exception of Nabokov); and, increasingly, no full-length pieces about women writers of whatever vintage. (An essay in The Rub of Time on how Jane Austen’s novels have fared at the hands of filmmakers was originally published in The New Yorker in 1997.) In much the same way, Amis’s critical principles, across forty years of reviewing, have remained intransigently firm. “Only connect the prose and the passion,” instructed EM Forster, at the crux of Howards End (1910). For Martin Amis, of course, the prose is the passion – or perhaps I should say, the passion is the prose.
To make Team Amis, you must be a writer, not necessarily of brilliant novels, or even of brilliant chapters, but of brilliant sentences and brilliant paragraphs. Amis’s critical method is to quote the bits he likes – the brilliant bits – and to point out why he likes them; or, conversely, to quote the bits he doesn’t like, and to point out that they are clichés. He is up front about this: “When I dispraise,” he explains, in the foreword to The War Against Cliché, “I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.” Nobody is better than Amis at filleting a text for good bits. In his memoir Experience (2000) he quotes a passage from Nabokov’s short novel The Eye (1930), in which the narrator, contemplating suicide, reflects that
to sit down and write his will would be, at that moment, an act just as absurd as winding up one’s watch, since, together with the man, the whole world is destroyed; the last letter is instantly reduced to dust and, with it, all the postmen; and like smoke, vanishes the estate bequeathed to a non-existent progeny.
“All the postmen,” Amis comments: “that is genius.” And, of course, he’s absolutely right: it is genius. Amis has identified the precise moment at which this passage moves beyond the merely literary and becomes instead something terrible and strange. As a cicerone, Amis has few equals. He greets you at the gates of the garden, and, with exquisite tact, escorts you to the flowers that bloom most beautifully – and just in case you’re curious, he has all the taxonomic and botanical information at his fingertips too.
But the obverse of a keen eye for the good bits is, of course, a sharp eye for the bad bits, and Amis the gardener is also an unsparing rooter-up of literary weeds. Look again at his review of Updike’s My Father’s Tears, in which he offers this example of “a sentence that audibly whimpers for a return to the drawing board”: “He was taller than I, though I was not short, and I realised, his hand warm in mine while he tried to smile, that he had a different perspective than I.” Ouch. Or, from the same review, this “quatrain” of clunkers:
ants make mounds like coffee grounds …
polished bright by sliding anthracite …
my bride became allied in my mind …
except for her bust, abruptly outthrust…
For four decades, Amis has been a redoubtable antagonist of this sort of thing: of “internal rhymes and chimes” in prose. He will unfailingly pounce on “sentences that resemble trainwrecks – ‘the cook took a look at the book’ etc.’” These last two phrases are taken from his 1980 essay on VS Pritchett, who is, according to Amis, guilty of perpetrating such “jangles” as “Sitting behind the screen of the machine”. Amis forgives Pritchett, on the grounds that “the effect is entirely appropriate to his way of looking at life”, but his tone (“This is surely a feminine style of apprehension”) leaves you in no doubt that his personal preference is for the stringently masculine exertions of (say) JG Ballard, whose prose he commends for its “glazed and melodious precision” (The War Against Cliché) and its “hypnotically varied vowel sounds” (The Rub of Time).
Slovenliness in prose is Amis’s version of Original Sin – the snake in the literary garden. Suggestively, the Author’s Note at the beginning of The Rub of Time carries a subtitle, borrowed (via John Updike) from TS Eliot: “The Natural Sin of Language.”
By the natural “sin” of language I take it that Eliot is referring a) to its indocility (how it constantly and writhingly resists even the most practised hands), and b) to its promiscuity: in nearly all of its dealings language is as indiscriminate as currency, and gathers many deposits of silt and grit and sweat.
Amis’s heroes are writers who have redeemed language from its fallen state – who have successfully wrestled it into docility, and who have purified it, as thoroughly as they could manage, of its encrusted deposits of cliché. “All writing,” Amis suggests, in what has become his most famous critical epigram, “is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” Thus, the members of the Amis Canon are measured by two contiguous metrics: care with language, and sensitivity to cliché. So, DH Lawrence (for instance) is demoted on the grounds that he is perhaps “the most extravagantly slapdash exponent of language” (Experience) among twentieth century greats; whereas Bellow is praised (and praised again) for writing “prose of […] tremulous and crystallised beauty” (The War Against Cliché) which exhibits “a dynamic responsiveness to character, place, and time” (The Rub of Time).
Carefully fashioned sentences embodying a dynamic responsiveness: these are what Amis values – and he values them to the exclusion of almost everything else. Assessing a work of fiction, he wastes no time unpicking ethical imponderables or ruminating on the oddities of human psychology. In fact, Amis the critic has almost no interest in psychology at all – which perhaps explains why there is a whole essay in The Rub of Time called “Saul Bellow, as Opposed to Henry James,” which arraigns the Master for using too much elegant variation (“this repast”, “this receptacle”). There isn’t a whole lot, it turns out, that a critic of Amis’s persuasion can do with Henry James, a writer for whom psychology was all and sentences something else again. Amis’s canon is therefore self-limiting: too many elegant variations (or too many rhymes), and you’re out, no matter how profound your psychological insights, no matter how dexterous your structural architectonics. In his 1998 Paris Review interview, he lays it on the line:
[I]f the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form […] What is important is to write freely and passionately and with all the resources that the language provides.
It follows from this sentence-fetishism that Amis should be an implacable foe of the extra-literary response. He is caustic about the sort of reviewer who tuts and clucks and calls a book “scandalous” or “immoral” or (the more sophisticated version) “depressing”. Reviewing The Wild Boys by William Burroughs for The Observer in 1972 (the piece appears in The War Against Cliché), Amis wrote: “the only time an educated and well-balanced person has any business being depressed by a book is when its author is simply a bore. (One wearily instances the possibility represented by King Lear, at once the most harrowing and uplifting work in the language.)” And tackling JG Ballard’s Crash upon its first publication in 1973, a resolutely unshocked Amis insisted that “the tone of the book is neither gloating nor priapic; the glazed monotony of its descriptions and the deadpan singlemindedness of its attitudes aren’t designed to convert or excite the reader, merely to transmit the chilling isolation of the psychopath” (The War Against Cliché). What matters is to avoid being “a bore”; if you are scandalised, then you are guilty (unpardonable gaucherie!) of misreading the “tone”. Art is the thing; life, merely material for more “dynamic responsiveness”.
All of which is to say that Amis the critic is a capital-A Aesthete. He is guided almost entirely by the pleasure principle, and he dismisses moral, psychological, and ethical questions as footling. Such concerns are, for him, irrelevant to the true business of literature, which is the giving of pleasure via sentences. In the Author’s Note to Einstein’s Monsters (1987), he explains that his short stories about the nuclear terror were written “with the usual purpose in mind: that is to say, with no purpose at all – except, I suppose, to give pleasure, various kinds of complicated pleasure.” That “I suppose” is disingenuous – as, of course, is that “complicated”. Amis’s work, he coyly insists, is centrally about pleasure – and only incidentally about the myriad other varieties of human experience that we might imagine to have been subsumed under that slippery word complicated. We are led, I think, to feel that Amis would prefer to do without the complicated part of complicated pleasure. “The artist is the creator of beautiful things,” he insists. And: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”
Ah, but of course you’ve spotted that those last two epigrams are not Amisisms at all, but in fact come from Oscar Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). That they might just as easily have been taken from (say) The War Against Cliché or Visiting Mrs. Nabokov tells us something important about the roots of Amis’s aesthetic philosophy – and about his own complicated relationship with those roots. To observe, as I did above, that Amis is a capital-A Aesthete is to notice at once that there is someone missing from his roster of Great Names – a significant precursor whom he has declined to elect. Bellow? Oh, sure. Nabokov? Makes sense. But Amis has discreetly scrubbed from the record any trace of his true onlie begetter: the author of “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying” (both 1891), the writer who raised the banner for ars gratia artis at a time when to do so constituted a truly radical gesture. To put it at its simplest: Amis’s criticism, in toto, updates Wilde’s Aestheticism for the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries – with many a telling deformation, to be sure, but also with considerable fealty to the original. That Amis has never acknowledged Wilde as one of his “inspirers” (no entry for “Wilde, Oscar” appears in the indexes of Experience, The War Against Cliché or The Rub of Time) is also interesting – because the influence is there, and once you start to look for it in Amis’s work, you begin to see it everywhere.
This is more than a case of Wilde’s work having had its moderate effect. Behind every word of Amis’s corpus, Wilde lurks – unacknowledged, but indisputably central. Look again at Amis on Burroughs – at his “weary instancing” of King Lear as a reproof to those who imagine that a work of art can be depressing. This is Wilde, in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891): “To call an artist morbid because he deals with morbidity as his subject-matter is as silly as if one called Shakespeare mad because he wrote King Lear.” Similarly, when he writes, “Only in art will the lion lie down with the lamb, and the rose grow without thorn” (Koba the Dread, 2002), it is a contemporary edition of Wilde’s “It is through Art, and Art only, that we can realise our perfection” (“The Critic as Artist”). Further examples proliferate. Included in The Rub of Time is Amis’s report from the Republican Party convention of 2012, held in Tampa, Florida. He offers this assessment of Mitt Romney:
He is a crystallised and not an accidental believer. You can see it in his lineless face. Awareness of mortality is in itself ageing – it creases the orbits of the eyes, it torments the brow; and Romney has the look of someone who seriously thinks that he will live forever.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the remorselessly epigrammatic Lord Henry Wotton gives us this observation on the senior clerics of the Church of England:
But then in the Church they don’t think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful.
At the beginning of Experience, Amis complains that the trouble with life
is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending …
And here is Gilbert, one half of the duologue in “The Critic as Artist,” complaining of life in eerily similar terms:
Life! Life! Don’t let us go to life for our fulfilment or our experience. It is a thing narrowed by circumstances, incoherent in its utterance, and without that fine correspondence of form and spirit which is the only thing that can satisfy the artistic and critical temperament. It makes us pay too high a price for its wares […]
The Wildean debt is evident even in Amis’s fiction – particularly in the early stuff. In Dead Babies (1975), we find the Honourable Quentin Villiers and his girlfriend, Celia, preparing to greet their American guests:
“I think I’ll make them a cooked breakfast,” said Celia.
“A cooked breakfast? [says Quentin.] A ‘cooked’ breakfast? My sweet, sometimes you are too deliciously outré. Eating a cooked breakfast – it would be like going to bed in pyjamas or reading an English novel.”
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry arrange to go to the theatre to see the doomed Sybil Vane play Juliet:
“Not eight, Harry, please. Half-past six. We must be there before the curtain rises. You must see her in the first act, where she meets Romeo.”
“Half past six! [says Lord Henry.] What an hour! It will be like having a meat-tea, or reading an English novel.”
Not every echo is as clear as that, of course. But one might wearily instance any number of other Wildeanisms in Amis’s prose. Plainly, Amis read Wilde with attention, and at a formative age. His response to Wilde’s work goes far beyond the occasional borrowed witticism; his most basic aesthetic assumptions are Wildean in timbre – and frequently, his prose is, too. Even at its loosest, Amis’s prose aspires to the condition of epigram. He is forever looking to fix a perception in its final form – to trap the truth in a sparkling phrase. This is what makes him so quotable. It is also what gives him away as a close student of Wilde – as a nineteenth century Aesthete in modern dress.
The nineteenth century Aesthetic movement, beginning with its Oxonian progenitor, Walter Pater, was in love with the epigram. There were sound aesthetic reasons for this: Pater, and Wilde after him, believed that one of the purposes of art was to capture the essence of a fleeting perception, and for this, the epigram was the perfect literary form. (Pater’s most well-known line is, of course, an epigram: “to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”.) As Cyril Connolly put it in Enemies of Promise (1938), the Aesthetess were “obsessed with the beauty of the moment, and not the beauty only, but the problem of recording that beauty”.
Pater and his lesser epigones are more or less unreadable today, largely because their aphoristic sallies exude the stale perfume of an affected “decadence”. But in Wilde’s work – particularly in Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Ernest – the epigrammatic style achieves its purest consummation. This is because Wilde’s Aestheticism was never “mere” Aestheticism – in other words, it was devoted to rather more than the capturing of a transient ecstasy. In fact, Wilde’s Aestheticism was essentially political. His paradoxes subvert conventional morality by disclosing that conventional morality was paradoxical to begin with. (And even his lightest confections contain a secret poisoned centre: take Miss Prism’s famous description of her three-volume novel, in which “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” This is not just a joke about clichéd novels – it is a sly reminder that we are wrong to expect justice in the real, nonfictional world.) One definition of Wilde’s mature style might, indeed, be “politics by aphorism”. His oeuvre mounts a sustained assault on Victorian pieties in the name of a sophisticated radicalism. His best bons mots are quoted out of context so frequently that it is a shock to discover, on returning to the lengthy essays collected in Intentions (1891), that his work is in fact carefully argued, and crammed with interesting – and highly subversive – ideas.
Wilde’s mots, in other words, were the slogans of a coherent political philosophy. “Really,” says Algernon, in The Importance of Being Earnest, “if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.” It is, of course, Algernon and his ilk who have no sense of moral responsibility: only the empty forms of a bankrupt propriety. Wilde’s epigrams are glittering hand-grenades lobbed in a kind of class war: each one points discreetly towards the possibility of a better world.
What, then, are Amis’s epigrams? Here is a more or less random sampling of his epigrammatical mode:
Experimental novels may have a habit of looking very easy (certainly easier to write than to read), but their failure-rate is alarmingly high – approaching, I sometimes fear, 100 per cent. (The War Against Cliché)
Reading is a skill: you have to be taught how to do it. (The War Against Cliché)
In the rest of the developed world, the contest between brain and bowel was long ago resolved in favour of brain. In America the dispute still splits the nation. (The Rub of Time)
In fact, every life is a tragedy, too. Every life cleaves to the tragic curve. (Koba the Dread)
Writers’ lives are all anxiety and ambition. No one begrudges them the anxiety, but the ambition is something they are supposed to shut up about. (Visiting Mrs. Nabokov)
I satisfied myself that porno, naturally male-chauvinist in origin and essence, is now so baldly misogynistic that the only desire it arouses is a desire to be elsewhere. (The Rub of Time)\
[F]ictional divination will always be haphazard. The unfolding of world-historical events is itself haphazard (and therefore unaesthetic), and “the future” is in a sense defined by its messy inscrutability. (The Rub of Time)
One of the key things about the epigrammatic style, of course, is that it is self-consciously superb: it brooks no argument; the appropriate readerly response is not critical engagement but simple admiration. Reading Amis is very much like reading Wilde, in the sense that one encounters dazzling formulation after dazzling formulation ‑ a tapestry of finished thoughts, each expressed in a phrase of perfect rhythmic balance and deep linguistic richness.
Amis’s prose is also marked by its regular deployment of the epigram-as-aside (that “naturally male chauvinist in origin and essence” dropped into the sentence about porn, for instance), which conveys, impressively, the sense of a great deal of casually mastered subsidiary thought (“naturally” Amis has already thought deeply about pornography’s inherent male chauvinism, and now, of course, his meditations have been proved correct). And this leads us to the other key thing about the epigrammatic style, which is its regal assumption of authority. For both Wilde and Amis, the epigram is a means of exerting a stylish form of control over the material of an unruly world. As a rhetorical trope, the epigram appeals to writers who understand their work in terms of (in Matthew Arnold’s resonant phrase) “a criticism of life”. But it also appeals to writers – often the same writers – who understand their work as a project of self-fashioning: as an effort to elevate a personal style to the position of ultimate authority, and thereby to remake themselves into arbiters of the style of the world.
This is the essence of the Wildean project: a project from which Amis has learned almost everything he knows as a critic. Amis is never more Wildean than when he summarises an aesthetic crux in a single virtuoso phrase: “[T]he apocalyptic-epiphanic mode in fiction is not for minor talents,” he writes, in his review of Crash, and who are we to disagree? The point is not the statement’s (debatable) truth-value; the point is to win assent for an arguable proposition through sheer linguistic prestidigitation: to master the world through style.
When Amis writes about public affairs, he essays his own version of politics-by-aphorism. He doesn’t do polemic – his political essays are not intended to change anyone’s mind. Rather, he is superbly good at summarising, as if for all time, a particular brand of received liberal wisdom. “It has to be admitted,” he writes, in his piece on the 2012 GOP convention, “that Uncle Sam is highly distinctive, even exotic, in his superstitious reverence for money.” And in a review of Donald Trump’s two “bestsellers” written for Harper’s Magazine in 2016, he notes that “Every now and again Americans feel the need to exalt and heroise an ignoramus.” Fancy phrasing aside, these are unexceptionable observations; they lack entirely the paradoxical sting of Wilde’s finest political squibs – as when Vivian, in “The Decay of Lying”, complains of politicians that they “never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue”. Amis doesn’t bother to explain why Americans feel the need to heroise ignoramuses – analysis, after all, being no concern of the epigrammatist, who, like Wilde’s Vivian, would find the necessity of proving one’s argument unspeakably vulgar, and whose true interest is in the perfect phrase.
More to the point, Amis’s criticisms of Trump and the GOP might have been thought up (though ne’er so well expressed) by just about any liberal Western intellectual you could name – Americans love money! Sometimes they elect idiots! That Amis is a good old-fashioned mainstream liberal is hardly in doubt: in a “You Ask the Questions” feature for The Guardian (included in The Rub of Time), he remarks that he has “always been pallidly left of centre”, and in Koba the Dread he describes his younger self as “quietist and unaligned” (in contrast to the “proselytizing Trotskyists” James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens, his colleagues at the New Statesman). Although some journalists have detected in recent years a rightward drift to his politics, in fact he has remained more or less where he always was; it is the world that has changed around him, perhaps to the world’s loss. Amis’s essays on Trump and the GOP complacently adumbrate mainstream liberal viewpoints: Trump, he felt in 2016, would be defeated by Hillary “and her innumerable sisters and the ballot box”, and the GOP, he felt in 2011, was merely “rattling its chains.” Amis’s stance, as a political analyst, is fundamentally de haut en bas – but the heights from which he condescends are not those of a gentleman radical, sworn to overturn the established order, but those of his version of Aestheticism, from which all traces of radicalism have been drained. In other words, Amis approaches political analysis just as he approaches literary criticism: as an opportunity to coin more epigrams, to master the world through style. His critiques therefore tend to reinforce the political assumptions of his liberal readers, who pause to savour his powers of expression and then pretty much carry on as before.
It should by now be clear that Amis’s epigrammatic style differs from Wilde’s in that it works not to demolish a bourgeois consensus but to uphold one. Where Wilde’s epigrams sought to provoke and disturb, Amis’s solicit a cosy agreement. [This is made unusually clear in a piece on the Russian Revolution that Amis wrote for The New York Times (October 16th, 2017), in which he makes the unprecedented move of quoting an epigram of Wilde’s with attribution – only to disagree with it: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” Wilde said, “is not worth even glancing at.” In fact the opposite is true […] Every imagined Utopia, from Plato to the present day, helplessly becomes a Dystopia, almost certainly because the writers just couldn’t resist the urge to make the ‘place’ sound halfway interesting.” It is entirely typical of Amis that he should swerve almost at once, here, from the political to the literary: as if the quest to construct Utopia has only ever been the business of writers.
His work therefore embodies a peculiar paradox: it represents an Aestheticism of the liberal mainstream. If Wilde’s Aestheticism was animated by a radical critique of culture and society, Amis’s update jettisons the radicalism and keeps what is left over: a belief that the world, including the world of politics, can be mastered by style. The result is writing of a peculiarly limited brilliance, in which the fireworks of Amis’s phrasemaking obscure significant areas of darkness.
There remains the mysterious question of why Amis has written no essays in praise of Oscar Wilde – why he has refused to acknowledge his debt to such an obvious, and obviously important, precursor. I think I can make a guess. Amis’s brief list of literary-critical heroes – such a list might be distilled from the foreword to The War Against Cliché, in which Amis mentions people like Edmund Wilson, William Empson, and Northrop Frye – includes one especially significant figure: FR Leavis, the Cambridge don and founder of Scrutiny (1932-1953). Amis’s relationship with Leavis has always been uneasy – he has called him “impregnably humourless”, as well as “provincial, lofty, and fierce”, and he has scoffed at the “pitifully denuded bookcase” “okayed by Dr. L” (who basically approved of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, DH Lawrence, Henry James, and no one else). And yet, there are nine entries for “Leavis, F.R” in the index to The War Against Cliché, and two in the index to The Rub of Time. And in Experience, Amis tells the following anecdote about a literary lunch:
I put to the table the following question: Who would you side with, if the choice were limited to Leavis or Bloomsbury? Everyone else said Bloomsbury. I said Leavis […] I had never been a Leavisite and I had written several attacks on his doctrines and his followers. But I think I would cast the same vote, even today. What could be more antipathetic than Woolf’s dismissal of Ulysses on the grounds of Joyce’s class? No, give me F.R. and Q.D., give me Frank and Queenie, despite all the humourlessness, the hysteria, and the Soviet gloom.
“I had never been a Leavisite”: no, but Leavis’s work has left a deep impression on Amis’s criticism nonetheless. His small handful of key words ‑ “tradition”, “life”, “maturity” – crop up again and again in Amis’s essays and reviews. Of John Updike’s fiction: “What we like is life.” The sentences of Thomas Harris (author of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal) do not contain “the throb of life”; Bellow’s Augie March is “all about life; it brings you up against the dead-end of life”; literature is “among other things, a talent contest, and every reader must find his personal great tradition”.
This is the other pronounced strain in Amis’s critical work: a Leavisite austerity that consorts surprisingly well, in his hands, with his Wildean hedonism. If Wilde is Amis’s literary father (setting aside, of course, his actual literary father), Leavis is a kind of stern uncle, offering a bracing moral corrective to the pleasure-seeking fripperies of the Aesthete. As he himself confesses, Amis has never been able entirely to shake off Leavis’s reproving ghost (with its “grimly secular creed”, whatever that means). There is a highly Amisian moment in The Great Tradition (1948), when Leavis observes that “major” novelists are major “in the sense that they not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but that they are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life”. Doesn’t this remind us of Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow – his advocacy of “a dynamic responsiveness to character, place, and time”? It is, as they say, no accident that Leavis was one of twentieth century liberal humanism’s most important thinkers: his influence was as much political as it was literary, and Amis is hardly the only writer who imbibed his “pallidly left of centre” politics through the medium of Leavisite literary criticism. I think we can say with confidence that Amis’s own politics are essentially literary in character – that he learned his liberalism not from John Stuart Mill, but from FR Leavis – and that this partly explains his failure to replicate Wilde’s radicalism, along with his emphasis on style.
Especially significant is the fact that Leavis disapproved of the Aesthetic movement. He does not mention Wilde by name in The Great Tradition; instead he nominates Flaubert as the fons et origo of the Aesthetic approach. “For the later Aesthetic writers,” Leavis wrote, “represent in a weak kind of way the attitude that Flaubert maintained with a perverse heroism, ‘form’ and ‘style’ are ends to be sought for themselves, and the chief preoccupation is with elaborating a beautiful style to apply to the chosen subject.” For Leavis, the Flaubertian tradition was marred by “disgust or disdain or boredom”. What was needed instead was “a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity”. For Leavis, the Aesthetes simply weren’t serious enough – and perhaps, for Martin Amis, the work of Oscar Wilde isn’t serious enough either. It is, after all, hard to defend a superficially trifling romantic comedy like The Importance of Being Earnest in the same lofty terms that you might use to defend Herzog.
In suppressing his debt to Wilde, Amis takes his cue from Leavis: he professes, at least overtly, to prefer a “marked moral intensity” to the Aestheticism of Bloomsbury (and the Bloomsbury writers were themselves, of course, heavily in Wilde’s debt). With Leavisite rigour, Amis denudes his bookcase: no Walter Pater, no Flaubert, no Oscar Wilde, no Virginia Woolf. Just Bellow and Nabokov and Updike, with their marvellous sentences – and their reverent openness before life. Thus Amis manages the trick that Gore Vidal once described as “the simultaneous possession and ingestion of confectionery”: on the one hand, he devotes himself exclusively to literary pleasure; on the other, he stakes a vague claim to moral seriousness (and makes a good deal of noise about it too).
His work has, he tells us, has “no purpose at all – except, I suppose, to give pleasure, various kinds of complicated pleasure”. Pleasure is Wilde; complicated is Leavis. Amis remains more or less loyal to Leavis; Wilde is visible, in Amis’s work, entirely by his absence. Meanwhile, The Rub of Time (rich, funny, dense with lapidary mots) gives enormous pleasure – even if it is of an interestingly complicated kind.
Kevin Power is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock (2008). He teaches in the School of English, Dublin City University.