Saturday, 3 January 2009

Martin Amis: The Second Plane


I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
"Here is the march along these iron stones."

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

So wrote Patrick Kavanagh in 1938, speaking in passing - knowingly in passing - about 'the Munich bother'. Well, yes, we have lived in important places too and have the hindsight to know what became of the Munich bother, which, despite Gods making their own importance, turned out to have been a very significant bother.

Martin Amis has certainly been in important places and written importantly about them. He and we, both, are aware of that importance in the writing and, to greater or lesser degree, are wary of it. I should say I bought the book yesterday on an impulse, on popping into our little local bookshop and feeling I should buy something to help keep it going. So, Amis it was.

And Amis does not disappoint. He sometimes irritates but he does not disappoint. He held me through the night and the morning.

The book is a collection of his published work in the form of essay, report and fiction on the subject of 9/11. Let me get out of the way what irritates first.

Small stylistic twitches, for one thing. The deployment of obscure words where a perfectly good non-obscure one is ready to hand. I can't be bothered here to pick out the examples, as I would in a paper review, but it strikes me as an unworthy trick, an old one, and over-effortful.

The second irritation is less easily identified, but is, I think, a kind of conceit in the writing, a reaching after ponderous epigrammatic certainty, which is partly what the wary reader might well be wary of.

Then there is the quibble about the term 9/11. It's an American term because it was an American event. I think we can all get over that. Interesting things get said in the course of his essay, 'September 11' but the least interesting is the quibble about the styling of dates that is supposed to serve as framework.

And there is the one work of fiction, 'The Last Days of Muhammad Atta', which, I think, is poor. Poor, because I don't believe any of it. I don't mean by that that it is improbable. I am sure Amis did his research and I fully understand that it is an attempt to imagine the condition of the real figure, Muhammad Atta. I don't believe it because I know it is a work of fiction and that what he presents as events are things he has made up. True, that is the condition of fiction, but Atta was not fiction. There is a historical process, I think, that has to take place before life, and particularly a life so filled out with intent and intervention, can become fiction. It's not always a salutary process. Amis here reminds me of the boy who rushes in to grab the best seat in front of the TV because something important is on and he must be first. Frankly, Amis and his imagination simply don't matter in context. He is not only secondary to the event, he is utterly insignificant and doesn't know it. Not that he is more insignificant than anyone else, it's just that he should know the degree of his insignificance. He did something like this in Time's Arrow, which was also dodgy and presumptuous. And he wrote a book called The War Against Cliché, so he should know what a cliché is. Hard to see it in oneself, I grant that.

But the book remains compulsively readable, not so much because of what he argues (it isn't always clear to me what he is arguing), but because the mind at work is dramatically engaged. When he takes off the Great Journalist / Public Figure hat he is just a man like any other - albeit a highly gifted, intelligent, passionate and elegant man - trying to understand what is happening in the world.

The reason I am not clear about what he is arguing is that the terms Islamism, Islam and religion generally, flitter in and out of the discourse. He casts a fearful, furious, horror-sated eye now at one, now at the other, now at the third. It is hard to argue with his feelings about jihadist Islam. I suspect it would take considerable hypocrisy for any liberal or socialist to dismiss his position. It is not a good position but we are in it. Amis has done a fair degree of research into the roots of jihadism and the history seems right. It is the reading of the psychological condition that is the issue. Is he right on that? We shall never know, but I find the reading convincing. The lesson is that it seems more appropriate, somehow more proper, to attempt this understanding through the essay rather than through fiction. For now.

I am not sure he knows what he thinks of religion generally. He is rightly suspicious, but he doesn't quite work himself into the Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett position. And after all, the world has got so far with religion: the windings and focusings of the spirit in organised pursuit of transcendence don't necessarily lead to mass murder, nor have they very often done so. Bach and George Herbert and Farid ud-Din Attar, writer of The Conference of the Birds, do not share a bed with Sayyid Qutb. Religious zealotry - much like ideological zealotry - does lead to murder, but the common denominator there is zealotry. Zealotry tells us we are doing God's will, or the Party's will, or history's will, and that that is far more important than the next man's life.

Amis is a damn smart writer, there is no doubt, and every writer is allowed his or her weaknesses both as a writer and as a mind (though failures of mind eventually do tell in the writing). In the end what Amis is, indirectly, writing about is what defines us. We don't know that yet, but it may be an idea to come up with some definitions before we are wrongly defined by others. We are currently living in times when Gods are busy making their own importance. What do we say to them?


James Hamilton said...

I often go back to his second answer here when times grow dark. It never fails to cheer.

(And I wish one could go as far in polite society by disliking e.g. Galloway and Pilger as you can by disliking e.g. Amis or Richard Dawkins. I heartily approve of the latter two, but get the Bateman cartoon bum's rush from that every time. The English intellectual middle classes eh?)

George S said...

Thanks for leading me back to The Independent interview James. Yes, answer two is good, but so is the one about his father, had he happened to be a postman or whatever.

It's a very good interview. Basically, Amis is one of the good things.

The Contentious Centrist said...

I'm a great fan of Martin Amis. I have no problem at all with his resort to obscure and little known words. I've read some critics who find it a sign of extravagant overkill. But I believe it comes from his unusual facility with the English language and find it challenging and frankly, fascinating. I knew only one other who had similar intimacy with the language. He told me that these rare words and verbs simply inhabit his mind and come out unsummoned into his poetry, which was, accordingly, also mysterious, strange, beautiful.

I think it has to do with an inclination towards perfectionism and accuracy.

Amis, in the interviews I've seen of him, and his autobiographical account, comes off as haughty and even cocky. But when he speaks of his friendships he expresses such warmth and vulnerability that I have to wonder if the cockiness is not just a mask.

George S said...

Generally the fancy vocabulary is fine: it has marked out his work from the beginning. I just think it's a little tired now, particularly in the essay form. A little of the grand / grumpy old man playing the enfant terrible. But it's not a big problem.

Yes, I expect his friendships are warmer and firmer - see the line about Hitchens in the Independent interview (James's link, above). His father's were too.

But there is still something there that leaves me just a touch uneasy. Not quite sure what. Does it matter?


Anonymous said...

Martin Amis is an asshole. And so was his father.

George S said...

Thank you for that, Room. I hadn't thought of that.

Poet in Residence said...

As a non-smoker I passively inhale Martin Amis's stylish prose like one of his gold-tipped Craven A's. It's as neatly stitched together as a Saville Row suit.
Every couple of years I gallop through the 500pages of i, through two grand a page (up front). It would be almost criminal not to read it.