I’m saddened by the news of Martin Amis’s death. Like many around my age, I discovered Amis through Time’s Arrow, a book I still maintain is remarkable in ways far beyond the “gimmick” of its reversed narrative. From there I read just about everything as it came out, occasionally with—from a creative point of view—near agonistic intensity. How did he do that, I kept asking myself, both amazed at his style and angry that I hadn’t been blessed with anything like it.
There are valid criticisms of Amis’s work, particularly some of his early novels’ depictions of differences between the way the men and women think and communicate (easy to forgive), and Islamophobia (a problematic term, as fellow traveler Christopher Hitchens observed, but nonetheless a real strain in some of Amis’s later writing). But one knock I will not countenance is that Amis was all style and no substance. Nothing could be further from the truth for Amis, as with Nabokov, who was equally—and equally wrongly—accused of the same thing by readers who can do better. Amis’s fictional worlds—and to some degree, as evidenced by his memoirs and reviews, his real world—were often characterized by recognizing the dark heart permanently twinned with the light one. His sometimes caustic, satiric style was, despite its consistent erudition and humor, too easy a target for some readers’ fixations.
At any rate, Amis was a bona fide literary rock star (which he apparently mostly hated) with an inimitable, unmistakable style and a scathing, fascinating, intellect. There’s no good way to capture this in a short space, but I am nonetheless dropping here a few bits of Amis culled from my commonplace books, in rough order of my affection for the titles they come from.
From Money: A Suicide Note (1984)
‘Toss?’ asked the girl, one of the Italian contingent, though her colouring had been exhaustively naturalized by the kitchen spores.
‘No, no toast, thanks.’
‘Tea, please,’ said Martin.
I gestured at my litre of fizzy red wine. ‘Want a drop of this?’ I asked him.
‘No thanks. I try not to drink at lunchtime.’
‘So do I. But I never quite make it.’
‘I feel like shit all day if I drink at lunchtime.’
‘Me too. But I feel like shit all lunchtime if I don’t.’
‘Yes, well it all comes down’to choices, doesn’t it?’ he said. ‘It’s the same in the evenings. Do you want to feel good at night or do you want to feel good in the morning? It’s the same with life. Do you want to feel good young or do you want to feel good old? One or the other, not both.’
‘Isn’t it a tragedy?’
From Time’s Arrow (1991)
There’s a graduate student at AMS who’s Japanese, over from Osaka on a six-month exchange deal, companionable enough at first, of course, but becoming increasingly glazed and remote. He’s lucky he wasn’t here a few years ago, when we really hated the Japanese. His name is Mikio, funny-looking kid, with his heavy cargo of otherness: his light-holding hair, his coated eyeballs and their meniscus of severe understanding. During his lunch break, in the AMS commissary, Mikio will sit buckled over a book. I’ve watched him, from a distance. He reads the way I read—or would read, if I ever got the chance. He turns the pages from right to left. He begins at the beginning and ends at the end. This makes a quirky sense to me—but Mikio and I are definitely in the minority here. And how can we two be right? It would make so many others wrong. Water moves upward. It seeks the highest level. What did you expect? Smoke falls. Things are created in the violence of fire. But that’s all right. Gravity still pins us to the planet.
from Experience: A Memoir (2000)
The Cuba Crisis, I am sure, had a far heavier effect on me than the relatively minor violation I am about to describe — which might itself have been crisis-borne. I remember it as one long dankly gleaming twilight: darkness at noon, a solar eclipse, an Icelandic winter morning. The planet’s children suffered this crisis — the most severe in human history — dumbly, with abject dumbness. I could talk about it afterwards (with David, for instance) but I said not a word to my friends at the time; and I don’t recall hearing any reassurance (or any effective reassurance) from my mother or my father. When the TV showed the kill targets, the concentric circles, the fallout forecasts, I bolted from the room. At school we had had our nuclear drills, where, I repeat, we were invited to believe that our desk-lids would save us from the end of the world. What were we supposed to do with such a notion? And what did it do to us? The children of the nuclear age, I think, were weakened in their capacity to love. Hard to love, when you’re bracing yourself for impact. Hard to love, when the loved one, and the lover, might at any instant become blood and flames, along with everybody else.
from The Information (1995)
Heavily and dutifully, Richard moved up the stairs, to shower and dress—to put clothes on, to stand bent in the little cubicle while water fell. One glance in the mirror here, upon rising—the bruised scars beneath his eyes, his hair standing on end in terror—had caused him to scrap, or at least shelve, his immediate plan: seducing a lightly sun-kissed Demeter Barry. Had also caused him to think, to whisper: Where have I come from? Where have I been? Not in the land of sleep, not sleep as it used to be, but some other testing ground, some other forest. The forests of Comus and The Faerie Queened No. More like the forests that the wild boy must have known: the clearing, the picnic facility no sooner erected than rotten and ruined, the contemporary leavings and peelings, the rain, and all around the trees patiently dripping, in chemical lamentation. The bedcovers had as usual been pulled back, by Gina. Richard stood there naked, looking at the bared sheet, its crenellations, its damp glow. Every morning we leave more in the bed: certainty, vigor, past loves. And hair, and skin: dead cells. This ancient detritus was nonetheless one move ahead of you, making its own humorless arrangements to rejoin the cosmos.