Mors Vincit Omnia: Martin Amis

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.

Reading Montaigne 1.01 – By diverse means we arrive at the same end

Montaigne begins the main body of the essays with a brief meditation on the nature of mercy as seen in the dynamic interplay between vengeance and pity. Starting with a thought on the contradictory manner by which we might seek mercy from who seeks vengeance, or how we might “move them to commiseration and pity,” Montaigne notes the contradiction that “submission” sometimes has the desired effect, but so do the “contrary means” of “audacity and steadfastness.”

Reading Montaigne 1.00: To The Reader

While reading Montaigne intensely, it’s impossible not to take a moment to note the sheer complexity of the language machine that goes to work with this single letter. Think of Montaigne as a proto-blogger 1 and the brief reader’s note at the head of his collected essays exemplifies why. Montaigne writes:

This book was written in good faith reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose. I have dedicated it to the private convenience of my relatives and friends, so that when they have lost me (as soon they must), they may recover here some features of my habits and temperament, and by this means keep the knowledge they have had of me more complete and alive.

If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.

Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.

  1. not the proto-blogger, as it’s rather more complicated than that; if it’s reasonable to compare Montaigne’s essays to blogging, it’s also reasonable to compare any number of earlier people putting pen to paper to write letters and journals with half—or more—of an eye toward publication []
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