The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1986-2016

Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, £20

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Review by Alasdair McKillop

BEFORE calling Martin Amis the finest essayist of his generation you would have to prove he was the finest essayist among his old lunch buddies. Is he better than Christopher Hitchens? Is he better than Clive James? As Amis observes, critics have spent centuries searching for a system to separate the excellent from the less excellent but this, he concludes, “is a fool’s errand”. The following, then, is subjective: in no other critic are learning and instinct so productively balanced. He states discursive prose is “limitlessly improvable” but most of us could improve all the way to our upper limits and still not be where is he is. A writer uniquely in control of the borders of his own tastes, Amis is no respecter of popular or elite fashions. He trusts himself and is therefore trustworthy.

He is also witty. He quotes James’s argument that people “who lack humour are without judgement and should be trusted with nothing”. James proved conclusively that humour and illumination are linked; Amis can be used for further study. Weariness is used to great effect and he knows structure is more important than first impulse. The humour is dry but only as the contents of a firework are dry when it has a light in the tail.

Readers familiar with Amis will know his literary life companions are John and Philip; JG and Philip; Saul and Vladimir; particularly Saul and Vladimir. He believes they are the best but all he can prove is his own integrity, as when he labels one Nabokov novel a “waterlogged corpse at maximal bloat”. Amis follows the Russian’s dictum that books can only be re-read. In literary criticism, as in life itself, there is value in the inevitable blanket-settling of new circumstances over the familiar. “The long process of assimilating Philip Larkin,” Amis writes, “has been complicated by a process of my own: the ageing process, and what it means.”

Male writers are overwhelmingly his subjects but Iris Murdoch is on the higher side of the scales. Amis notes Updike thought Murdoch was the pre-eminent novelist of her generation, but he once suggested the crowning achievement of Updike’s fertile mind was its ability to understand what was going on in her books. And yet: “Returning to her novels, with hindsight, we get a disquieting sense of their wild generosity, their extreme innocence and skittishness, their worrying unpredictability”. Jane Austen is the only other female writer covered, but there are essays about princesses and porn stars. Amis’s striking observation that Diana’s death was “uniquely contaminated by the market forces of fame” could be applied to the lives of those in the adult entertainment industry.

These report pieces are distinguished; most are just very good. Even Amis can’t make Donald Trump any more appealing than a nickel sandwich. He should be commended nonetheless for assessing some of the books on which the President’s name has been pasted. He finds that Trump “both cognitively and humanly, has undergone an atrocious decline”. How unnerving to think Trump is deteriorating as opposed to being settled on that familiar bovine plateau.

Amis writes about J.G. Ballard’s prose being “enriched by a wide range of technical vocabularies” but he is too fond of a splashy adverb to quicken the pulse of his own: “pleasantly hysterical”; “noisily endorses”; “dumfoundingly alien”. Then there’s this bulge about Larkin’s relationship with Monica Jones: “On the positive side we register an urgent warmth, a snug intimacy of jokes and whimsies, and Monica’s courageous acceptance of Larkin’s intense melancholia.” With trembling hand, I would strike out one or two exuberances per essay if I were editing his work.

The book’s main theme is legacy. While it’s true the work lives on after the life is over, the life has a certain value in promoting the work. Death is even better, for a time. Thereafter the work is orphaned. Amis has devoted serious time to criticism and he must have done so out of concern for the trade, in both the commercial and the craft sense. Literary critics dislike the idea they’re in the business of selling books, but they’re inescapably in the business of shaping preferences: like Tony Soprano, they have an important side-line in sanitation. Amis is still a standard-setter when it comes to setting standards. It’s often said that he’s a better essayist than novelist, but it’s just possible he might prefer novels by Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov to live longer than novels by Martin Amis.