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On Martin Amis

Image via Library of Congress.

Martin Amis. Inside Story. Knopf, 2020.

Not to get too scientific about it, but I think the vibes are counter-reformatory. It’s 2024, and some of the defining currents of the previous decade have begun to change, as currents do. Celebrities are smoking again. People are wise to the hypocrisy of exhibitions that claim progressive standing while accepting funds from the Sackler family. No one wants to see any more superhero movies. These are the heartening developments. The disheartening could include the hysterical backlash against the gains of social justice movements, the mainstreaming of anti-trans narratives in the UK, and that the pipeline from nuanced essay to hollering Telegraph article is about a centimeter long.

For better or worse, Martin Amis’s reputation stood to benefit from these new conditions. An imperious white guy, a syntax purist, a writer prone to offensive language and cancelable takes, but nevertheless brilliant, lauded, envied for his gifts: he was exactly the kind of artist, once venerated, later side-eyed, whom people once again feel happy to embrace. Amiswho was described in his Paris Review interview as “roll[ing] his own cigarettes with a frequency reminiscent of John Self (in Money) who explains to the reader, ‘Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette’”died last May at the same age as had his father, Kingsley Amis (73), and of the same disease that killed his best friend, Christopher Hitchens (esophageal cancer).

In the days after Amis’s death I found the obituaries moving not just for their content, but for their number. Amis’s writing had meant something to a lot of people, more than I thought, perhaps because the intimacy between writer and reader always feels like a secret, however famous the author and whatever the spirit of the times. There were also caveats. Erin Somers, in the New Republic, warned against the political commentary. Terry Eagleton, in UnHerd, went further, arguing that “in [Amis’s] view all ideologies were obsolete. Except, of course, middle-class liberalism, which is no more than plain common sense.” There was “a disparity in Amis’s writing between the sordid or macabre events it narrates and the tamely conventional views which silently underpin it.” A few weeks later, another literary giant, Cormac McCarthy, also died, and it was remarked that compared with Amis, who was more mourned than showcased, laments for the Blood Meridian author carried big block quotes and photos of favorite passages.

But here is what, the first time I downed the Amis oeuvre, I would have saved for posterity: all of it.

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Fine. Makes sense: the two men were different writersAmis in the mot juste tradition of Flaubert and Nabokov, always striving for exactitude and pith; McCarthy a great American roil, tumbling like Faulkner and the great storm before him, Joyce. So what to think when my editor, who knows his stuff, suggested in response to the first draft of this essay that Amis doesn’t really come across in short quotations, that his prose “resists this kind of excision”? People, writers especially, were upset by the death of Amis, a figure who had dazzled and defended the literary world for half a century with great eloquence and near-Olympian erudition. He excoriated poor usage, corrected your grammar, knew what was good and bad; he made pedantry seem cool because it was the pedantry of a master, a protector of the faith. Yet the casual reader of Amis’s eulogies might be forgiven for concluding that no one should read any of his work, or quote him at any length.

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