The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994–2017 by Martin Amis. Knopf, 392 pp., $28.95
The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994–2017 by Martin Amis
Novelists, as a class, abhor reading criticism of their work, and with good reason—the only adequate account of a novel, at least for its author, is the one that lies between its covers. The experience of reading dissections of one’s work can be traumatizing, like watching a medical student hack awkwardly at a body. As a coping mechanism some novelists forswear writing criticism altogether; others confine themselves within the padded walls of blurb-writing and brainless Twitter cheerleading.
Many of the novelists who do write criticism distance themselves from the task rhetorically, assuming a sober formality that would be out of place in their fiction. Virginia Woolf was as reverential of canonical literary tradition in her critical essays as she was subversive in her novels; Vladimir Nabokov, poet of the ineffable, is stoutly pedagogical in his criticism, to a near-Kinbotean level; J. M. Coetzee’s essays hew to a ceremonial formula of exposition, background, and analysis, even as his fiction makes a mockery of narrative convention. John Updike, the most prodigious novelist-critic of all, was not merely courteous, respectful, and patient toward his subjects, but unimpeachably egalitarian, extending his generosity to debut authors and centuries-dead masters, rivals and idols, Senagalese novels, Norwegian novellas, ancient Sicilian folktales, and histories of the Ming Dynasty.
Martin Amis describes this attitude as being “on duty”—the sense that, when writing as critics, novelists “have to wear their Sunday best, and can never come as they are.” In the opposing camp—novelists who come as they are—Amis places Saul Bellow, D.H. Lawrence, and V. S. Pritchett, whose criticism and fiction belong to a single, comprehensive literary project:
“Let the academics weigh up, be exhaustive or build their superstructures,” Pritchett writes: “The artist lives as much by his pride in his own emphases as by what he ignores; humility is a disgrace.”
In his own criticism, Amis himself is resolutely off-duty. In fact there is no living novelist whose criticism and fiction are so unified in sensibility, ambition, and prose style. Amis’s description of Bellow’s oeuvre can be applied to his own: “whatever the genre,” Amis’s “sensorium, it turns out, is whole and indivisible.”
Amis is not quite as formally dexterous as Anthony Burgess, whose obscene prolificacy was the subject of one of his earlier essays; he has not written film scores, verse dramas, or translations into Persian. He has only tried his hand at memoir (Experience), politics (The Second Plane), history (Koba the Dread), and video game strategy, represented by the long-out-of-print Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines, published in 1982, after his fourth novel and with an introduction by Steven Spielberg—a book that has become the holy grail for Amisians, retailing for $175 online. Since the beginning of his professional life, on staff at the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, Amis has sustained three full, parallel careers: as novelist, critic, and reporter. That he is known primarily as a novelist reflects the status of the novel as a literary form more than the quality or the quantity of his production in the other fields. Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and The Moronic Inferno are virtuosic displays of journalism (and comedy); The War Against Cliché, a volume of collected criticism, evinces a scrupulous knowledge of the history of literary theory, a generous use of quotation, and a sense of humor, qualities that evade most jobbing reviewers. The Rub of Time is a hybrid, assembling published nonfiction since 1994—essays on literature, memoir, a pair of mailbag interviews, and reported pieces on familiar subjects: celebrity, American politics, and his favorite sports (soccer, tennis, and poker).
Amis has reached the stage in his career—or in his celebrity—in which he no longer bothers to group his collected nonfiction under some nominal theme. The themes were loose to begin with, as he openly confessed. If The Moronic Inferno is about “America,” Visiting Mrs. Nabokov a series of journalistic “excursions” (despite the account of judging a short-story contest and an obituary of Philip Larkin), and The Second Plane about September 11, then The Rub of Time is about Martin Amis. But really all of the books are. This is usually the case with prose stylists. The same could be said of Nabokov and Bellow, Amis’s two adopted literary fathers (to be distinguished from Kingsley, his biological literary father), who are the subjects of a combined seventeen essays Amis has published over the course of his career. In one of the six that appear in The Rub of Time, he notes that a defining quality of Nabokov’s style is the “shifting qualification—gray star, silent lightening, torpid smoke, pale fire”; he calls this “the Nabokovian countertone.” The defining characteristic of Amis’s own style is not a countertone so much as a counterphrase, the employment of a modified repetition to startling effect. His paragraphs bring to mind an Olympic slalomer, executing a series of tight, hard pivots, each marking a punch line, a critical insight, a dramatic turn, or a moment of horror. On Jeremy Corbyn: “The humorless man is a joke—and a joke he will never get.” Describing a boy he encounters in a Colombian barrio, shot through the chest, who refuses the offer of a Marlboro: “It wasn’t that he didn’t smoke. He couldn’t smoke— much as he’d like to.” On Christopher Hitchens, who, if Nabokov and Bellow are adopted parents, was Amis’s adopted brother:
Christopher is bored by the epithet contrarian, which has been trailing him around for a quarter of a century. What he is, in any case, is an autocontrarian: he seeks not just the most difficult position but the most difficult position for Christopher Hitchens. Hardly anyone agrees with him on Iraq (yet hardly anyone is keen to debate him on it) . . . . Christopher often suffers for his isolations; this is widely sensed, and strongly contributes to his magnetism . . . . Could this be the crux of his charisma—that Christopher, ultimately, is locked in argument with the Hitch?
This swerving style is fueled by an energy that is antic bordering on amphetaminic—energy being, along with “freshness” and “reverberation of voice,” the qualities that Amis, as he has written, values most highly as a reader. Another hallmark is the frequent use of mildly antiquated terms that, to an American reader, seem vaguely (if unaccountably) Oxbridge: “hold yourself in readiness,” “warm work,” “entrained,” “bestrides,” “I give you fair warning.”
Amis occasionally appears in his essays about other writers, though he has not nearly approached the brazenness of Gore Vidal, another model novelistcritic, who when possible began his essays with a personal anecdote. (“In 1954 I had lunch with Christopher Isherwood at MGM.” On Frederic Prokosch: “In August 1939, I crossed the border from France into Italy.” On Italo Calvino: “On the morning of Friday, September 20, 1985...I awoke to thunder and lightning.”) Amis’s authorial intrusions come at the risk of violating some of his own rules. One is his appropriate disdain for the cataloging of a reviewer’s likes and dislikes, a practice that “adds nothing to knowledge; it simply adds to the history of taste.” He begins a review of Don DeLillo’s story collection with a rule of thumb for evaluative criticism:
When we say that we love a writer’s work—yes, even when we say it hand on heart—we are always stretching the truth. What we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less: but about half.
The gigantic presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on Ulysses, with a little help from Dubliners. You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book.
This gives Amis cover, in the final line of a mixed review, to write that he “loves” DeLillo’s stories.
In his author’s note Amis writes, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, that he expects his readers to read only those essays whose subjects are of interest. But readers won’t be drawn to The Rub of Time for insight into John Travolta’s resilient celebrity or an eyewitness account of the 1999 Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Manchester United. They will come for Amis’s prose, which withstands even the most pedestrian subjects. If anything, the more predictable material leads him to compensate with his most frenzied writing.
In an essay about the World Series of Poker, in which Amis wins a single
hand before an uninterrupted series of defeats, he trains his descriptive energies on the setting, the El Dorado of American excess. “If for some reason you were confined to a single adjective to describe Las Vegas,” he begins, “then you would have to settle for the following: un-Islamic.” The taxis are “motorized fridges,” the clicking chips make “the sound of cicadas and rattlesnakes,” the slot machines’ “madhouse nursery jingles” are “as pleasing to the ear as a defective car alarm.” With its air-conditioned exterior, the Wynn, like Las Vegas, like America, is a “monument to...‘negative entropy’”: “Enormous outlays of power and expense create order and comfort, before dispersing themselves in chaos and waste.”
On nearly every page of the reported pieces come descriptions that restore an electric immediacy to familiar images: the description of helmeted NFL players as “Darth Vaders of the gridiron,” the look of affluent youth who have “the air of those who await, with epic stoicism, the deaths of elderly relatives,” and the way that, in the tropics, “at noon, on a clear day, your shadow writhes around your shoes like a cat.” Amis describes a series of Christopher Hitchens’s polemical statements as “crystallizations,” insights that, once articulated, assume the weight of quiddity. Great descriptive writing offers its own kind of crystallization, inviting the reader to see the world anew. Having read Amis, it is impossible not to see Mitt Romney’s “characteristic smile of pain” as “that of a man with a very sore shoulder who has just eased his way into a tight tuxedo” or to watch the “drugged gyrations” of John Travolta on the dance floor in Pulp Fiction without thinking of “the aged Picasso drawing a stick man.”
Great critical writing has the same clarifying effect. And not by affecting taste—I cannot be persuaded by Amis, or anyone else, that The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is inferior to Despair, that Middlemarch is “readable,” or that Four Weddings and a Funeral is “bottomlessly horrible.” But criticism can reveal unseen qualities of even a beloved work. At its highest level, it can enrich one’s understanding of the art of literature. Amis has a surgical ability to isolate the qualities that distinguish a writer’s genius, particularly those that break with “ovine” critical consensus. The defining attribute of Nabokov’s prose, he writes, is its “divine levity” (rather than his more often emphasized intellectual froideur); the haunting quality of J. G. Ballard’s writing derives in part from its “hypnotically varied vowel sounds”; Philip Roth’s characters are plagued not by excessive self-love but its opposite, a merciless self-analysis.
In the Hitchens essay, he writes, “If the essay is something of a literary art, which it clearly is . . .” This is a rare imprecision, the kind Amis often notes in his essays about other writers: the qualifier, besides being uncharacteristically cautious, is contradicted by the force of the second clause. It also reflects diffidence about a position that he evidently endorses: that the essay is a literary art. Would he be wasting his time with them otherwise? But his greater point is that essays, like all artistic forms, have laws.
The foundational law he asserts in the Hitchens essay is that of decorum, defined as the concurrence of style and content: “It doesn’t matter what the style is, and it doesn’t matter what the content is; but the two must concur.” He chides Hitchens for his occasional slips into indecorousness, as in a line about the Scottish politician George Galloway: “Unkind nature, which could have made a perfectly good butt out of his face, has spoiled the whole effect by taking an asshole and studding it with ill-brushed fangs.” Indecorousness makes the reader wince.
Amis’s other laws: All writing is a war against cliché (“Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart”). “All ideologies are essentially bovine.” Great art, no matter how dark the subject matter, “is quite incapable of lowering the spirits.” Fiction, unlike the other arts, “is a fundamentally rational form.” Talent is a question of technique, while genius is the “God-given altitude of perception and articulacy”—a writer can become more talented, but cannot leap to a higher plane of observational ability. Finally, and most strikingly in the current moment: “Writers’ private lives don’t matter; only the work matters.”
This last law, amid the current profusion of sexual assault revelations, is once again being tested. In The New York Times A.O. Scott ridiculed the desire to separate art from artist, calling it “a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma.” Roxane Gay, in Marie Claire, argued that the artistic legacy of Bill Cosby has been “rendered meaningless in the face of the pain he caused,” and went on to invalidate the artistic legacies of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Johnny Depp, Kevin Spacey, Russell Simmons, and Harvey Weinstein—a dragnet that would negate the work of the thousands of other artists they collaborated with or supported. And there was recently a telling exchange on late-night television, where the role of American public intellectual has fallen to standup comedians. Stephen Colbert asked Jerry Seinfeld about Cosby, whom both comedians had idolized since childhood. After some prodding, and a commercial break during which he may or may not have been swarmed by his handlers, Seinfeld abruptly reconsidered his defense of Cosby’s comedy and said he was no longer able to separate it from Cosby’s crimes. The
studio audience applauded his change of heart.
Amis is unlikely to rally to Cosby’s defense. But I suspect he would rally to the support of Cosby’s comedy, or at least the principle that it should be taken on its own merits. He would do the same for the music of Simmons, the art of Chuck Close, and the films of Polanski, whom he visited in Paris a year after Polanski fled the United States while awaiting sentencing for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Amis’s essay, in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, is sympathetic in its treatment of Polanski’s childhood, during which his mother was killed at Auschwitz; conflicted about the artistic merits of his films (though not for biographical reasons); and unsparing about his crimes: “Even Humbert Humbert realised that young girls don’t really know whether they are willing or not. The active paedophile is stealing childhoods. Polanski, you sense, has never even tried to understand this.”
Another test of this principle was presented by the posthumous publication of Philip Larkin’s letters, which revealed a steady refrain of casual racism and misogyny, not to mention reactionary politics. Amis acknowledges that these revelations “estranged” him, and forced him to reevaluate the character of a man who, besides being in his estimation the greatest English-language poet of the last half-century, was one of his father’s closest friends. Yet, writes Amis, “No conceivable disclosure could make me demote Larkin’s work.” As the career recedes into the past, “the life rests in peace; the work lives on.”
Nabokov’s immoderate preoccupation, in his fiction, with the sexual exploitation of little girls offers a complementary problem. Though there are no suggestions in Nabokov’s biography of prurient interest, let alone criminal behavior, the frequency of such accounts is, as Amis points out, impossible to ignore. Not only Lolita but also The Enchanter, Ada, Transparent Things, Look at the Harlequins!, and the unfinished (or barely begun) The Original of Laura are populated by aged men who covet preteens. This is dismaying to Amis, but not on moral grounds. It is unsettling aesthetically: “There are just too many of them.” A nympholeptic trilogy might be excusable, he allows. A septology is excessive. Yet as an aesthetic flaw, it is only a minor infraction—leaving “a faint but visible scar on the leviathan of his corpus.”
Amis himself violates literary decorum on several occasions, as in the Las Vegas essay’s redundant references to American obesity: the “dumpster-size human shapes” in a cocktail lounge, a woman who “munched herself into a wheelchair,” “a male two-wheeler . . . more liquid than solid.” And not every subject suits his jittery, comic style. Pornography and John Travolta provide less resistance than the Persian spring or gang murders in the barrios of Cali, Colombia. Amis has written with great delicacy and humor about Updike’s work, and Visiting Mrs. Nabokov includes a moving encounter from 1987 at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Updike had a wart removed from his hand. In “Rabbit Angstrom Confronts Obamacare,” published after Updike’s death in 2009, Amis alternates his memories of the Mass General episode with an evaluation of a short story about a hospital visit and a consideration of the American health care system, all by way of working up to an obituary—an awkward discordance of style and content.
The humor and drama of Amis’s fiction derive from violent clashes of extremes. His characters tend to come from either end of society—what he has called “the lowlife class” and “the very privileged.” Enter the modern American Republican Party. It is difficult to imagine a better match of content and style—the GOP’s content and Amis’s style. Amis has been on the beat since 1979, when he went on the road with Ronald Reagan, traveling to the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, a Holiday Inn in Midland, Texas, and on board the Reagans’ personal jet, Free Enterprise II, from El Paso to Dallas. Even then he saw clear to the nature of the con: “Reagan is an affable old ham, no question. He would make a good head waiter, a good Butlins redcoat, a good host for New Faces. But would he make a good leader of the free world?” Nearly four decades on, Amis finds that Reagan’s pantomime—the old-boy bromides, the winking hate-mongering, the nostalgia for a whiter, straighter, simpler past—has been refined and militarized. And all in service to an imprudent, universally debunked economic policy that in any other country in the world “would never be mentioned, let alone tabled, passed, and given a second term. Tax cuts . . . for the rich?” The degeneracy and ultraviolence on display at the 2012 Republican National Convention lead Amis to go full Clockwork Orange: “Madamic good ole girls in scarlet ensembles, peanut-faced glozers in ambassadorial suits and ties, puns, rhymes, Tinkertoy wordplay (‘Give me liberty—not gimme, gimme, gimme’).”
In the modern GOP, Amis’s practiced cynicism has met its match. “Who will perpetually submit to being lied to with a sneer?” he asks in 2012. In 2016 he has his answer: the third of Americans repulsed by the vision of a black man in the White House. “The hysterical blond who occupies it now,” he writes, “is the direct consequence of that atavism.” Trump is the ultimate expression of the lowlife class colliding with the privileged class—and within the same person no less. Amis’s close reading of Trump’s bibliography, ahead of the election, offers a precise diagnosis of the man’s descent into mania, cognitive incoherence, and the Republican presidential nomination. Trump’s defining asset, Amis concludes, is “a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey”:
Trump can sense when an entity is no longer strong enough or lithe enough to evade predation. He did it with that white elephant the Grand Old Party, whose salaried employers never saw him coming even when he was there, and whose ruins he now bestrides. The question is, Can he do it with American democracy?
Elsewhere he settles the debate over whether one of Trump’s preferred phrases is “bigly” or “big-league,” with a prosodic examination: Trump pronounces the nonsensical term as a trochee, not a spondee, making “bigly” the more likely candidate. But nothing can be certain when it comes to Trump’s extemporizing idiolect, “an adventure playground for any proscriptive linguist.” So much attention has been given to Trump’s wars against American democracy, the past, the global order, that it has been possible to overlook his war against the English language. But Amis is here to hold the line.
Rub of Time’s most persistent theme, its undertow, involves another clash of extremes: the showdown between a brilliant mind and the atrophying influence of old age. Amis’s case studies include his own father, whose linguistic genius deteriorated to the point that “his speech was like a mixture of The Cat in the Hat and Finnegans Wake.” The complex mind of Iris Murdoch was simplified to silence by Alzheimer’s; Amis finds the subtle, if unmistakable, decline in Updike’s late works mortifying. Updike lost his ear; Nabokov’s fragments of The Original of Laura are “hard of hearing and rheumy-eyed.” Only Bellow, the favorite father, escapes with his dignity intact; Amis has called his last novel, Ravelstein, a “masterpiece with no analogues,” though here he allows that nobody could seriously compare it with Humboldt’s Gift.
Amis himself is now on the cusp of entering his eighth decade, but he has been preparing for the onslaught of old age since at least his fifties. One recalls the narrator of The Pregnant Widow: As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out, and will continue to thin out, until it thins out into nothing. And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick. That went a bit quick. In certain moods, you may want to put it rather more forcefully. As in: OY!! THAT went a BIT FUCKING
QUICK!!! . . . Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past.
Amis has long held that the diminishment of a writer’s youthful energy is balanced by a commensurate refinement of technique. But the equilibrium can only endure so long. Amis has shown no sign yet of diminishment; The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo have all the humor, exuberance, and linguistic invention of his best work, and The Zone of Interest, an Auschwitz love story, is as daring and brazen. Unlike Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth for that matter, Amis has not yielded to the pessimism about the state of literature with which writers at the end of their careers comfort themselves (though he does boast of ignoring his “youngers”). He is doggedly cranky, especially in interviews and when addressing critics, but that is a long-standing feature of his personality, not a symptom of ripening age. Most impressively, he still thinks with originality about the future. Nuclear proliferation in the age of Mutually Assured Destruction, the obsession of his midcareer, has yielded to ecological anxieties: “It’s natural for us to identify with the planet now, because the planet seems to be aging at the same rate we are.” Amis freely acknowledges in interviews that he has had a relatively easy go of it in his writing career, despite the critical muggings and the tabloid derision. But nobody has an easy go of senescence. Again The Pregnant Widow:
Old age wasn’t for sissies. But the suspicion was building in him that it was all much simpler than that. Old age wasn’t for old people. To cope with old age, you really needed to be young—young, strong, and in peak condition, exceptionally supple and with very good reflexes . . . .
Old age may bring you wisdom. But it doesn’t bring bravery. On the other hand, you’ve never had to face anything as terrifying as old age.
Now Amis prepares for his greatest adversary yet. He won’t come away triumphant—no one does—but we can be assured that his fight will resound with the best qualities of his work: humor, originality of voice, and exacting, unflinching scrutiny.