Nathaniel Rich

The Rub of Time: Bel­low, Nabokov, Hitchens, Tra­volta, Trump: Es­says and Reportage, 1994–2017 by Martin Amis. Knopf, 392 pp., $28.95

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Nathaniel Rich

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.

Martin Amis

Vladimir Nabokov

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