Margaret Thatcher and the books of her time

I blogged about Margaret Thatcher and the music of her time and have seen quite a few articles since then about the British pop music scene of that era. One should recall the books, too. It was a grand time for booklovers.

P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975, but one could look forward to new books by  John le Carre, Len Deighton, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Gerald Durrell and a phalanx of literary fiction.

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Martin Amis, 61 today, on ageing

Martin Amis is 61 today. Happy birthday. Here’s his own take on ageing from his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, published this year. Martin Amis – never amiss with words:

This is the way it goes. In your mid-forties, you have your first crisis of mortality (death will not ignore me); and ten years later you have your first crisis of age (my body whispers that death is already intrigued by me). But something very interesting happens to you in between.

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.

Martin Amis on life and Kingsley Amis

Martin Amis describes seeing his father, Kingsley Amis in a dream in his autobiography, Experience. Published in 2000, five years after his father’s death, it’s one of the most intimate accounts of a father-and-son relationship that I have ever read.

He writes:

Why should I tell the story of my life?

I do it because my father is dead now, and I always knew I would have to commemorate him. He was a writer, and I am a writer; it feels like a duty to describe our case — a literary curiosity which is also just another instance of a father and a son.

He writes about his father explaining the mysteries of sex to him and his elder brother, Philip, when they were schoolboys and the conversations they had when he had grown up.

His father pops up even when he is writing about other things. He recalls the articles he published in the New Statesman following the death of the critic FR Leavis and calling them a “symposium”. A symposium originally meant a drinking party, he says and adds: 

And that is what Kingsley liked, above all things. Well, he probably liked adultery even better, in his manly noon, but the symposium was a far more durable and unambivalent pleasure — a love whose month was forever May.

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Kingsley Amis and Martin Amis

The publication of Martin Amis’ new novel, The Pregnant Widow, has also turned the spotlight on his father, Kingsley Amis. A writer in the Guardian fondly recalled The Old Devils, the Kingsley Amis novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1986.

That’s the prize that continues to elude Martin Amis. But that doesn’t detract from his fame and success and talent as a writer. He is one of the best though not as prolific as his father. Their gifts extend beyond the novel, but I found it impossible to include all the non-fiction in these charts.

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A Truth Universally Acknowledged: About Jane Austen

Janeites will love A Truth Universally Acknowledged, a collection of essays by 33 famous writers and critics acknowledging the genius of Jane Austen.

Her admirers will have the pleasure of discovering their feelings shared by writers like Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Somerset Maugham, CS Lewis, JB Priestley, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, David Lodge and critics like Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom. Kudos to the editor, Susannah Carson, who brought them together in this book.

Martin Amis

Martin Amis speaks for us all when he tries to pin down the appeal of Pride and Prejudice:

For example, why does the reader yearn with such helpless fervour for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy?

Elizabeth, of course, is very attractive. To quote Amis,

Elizabeth Bennet is Jane Austen with added spirit, with subversive passion, and, above all else, with looks.

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Who is Britain’s greatest living author?


Clockwise from top left: Amis, Pinter, Naipaul, Rushdie, Rankin, Stoppard, Rowling and Hornby (in the centre).

If Martin Amis isn’t Britain’s greatest living author, who is? asks the Guardian today. Amis is certainly the flashiest. His brilliance with words simply dazzles. No one comes close except Salman Rushdie, whose name also came up in the random survey of writers, critics and booksellers.

But Rushdie has moved to the US. Still, Amis has plenty of competition. The biggest contenders whose names came up most frequently in the survey were Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul. Two of them have won the Nobel prize. But Pinter and Stoppard are playwrights. My choice would be a novelist.

I would choose Naipaul over Amis. Not just because I am an Indian. Naipaul has been around much longer and has covered a lot more ground, starting when Amis’ father, Kingsley, was the famous writer in the family. Naipaul is a great writer in every sense, not just a story teller but a social critic like Dickens or Tolstoy.

Amis is also more than a novelist. I haven’t read his criticism but have read his pieces on the War on Terror. Some may not like it, but he isn’t afraid to speak up.

Still, I wouldn’t call him Britain’s greatest living author for one simple reason: He can be heartless. Think of books like Money and London Fields. There’s no question about their brilliance. London Fields stands the whodunnit formula on its head. But it also shows a cruel streak. Some of the characters are treated with such utter contempt it becomes tiresome: Why write about them at such length at all unless one got a kick out of savagely ridiculing them? Satirists do that. But compare London Fields with Catch 22 and the difference is striking. Catch 22 is funny, not London Fields.

No wonder Amis is a sharply polarising figure — the Hillary Clinton of the literary world — equally hated and admired. (The same may be said of Rushdie. I prefer him to Amis.)

Interestingly, JK Rowling was also named by some in the survey as one of Britain’s best living authors. She wasn’t the only popular writer to make the list. So did Nick Hornby and Ian Rankin. Hornby is funny. I love Rankin.

Giving Amis a miss

Martin Amis: 2

Yours Truly: 0

I tried reading Martin Amis’ novel, Money, for the second time, and for the second time I failed. I gave up almost near the end, though I did sneak a peek at how it ends.

Amis, for all his literary talent (and he is awfully good at words), can be very taxing. He is on a roll, pouring every idea, every image that strikes his fancy on to the page, considerably prolonging the narrative. Amis knows he is being self-indulgent but pleads helplessness. He writes:

I disclaim responsibility for many of my thoughts. They don’t come from me. They come from those squatters and hoboes who hang out in my head, these guys who stroll past me like naturalized, emanicipated rodents (passport and papers all in order), like gentrified rats, flapping a paw and saying ‘Hi, pal’ and I have to wait and not mind while they make coffee or hog the can — there’s nothing I can do about them.

— Martin Amis, Money

It’s hip and vivid and quirky, but it doesn’t take the story anywhere.

This book could have easily lost a hundred pages without hurting the narrative. But Amis, who was only 35 when this book was published in 1984, was apparently more interested in the storytelling than in the story itself, more keen to showcase his literary talent than his plotmaking.

I was impressed but finally lost patience and gave up. The book is like the period it’s set in — the yuppie 1980s. It’s one long orgy of sex, glitz, financial extravagance and bad behaviour that finally becomes a bore.

Amis is too clever for his own good. He introduces himself in the story as a supporting character. The hero-cum-narrator, John Self, gets Martin Amis the writer to write the screenplay for a film he is making. It’s a clever idea, and amusing at first, but the joke wears out in the end.

In Nick Hornby’s novel, How To Be Good, there’s a minor character, a book publisher’s salesman, who considers Amis a "smart-a***" That’s rude — Hornby letting one of his characters badmouth his rival, Amis. He is rude but right. Amis is one heck of a talent who is not necessarily one whale of a read.