Casanova & co

According to John Walsh, the London literary world of the 1980s was a golden age. Walsh himself had “knocked on the door of the London publishing world” in 1978 – its tradesman’s entrance – ready to get gilding. This was what Walsh calls “The Age of Amis”. Amis filsthat is, not the grizzled Amis per. In Adrian Mole style (Walsh has a lot of time for Sue Townsend), the key literary figures in Circus of Dreams are age-labeled. The Booker prize contest of 1980 was a “Clash of the Titans” between William Golding, sixty-nine years old, and Anthony Burgess, sixty-three. A year later and it’s Apollo all the way:

The shortlist featured Salman Rushdie, thirty-four, and Ian McEwan, thirty-three, squaring up to three veteran literary dames: Doris Lessing, sixty-two, Muriel Spark, sixty-three, and Molly Keane, seventy-seven, along with the forty-ish Ann Schlee…

Midnight’s Children won. It was the first televised Booker. “Serious-minded literary figures … (especially Nigella Lawson) scrubbed up for the TV cameras.”

According to Walsh, the Age of Amis was also a kind of return to the Wild West. Martin Amis and Julian Barnes are “the Butch and Sundance of the new novelistic prairie”; Craig Raine and Blake Morrison are “the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday of the poetry corral”. Angela Carter, meanwhile, is simply “wild and fanged”. The older generation, adjectival, upper-class, could retire soddenly to the Garrick Club, hoping for enshrinement in Margaret Drabble’s Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985), but for hip gunslingers the Groucho was “London’s place-to-be”.

Walsh has adventures there, too, following a ten-year gradus ad parnassum, which begins with him as a gofer at Gollancz. Next is a position on Books and Bookmen as an interviewer, then the literary editorship of the Evening Standard and finally a chance to plant his flag on the Sunday Times. Young Walsh doesn’t aspire to creative authorship. But he gives us, as a mock sales pitch, the outlines of three novels he did not write. Jests at his own expense are one of this book’s engaging features. And, although he can’t do it himself, Walsh can recognize the real thing.

At the age of thirty-six Walsh is appointed editor of the Sunday Times “Literary Supplement” (now a component in its “Culture” section). Under Walsh it would be “as serious, in its reviews and analyses, as the eighty-six-year-old” TLS, but more readable, and with more well-known names writing the reviews”. The event that made room for Walsh’s 1980s “big bang” was the little death, in 1979, of the journal carrying this review. In the silence of the stoppage, quartofounded by Rain and John Ryle, Anne Smith’s Literary Review and the London Review of Books filled the gap. The Times Lazarus Supplement returned. Two of the above titles have survived to grow old in turn.

Walsh’s 1980s, meanwhile, were a “constellation of genius”. He likes the g-word. JG Ballard is “the genius behind The Drowned World, Empire of the Sunand Crash“. Names drop everywhere. Lord of the decade is Martin Amis, who had graduated from Oxford with a first congratulatory. The examiners could only clap. Like young Alexander looking for new worlds, the newly lettered Martin cut a deal with his “star tutor”, Jonathan Wordsworth, “’that I could spend a year trying to write a novel and if I managed to, well and good. And if not, I’d return to Exeter College and do a postgraduate degree’”. Subject? ‘Shakespeare’. I don’t think any other writer’s worth spending a lot of time on.’” The Rachel Papers earned the twenty-two-year-old a second round of applause. “I read the novel over four days in a delirium of pleasure”, recalls Walsh. And Exeter College lost out.

The proper posture for those who are midwives to genius, or who just read genius books, is Carlylean hero worship, or so Walsh believes. To be a louse on the locks of literature in the 1980s is to know one’s place. Driving Seamus Heaney to Derry station in his hire car, Walsh is so distractedly hero-worshipful, it’s a wonder the poet was around to receive his Nobel ten years later. But Heaney was self-sufficient; he didn’t need his acolyte. Amis was different – ​​a superstar who looked and acted the part, and needed watching, as stars do. Walsh gives a thumbnail portrait of “the cool, unsmiling, perma-smoking, laser-brained literary star … longish hair, ironical eyes, sulky expression”. Actual contact with Amis seems to have been slight. Walsh touched his hem at Exeter. There was a brief encounter in his Books and Bookmen days on the subject of Amis’s novelOther People (1981). Walsh admits he is bamboozled by the book; Amis tells him to read it again; and Walsh blurts out that he doesn’t have time to read novels twice.

The golden decade turns leaden with London Fields in 1989. “The plot made zero sense … I was a little astonished, for the first time, closing a Martin Amis novel before I’d reached the end.” Is this the end of an era or the world itself? Circus of Dreams is an odd book, alternately fascinating and provocative. Walsh can write well and does so (on William Trevor, for example). More than occasionally he chooses instead to slang it, like someone in a freestyle rap battle with Julie Burchill.

Carey Mickalites’s monograph starts historically where John Walsh leaves off, but continues in a different vein: Contemporary Fiction, Celebrity Culture, and the Market for Modernism is a high-critical examination of “celebrity British novelists”. The author is an American academic whose contention is that Britain’s fiction, at its most artful, is a laboratory in which the problems of the modernist aesthetic are queried, tested and refreshed, but with chronic uncertainty in a context of mature capitalism. Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, Eimear McBride and Anna Burns each get a chapter. Julian Barnes does not. Heading the list, and of prime interest, is Martin Amis.

For Mickalites’s purposes, Amis is not Walsh’s 1980s Casanova, but the narrative technician of the post-London Fields 1990s and Noughties. He is the exemplary case of a writer engaged with the current clash of literary modernism and mercantilism. As Mickalites puts it: “I focus here on Amis’s negotiations with his own celebrity status, and … on how his fiction reflects the ethos of corporate capitalism by satirizing and participating in its logics [sic] simultaneously”. That’s a big “how” on theoretic stilts. Amis himself, after a brief flirtation with Russian formalism in Other Peoplesaw literary theory as cliché nouveau – another thing he declared war on – but one forgives Mickalites’s hauteur for its insights.

His starting point is The Information (1995) and the scandal it provoked. By transferring his literary property to an American agent, Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie, Amis broke with his English agent of twenty-three years, Pat Kavanagh, and her husband, Barnes. Friendship, contract and links to England were ruptured. For what? Artistic freedom? A field larger than London’s? Loot? The Jackal got him an advance of £500,000. Why did Amis want it so badly? Divorce expenses? New teeth? Orthodontics are expensive, but not even Tom Cruise’s gnashers needed half a million. Amis played along with the tooth nonsense. It pleases him to tease gullible readers – most recently hinting, for example, as an appetizer for Inside Story, that he may be the bar-sinister offspring of Philip Larkin. He isn’t.

The three pages Amis devotes to the rift in Experience (2000) describes the pain he felt doing what he did, but not his motive for doing it. Mickalites sees it as purposive. Modernism requires autocracy. But it also needs cultural capital (“reputation”, as it was once called) to materialize fully, and cultural capital requires a deal with Mammon. The alternative is the manuscript culture of Donne, the samizdat culture of Solzhenitsyn, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s readership of one or Fernando Pessoa’s of none, and Amis has never been interested in blushing unseen.

Mickalites sees Amis’s mid-career fiction as pinballing around the quadrilemma of money, success, self and modernism. Who, at the end of it all, owns or is Martin Amis? Can authentically modernist authorship sustain the artistic autocracy required to create itself in collaboration with multinational publishing, Jeff Bezos’s Amazon and the Booker ethos? Only, Amis might reply, if you knowingly play games with the system that aims to commodify you. His fiction is seriously ludic. It’s where he started. His second novel, Dead Babies, proclaimed in its title the one thing you could never joke about or write a novel about. Unless you were a terrible infant.

“To write poetry after Auschwitz”, Theodor Adorno declared, “is barbaric.” What he meant (as Amis perceived) is more complex than it sounds; Namely, that poetry of any worth will raise a monument to itself, entering into an alliance of prestige with a barbarism that deserves nothing but its own ash. Playfully and seriously, Amis wrote two novels about Auschwitz: Time’s Arrowwhose narrative runs back to front, and The Zone of Interest, a cogitation on the Nazi addiction to techno-jargon as euphemistic amnesia for mass murder. Amis is at war with euphemism as fiercely as he is at war with cliché.

One sees what Amis is up to: prestidigitation of the “my next trick is impossible” kind. (Sometimes, as Walsh says of London Fields, it really is impossible.) Is Amis like Jonah, inside the Orwellian whale (think Bezos) or outside with the harpoon-jabbing modernists? Both and neither, Carey Mickalites says. If there is an answer, we’ll have to wait for another Martin Amis to jump out from behind this one to find out.

John Sutherland‘sHow to Be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiositieswas published in an updated edition this month

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