Christian Lorentzen

Novelist on Assignment

The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump – Essays and Reportage, 1986–2016

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The Rub of Time, Martin Amis’s new collection of literary essays and journalism from the past three decades, sits in a broad valley of subject matter, between the Olympus governed by the ghost of Vladimir Nabokov and the chintzy glass and brass of Trump Tower. The word for such a collection is ‘uneven’, though in this case it’s less a matter of the writer’s performance than of the worthiness of his subject. Suitability of writer to subject matter is another question, but celebrity novelists will write about whatever they want, and we’ll follow them as long as the glossies can afford the plane fare. 

And I’ll happily follow Amis into lowlife territory – to Las Vegas, where he promptly strikes out at the World Series of Poker, and to Pornoland, where he learns which sex acts require acting and which bring out a performer’s personality naturally. The porn piece, written for Tina Brown’s short-lived Talk in 2000, is now dated, the industry and writing about it having become both wilder and more banal due to online proliferation. Amis’s inhibitions – he doesn’t like seeing pricks on screen – have a retro charm. The poker essay, from 2006, suffers like many of Amis’s post-9/11 writings from gratuitous references to Islam. Las Vegas is ‘un-Islamic’ (he means anti-puritanical) and with so much vice around, the ‘Taliban would have warm work to do’ there (so would the passengers on the Mayflower).

The tic was present in a more amusing form before 9/11. In a 1997 New Yorker essay on adaptations of Austen for the screen, Amis blames Ayatollah Khomeini for the fact that he couldn’t walk out of Four Weddings and a Funeral after twenty minutes: he was sitting next to Salman Rushdie, whose security detail kept them in place for the film’s duration. Amis’s writings on terrorism and the Middle East aren’t likely to win any converts to his position, which is neocon in all but name. He didn’t support invading Iraq, but he has a tendency to treat Islam as a malign monolith (one that ought to get ‘its house in order’, as he once suggested to an interviewer). When a reader of The Independent asks him in a ‘You Ask The Questions’ feature, reprinted here, ‘Are you an Islamophobe?’, he has to clarify that he’s an ‘Islamismophobe’. Terrorism excites his imagination in a manner similar to the Holocaust, Stalin’s crimes and atomic weapons. He knows that the quantity of terrorism’s victims is comparable annually to the number of Americans ‘drowned in their bathtubs’, but he can’t get the prospect of an imminent ‘untraceable mass-destructive strike’ out of his head. It’s odd that Amis never heeded his hero Nabokov’s advice to avoid ‘bloated topicalities’.

One of the grim (if distinctly secondary) aspects of current American politics is that there’s little chance that any good writing will emerge from a direct reckoning with the Trump presidency. The problem is that, despite the insistence from many quarters that we’re experiencing a tragedy, only farce can accommodate Trump as a central character. Yet nobody’s in the mood for farce. In a 2016 Harper’s essay about Trump (then the Republican nominee), Amis senses this. Of Trump’s early life he writes, ‘If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal.’ He defines what it took for Trump to go about the daily business of real estate, securing permits, distributing payoffs, engineering evictions and showing up at the odd casino commissioner’s retirement dinner: ‘a superhuman tolerance for boredom’.

Amis precisely identifies Trump the candidate’s two signal qualities: ‘a crocodilian nose for inert and preferably moribund prey’ and ‘the lavishness of his insecurity’. But the way that insecurity showed itself – the self-praise and incitements to violence at rallies, the conversion of the election debates into a theatre of insults, being a ‘gawker, a groper, and a gloater’ when it comes to women – proved perversely appealing, enough so to capture the electoral college. ‘Every now and again Americans feel the need to heroise an ignoramus,’ Amis writes, and he’s not wrong. The trouble is that this is obvious and no more piercing insight is possible. When Amis compares Trump to the posters on the walls of Lolita’s bedroom – ‘Goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued pools’ – there’s an immediate recognition in the reader that even a throwaway line of Nabokov’s is too good to waste on Trump.

The novelist on the American campaign trail (think of Mailer, Burroughs, Naipaul, Didion, Wallace): it’s a rich tradition, but a waning one. The problem with regard to the Republicans in 2012 and 2016 (the two elections Amis covered) is that we already know too much about politicians who aren’t worth knowing in the first place. Digital oversaturation is one factor, but since McCain’s nomination in 2008 the GOP has fielded two sorts of candidates: grim ideologues (Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, John Kasich) and bozos (Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Trump), with Newt Gingrich managing a daffy fusion of these styles and Ted Cruz a vampiric one. (The Democrats have posed different problems – Obama attracting hagiography and Clinton being too familiar – but Amis doesn’t touch on them.) In Iowa in 2012, Amis knows he’s witnessing a clown show: the pre-caucus debate he watches is a ‘dismal anticlimax’. At Romney’s coronation that summer in Tampa, he seems most interested in the elaborate security apparatus surrounding the arena.

No such listlessness intrudes on Amis’s literary essays. Confining himself to studies of his heroes, friends and elders, he follows Saul Bellow in instilling ‘the readerly habits of enthusiasm, gratitude, and awe’. That imperative doesn’t exclude a few harsh judgements, which pain Amis to put to the page. Reviewing the posthumous The Original of Laura, he notes that the theme of ‘nympholepsy’ is present in six of Nabokov’s works, and only morally defensible in three of them (Lolita, The Enchanter and Transparent Things). It constitutes ‘a faint but visible scar on the leviathan of his corpus’. Writing on Letters to Véra, he’s even more disappointed by Nabokov’s 1937 affair in Paris with Irina Guadanini, a betrayal of his wife and ‘a vertiginous swerve in the direction of the ordinary’. The dalliance was brief and the ‘Nabokovs appeared to get over it more quickly than this reader expects to do’.

The title makes it plain that Amis, now sixty-eight and having buried his best friend, Christopher Hitchens (subject of a moving piece here that doesn’t shy away from scolding him for his tendency to make puns), has ageing on his mind in these essays, a note struck poignantly in an article occasioned by giving up tennis at the age of fifty. ‘For now I just miss it. Tennis: the most perfect combination of athleticism, artistry, power, style, and wit. A beautiful game, but one so remorselessly travestied by the passage of time.’ You get the sense that Amis keeps writing about his heroes (there are three essays each here on Nabokov and Bellow; two each on Larkin, Ballard, Updike and Roth) because it keeps him feeling young. He’s alarmed by the infelicities that creep into the prose of Updike’s last, posthumous collection of stories, My Father’s Tears, but is cheered by his ‘authorial love’ for the characters he created until the end. Bracing for Amis too is a late essay of Bellow’s, ‘Wit Irony Fun Games’ – ‘quite possibly the last thing he ever wrote’ – that insists that ‘most novels have been written by ironists, satirists, and comedians’. Amis concludes, ‘The novel is comic because life is comic.’ His next novel is said to be about Hitchens, Larkin and Bellow. Let’s hope he keeps that maxim in mind. We’re in need of comedy, if not farce.

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