The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis - review by D J Taylor

D J Taylor

The History of Mart

The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000

By

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One reads collections of reprinted book reviews by distinguished novelists for several reasons: from simple curiosity (to see what they think of old friends and recent acquaintances), in search of low-level quirks and self-betrayals (the interest in big-game hunting or bronzed musclemen relentlessly pursued across the decades), but above all in the hope, or rather the confident expectation, that what emerges will tell you something – and something pretty revealing – about the creative impulse lurking all the while in the background. It happens with Updike, it happens with Ballard (to name a couple of writers whom publishing economics allow to get away with this kind of vanity parade), and it certainly happens with Martin Amis.

It should be said immediately that The War Against Cliché, notwithstanding its stodgy, portentous title, is the best compendium of its kind that you are likely to come across this publishing season, if not this decade. Amis the novelist? Well, every other year one devotes a thousand words or so to trying to work out what one thinks of the showy, self-absorbed performing artist that is Mart in full flow. Amis the critic, on the other hand, shapes up – to use a formulation much favoured by Amis himself – every time. Open an essay at random – my eye fell on a shrewd encomium to Shiva Naipaul – and there you are, luxuriating in the presence of something charged, vivid, direct, where every sentence adds up to ten. If I were a literary editor (a calling to which, providentially, I have not yet been tempted), Amis would be the template I handed out to aspiring reviewers. Or rather not, on the principle that the books pages play host to enough ersatz Amis as it is.

The pieces assembled here, stretching back nearly thirty years and arranged by theme, are best read chronologically. The earliest, from the Spectator, late 1971, when our man was twenty-two, has Mart feigning an interest in the latest recension of the Guinness Book of Records. It is a quintessential piece of apprentice work – not, one imagines, that smartyboots Master Amis ever fell into the category of apprentice – whose conclusion is not that ‘this book is good/bad/indifferent’ (although he ventures that ‘it would be dishonest to deny the remarkable believe-it-or-else compulsion of this durable series’) but the more oblique message: ‘Any literary editor reading this is invited to call.’ They called. They camped out. The head-nodding over the world’s smallest man turned out to be a diversion. The early-Seventies Amis, firing from a tail-gunner’s rampart at the back end of the New Statesman, was a serious young man who had read his Northrop Frye, his Empson and his Leavis (the phrase ‘pregnant arrest’ makes a couple of tell tale appearances), and was avid to apply some of the principles, moods and tastes picked up along the way to his examinations of contemporary English Lit.

Read a quarter of a century after their first appearance, the pieces on Iris Murdoch, C P Snow and Angus Wilson are still thoroughly arresting: scrupulous in the proper sense (fair but tough-minded, and measured against exemplary socio-literary yardsticks), but also hinting at inner dissatisfactions, that this wasn’t the kind of stuff the young Amis was interested in, and that the fire burned brighter in the West. The scrupulousness – leaving aside some thoroughly defensible young person’s cockiness – is worth pointing out, as retrospect has tended to mark the young critic-Amis down as a surly iconoclast.

Even the famous 1973 piece on Angus Wilson’s As If By Magic conspicuously fails to deliver the knockout punch. As Margaret Drabble’s biography showed, Wilson took very great exception to this mild debunking, and yet Amis makes only the sound specific point that the early-1970s Wilson (born 1913) hadn’t a clue how the younger generation spoke or thought, and the even sounder general point that Wilson excelled in the miniaturist portrait rather than the grand conspectus (‘The twinkling, walkabout exuberance of the present book isn’t suited to his savagely direct talents, which lie firmly in the novel-of-manners tradition; like his beloved Jane Austen he needs only a small vista for that rheumy but unblinking eye’). Not sure about that ‘savagely’ direct, but the point is unexceptionable. He was twenty-four. Wilson was sixty. It was bound to end in tears.

And then there is Iris, dear Iris, whose The Black Prince, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, Nuns and Soldiers and The Philosopher’s Pupil he canters through in the space of a decade. The verdict? She ought to slow down, stand back, look at the stuff again, as a prelude to finding out ‘how good she is, that strange and fearful discovery’. Again, the wider point hangs in the air. Talent needs to be worked on. Pains ought to be taken. Noting Murdoch’s passionate feeling for her characters, he decides, at the end of The Philosopher’s Pupil, that this love is ‘palpable, inordinate, scarily intense. It is far too strong a force to tolerate the thwarting intercession of art.’

You get the feeling that a great deal here remains unstated, or is only half-formed; that Mart, left to his own devices or simply made to keep reading English books, could have seriously got to grips with the beguiling subject of how the postwar, pre-modernist English novel – in fact the kind of book that his father used to write – was losing its way at this time. But he’d lost interest. It was time to be moving on. One of the most revealing things about The War Against Cliché, come the bright 1980s, is how few English writers seem to wander over Mart’s desk. Sure, there’s V S Pritchett (‘His art is reaching its natural conclusion; slowly dispersing into odd flashes of intensity’) and the eternally reliable figure of J G Ballard (‘one of the most mysterious and distempered in modern fiction’). But the really serious action is going on stateside, where everything, even the books themselves, in big and fat and fine. Mailer. Bellow. Roth. Bellow. Updike. Bellow … Even when he finds them ridiculous, you sense that Mart feels at home with these people, these veteran typewriter assailants and tail-chasers, in a way that he never could have been with Iris and co.

There is a bit less friction, consequently, in the American pieces, which is compensated for by a clearer idea of the kind of critic Amis is: as hip as they come but also oddly old-fashioned; a moralist – in the Leavis sense – who doesn’t moralise. Above all, a very uncommon thing these days, our man is a liberal elitist. A review of one of Updike’s own garrulous, interminable collections of occasional pieces ends thus: ‘His gallantry reliably extends to whatever is disadvantaged, homely, longsuffering, foreign or feminine. Kind to stragglers and also-rans, to well-meaning duds and worthies, and correspondingly cautious in his praise of acknowledged stars and matters, Updike’s view of twentieth-century literature is a levelling one. Talent, like life, should be available to all.’ It is difficult at the best of times to make charitableness look like corruption, but somehow Mart manages it.

And all the time, one is looking for clues to Mart the novelist, what makes him tick, where the real origins of John Self and Keith Talent and the others lie. Glimpsed intermittently through the grapplings with Saul and Vladimir (especially, perhaps, in the grapplings with Vladimir), they surface finally in the ‘Great Books’ appreciation of Ulysses. Towards its end, Amis resorts to the daring, hostage-to-fortune expedient of quoting the fragments of Joyce’s prose that he likes best. The chosen sentences are a mixed bag – ‘White breast of the sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, marging their twining chords’; ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit’ (this is apparently the ‘most ravishing’ of all) – but the zealousness with which they are dealt out confirms what one had already suspected: that, at the risk of sounding reductive, Mart is a language man rather than a character man. It is this that gives his prose its defiant, aspiring, whorish quality. This, too, that gives his novels their dangerous, dizzying edge (a precipice, incidentally, over which the novelist occasionally topples) – the feeling that everything will ultimately be sacrificed to the joke, the neat phrase, the bold conceit. The Joyce essay gives the book its title, when Amis approvingly notes that Ulysses is a book ranged boisterously against the stock phrase and the trite formulation. This is true, but at the same time Ulysses also delivers a stern warning of the perils of the too strenuous avoidance of cliché: something that perhaps ought to have been borne in mind amid the enthusiasm about humid nightblue fruit.

What else to say? One could search for hours amongst the obituaries of Philip Larkin and the posthumous score-settlings with him and not find anything more measured, honest or accurate than ‘Don Juan in Hull’. The disquisitions on masculinity I could take or leave, and the occasional dismemberings of persons such as Hillary Clinton and various popular novelists aren’t really fair – either to the scarred victim or to Mart himself. Behind The War Against Cliché, though, lies a wad of ticket stubs from one of the most absorbing and high-risk literary journeys of the last quarter-century: the trail of a smart young talent who threw over the constraints of his upbringing, headed West to the expansive promise of America, and now sits – a bit becalmed, and, I think, a bit irritable – somewhere in mid-Atlantic. On a very basic level, one regrets this for the sheer sense of omission. What, for example, does he think of Byatt, McEwan, Swift and other home-grown peers? Above all, one realises that Martin Amis is a victim of that most problematic of literary conditions – something that can boost a writer to the skies or plunge him to the depths: the state of deracination.

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