Martin Amis

The English imprisonment.

In Martin Amis's memoir Experience (to my mind, his finest book), there is an account of an altercation with Salman Rushdie over the merits of the prose of Samuel Beckett. Amis writes:

I really do hate Beckett's prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear . . . Feeling my father in me now (as well as the couple of hundred glasses of wine consumed at the party we had all come from), I settled down for a concerted goad and wheedle. By this stage Salman looked like a falcon staring through a venetian blind.

- "No neither nor never none not no --"

- "Do you want to come outside?"

End of evening.

I was reminded of this when reading Tom Chatfield's recent interview with Martin Amis -- in particular this exchange:

TC: More generally, you and your father are often bracketed together as comic writers. Is that something you feel is getting harder to do?
MA: The comic novel is dying, because comedy is anti-democratic. Comedy is a smear.
TC: Inviting you to laugh at.
MA: Yes. But that may be turning around a bit. People assume that it's the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones -- but in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny. Yet there are whole reputations built on not being funny. Who's that German writer doesn't even have paragraph breaks?
TC: I don't know him, I don't tend to read that kind of German writer.

Amis must mean the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, a master of book-length paragraphs. In any event, his refusal to admit to knowing Bernhard's name is a reminder that Amis's canon has always been conspicuously narrow, the list of his elective affinities proudly, even defiantly attenuated -- Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Smollett, Fielding (he mentions them all in the interview), plus those few honoured Americans (Bellow, Roth, Mailer) from whom he learned to irrigate the English novel with demotic fizz and dazzle. (Beckett, of course, is to all intents and purposes a European, a hero of Amis's dreaded "gloomy constituency".)

I can't think of anyone who has diagnosed the effects on Amis's prose of his self-imposed limitations better than James Wood, who wrote this in a review of Amis's 1995 novel, The Information:

The creation of a partly Americanised yet English comic voice has been his great achievement, and this is not negligible, for it has led Amis part of the way out of the English verbal prison of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But Amis has re-imprisoned himself in the English burlesque.

A "writer as good as this", Wood went on, "must find an escape". Reading his new novel, and the interviews that have accompanied its publication, I'm not at all sure that Amis is still looking.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Hillary and the Viking: dramatising life with the Clintons

August radio should be like a corkboard, with a few gems pinned here and there. Heck, Don’t Vote for Him is one.

Now is the season of repeats and stand-in presenters. Nobody minds. August radio ought to be like a corkboard – things seemingly long pinned and faded (an Angela Lansbury doc on Radio 2; an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor on Radio 4 Extra) and then the occasional bright fragment. Like Martha Argerich playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 at the Albert Hall (Prom 43, 17 August).

But on Radio 4, two new things really stand out. An edition of In the Criminologist’s Chair (16 August, 4pm) in which the former bank robber (and diagnosed psychopath) Noel “Razor” Smith recalls, among other memorable moments, sitting inside a getaway car watching one of his fellows “kissing his bullets” before loading. And three new dramas imagining key episodes in the Clintons’ personal and political lives.

In the first (Heck, Don’t Vote for Him, 6 August, 2.30pm), Hillary battles with all the “long-rumoured allegations of marital infidelity” during the 1992 Democratic primaries. Fenella Woolgar’s (brilliant, unburlesqued) Hillary sounds like a woman very often wearing a fantastically unhappy grin, watching her own political ambitions slip through her fingers. “I deserve something,” she appeals to her husband, insisting on the position of attorney general should he make it to the top – but “the Viking” (his nickname at college, due to his great head of hair) is off, gladhanding the room. You can hear Woolgar’s silent flinch, and picture Hillary’s face as it has been these past, disquieting months, very clearly.

I once saw Bill Clinton speak at a community college in New Jersey during the 2008 Obama campaign. Although disposed not to like him, I found his wattage, without question, staggering. Sweeping through the doors of the canteen, he amusedly removed the microphone from the hands of the MC (a local baseball star), switched it off, and projected for 25 fluent minutes (no notes). Before leaving he turned and considered the smallest member of the audience – a cross-legged child clutching a picture book of presidents. In one gesture, Clinton flipped it out of the boy’s hands, signed the cover – a picture of Lincoln – and was gone.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue