Martin Amis: Why I had to quit the New Statesman

The BBC's Meeting Myself Coming Back this week features the novelist Martin Amis, who remembers his days as Literary Editor at the New Statesman and explains why he had to leave.

Meeting Myself Coming Back is a BBC Radio 4 documentary which allows prominent figures to remember their careers through recordings in the BBC archives. In this episode, Martin Amis is reacquainted with a younger version of himself in a witty and honest journey through his life and career.

The programme kicks off with a dated clip from Amis' brief stint as a child-actor in the High Wind in Jamaica, which Amis amusingly reveals isn’t actually him but an elderly woman dubbed in to replace him after his voice broke mid-filming. It continues through to his time as the New Statesman’s Literary Editor, and then progresses to his career as a novelist, literary critic and political commentator more generally. Particular emphasis is placed on a section of his memoirs in which he details the abduction and murder of his young cousin Lucy Partington. He also address the controversial statements he made in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The programme smoothly navigates the kinks in Amis’s life: his expulsion from grammar school for truancy, his life in the shadow of his “nice but indolent” father Kinglsey Amis, and his ongoing battle with his teeth, which, he says, has bestowed upon him a real “understanding of suffering”.

This episode of Meeting Myself Coming Back features some quaint anecdotes: at one point the narrator describes a New Statesman competition which asked readers to suggest unlikely book titles for authors. One response suggested for Amis was “My Struggle”. In another section, an audacious young Amis pillories a piece of “old Pilger prose” on the Vietnam War which he states lacks balance and tends towards caricature, much to the dislike of Mr Pilger.

Life at the New Statesman plays a significant part in the hour-long episode. In the unlikely setting of an annual cricket match between the New Statesman and the Tribune, after commenting that he was neither batter nor bowler but in fact “everything”, Amis describes his vision for the literary back pages:

I could use our correspondent from the front-half but would be more inclined to get someone quirky, someone more right-wing, who would make a more interesting piece. Everyone knows what the NS feels about things. And I don’t think you want them said twice. You want an alternative view point in the back half.

Amis also laments his inability to write fiction while working at the New Statesman, and discusses his motivation for leaving in 1979:

It was so absorbing, in fact, that I had to give it up because I didn’t write a word of fiction once I was editor. It gave me so much satisfaction to open the paper on Friday when it was all done that I thought I’d better give this up because I won’t write another word.

Martin Amis smoking - now the subject of a popular blog! Photograph: Getty Images.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era