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.