Martin Amis’s The Rub of Time shows it’s possible to be foolish and brilliant

Everywhere the author looks, he finds his own opinions reflected back at him.

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The problems begin on page one. Or page x, to be exact, between the quirky Contents (“By Way of an Introduction,” “Americana (Stepping Westward)”) and what Amis would call the collection proper. Whereas “a lyric poem or a very short, short story” can achieve something like perfection, he explains, longer things such as the essays, reviews, and squibs gathered in The Rub of Time inevitably succumb to “the natural sin of language”.

The phrase is TS Eliot’s, though one that Amis learned, like many of the things he knows, from John Updike. In Amis’s conjecture – and his “I take it that…” suggests that he hasn’t typed the phrase into Google – Eliot was reflecting on the “indocility” and “promiscuity” of language, the habit of words to refuse to do one’s bidding. This is something that Amis himself worries about much of the time. The question of what Eliot really meant – and he was not inclined to use the words “natural” and “sin” in such a narrowly aesthetic connection – is, or rather would be, a nuisance, a pesky hurdle. What makes the moment typical, and typically problematic, is not just the complacency and the incuriosity, but the solipsism, Amis’s need to find his own positions everywhere reflected back at him.

In reality – that distant land – Eliot represents everything Amis dislikes: religious piety, modernist difficulty, analytic rigour, and, clearing the way for these, the critical assault on Romanticism; an exercise in canon-maintenance pursued more systematically by Amis’s bête noire, the irritable Cambridge don FR Leavis. If you studied at Downing College – or one or two other places – between about 1930 and 1965, chances are you would end up a Leavis disciple, with what Amis once called the Leavisite’s “pitifully denuded bookcase” (no Milton, no Shelley, and so on). But Amis studied at Oxford, where he was taught by Jonathan Wordsworth, a collateral descendant and prominent scholar of the poet, and took seminars with the key figure in the Romantic Revival, Northrop Frye – characterised further down page x as “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty”.

In consequence, though the Amisian bookcase is marginally fuller, the omissions are similarly stark. His pantheon isn’t exclusively Romantic – that would be deranged – but he is wedded to what he considers Romantic virtues: warmth, plenitude, levity, demotic command, “sublime energy” (the book’s final words), and a hearty lust for life. The essays on writing that constitute the bulk of the collection include plausible acts of tribute to Jane Austen, Christopher Hitchens, and Iris Murdoch. Now and again, you scratch your head as Amis tries to fit his taste to his criteria. An obituary of JG Ballard ends on a note (“a man who loved life with such force”) that will befuddle readers not just of Ballard’s fiction but of all the words that come before it.

As is by now fairly well-established, Amis’s exemplars, and the beneficiaries of three separate sections in The Rub of Time, are Bellow and Nabokov. (The only figure who towers over them is “my favourite writer, William Shakespeare”.) While it’s mildly inconvenient that the “Twin Peaks” had so little time for one another, Amis finds plenty of overlap in their critical statements, which, in his paraphrase, advocate spurning what he babyishly calls “the interpretational approach” (or “frowning, crew-necked earnestness”) while cultivating the “readerly” and Romantic “habits of gratitude, enthusiasm, and awe”, ie switching off and having a good, if slightly bovine, time.

When Amis finds a point of conflict, he tends to accentuate the negative. Nabokov admires Flaubert the aesthete, but adherence to Flaubert’s formal dictates stymied Bellow’s early work. So Flaubert is consigned to the trash heap (“Resist ‘the heavy influences’ – Flaubert, Marx, etc”), along with those crew-neck-wearing heavies Camus, Sartre, Samuel Beckett – and that’s just the Nobel winners.

The sine qua non – and the one thing that truly unites Amis’s pets – is a good ear. (His most trusty critical device is the chunky, self-evidently magisterial quotation.) It turns out that the reason why Bellow stands as the greatest American novelist is that the prose of Henry James “suffers from an acute behavioural flaw”, a fondness for the vice known as “elegant variation”, whereby you identify the same thing in two ways: the Ponte Vecchio becomes “that delightful structure”, breakfast becomes “this repast”. You can see that this could get annoying, even why it might cause “the reader to groan out loud as often as three times in a single sentence”, but to Amis, it encodes a fair deal more: “gentility, fastidiousness... a lack of candour and engagement”. The war against bad writing finds an unlikely battleground in a piece about Updike (“probably the greatest virtuoso stylist since Nabokov”), but here the behavioural flaws aren’t required to bear so much weight. Updike still exudes “authorial love”; Amis just feels let down.

Puffed up into a theory, a mode of reading, Amis’s emphases become tiresome, and all too predictable. Put into practice – “weaponised” – as a way of writing, they begin to make all the sense in the world. Mellifluous elegance is an odd desideratum – Beckett possibly wasn’t going for that – but as Amis exhibits, it’s not the worst thing to have around. The Rub of Time confirms that it’s possible to be foolish and brilliant at the same time. (Amis would dismiss this as a false dichotomy: style is perception, and so on. Well, that’s just another thing he’s foolish about – though he often expresses it beautifully.) It turns out that brisk generalisations, nurtured for decades, lend themselves to potent writing. Certitude is the key to Amis’s superhuman flair – and what makes this collection so compelling.

In the opening essay, Amis declares that, in England, literary fiction used to be “a minority-fiction sphere”, and then provides an anti-catalogue that recalls Henry James’s description of America in the 1830s (“no novels, no museums”): “no interviews, no profiles, no photo shoots… no Woodstocks of the Mind in Hay-on-Wye, in Toledo, in Mantova…” It takes a moment to recall that he is describing the age of William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, but here, as elsewhere, you accept that hesitancy or moderation, any kind of sop to nuance, would have stemmed the rhetorical flow.

Part of the appeal of reading Amis is to holiday in a world of clean, legible order, a place where it’s possible to know that writers “scorn their youngers and revere their elders” (“This is a literary law”), that American writers are “level-headed about hierarchy”, that Anthony Burgess is “the only B novelist” (the kind of novelist interested in the autonomous play of language and ideas). In Amis’s caps-lock kingdom, the tidy notion is a virtue in itself, truth be damned. So what if Dr Johnson, declaring that “Nothing odd will do long” didn’t mean that “the reader’s appetite for weirdness is very quickly surfeited”, only that curios tend not to survive? While the fact-minded killjoy reaches for his Boswell, Amis is off, explaining why A Clockwork Orange might have been improved without “the curious apologetics of Part Three”. A similar logic governs the dual claim that Jeremy Corbyn only reads “manifestos and position papers” and lacks a sense of humour (upended by his frequent literary allusions and a nice line in self-mockery). Being wrong, in Amis’s journalism, is just another route – if one of the better-travelled – to good writing.

But in its lighter mood, Amis’s inclination towards the hyperbolic enables him to draw an appropriately candy-coloured portrait of the modern Republican Party, in a series of convention visits. In the mini section on tennis, he explains that being called “Tim”, a name that “lacks all gravity”, amounts to “a congenital handicap”, with Tim Henman being the first one “to achieve anything at all”.

The prose in The Rub of Time isn’t spotless. In the Updike essay – an orgy of the pedantic and pettifogging – he writes: “Let us end these painful quotes with what may be the most indolent period ever committed to paper by a major pen”. Here we find not only elegant variation (“period” for “sentence”), but a vulgar contraction (“quotes”), a creaky metonym (“pen”) and a pair of slack adjectives that – horribile scriptu! – contribute to an internal rhyme (“painful”, “paper”, “major”). Elsewhere, one reviewer’s cliché (“bravura”) comes lukewarm on the heels of another (“evokes”), “slowly” is followed by “but surely”, and there’s an alliterative pile-up (“eager aura of an autodidact”) in the churlish Corbyn takedown, one of a handful of undercooked pieces on politics. Amis even uses “optimistic” – included on his own list of words rendered “unusable through ambiguity” – in a terrific piece about his father’s usage manual (“only a wanker would now object, as [Kingsley] Amis does, to funded”).

Of course it doesn’t matter: few readers care about this stuff nearly as much as Martin Amis. (If he knew he’d used “some” three times in a single paragraph, he’d probably call for the print run to be pulped.) And in the areas that readers do care about, Amis delivers exceptional service. The Rub of Time is a riot of immaculately delivered punchlines and improbably sustained set-pieces (a longish footnote on Trump’s use of “bigly”), of bons mots and mots justes. Princess Diana’s taste for revenge was “near-Sicilian”. On book tours Amis becomes “robotically garrulous”. Confronted with John Travolta in his post-Pulp Fiction glow, he wonders: “How drunk was Scott Fitzgerald when he said that there were no second acts in American lives?” On having to sit through the whole of Four Weddings due to Salman Rushdie’s security arrangements: “No Iranian torturer could have elicited a greater variety of winces and flinches.” On the hypothetical “right-on” literary heroine Philip Roth never managed to create: “A harp-playing corporation-running mother of five, say, with an enlightened husband and a virile young lover called Raoul.”

The prospect of the same outsize sensibility let loose on the editorial pages of a newspaper, or for the span of a novel, is perhaps not very appealing. But that’s why the non-fiction Amis – the author of The Moronic Inferno and The War Against Cliché – has always been more likeable than the author of London Fields and even Money. By embodying the idea of varied form, the “mixed bag”, the book of essays liberates the reader to hunt and peck and reject, to rush towards, in this case, the stuff on sport and celebrity and (armed with a shovelful of salt) literature while veering away from the things about Corbyn and Stalin and jihad – to play the necessary, but finally delightful, game of choosing your own Martin Amis. 

The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump and Other Pieces, 1986-2016
Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 356pp, £20

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy