A stylist, yes, but Martin Amis was also right on the money


Here is a passage from Tony Blair’s chatty, undemanding and therefore un-Amisian memoirs:

“It’s like when people say to me: ‘Oh, so-and-so, they don’t believe in anything, they’re just a good communicator.’ As a statement about politics, it’s close to being an oxymoron . . . If you don’t have core beliefs as a politician, real path-finding instincts groomed out of conviction, you will never be a good communicator because — and this may seem corny, but it’s true — the best communication comes from the heart.”

In other words, style is substance. Or at least the two things are harder to separate than people pretend. The idea that Blair was a shallow smoothie and Gordon Brown a deep but tongue-tied man is primitive analysis. If Brown struggled to communicate, it was precisely because he was a weathervane, a news-driven tactician, forever second-guessing a tabloid audience here, a liberal one there. Who am I meant to be today?

Martin Amis devoted half a century to making a version of this argument. (His debut novel, The Rachel Papers, came out 50 years before his death last week). No writing is “just” stylish, he thought. If a sentence gives the reader pleasure, it is because it contains moral or psychological truth. How about this, from London Fields, about a miserable marriage:

“When Hope called his name — ‘Guy?’ — and he replied Yes? there was never any answer, because his name meant Come here.” I found that slick and graceful enough at 25. Now, with marriages going to seed all around me, it is the insight, the penetration, that makes me smile/wince. A good joke will often elicit a “how true” just after it elicits a “ha ha”.

Amis’s career might best be understood as a prolonged reply to George Orwell. (“The man can’t write worth a damn,” he said, according to Christopher Hitchens, though his view would mellow.) Orwell’s plain prose is still hailed as a mark of integrity and clearsightedness: of the English aversion to bullshit. Except, as his biographers record, with varying degrees of tact, he wasn’t that averse. We still don’t know if he shot that elephant in Burma. Pressed on an alleged fabrication, he is said to have defended it as “essentially true”. As for clarity of vision, Nineteen Eighty-Four, his account of a future Britain, was, and this isn’t said enough, amazingly wrong. (Unless you are the kind of person who shakes a rueful head at CCTV cameras and mutters “He saw it coming”.)

The point isn’t that Amis, a fine comic writer, and Orwell, a great man of the 20th century, are equal. It is just that Amis had the better argument on style. There is no causal link between outward plainness and inner wisdom. And the belief otherwise can land entire societies in trouble. Take Back Control. Get Brexit Done. Make America Great Again. It was simple prose that led mature democracies astray over the past decade.

How did Theresa May, that sphinx without a secret, become prime minister? Because the British political class assumed that someone so nondescript must have hidden depths. It was the Brown error again. This happens in workplaces all over the world. I am afraid it happens in journalism. A spurious weight is accorded to the drab and the plodding. This writing must be serious. It’s awful.

By the way, none of this means you have to find Amis’s own work stylish. All those adverbs (“vigorously tousled”, “appreciably crappier”) can seem a bit undergraduate once you discover a Cormac McCarthy or a John Banville: writers who work hard for their effects, who never state what they can evoke. The point is that Amis was right about style, about its inseparability from content.

He wrote less and less about sport as he aged but Amis always reminded me of Pep Guardiola, another man who was accused by the British of needless elaboration. It has taken his total conquest of domestic football to show how much rigour and seriousness (and petro-wealth) underlies the surface glitter. You play the ball out from the back to lure the other team in, not to make an aesthetic statement. You hog possession as the best form of defence, not attack. Now give me that fifth Premier League title out of six, and don’t call me a show-off.

Amis said that writers die twice. First, the talent goes. Then the body does. So when did the talent reaper come for him? It is clear that something changes after The Information in 1995. His ear for street slang clogs up. So good at capturing the texture of London and New York in their soiled, dangerous 1980s phase, he was at a loss when each became a sanitised boom town. In Lionel Asbo, published in 2012, he goes ahead and pretends nothing has changed.

Kingsley Amis listening to his son Martin while his wife Hilary and daughter Sally look on © Daniel Farson/Getty

Glitches that were always there became more pronounced. He was enthusiastic but not original about America. (Do you know that people over there often carry a bit of timber?) In the 1980s, someone seems to have apprised him of the existence of nuclear weapons. That bee took too long to leave his bonnet.

But no accusation dogged him as much as that of sexism. He had a workable defence: that men in his books come off even worse. His greatest creation, Keith Talent, is a pub low-life who deals in stolen goods and sports-speak. (“Pressure? He fucking phrives on it.”) But the physical scrutiny wasn’t the same. Pervading the early books is a sense, quite recurrent in the canon of British entertainment, that the female body is a hoot. Imagine Little Britain set to prose.

In the end, for all his Atlanticism, he couldn’t overcome his nationality. Amis argued that Britain’s coping tactic after the loss of empire was to embrace trivia. If we can’t run the world, we’re going to treat the whole thing as a joke. It remains the acutest thing I have heard on the subject of our decline. And he was saying it long before Boris Johnson giggled his way to the top. The curious thing here — to be all meta about it — is that Amis himself was an example of the phenomenon he described. A man who had it in him to write in a major register kept going back to the comic grotesque. He couldn’t say no to a joke. Would that have been so true had he been born American or Indian? 

His funny bones cost him prizes. (Comedies don’t win Bookers, any more than they win Oscars.) It might have cost us, though we can’t know, some grand work. 

Why is the death of Amis so visceral for a certain type of man?” That isn’t a headline in a newspaper arts supplement. That is a text from a banker friend last weekend. Others who got in touch: a lobbyist, a football executive, a civil servant, someone in marketing. Which other “literary” novelist (Amis wasn’t a huge seller) would elicit this kind of response from men in non-artistic lines of work? Not Julian Barnes, though I think he wrote a book or two that will outlast any of Amis’s. Not Kazuo Ishiguro, who had won more awards by 35 than Amis ever would. Not Ian McEwan, who, now that he has outlived Hilary Mantel, might be the last serious novelist with nationwide name recognition.

So why “Mart”? I think, for men reared before YouTube, before Jordan Peterson and wall-to-wall life advice, he served a sort of mentor function. Pick a male rite — sex, fatherhood, sporting failure — and Amis said the truest thing about it. He even saw through the eternal lie that male friends don’t talk to each other about their inner lives: that it’s all film recommendations and Declan Rice transfer rumours with us. I am afraid I am going to have to get up on my hind legs about this. There are at least 10 men with whom I can and do discuss anything, to the nth degree, as Amis and Hitchens are now doing in some celestial trattoria. That isn’t universal, no. But, looking around, it isn’t so exotic either.

For illuminating this and other truths about life, Amis did feel like something of an older brother, handing down insights as prolifically as clothes. Such as? Being a good egg isn’t enough in this world. “Alpha” is a state of mind, not body. (Amis was far from strapping.) No, it’s not like that, it’s like this. As advice goes, it was cold and bleak. Such was Peak Amis. But the arrival of Late Amis brought a mellower kind of counsel. On your deathbed, he writes in The Pregnant Widow, the only thing you will care about is “how it had gone” in matters of the heart. So get a lot in. And make sure it sticks in the hippocampus. This is Amis talking to Esquire magazine about the advice he gives to his sons:

“I say to them, when you are in love affairs and sex, make sure you clench it in the fist of your mind, so you remember it later. It becomes very important in your late fifties and early sixties; you spend quite a lot of time in the past, thinking of those moments . . . So I instruct the boys; it’s like a pension for when they’re old.”

Romantic memories as a pension: an asset that you live off in late life. It is a stylish line. But it is also a true one. How Amis would have resented that “but”.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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