Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Serious Novelist

Since commenter TimP requested that we mention Nick's latest especially this bit:

I expected the audience to go along with him. Just as urban legend has it that you are never more than six feet away from a rat on the streets of London, so dismal experience has taught me that you are never more than six feet away from an apologist for tyranny at a meeting of London liberals. (A good example of this came a few days later when Martin Amis, a serious novelist, was confronted by Chris Morris, a light entertainer, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Amis was so exasperated by the betrayals of principle that he asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they considered themselves morally superior to the sexist, racist, homophobic and psychopathic Taliban. Fewer than a third did.)

Isn't there some sort of catch where if you say you're "morally superior" to someone you automatically disqualify yourself from being moral at all? I mean, isn't the proper answer "I hope so" or "I try to be" rather than the chest-beating "Me moral, you Taliban!" or whatever? Anyway, what is a 'serious novelist'? I'm sure Nick has complained somewhere that modern novelists or Hollywood, or some cabal of bad guys (sorry for being so unspecific, but I can't find the piece) is or are ignoring contemporary issues. I finished The Death of Dalziel earlier this week (very good, I thought that previous couple showed a fatigue of form, but this was pretty good, if not among his very best). A sample:

'Useful? I've spent time more usefully reading Martin Amis,' he sneered. 'If you really want to marginalize me, why don't you just send me to the seaside and ask me to count grains of sand?

Page 159. That was Pascoe for any Hill readers among us: Dalziel is in a coma at this point, having been blown up by a bomb planted in an Islamic video shop. That's a contemporary plot, even if the prose fails the third of Elmore Leonard's ten rules of writing (I read Leonard on the recommendation of Martin Amis) - 'Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.'

I should pause the tape here. I'm ambivalent about Martin Amis. I think some of the early stuff (after the largely forgettable 'The Rachel Papers' anyway) was brilliant. His tastes led me to both Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. I found 'The Information' pretty much unreadable, and I skipped "Time's Arrow" because I thought the same idea was better done (and better written) by Kurt Vonnegut. Though Amis stole (being a mature poet) from Vonnegut, he didn't acknowledge his debt, preferring the stately and respectable highbrows of Bellow and Nabokov as his inspirations. (Personally, I'm in awe of all three in their own ways.) I think Martin deserves Terry Eagleton, like Ugolino in the Ninth Circle of Hell. Eagleton can't tell 'wrote' from 'spoke' and Amis' "an ideological relict, unable to get out of bed in the morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx" is a veritable hit. On the other hand, Amis gets out of jail because Eagleton accuses him of having written something he merely said in an interview, which is the sort of legal defence tactic Amis would deny anyone more brown than, say, Peter Hain, and circumcised to boot. (I don't mean Jews, my dear, I'm not talking about Israelis or Jews.) But can he write? Oh yes. Is he influential? Oh yes.

Resume tape: Thursday 18 October 2007 21:26.

'You're talking like an old man, Roy,' I told him. 'People have been complaining that standard are slipping ever since Shakespeare started writing comedies.'

Robert Harris: The Ghost. I meant to just slip that in, reading the first chapters in bed last night. I've finished it now, and rather than drool about it, I suggest that readers nip down to their local bookseller and read from after the break on page 218 until they're persuaded to buy the damn book. The prose is so good it reminded me of Amis at his best: "The Moronic Inferno", say.

Harris had suggested in "Imperium" that he felt the "War on Terror" was (ahem) exaggerated and a bid to seize power.

Oliver Kamm likes Robert Harris unlike his friend Stephen Pollard. Nicholas Blincoe wrote a stunning review in the Torygraph. (He'd already given the thumbs up to Naomi Klein and the thumbs down to What's Left?.) "Imperium" begged some big questions: was Rome a democracy? Politicians had limited terms; they were appointed by the electorate; but women could not vote, nor could slaves. Harris was skeptical about the War on Terror before; now he's cynical. I think a reassessment is due.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't there some sort of catch where if you say you're "morally superior" to someone you automatically disqualify yourself from being moral at all?

See under 'Pharisee'.

Back when I was a church-goer, our Rector pulled a stunt along these lines which misfired slightly. He re-enacted the Parable of the Sower, walking through the church scattering what turned out to be orange pips, then asked us which of us was the stony ground, which was the ground choked by weeds, and so on. A few people stood up each time. Then he said, "Stand up the good ground!" Unfortunately a few people did.

10/18/2007 09:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hang on. By "Chris Morris, a light entertainer" does he mean the godlike genius Chris Morris of Brass Eye and so on, whose boots the present incarnation of "serious novelist" Amis is not fit to lick, etc? Because if so I am really sorry to have missed it.

Also, spot on re Amis and Vonnegut.

10/19/2007 12:46:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I think you're wrong about Eagleton, though as I share his background in Trotskyism and the Catholic Church (albeit a less serious involvement) I may be partial. Eagleton is, I think, interested in ideas, the clarity with which they are stated and understood, and their application: so if he thinks seriously about God and Karl Marx it may be because he considers rigour and specificity to be important. A sort of intellectual self-discipline that, indeed, a background in God and Karl Marx does tend to impose on you. I think there's a lot of strengths to this approach - it makes it harder for you to come out with any old crap just because you feel like it. I also think Eagleton is thoughtful and humane in a way which Amis is neither.

It's true that Eagleton's made some mistakes of fact and detail in recent times but I might be inclined to ascribe that to anno domini. But is the matter of "spoke" and "wrote" of any importance whatsoever?

I should say I have a longstanding objection to Martin Amis, the source of which can be located if you open your copies of Fever Pitch and read the entry for Cambridge v Darlington in 1977. I think he has, for a long time, been fond of the sweeping and deliberately objectionable dismissive statement. He gets off on it. His is not a discriminating or a nuanced approach. He likes to lump people in together and declare them "belching subhumanity".

As for his demand that we declare ourselves morally superior, Martin might like to acquaint himself with the contents of John, chapter 8. I bet Terry Eagleton knows it.

Incidentally, when Morris "confronted" Amis (does this mean they were on the same platform?) what did he actually say that so affronted Nick?

('Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.'. Good advice. I wish somebody had told Captain WE Johns.)

10/19/2007 07:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was an interview with Harris in a recent "Spectator" (the same one as had the article about the Israeli raid on Syria). Harris was introduced as a friend of Peter Mandelson who was angry at the way that Blair had betrayed Mandelson by sacking him the secomd time. Harris went on to say that the foreign policy of the two main political parties is basically "Do whatever the Americans do" and that this is a Bad Thing.

I'm intrigued by the fact that a friend of Mandelson (who picked Blair over Brown because Blair was "better box office") is now suggesting that Blair was a CIA plant and is now criticising a polciy of which Blair was the main proponent. Are there some trends here that we Decency-watchers have failed to spot?

10/19/2007 08:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the real scholiasts among us:

In the new intro to his Ideology, Eagleton gives as his source for his knowledge of Amis's remarks ("definite urge" etc) as the article in the LRB by Daniel Soar (4 Jan 2007):

Which I remember as a very good piece.

In his Channel 4 News interview this week (, Amis suggests near the end of it that Terry Eagleton just got his knowledge from surfing the internet. I would have thought that Eagleton is a print sort of person, and probably read Daniel Soar in the print edition of the LRB.

I remember Terry's nice remark that he (Terry) ought to take contrascriptives. Maybe. In the case of Martin Amis: definitely.


10/19/2007 09:16:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Odd thing. I was hunting around to see where Terry might have picked up the information from except Daniel Soar, and I found almost nothing on the Web (though it's a tricky search). Just this.

Matt Turner complained in February this year that Amis' remarks didn't seem to have received much attention. Could it be that they were missed by nearly everybody at the time, Mr Soar excepted? Where did Soar read them - in the original article or elsewhere?

10/19/2007 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I think I read it in that Christopher Hitchens 'We can be as nasty as Mark Steyn' piece. Or maybe that was afterwards.

Incidentally I'm flattered that you all think Terry Eagleton might have read it on my bnlog.

10/19/2007 10:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hold on. If you didn't read Time's Arrow ("I skipped it") how can you know that Kurt Vonnegut did it better? Do tell.

10/19/2007 10:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incidentally, watching Mart on C4 News the other night (Mark Steyn as a reliable source? Kingsley wasn't an antisemite, except when he was?) I am ever more sympathetic to the view that Mart is actively trying to destroy his reputation, or at least to see how far he can push this and still have people like Nick take him seriously.

Maybe it's a performance art project.

10/19/2007 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ejh: "I should say I have a longstanding objection to Martin Amis, the source of which can be located if you open your copies of Fever Pitch and read the entry for Cambridge v Darlington in 1977."

Fever Pitch is by Nick Hornby. Am I missing something here?

10/19/2007 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hitch on amis the elder, some years back: "wearing a mask of ironic reaction until the face beneath begins more and more to fit the mask" [WARNING: NOT AN EXACT QUOTE -- from memory only but this is the gist]

10/19/2007 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Fever Pitch is by Nick Hornby. Am I missing something here?

Yes: but read the stated passage and all will be revealed.

10/19/2007 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Fever Pitch is by Nick Hornby. Am I missing something here?

Yes: but read the stated passage and all will be revealed.

I've read the first four lines on Amazon's read insider the book, where he tells us that he applied to cambridge from the right place and at the right time, and that his poor A-level results didn't hinder him.

Then unfortunately the rest is on p.96, and that apparently can't be shown for 'copyright reasons'. So could you put us out of our misery?


10/19/2007 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

It's probably more trouble to read than it's worth, but basically it goes like this. In about 1991 a chap called Bill Buford wrote a book called Among The Thugs, about football hooligans. It was the subject of a review by his chum Martin Amis, in the Independent on Sunday, which was written in a deliberately vile and offensive tone, in which football suporters were dismissed tout court with terms like "a love of ugliness" and "belching sub-humanity".

In response I wrote a letter to the newspaper - and a well-received piece in the magazine When Saturday Comes, in which I observed that Amis was a bigot. The letter, or part of it, was subsequently quoted by Nick Hornby in his celebrated book.My view and conceivably Hornby's was that attitudes like Amis' had led straight to Hillsborough.

When football became trendy a few years later, Amis tried to hop on the bandwagon by doing interviews about his interest in the game (a piece in Guardian Weekend comes to mind) which failed to mention his previous hatred for everybody else who liked it.

Anyway, it's of some possible interest because to my knowledge it's the first time that Amis' liking for full-on saloon-bar-style commentary had been displayed and identified. Anybody seriously interested in the development of Amis' attitudes and style could probably do worse than to check out the various piecs involved.

10/20/2007 08:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

back when hitch could still write well -- when he took more of his style from claud cockburn than from martin amis -- he wrote a fascinating defence of philip larkin in the nlr, which boiled down to the idea that bigots who wrote like angels were interesting: worth our time stopping and thinking about

(in fact it was partially a rebuttal to a TV takedown of larkin by eagleton, who was arguin that bcz larkin had bad thoughts he should be driven from the canon) (or something: i'm no fan of eagleton, who i think is a subtile manoevring slickster, but i didn't see the TV thing and this is hitch's possibly unfair summary)

anyway there's a progression here -- or regression -- from contrarian anti-PC show-business (amis as the bellow-reading jeremy clarkson) to wind-up artists no longer remembering the point of their own joke

two or three years ago, i used wonder how hitch now felt as he reread his own studies of floorcrosser conor cruise o'brien on floorcrosser edmund burke -- now i wonder how he confronts his own mocking attacks on the only working-class figure in the conkers-&-kingers "ironic racism" crowd, john braine

because that's the, er, "declension" i think we're seeing here: it is interesting; it's also horribly sad, and instructive, and frightening

10/20/2007 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

Remember that Robert Harris was the source of the description of Brown as "borderline autistic" back in 2005; a lovely piece of work.

Pity, really; I always wanted to read Enigma and Fatherland.

10/20/2007 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Being somewhat "borderline autistic" myself, that rather made me warm to him.

Or rather it would have, if I weren't....

10/21/2007 10:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a very late update for this, you can listen to the Amis debate online. Nick has compeltely misinterpreted it - there is no sign of Morris before the clearly pre-rehearsed show of hands party trick.

11/01/2007 05:15:00 PM  

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