Friday 28 August 2009

Waiting for the pregnant widow

In anticipation of The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis (forthcoming from Jonathan Cape)

With Gore Vidal in mind, Martin Amis once wrote, ‘you can be too intelligent to be a novelist, but never too intelligent to be an essayist’.

This applies to Martin Amis himself, whose critics regularly complain of his insistent ‘Amisness’, his ‘compulsive vividness of style’, his need to spruce and brand every sentence with his own particular panache – his cleverness. He is a stylist; though not a virtuoso, a serious novelist who’s struggled to find a suitably serious subject. So far, Amis has tried nuclear holocaust, global terrorism, Russian history, Western capitalism and the Jewish holocaust, without ever really allowing anything to stick. That’s not to say Amis doesn’t regularly reach heights of stylistic elevation and stunning ingenuity. Take this typical Amis sentence, picked at random: ‘[the] pale flames pinged like static, briefly betrayed by a darker background’. His style is astonishingly adept, his eye keen, leaving his nearest competitors strangely clumsy. His satire is as dark and as funny as anything in the canon. Yet the notion remains that Amis is an author of sentences rather than novels. Speaking in Manchester, he likened the relationship between reader and author to that of lovers, and so to expand on the analogy, if Amis were to be our lover: he would be lush, indulgent, too demanding of our attention in his stripling desire to delight.

But delight he does. To read The Rachel Papers, Time’s Arrow, Money: A Suicide Note, London Fields is to enjoy a deeply visceral experience with words, to lay aghast and devilled by savage humour, although the big problem with Amis is this very excess, and the absence of the qualities that make his memoir, Experience, such an endearing treasure of personal insight and easy going dazzle. It is perhaps his most brilliant, literary book. With Experience, Amis has to correspond faithfully to reality and not to, as he has said of his novels, create a world, God-like: with Experience he had to engage with human variety and depth that is the mark of good literature. We enjoy his relationships with Saul Bellow, with his father Kingsley and revel in the appropriate and effortlessly coalesced details about his teeth, literature, what Christopher Hitchens was up to and so on.

With the publication of his novel, The Pregnant Widow, his first novel since the uninteresting House of Meetings and the embarrassing Yellow Dog, it is to be wondered if Amis can finally fulfill the promise of his prime and produce his most Joycean work. He promised The Pregnant Widow would be ‘blindingly autobiographical’: if that means the higher autobiography of Experiencerather than the rakish high jinks of his testosterone fuelled debut novel, we could be in for a treat. He’s spent six years writing it. From what I hear, the action takes place over a single day, set in a castle; immediately my imagination cloys toward Nabokov and his story ‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’. Amis’s literary fathers are Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov; but of these, Nabokov is the one with which he bares the stronger resemblance. Here’s an extract from ‘Cloud, Castle, Lake’:

’The locomotive, working rapidly with its elbows, hurried through a pine forest, then – with relief – among fields. Only dimly realizing as yet all the absurdity and horror of the situation, and perhaps attempting to persuade himself that everything was very nice, Vasili Ivanovich contrived to enjoy the fleeting gifts of the road. And indeed, how enticing it all is, what charm the world acquires when it is wound up and moving like a merry-go-round! The burning sun crept toward a corner of the window and suddenly spilled over the yellow bench. The badly pressed shadow of the car sped madly along the grassy bank, where flowers blended into colored streaks. A crossing: a cyclist was waiting, one foot resting on the ground. Trees appeared in groups and singly, revolving coolly and blandly, displaying the latest fashions. The blue dampness of a ravine. A memory of love, disguised as a meadow. Wispy clouds—greyhounds of heaven.’

With Nabokov, the style is effortless, and becomes great writing rather than posturing. The Nabokovian instinct in Amis often comes on too strong, becomes distracting and auterish and does not then allow for the delicacy of range he needs and the mooring of lyrical realism, a naturalism, a humbleness and ability to record reality and allow literature to reveal rather than create; the seriousness he longs for in his fiction; the capacity for closeness, a seeming complicity, with life, on the big issues.

In contrast, Saul Bellow is best describing simply details and pushing past the object into deeper levels of meaning. Take Chick’s description of his friend in Ravelstein: ‘his bald powerful head [...] at ease with large statements, big issues, and famous men, with decades, eras, centuries’. When Dean Corde, in The Dean’s December, hears a dogs pained howl, he translates it thus: ‘For Gods sake, open the universe a little more!’ The observation is startling. Saul Bellow said his characters were all ‘great noticers’ and that certainly rings true. For many, the prospect of opening the universe is accompanied by mortal terror. But not for Saul Bellow. Knowledge was king. If his early novels accepted the literary fashions of the time (European existentialism, fixed on the absurd, the apparent absence of meaning in human life). He would later nickname the dominant trend of Parisian existentialism ‘waste-landers’ and his own sturdy, worldly, testing, robust humanism was unleashed with his break through novel, The Adventures of Augie March. It is in the conflict between deep personal doubt and the unbreaking of hearts and redemptive capacity of the human spirit and understanding where Bellow comes out best. 

With The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis could offer his talent and style in service of literature; to break out of the postmodern insularity that has brought him such success, and allow his talent the jouissance of his perception, the full range of his uncanny eye. But, like Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the eagerly awaited new Amis novel may well be another missed opportunity for a leading English writer. 

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