Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Martin Amis: Clear-Thinking Artist and Craftsman

Martin Amis, one of the most famous and successful writers of the late 20th century, passed away on Friday May 19 at the age of 73. He is perhaps best known for his novel Money, which Robert McCrum of "The Guardian" ranked as one of the best 100 novels written in English. Amis' agent, Andrew Wylie, described to "The Guardian" what distinguished Amis from other writers: "The level of attention Martin brought to each sentence was unique and special. He played on a field that few writers visited."

Amis' personality and work inspired strong opinions; if you liked Amis then you considered him to be a first rate literary figure whose influence will endure, and if you did not like Amis then you considered him to be a second rate talent who will be soon forgotten (and the sooner the better, according to his harshest critics). Talent evokes jealousy, and talented people who are financially successful and famous attract jealousy like a black hole attracts matter--and, much like a black hole destroys the matter that it absorbs, jealous people dream of destroying the people whose talent and success infuriate them.

In 1980, Amis accused Jacob Epstein--son of one of the founders of "The New York Review of Books"--of plagiarizing Amis' novel The Rachel Papers. Epstein admitted that he plagiarized Amis' work. For nearly 30 years after Epstein's offense, "The New York Review of Books" did not publish reviews of Amis' books; a profession that punishes the victim of a transgression instead of punishing the transgressor is very strange.

Amis' father Kingsley won the Booker Prize for his 1986 novel The Old Devils. Martin Amis' critics sometimes disparaged him by asserting that he was not nearly as good of a writer as his father was, which is as irrelevant as it is cruel: Martin Amis' task was to maximize his own talents, regardless of whether or not doing so enabled him to surpass what his father accomplished. 

In my essay "Cloud Atlas Explores Our Interconnected Lives and Destinies," I quoted from the Afterword of Amis' 1991 novel Time's Arrow: "[The Holocaust] was unique, not in its cruelty, nor in its cowardice, but in its style--in its combination of the atavistic and the modern. It was, at once, reptilian and 'logistical.' And although the offence was not definingly German, its style was. The National Socialists found the core of the reptile brain, and built an autobahn that went there." That passage typifies Amis' insight and his pithy yet vivid way of expressing that insight. I have yet to see a better, more succinct summary of the dichotomy between Germany's mastery of science/technology and the poverty of Germany's moral conscience; the perverse marriage of technological prowess with moral depravity opened the path for the ascent of the Nazi Party, which plunged the world into destruction and devastation on an unprecedented scale.

After some critics blasted his 2003 novel Yellow Dog, Amis commented, "No one wants to read a difficult literary novel or deal with a prose style which reminds them how thick they are. There's a push towards egalitarianism, making writing more chummy and interactive, instead of a higher voice, and that's what I go to literature for." Bluntly dismissing your critics by explaining that your writing reminds them of how stupid they are is no way to make friends--but producing great writing is not about making friends: permanent greatness is more significant than, and will outlast, transitory, fickle human relationships.

In addition to writing novels, Amis produced high quality non-fiction, some of which is collected in the anthology Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions.

Martin Amis' political beliefs skewed to the Left, which was a source of contention with his father Kingsley. Many people who identify as progressives or liberals harbor antisemitic and anti-Zionist attitudes as core tenets of their belief systems, but Martin Amis was not in that unfortunate group of misguided souls; he rebelled not only against his father's political views, but also against the antisemitism that is all too common--regardless of political affiliation--in Amis' native Great Britain and which was evident during Great Britain's administration of the Palestine Mandate. The British restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine (contravening the stated purpose of the Palestine Mandate to facilitate the creation of a Jewish State in the Jewish people's ancient homeland), and the British obsequiously curried favor with many of the region's despotic Arab and Islamic leaders (which, as often happens with policies based on realpolitik considerations, did not have a positive outcome for the British). Martin Amis once observed, "Israel can't afford to be a sweetie," which is an accurate summary of Israel's precarious position as a small nation surrounded by larger, hostile nations.

Martin Amis idolized Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. Like his heroes, Amis secured a place for himself as a writer whose work will be remembered and read long after his passing.

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