Martin Amis: sex, politics and literature
Gore Vidal once decreed that sex, literature and politics were the three components of the human condition. This aperçu neatly categorises the life and work of Martin Amis and serves as a tripartite method with which to examine his contribution to the fin de siècle literary world.
Sex is a prominent theme in Amis’ work and this pattern is continued in his recently published novel The Pregnant Widow; which flirts with the consequences of the 1960’s sexual revolution.
The relentless physicality of his prose is perfectly suited to his pioneering role in examining the visceral nature of the male sexual condition. The Rachel Papers, Amis’ patriarchal debut novel and magnum opus, details in eviscerating detail the unprepossessing crudity of the complex relationship between sexual aggression, lust and ultimately compromise which led Norman Mailer to declare, “a little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul”. Amis’ own take on this is demonstrated through an observation of Charles Highway, The Rachel Papers’s protagonist, that, “it has become difficult to talk sensibly on the question of girls’ cunts”.
Amis’ work is also notable for its use of irony and absurdity. His contrast in The Rachel Papers of Norman Entwistle’s priapic declaration that sleeping with a women once she has given birth was akin to ‘waving a flag in space’ with the mundanity of Norman’s claustropobic middle-class existence is both penetrating and revealing. Humour is also used to devastating effect. In a disarmingly charming riposte to criticisms of his remarks on Islamism, Amis mocks his detractors teasingly recalling how during bleak moods, “he longed, for their soothing hand on his brow”. Indeed, Amis has that rare quality of being able to win arguments despite being clearly in the wrong.
The dichotomy between Amis’ prose and plot is crucial to the understanding of the nature of Amis’ literary legacy. His defence of Nabakov’s Lolita is profound and indeed it is the exquisite penetration of his prose that elevates him above his peers and justifies his acclamation as a seminal writer. Whilst Amis’ father Kingsley, amongst others, bemoaned the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style”, Amis’ literary flair is vindicated by even a cursory reading of his work.
The plots of Amis’ work, however, fail to reach the same heights as his prose. His most acclaimed novel, Money, is a dense, monotonal work seemingly written to be taught rather than read. It traces the zeitgeist of the 1980’s, portrayed by the fluctuating fortunes of the central character John Self. This anxious attempt to garner critical acclaim represents the supplication of Amis’ literary craftsmanship to the humourless requirements of literary theory and the result is a predictable disappointment.
This foible aside, Amis’ prose and command establish him as a foremost contemporary postmodern writer. In his collected work, one can perhaps see the best explication of Gore Vidal’s hypothesis that “one of the reasons we create fiction is to make sex exciting”.
Despite his finesse with pen in hand, Amis’ most laudatory attribute is his facility with the spoken word. Effortlessly elevating rhetoric to poetry, his is a breathtakingly lyrical eloquence comparable to that of Oscar Wilde. Indeed he is one of few public intellectuals who can converse on equal terms with the preeminent contemporary wit Christopher Hitchens, with whom he once shared an intense relationship. A charismatic delivery serves only to broaden his appeal. Deep, gravelly and embued with confidence, Amis’ commanding voice helps offset his diminutive stature and endow him with instant charisma and authority.
As one of Britain’s most prominent public intellectuals, Amis frequently voices his political concerns. His novel, Money exposes the “phosphorescent prosperity” of England in the 1980s whilst much of his recent political writing deals with the threat of Islamism. Disappointingly, Amis’ falls well short of George Orwell’s ambition of “making political writing into an art”. His political writings contain little of the literary dexterity of his novels and his return to the novel in The Pregnant Widow is a welcome one. Along with other members of his exclusive literary clique including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Christopher Hitchens, Amis’ political views have been shaped by both the 1989 fatwa on Rushdie and 9/11. These events inform his hostility to Islamism, a hostility which has generated frequent and justified controversy.
Through his penetrating writing on sex, literature and occasionally politics and pioneering of the postmodern genre, Amis is a worthy inheritor of his literary idols.