There are a lot of writers who I have admired and drawn inspiration from in the course of my life, but Martin Amis is not one of them. Even in the 80s, when he first began to break it big, I was repelled by his showy, look-at-me prose, which always seemed to be straining to get the world to adore him as much as he clearly adored himself.
I have no time whatsoever for writers – or people – like that. And I felt that there was more than a hint of the emperor’s new clothes in the extraordinary adulation and attention heaped upon the ‘literary Mick Jagger’ by the British literati.
Nothing that Amis has done since has served to dispel those first impressions. His shallowness is never more painfully evident than when he attempts to step out of his novelistic bubble and comment on serious ‘real’ issues. Whether it is nuclear weapons, Stalinism, Islam, suicide bombing, or the ills of British society, the more he tries to be profound, the more he comes across as glib, self-serving and out of his depth.
I mean, this is a man who once nicknamed his baby daughter Butyrka, because her nocturnal cries ‘ would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror’; who saw the September 11 attacks as the dawn of the ‘age of horrorism’, and the sight of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre as ‘the worldflash of a coming future.’
Don’t even ask what a ‘worldflash’ is. For Amis, no historical tragedy is off-limits to his nauseating narcissism and pretentious prose. In recent years these public interventions have revealed him to be not only a ‘ spoiled, upper-middle class littérateur’, as the New York Times critic Michiko Katatani memorably described him, but something far nastier.
The most notorious example of this tendency was his 2006 interview with the Times, in which he told his interviewer Ginny Dougary that ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.’
Amis subsequently described these musings as a ‘thought experiment’ and he has since continued to conduct similar experiments with a frequency that is not matched by even the glimmer of insight. This determination to come over as a serious commentator may not be unrelated to the string of bad reviews that his recent novels have received, which suggest either that his creative seam is close to exhaustion – or that the emperor’s absence of fictional clothes has become increasingly impossible to ignore.
Now Amis has outdone himself, with a stupefyingly moronic interview with the Guernica webzine, in which he shares his thoughts on politics, historical memory and national character in Latin America and Europe, with penetrating observations like this one:
‘My father once said there’s a correlation between a nation’s cuisine and its people: England, nice people, nasty food; France, nice food, nasty people; Spain, nice people, nasty food; Italy, nice people, nice food; and Germany, nasty food, nasty people [laughter]. And I’ve always thought that there must be something terribly wrong with the German character—and that there is, really. It’s a young country (1871) and a German only feels comfortable being with the masses. They have very little talent at creating an inner life, privacy. And I think there must be something wrong.’
Good old Martin. He’s put his finger right on it, don’t you think? And the French don’t rate much better in the Great Man’s opinion, since unlike the Germans, they haven’t addressed their role in the Holocaust:
‘ France has done no work about their part in transporting eighty thousand people to their deaths. They are still the guy in the leather jacket with the onion, who’s a part of La Résistance. In fact, they collaborated, not resisted.’
In fact, France did both, but never mind. According to Amis’ understanding of history, the French ‘silence’ about World War II is partly due to the fact that
‘ when I read French non-novelists, people like Bernard-Henri Lévy, philosophers—they never say anything. It’s not actually anything you can extract from that person. It’s all sort of flim-flam. I accept that if I were a French intellectual I wouldn’t say anything either because there’s nothing to say. That is, unless you do the work. They haven’t begun to do the work, and I think that’s fucked them up.’
One can only wonder what readers might ‘extract’ from Amis, or what ‘work’ he himself has done, since there certainly isn’t much evidence of intellectual effort in his observations on Uruguay, where he once lived with his wife in the wealthy resort area of Punta del Este.
Those years hanging with the jet set have given him in depth knowledge of Uruguayan history and culture and Latin America in general, which enables him to describe Uruguayans as ‘ the nicest people’ on the continent, compared with the rest of South America, which is ‘getting there—becoming civilized—and will get there’.
Why is South America not yet ‘civilized’ but only ‘getting there’? Let the Great Man speak:
‘It’s had a real grit war in history. The choice between those societies until recently was the choice between tyranny and chaos. Everyone understood that. You’ve got to have a strong man, or it’s going to be a mess. ‘
Well that explains Pinochet, Videla, the Brazilian generals, the Uruguayan dictatorship, and all the others. That’s why the Argentinian junta killed and tortured up to 30,000 people, why Pinochet’s army dumped murdered political prisoners in the Atacama desert, why the Uruguayan army abolished democracy for fifteen years – it was all part of a ‘grit war in history’, whatever the fuck that is.
One is only surprised that Amis can’t extend such understanding to his bete noir Stalin, another ‘strong man’ who also saw ‘tyranny’ as an alternative to ‘chaos.’ Even after this comic book version of Latin American history, he still can’t understand why Uruguayans are so ‘nice’ and possess such ‘purity’ compared with the ‘quite proud and pissed off’ Spaniards.
One possible explanation for this difference in the national character, he suggests, might lie in the fact that Uruguayans, unlike their neighbors ‘didn’t kill off their major population. ‘ How so?
‘I’ve always said that the big difference between South America and North America with regard to the native population is that in North America they raped them and killed them, and in South America they raped them and married them. The mix was much greater, and that was very good.’
Do you find that funny readers? Insightful perhaps? Well perhaps you might, if you happen to be a white supremacist or a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Let’s hope that Amis’ forthcoming Holocaust novel will be filled with similarly witty riffs about rape, mass murder and genocide to make his readers chuckle.
Amis finishes off this magisterial performance with one final fatuous flourish. Asked by his interviewer whether writers can still fulfil Shelley’s designation of poets as the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, he refers to Steven Pinker’s thesis that the world is becoming less violent – a development he attributes to the ‘civilizing effect of literature.’
Got that? The reason why there are less wars and less violence in the world is because more people are reading novels and therefore ‘you’re in someone else’s head, in three, five different people’s heads’ as His Greatness poetically puts it.
So should the Red Cross ship some copies of London Fields and The Pregnant Widow out to the Congo, Syria or Mali, to name but a few places, as part of a conflict resolution exercise?
His reverential and awe-struck interviewer attributes is clearly bowled over by these dim observations, which he attributes to a writer ‘well versed in provocation’, with a proclivity for ‘caustic statements that altogether dispense with political correctness’, and ‘contrarian repartee.’
Personally I just see an ignorant, lazy reactionary bigot, who is nowhere near as smart as he seems to think he is, and whose opinions you might expect from some blotchy-faced colonel sneering and jabbing his finger into your chest in a Kent country pub.
His writings and his interviews take you into no one else’s head, except the dank thought experiment laboratory inhabited by Amis himself.
That is a journey I really don’t want to undertake, so I really do wish that Amis would shut up – or at least that the world could stop treating his idiotic pronouncements with such respect when he doesn’t.