24 May 2023

Martin Amis, by a woman who loved him


The men have had a lot to say about Martin Amis. His obituaries have tended to fall into two categories: tender reminiscences from other male novelists who knew and admired him, and tributes from male critics whose praise is always qualified by mentioning that he was, of course, a misogynist who fell out of fashion. There has been an insulting tendency, too, to claim that Amis will be remembered more for his criticism than his novels.

These caveats are presumably meant to reassure sensitive readers that, unlike Amis himself, his literary undertakers have perfectly conventional views on gender and bog-standard contemporary taste. 

Since he died I’ve wanted to read something about his work by a woman who loved it. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I thought I’d better write it myself.

It was a boy who introduced me to Amis. He leant me Success and I’d laugh out loud while reading it in his college room. I found the wit, confidence, irony and allusiveness as attractive in Amis’ prose as it was in the boy who idolised him – and who later became the man I married. 

In telling you this, I’m perhaps making the same mistake Amis did when asked, as he sometimes was, if he ‘hated women’. ‘I’m not a misogynist; ask my wife,’ he would snap. It’s a sentiment that’s been ruined forever by David Brent, and likewise if you object to clever novels of the 80s and 90s, I don’t expect one reader’s romantic attachment to them to change your mind.

The real solecism, though, is to invoke tedious arguments about the relationship between an individual’s personal life and the art that they consume or create. Most of the time the art itself is so much more interesting.

If it’s misogyny you’re looking for in Amis’ work, you’d probably start with Nicola Six, the female murder victim and lust object of all three male protagonists in London Fields. The substantive accusation would be that she is ill-drawn, passive in the face of violence and a figure of male fantasy. 

Such criticisms seem to me to result, first, from a desire for novels to be about things that they aren’t, and second from a willingness to say the most boring, reductive thing possible about them. If what you want is fully realised, relatably flawed female characters, try Bridget Jones’s Diary (or Middlemarch, or Pride and Prejudice, or White Teeth, or The Cazalet Chronicles…).

Nicola Six isn’t meant to be a ‘real’ woman, she’s a formal device in a story that’s about class, literary convention, the city, male desire and male inadequacy. She’s a post-modern invention, and one that is borrowed directly from The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark – a female author.

It’s also notable that equivalent standards never seem to apply to female novelists. Sally Rooney is probably the closest the 21st century has to a ‘voice-of-a-generation’ writer like Amis – yet Nick, the male love interest in her debut, Conversations with Friends, is just a rich, handsome actor. That’s fine – her books aren’t really about men.

Another middle-brow assessment of Amis is that he prioritised ‘style over substance’. Again, this is not a criticism that’s made of female authors like Eimear McBride, whose prize-winning A Girl is a Half Formed Thing barely contains a full sentence. 

There’s a scene in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain – which reads now like a prophecy about academia’s takeover by identity politics – where college Professor Coleman Silk argues with a colleague about a student who found the plays of Euripedes offensive. Silk says:  

‘To read two plays like Hippolytus and Alcestis, then to listen to a week of classroom discussion on each, then to have nothing to say about either of them other than that they are ‘degrading to women,’ isn’t a ‘perspective,’ for Christ’s sake – it’s mouthwash. It’s just the latest mouthwash.’

Readers who focus solely on what they regard as moral failings in fiction, or what they wish to be alienated by, should be pitied, because they are depriving themselves of so much pleasure. The main thing about Martin Amis is that he was just so funny.

The Information includes a novel so dreadful it gives everyone who tries to read it nosebleeds, there’s the tennis match in Money, there’s Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers wondering what persona he should adopt to seduce a girl: ‘If she were left-wing I’d look miserable, hate Greece and eat baked beans straight from the tin’.

But since we’ve been talking about Nicola Six, I’ll offer you this passage about the effect she had on men:

She had the power of inspiring love, almost anywhere. Seven-stone pacifists shouldered their way through street riots to be home in case she called. Family men abandoned their sick children to wait in the rain outside her flat. Semi-literate builders and bankers sent her sonnet sequences. She pauperised gigolos, she spayed studs, she hospitalised heartbreakers.

If can’t enjoy this parody of masculine patheticness, then you’re missing out. And if you think a priapic Wile E Coyote cartoon is somehow demeaning to women, then you don’t get the joke.

When my future husband and I were younger we used to pursue Martin Amis around literary events and book signings in London – partly for the chance to be in the presence of genius, partly for free wine. He was always a dazzling, hilarious speaker. I remember him saying that novelists should regard their readers like visitors to their home – offer them your most comfortable chair, pour them your best whisky, tell them your most amusing anecdotes. Leave the gossip-column prejudice aside and that’s how it feels to read his novels – to never be treated like an idiot.

The night he died I searched our marital bookshelves for my old, signed paperback of The Information – a trophy from one of these stalking expeditions. It was inscribed: ‘To Alys, from Martin Amis’. He could play incredible tricks with words but, for me, that’s the truest sentence he ever wrote.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX