Posts Tagged 'martin amis'

Faking fluency.

A couple years back Martin Amis described re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book he’d admired as a younger man:

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed – I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing – I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think. [1]

Nicholson Baker is even more fastidious. In U and I he objects to the “deracinated adjacency of the thesaurus” and says he refuses to touch one; but he concedes that this prejudice is snooty and absurd, and admires John Updike and Donald Barthelme for forthrightly admitting that, yeah, sometimes they dig impressive-sounding words out of the thesaurus. [2]

Me, I consult my thesaurus not to find new and astonishing ways to say “big” but to recover unflashy middle-school vocabulary words that, when I summon them for occasional use, get bogged down on the journey between memory and forebrain. It happens to everyone. Here’s Charlie Citrine, narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, suffering what we would today call a brain fart (though brain constipation would be a better image):

My brain was disintegrating. The day before, in the bathroom, I hadn’t been able to find the word for the isolation of the contagious, and I was in agony. I thought, whom should I telephone about this? My mind is going! And then I stood and clutched the sink until the word “quarantine” mercifully came back to me. Yes, quarantine, but I was losing my grip.

At one time I would, like Charlie Citrine, fume and grind my teeth when a word like “quarantine” failed to arrive at my command. Then I realized that there was no shame in going halfway to meet it; that’s what the thesaurus is for. It’s not a Wunderkammer for browsing exotic words, but a filing cabinet for storing everyday ones, so that you can find them when you need them, and get on with your writing.

Citrine has little cause to worry about his “disintegrating” brain. A lauded author, playwright, and journalist possessed of a preposterously, even aggravatingly high degree of verbal fluency, he’s happy to oblige when visitors challenge him to demonstrate that he has actually absorbed the contents of the dense tomes he leaves on his coffee table:

“Take this monster – The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics – Jesus Christ, what the hell is that! Now Charlie tell us, what were you reading here?”

“I was checking something about Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s opinion was that the Bible could not be a collection of mere stories. Did Adam and Eve really hide under a tree while God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day? Did angels really climb up and down ladders? Did Satan bring Jesus to the top of a high mountain and tempt him? Obviously these tales must have a deeper meaning. What does it mean to say ‘God walked’? Does God have feet? This is where the thinkers began to take over, and–”

“Enough, that’s enough. Now what’s this book say, The Triumph of the Therapeutic?”

For reasons of my own I wasn’t unwilling to be tested in this way. I actually read a great deal. Did I know what I was reading? We would see. I shut my eyes, reciting, “It says that psychotherapists may become the new spiritual leaders of mankind. A disaster. Goethe was afraid the modern world might turn into a hospital. Every citizen unwell. The same point in Knock by Jules Romains. Is hypochondria a creation of the medical profession? …”

…And so on. I assume that Citrine, like Bellow’s other first-person narrators, is a barely veiled version of Bellow himself: did Bellow talk like this? It’s easy for writers to create the illusion of fluency by polishing, double-checking, reaching for the thesaurus: characters therefore are nearly always more articulate than their creators.

It’s much harder in real time. With practice you can learn to fake fluency by speaking confidently and grammatically – which is already more than most of us can manage – and, when you find yourself out of your depth, by edging around to a topic you do know well. Honest-to-god verbal fluency requires high intelligence, which is rare.

Those of us who have a brain for certain kinds of trivia – who remember names or dates or numbers – have an unfair edge, when faking fluency, over those who forget such details: but it can hobble us, too. We become overconfident, imagining that because we can name something, we’ve mastered it. I do the Sunday crossword puzzle with a friend sometimes, and she’ll quiz me, when I’ve impressed her by hauling out some unfamiliar name:

“And who is Thomas à Becket?”

“He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered by…somebody…because…because some English king, can’t remember which, said, ‘Will someone’…no, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?’”

“Why’d he say that?”

“Come to think of it, I’m not really sure. Wait, meddlesome priest. Meddlesome.”

The other day I found myself trying to describe to this same friend the events of the English civil war. I got the names and order of the kings right, and correctly named the decade of Cromwell’s rule. But checking my facts afterward, I was wrong about nearly everything else: the various parties’ motives, the sequence of events, the religious underpinnings of the conflict. All the stuff, in other words, that would demonstrate actual comprehension.

Looking at the various nonfiction books on my shelves, I wonder – if my friend plucked up one of these books at random, and asked me to summarize its contents in the manner of Charlie Citrine, how well would I do?

Suppose her hand fell on C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a slender book which I’ve read at least twice, most recently a couple years ago, and which influenced my thinking during the writing of my own novel.

I remember Lewis’s starting point being some contemporary government report – or was it a newspaper article? – on reforms to the British educational system.

I remember him using the word Tao in a non-denominational way to refer to, uh, our innate universal sense of morality, I think.

And of course I remember “men without chests”, Lewis’s phrase for the regrettable products of modern education, although I couldn’t say now how he introduces the phrase or exactly what it means. [3] [4]

That’s about it. Given a half hour I think I could, even without access to my library or the internet, spin around these fragments an extremely vague but passably coherent précis of Lewis’s argument. Off the top of my head? Fat chance.

Whenever I come across a reference to The Abolition of Man I’ll nod knowingly: Ah, yes, a text I too have mastered. Carry on, fellow educated person. But in fact my multiple readings of that book have left only a series of faint impressions, like the ghostly roadways of an extinct jungle civilization, detectable only in satellite photos.

Which brings up the question, why do I read at all? But that’s a subject I’ve delved into already…in an essay that, I find upon revisiting it, also references C.S. Lewis. One of the symptoms of declining intelligence is that you start repeating yourself.

M.

1. In a review in his collection The Moronic Inferno, Amis eviscerated Joseph Heller’s God Knows for “[w]riting that transcends mere repetition and aspires to outright tautology.” A sampling: “‘lugubrious dirge’, ‘pensive reverie’, ‘vacillating perplexity’, ‘seditious uprising’” …etc.

I identified the same tic re-reading Catch-22 nine years ago and complained that Heller’s prose “clops along like a three-legged horse”.

2. U and I, written in 1991, is about Nicholson Baker’s “obsession” with, and debt to, his literary hero and fellow psoriasis-sufferer John Updike. The digression about the thesaurus now inevitably and unfortunately summons to mind the anonymous slur quoted by David Foster Wallace in a harsh review a few years later: that Updike was nothing more than “a penis with a thesaurus”.

3. To return to U and I, one of the charms of that book is that Baker resolved when writing it to forgo the “artifice of preparation”: in order to preserve his pure, spontaneous, un-fussed-over impressions of Updike’s work, every line he quotes, every story he describes was retrieved from his own, frequently faulty memory. (“I remember almost nothing of what I read,” he admits.) Where Baker misquotes he appends the correct quotation in square brackets.

4. Checking my memories of The Abolition of Man: Lewis begins with a discussion of a newly-published elementary school text; Tao is the term he uses for the alignment of one’s desires with objective reality, necessary to human thriving; and men without chests refers to people governed by reason alone, lacking the guidance of sentiment or magnanimity, which, according to the Medieval theologian Alanus, is seated in the chest.

Speaking of Nicholson Baker, in September I quoted a whimsical suicide fantasy in his A Box of Matches and last year I talked about his “intensely fine-grained” debut novel The Mezzanine.

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Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.

Crossing over: Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Recently, over breakfast, my girlfriend and I chatted about some of the TV programs that she, having come to consciousness only in the mid-’90s, never had a chance to experience. She’s seen enough Cheers reruns to get the gist, but Family Ties, Night Court, and Newhart, among others, she knows only by reputation.

I told her how, in the final scene of the final episode of Newhart, it was revealed that the whole series had been dreamed by Bob Newhart’s character from his earlier The Bob Newhart Show. This reminded me of St. Elsewhere, and I summarized for her the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis: In outline, since all the events of St. Elsewhere were revealed in that show’s final episode to be the daydreams of a snowglobe-clutching autistic child named Tommy Westphall, and since characters from St. Elsewhere crossed over to a number of other TV shows, including Mash, Cheers, and Homicide: Life on the Street, implying that those shows took place in the same fictional reality, and since characters from those overcrossing shows in turn crossed over to a whole bunch of other shows, it can be argued that the events of all these other shows were also daydreamed by Tommy Westphall. The Tommy Westphall Universe turns out to encompass everything from Mission: Impossible to Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.

Somehow this got me thinking of the connections among some of the books I’ve been reading lately. For instance, Christopher Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 crosses over with his old friend Martin Amis in his memoir Experience, providing complementary versions of the evening when Hitchens was introduced to Amis’s “literary father” Saul Bellow. [1] As Hitch tells it:

Martin offers a slightly oblique and esoteric account of a trip on which he took me in 1989, to visit Saul Bellow in Vermont. On our buddy-movie drive up there from Cape Cod – he’s almost word-perfect about this bit – he made it clear that I wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel. (“No sinister balls,” which was our colloquialism for a certain kind of too-easy leftism.) I knew I was being greatly honored by the invitation, not just because it was a huge distinction to meet Bellow but because, second only to an introduction to his father, it was the highest such gift that Martin could bestow. I needed no telling that I should seize the opportunity to do more listening than talking.

And yet it’s true, as he reports, that by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and his own foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.

We learn that Bellow had provoked Hitchens by calumniating his friend, the erudite Palestinian radical and literary critic Edward Said (who was later to fall out with Hitchens as they drifted to ever more irreconcilable positions on the morality of Western intervention in the Arab world, and violent Arab reactions thereto). Hitchens’s defense of his friend had inevitably veered into a lengthy diatribe – “a blue streak of sinister balls”, Amis says – about the misdeeds of Bellow’s beloved Israel. Afterward, Hitchens regretted embarrassing his friend, but:

[Amis] suffered more agony than he needed to, because Bellow as an old former Trotskyist and Chicago streetfighter was used to much warmer work and hardly took offense at all. He later sent me a warm letter about my introduction to a new edition of Augie March.

Bellow makes several other appearances, besides that awkward dinner party, in Amis’s memoir. We hear for instance how Bellow nearly died of a rare neurological infection he picked up dining on a red snapper on a visit to the Caribbean, a story that appears in slightly fictionalized form in Bellow’s Ravelstein. That novel is about the death of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, the professor, philosopher, and author of The Closing of the American Mind. As Amis says,

I know Bellow’s novel far, far better than I ever knew Bellow’s friend. Yet Ravelstein comes close to persuading me otherwise. This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.

In the novel, Bloom-as-Ravelstein importunes the narrator, the Bellow stand-in, to write about him after his death.

“I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks. I love listening when you are freewheeling about Edmund Wilson or John Berryman or Whittaker Chambers when you were hired at Time in the morning and fired by him before lunch.”

We learn in Hitch-22 that Hitchens, in real life, heard the Whittaker Chambers story from Bellow, on the evening of the awkwardness over Edward Said:

Offered a job as book critic for Time magazine as a young man, Bellow had been interviewed by Chambers and asked to give his opinion about William Wordsworth. Replying perhaps too quickly that Wordsworth had been a Romantic poet, he had been brusquely informed by Chambers that there was no place for him at the magazine. Bellow had often wondered, he told us, what he ought to have said. I suggested that he might have got the job if he’d replied that Wordsworth was a once-revolutionary poet who later became a conservative and was denounced by Browning and others as a turncoat. This seemed to Bellow to be probably right.

Speaking of the “after-supper-reminiscence manner”: both Ravelstein in Ravelstein and his model Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind refer to Plato’s Symposium, that famous gathering of Athenian intellects where Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes and their friends got drunk and declaimed on the nature of love. Taking a poke at modern critical theory, Bloom writes (paraphrasing Nietzche):

[A]fter the ministrations of modern scholarship the Symposium is so far away that it can no longer seduce us; its immediate charm has utterly vanished.

But for non-scholars, the Symposium will always be seductive because it shows us our heroes just as we want to imagine them – hanging out forever in a Valhalla of the intellect, joshing and quipping and making each other spray wine through their noses.

Which brings us to the Friday lunch. Hitch-22 devotes a few pages (and Experience a passing mention) to the boisterous weekly get-together that Hitchens and Amis shared through the 1970s and ’80s with Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Clive James, and illustrious others. Hitchens identifies James as the “chief whip” of the gatherings: “He needed an audience and damn well deserved one.” It’s James who gives us the vividest picture of the Friday lunch, in his memoir North Face of Soho, showing us how Amis could improvise a tall story, sustaining the massed laughter with “the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning”, while Hitchens’s specialty was the interjection of sarcastic asides:

[I]f someone was being straightforward, he could make them funny, and if someone was being funny, he could make them funnier.

The actual content of the proceedings, as repeated by James and Hitchens, isn’t quite the stuff of a modern Symposium­. Hitchens gives a few examples of the wordplay and concedes that there were “long interludes of puerility”; James credits, or blames, the illustrator Mark Boxer for “discouraging the anecdote as form – he wanted the flash of wit. … Nobody was allowed to take his time …” It sounds like a riot, in the sense that it must have been obnoxious and nerve-jangling, each man contending to make the biggest smash. [2]

Speaking of that lunch, which Hitchens says has “become the potential stuff of a new ‘Bloomsbury’ legend” – the legend would gain momentum more quickly if it had a catchier name than “the Friday lunch”, which is what Clive James also calls it in his memoir. James reports that when he kickstarted the gathering, he liked to refer to it mock-conspiratorially as the “Modish London Literary World”, a dig at the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, who apparently believed such a conspiracy explained why his favoured authors kept getting bad reviews. Unfortunately the Modish brand never caught on. Before they all shuffle off to trade zingers with Aristophanes and Allan Bloom, can we agree on a name for this cohort of legendary British wits? (As with Bloomsbury, MacSpaunday, and the Algonquin Round Table, it’ll help future generations to keep them sorted.) In its heyday the group convened at the Bursa Kebab House; occasionally James calls it the Kebab House lunch. How about the Kebab House Group?

In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions a student who fretted to him, after reading the Symposium, that “it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced” in his own place and time. Bloom disputes this: “such experiences are always accessible”; his student “had brains, friends, and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will”. Most of us will never enjoy after-dinner discussions quite as stirring as the Symposium, or as riotous as the Kebab House lunches. But as Bloom consolingly reflects,

This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato’s book about him, which might even be better.

M.

1. Amis says of Bellow, “I am not his son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father [Kingsley]’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.”

James mentions in passing, in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia,

On the whole, writers find other writers hard to be enthusiastic about, even when the other writers are safely dead. It takes security in one’s talent on top of generosity of soul. … Martin Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow is especially valuable because the younger writer is continually faced, when reading the older one, with things he himself would like to have said.

2. Hitchens and James both note the absence of a restraining female presence at the Friday lunch: “It was a very competitive scene, though,” James writes, “and therefore very male.” This naturally brings to mind Hitchens’s famously shit-stirring Vanity Fair article on why women aren’t funny. His argument boils down to: because they don’t have to be.

M.

In previous entries I’ve discussed Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Martin Amis’s relationship with his father.

Stanley and the Women, and why Martin Amis didn’t like it.

I read Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women with curiosity. All I knew of it was what Martin Amis had said in his 2000 memoir Experience, that it was “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well-organized”, that with its “programmatic gynophobia” his father had effectively announced the “cancellation of his own artistic androgyny”.

Although Martin suggests these failings are evident from page one, for me it wasn’t until the end of the book that Kingsley’s agenda became apparent. True, the chief villain is a woman, a psychologist who lectures Stanley, whose schizophrenic son she’s treating, on the defects of his generation’s childrearing methods:

“Of course with changing social conditions the elitist role of education is passing too.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“Nowadays there’s much more emphasis on the social function, training the kids to relate to each other and preparing them to take their places in the adult world.”

“At my school we got that thrown in, just by being there. We didn’t attend classes in it.”

“No, and we can see the results, can’t we?”

I thought about it. “Can we?” She probably meant sexism and censorship and things like that.

And true, other female characters are characterized as undependable, irrational, vindictive, and self-deluding. The men, meanwhile, even the minor characters, routinely take Stanley aside to share their unflattering take on gender relations. A police superintendent, after an encounter with the security chief of a Middle Eastern embassy:

“You know, Mr Duke, from a personal point of view, speaking just for myself you understand, the Major Fuads of this world have got one thing to be said not for them at all, just about them. They do seem to have got the women problem sorted out nice and neat. Whether you like it or not.”

An Irishman Stanley finds standing in the rain, kicking and punching a wall:

“The wife’s being a little bit provoking … you know, feminine. Now whenever that happens I don’t say a word, I come straight outside wherever I may be and I do what I just been doing for two minutes, and then I go back in the full joy of spring. When I got married I told myself I could be happy or I could be right, and I’ve been happy now for twenty-two years.”

In his memoir Martin mentions a recurring theme of Kingsley’s around the time he was writing Stanley:

It made my head drop, during this time, when my father, elaborately and not entirely unmordantly, started to liken women to the USSR (department of propaganda): when they do it they say this; when you do it they say that; and so on.

A variant of this made it into the novel. Here’s Stanley on the challenge of maintaining cordial relations with his self-absorbed ex-wife:

I remembered Cliff Wainwright saying once that women were like the Russians – if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs. And by the way of course peace was more peaceful, but if you went on promoting its cause long enough you ended up Finlandized at best.

The hero is unshocked by opinions like his friend Cliff’s, but he generously continues to make allowances for the females around him. If most of those females are “fucky nuck cases” (to quote a barroom interlocutor), at least Stanley’s wife is a paragon of good humour and well-adjustedness. I suppose it should have been more obvious to me as I read that finally she too would go off the rails, and so she does, precipitating Stanley’s acquiescence, at novel’s end, to Cliff’s resentful maunderings:

“According to some bloke on the telly the other night,” he said, “twenty-five per cent of violent crime in England and Wales is husbands assaulting wives. Amazing figure that, don’t you think? You’d expect it to be more like eighty per cent. Just goes to show what an easy-going lot English husbands are, only one in four of them bashing his wife. No, it doesn’t mean that, does it? But it’s funny about wife-battering. Nobody ever even asks what the wife had been doing or saying. She’s never anything but an ordinary God-fearing woman who happens to have a battering husband. Same as race prejudice. Here are a lot of fellows who belong to a race minding their own business and being as good as gold and not letting butter melt in their mouths, and bugger me if a gang of prejudiced chaps don’t rush up and start discriminating against them. Frightfully unfair.”

So I see what Martin Amis means when he talks about the novel’s “programmatic gynophobia”. I can also see how, with just the perfect tilt of one’s irony antennae, one might detect in Stanley a subtle satire of discombobulated manhood. Martin floated this possibility by his father:

– And by the way. There’s a huge piece in the London Review by Marilyn Butler saying that Stanley is pro-women after all. That’s balls, isn’t it.

– Oh, absolutely.

Martin’s verdict on Stanley and its similarly-themed predecessor Jake’s Thing:

The critique of womankind that seeps its way through Jake and Stanley is certainly not without interest or pertinence (both novels are sinisterly vigorous). … My objection to these novels is simpler than that: I can feel Dad’s thumb on the scales.

Of course, the author’s thumb is always on the scales, that’s how fiction happens. Books don’t write themselves, characters don’t dictate their own actions, however much it sometimes feels that way to an author in thrall to inspiration. Ultimately it’s you making your characters do and say particular things to achieve some intended effect, whether it’s to advance the plot or to make some didactic point, like Kingsley’s point that women are fucky nuck cases.

It’s no good to say that didacticism is itself a failing – Martin has himself written didactic fiction about the Holocaust, nuclear weapons (both of these things bad, let’s agree), and, over and over again, the delusions and dislocations of modern English manhood (also pretty bad). Nor is it a question of having to agree with the lesson the author is imparting. One can read Dickens or Jane Austen and be entirely unconvinced by the supposed moral conundrums faced by their characters – what are one’s obligations to a daughter who has dishonoured herself? what should be one’s attitude to a friend who marries a person of lower social station? – yet still respond to the books as literature.

Dickens and Austen are undoubtedly didactic authors – great ones. The problem with bad didactic authors like Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair, say, is they’re clumsily didactic. Their characters say unbelievable things because their authors don’t have the skill to render any voice besides their own.

I guess that’s sort of Martin’s complaint about Stanley. It’s not the presence of his father’s thumb, it’s that he can feel it, Kingsley’s stubby digit, poking his characters in the ribs, reminding them to stick to the script. I don’t doubt that Martin Amis has subtler sensitivities than me. But I never noticed it, Kingsley’s thumb. It’s as well-hidden to me as it is in all his other novels, in every one of which, in just as ruthless a fashion, he prods his men and women along a preordained path toward a destiny he’s decided for them.

Stanley‘s women are wicked, as women sometimes are. Their creator is only showing a partial picture, of course, but that’s what a novel always by necessity is.

M.