Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Amis at 60: Love Him or Loathe Him?

As Martin Amis turns 60 today, The Independent finds “the literary world’s former enfant terrible still dividing critical opinion” and asks 15 well known wordsmiths if they love or loathe Kingsley’s arguably more famous son:
To his critics he is an arrogant misogynist who wouldn’t be where he is without his famous father, Kingsley. To his fans he is a brilliant chronicler of our times whose literary success -- and success with women -- has fuelled resentment and envy.
Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World) captures my own feelings perfectly:
In general, I rue the public pettiness that has dogged Amis -- all that rubbish about his teeth, the ludicrously outsized indignation about his quite modest salary as a university tutor.

He’s intelligent, he takes risks and he is a skillful craftsman. He is a national treasure, and an underappreciated one.

I can think of no other writer who has been this good and this bad. Maybe that tells the story? The Rachel Papers (1973) was as wonderful as Yellow Dog (2003) was truly awful*. Does that not speak of a writer who is risking himself and trying new things? The memoir Experience is, in many ways, an extraordinary love letter to Kingsley Amis, the father with whom Martin had a dangerous relationship. (One does not get to be an enfant terrible without a bit of rebellion. They go together, after all.) And I’ve raved about The War Against Cliché in this space at every opportunity. When young reviewers approach me and say, “How?” the title of Amis’ 2001 collection of essays and reviews is the one I scrawl down.
* Truly awful. I adore the younger Amis’ work and tried to like Yellow Dog, but it just didn’t take. Before reading, I’d seen scathing reviews and thought those writers were being mean or hadn’t considered properly or had perhaps been reading in a bad mood, out to hatchet the enfant terrible for his various transgressions. Then I read it myself and understood.

January Magazine’s 2001 interview with Amis is here. The Independent’s birthday salute (?) is here. A new novel, The Pregnant Widow, is expected February 2010. (Though breath-holding is not a good idea on this one: it was initially scheduled for autumn 2008, then pushed back to... well... now.)



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