Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Looking Back In Anger

The highlights of last night's concluding episode of BBC 4's In Their Own Words were undoubtedly a 1984 interview of Martin Amis with Germaine Greer, and Salman Rushdie's 1988 combover. (Srsly: he's better off these days without that scrap of hair.) The former was a revelation simply because no book programme or newspaper would employ an interviewer so clear-sighted and prepared to point out and undermine Amis' numerous hypocrisies and crude political/social simplifications, choosing instead to send ego-bolsterers paid to transcribe and kowtow to his ever-expanding sentences. Greer pointed out that the structuring disgust and class-anxiety of Amis' Money are not only impulses directed at the Other, but of self-hatred: "now, in this being rational, you're talking like Martin Amis the writer [who appears as a character in Money], not Martin Amis the real-life person... you've got a certain amount of John Self in you." It was another remark in that interview that marks out the major deficiency of the 'literary giants' of 1970-90 that Gabriel Josipovici castigated a couple of weeks back (in an argument pre-written and argued more convincingly by Hugh Kenner in his '88 volume A Sinking Island), one which arguably preconditions their timidity of form and subject-matter: a belief that poisonous cynicism is the only proper response of art to the modern world. "Probably every writer thinks their period is the nadir of history", Amis said; it remains rather obvious that he thought this, albeit with the proviso of self-consciousness, and the hedge-betting statement: "What we can say is that the world is getting infinitely less innocent". Rushdie, discussing Midnight's Children in the days when he had hair, talked about how the 'optimism' of Indian independence had been destroyed and betrayed - and how, for his characters, optimism was a disease to be caught and avoided. Of course, we know where Amis' stance lead to: the barely-cloaked Islamophobia of The Second Plane, an ugly and seemingly ineradicable misogyny and a spiral of ever-lowering expectations that has produced only one good book in the last 20 years (London Fields, since you ask). The sneering maxim that the only response to belief - in the future, in the barest existence of human love and goodness - is equal scorn against all such belief, that such things belong only to the "innocent" and should be cast aside by the clear-sighted artist, is a choice of enervation, a refusal to face the hard work of happiness. Amis' and Rushdie's 'realism', alongside all that of their generation of writers and intellectuals (most notably, that of Amis' former New Statesman compatriot Christopher Hitchens) is a cloak for ideology, for that naked contempt for humanity that underpins all reactionary thought, the well-mannered nihilism of the neo-liberal ruling classes - the capitalist realism that has little to do with reality, and everything to do with capitalism. The heroic gesture of throwing off illusions, the work of apparent demystification that neo-liberal capitalism sets so much store by, is in fact an ever greater set of scales for the eyes: the illusion of disillusionment. It gives us some idea just how small and paltry their worlds are, and their imaginations. The greater, harder work now is optimism, thinking that we can be genuinely happy: a thought that leads us not to Amis' middlebrow disguised airport thrillers, but to art that genuinely shocks and spooks us, that shakes the frame of our experience, that contains in its matrices the traces of another world.


Blogger Tom May said...

Well said. I've only read one of his novels - the first, "Dead Babies". Certainly not a pleasant read, but quite telling. I think that 'self-disgust' is an accurate enough description of what is going on, plus quite an uncanny anticipation of yuppie hedonism running riot. When reading it - during the time of Cameron's ascendancy, 2005-6 - I felt that his characters were Bullingdon types, forerunners of Johnson, Osborne and Cameron.

In "The Liberal Defence of Murder", Richard Seymour does a good job in condemning Amis's politics simply by quoting his many portentous proclamations on the War on Terror and Islam...

September 1, 2010 at 6:26 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

'Money' is quite a blackly fun romp, but the idea that this is one of the most important novels of the last 30 years gives you some idea what's wrong with the British literary establishment. He has this appalled fascination w/ yuppie consumption, and the brash new money - he clearly sees something of himself in John Self, the "virile working-class male" as Hari Kunzru put it, who is also, of course, the new type of post-83 Tory. If he, as a satirist, on the outside looking in, it's only down to his dad, who himself had massive class-status anxiety, having raised himself from the provincial middle-classes (then pulled the ladder up after him.)

This does also raise the question: fair enough having these Hogarthian depictions of yuppie life, but where is the working-class novel in this period, and more specifically the miner's strike novel? I think it's symptomatic that it takes 20 years and a background in crime writing, not literary fiction, to come up with it ('GB84', of course.)

September 2, 2010 at 2:40 AM  

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