Saul Bellow wrote to Martin Amis in 1995 detailing the interminable affects of growing old on his writing:
‘I have cardiac troubles (“atrial fibrillations”) and beneath this agitation of the heart muscles there is an unbearable sluggishness, the original sloth of the deadly sin. I have just enough stamina to write for an hour or two, and then I go back to bed for a siesta!’ (From the collection edited by Benjamin Taylor).
Bellow would have been 75 at the time, and although still having ten years left, decrepitude was a recurring theme in his correspondence to Amis. Amis wrote more about this relationship with Bellow in his memoirs – the sublime Experience (2000) – and at a time when it must have felt like death was closing in around him (Amis’ cousin had been found, twenty years after her killing by Fred West, in 1993: and then there was the death of his father, Kingsley, in 1995), he details to us the special and transcendent ways in which a writer connects to their reader. This is the bi-fold life, or afterlife in some cases, of the novelist and their language:
‘I see Bellow perhaps twice a year, and we call, and we write. But that accounts for only a fraction of the time I spend in his company. He is on the shelves, on the desk, he is all over the house, and always in the mood to talk. That’s what writing is, not communication but a means of communion.’
In this new collection of essays and journalism, The Rub of Time, Amis continues this concern with the duplicitous nature of language that inadvertently seems split between exploring notions of ‘communion’ and ‘communication’. At the outset and simplified, communion appears to mean ‘good’ literature, which in Amis’ world is Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and other white male writers. Communication is then a lesser form of language apparent in the sloganeering rigidness of politicians like Mitt Romney and Jeremy Corbyn.
But there is something else that this idea of ‘communion’ becomes openly accommodating to: death. You can chart Amis’ increasing occupation with his own mortality in his fiction, and even his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), was about a young man, Charles Highway, obsessively concerned with the ‘end of his youth’ at the age of twenty. This was long before that opening to the The Pregnant Widow (2009) in which Amis laments time for going ‘a bit fucking quick’, yet here, mortality, is a curiously overt aspect of his criticism. It’s a good job then that writing does give us this connection with both the living and the dead because many of the writers Amis discusses here are no longer with us; and if it’s not about a deceased writer, somebody or something, still possesses a dreadful quality. John Travolta for instance is ‘so iconic, he ought to be dead’: Diego Maradona is a ‘man who snorts himself into cardiac arrest’ and then there are the instances where something serves to hurt or diminish language. ‘If money is the ‘language of poker’, and it is, then this session is a dumb show’ he says whilst playing a tournament in Las Vegas. A lot of America, a lot of western culture that doesn’t concern literature, is presented as a dumb show.
The writer in this world then leads ‘lead a double life,’ Amis says in his opening essay on Nabokov’s final, posthumous novel, The Original of Laura. As a result ‘writers die twice: once when the body dies and once when the language dies.’ When it comes to Philip Roth though, a writer who died this year, a conjecture to this hypothesis is posed. Two essays are included on Roth: one from 2001 and another from 2013. It is the former that I’m concerned with however – ‘Philip Roth Finds Himself’- because this is where the conjecture formalises not as an opposition, but a blind spot:
‘The central puzzle is that Roth evidently colluded in his own entrapment; and the explanation, as his proxy in My Life [As a Man (1974)], Peter Tarponol, puts it, is that ‘literature got me into this’. This attraction to difficulty, to complexity, even to agony is real enough in an intensely bookish young man; there are numerous instances of writers who hunt down the most fantastic entanglements; they make misery their muse or try.’
Tarnopol actually says ‘Literature got me into this and literature is gonna have to get me out’. Roth of course retired and it’s a wonder as to what Tarnopol would say to his creator’s decision, this writer who relentlessly toyed with alter-egos and fictional stand-ins (Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring alias is actually created here by Tarnopol but it’s appropriately disputed as to whether it’s the Zuckerman who would narrate many of Roth’s subsequent novels) about his decision. No in fact, it’s a wonder as to what Roth actually said to himself. Amis is a writer who similarly is no stranger to inserting himself into his own fiction, most memorably in Money (1984) where ‘he’ provides editorial support to the filmmaker John Self. But with Self, Amis shares an important trait that is exemplified when he says in the above essay about Roth that ‘he had found his subject, which is to say he found himself.’ You cannot help but feel Amis is looking and failing to find himself in these essays, over and over again as he enviably looks upon Roth’s ‘complete corpus’.
With this in mind, Christ ordered to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ at his communion, not his work, so what does ‘me’ really represent here? Amis’ use of biography in his critique of other writers is utilised as either filler or context, but when biography is the subject, when ‘me’ is the subject, whether Amis realises it not, the literature that might help us either get in, or out of this, is never far away. In his final essay on Letters to Véra, a collection of Nabokov’s letters to wife, do not read the following passage as though its subject is an incredibly successful and influential writer. I bet you won’t find it difficult:
‘Véra and Vladimir had independently fled the Bolsheviks; by 1936 he felt, with long-sublimated dread, that Nazi Germany was no place for his Jewish wife and their ‘Half-breed’ child. To prepare for their escape to France, Nabokov journeyed to Paris in early 1937 – and this is when it happened, the lapse, the shocking solecism, or what Humbert described as the ‘lethal delectation’. She was an experienced handful named Irina Yurievna Guadanini’
This could be tale of a man and his wife, neither of them possessing any exceptional writing talents. But it has to be remembered that Amis opens his collection with a brief entry discussing the ‘natural sin of language’ incorrectly assuming, through John Updike, that T.S.Eliot was referring to language’s ‘indocility’ and ‘promiscuity’. Regardless of being correct, it goes some way in proving Amis’ point – loyalty is not language’s essence. Nabokov’s ‘sin’ here has become a sin of language and ‘me’, ie. Amis’, disappointment that capital ‘L’ Literature does not get us out of this seems latent. Although the body does, language, even though it might be serviced in some kind of communion, ultimately has no restful place.
Any Cop?: If this is a communion, what does it mean for the disciples of Martin Amis? I think there’s an analogue of this experience to be found in Amis’ naming of his sections devoted to the mountainous summits of his reading life, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. They are his ‘Twin Peaks’. But didn’t the return of David Lynch’s television show, last year, sometimes seem like an intensely cerebral experience that the artist, Lynch, was doing for fans of himself rather than the fans of Twin Peaks? As beatific as the idea of communion is, it requires a set of believers.