Tag Archives: Martin Amis

The forgotten Kenneth Grahame

It was only after reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to my four year-old daughter over Christmas that I realised it isn’t, properly speaking, a children’s book at all. I’ve loved the story, its picture of comfortable domesticity and wild adventure, since I was a child myself, but there’s enough in the book at a formal and stylistic level to hint to the interested adult reader that there’s more going on than meets the eye. The two chapters commonly excised from abridged versions, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All’, are the most obvious signposts to more enduring concerns than the everyday trials of small, anthropomorphic woodland creatures. The former sees Mole and the Water Rat drawn into a hallucinatory encounter with the god Pan, while the latter recounts the Water Rat’s meeting with a Sea Rat, who intrigues him with tales of the high seas and distant, dusty Mediterranean ports, to the point where Ratty is about to give up the river bank for good.

But enough has been written about ‘The Wind in the Willows’ in the century since its publication, and I doubt I could contribute much else of interest. It’s an enduring classic of children’s literature that repays adult discovery, and if anyone reading this hasn’t glanced at it since they were small, then scare up a copy of the Oxford Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction and notes. What I’m really interested in now is the ‘forgotten’ Kenneth Grahame, the deeply reserved and eccentric bohemian who spent his career in the Bank of England; the children’s writer whose son savagely killed himself, and who preceded his best known book with a curious, whimsical collection of essays and two arch, superbly ironic books about (not for) young children. The cosy Edwardian had in fact been a late Victorian aesthete in many ways, publishing articles and stories in the notorious ‘Yellow Book’ and forging a style of paradoxical exuberance and precision that would go on to influence Kipling, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and (I would argue) Vladimir Nabokov.

Grahame’s first book, ‘Pagan Papers’, was a compilation of his earlier sketches, essays and articles, a composite portrait of the artist as a young bohemian. Musings on pipe smoking and pints of ale in country pubs share space with more considered reflections on book collecting, marginalia, ‘loafing’, and a wonderfully evocative sketch of ‘The Rural Pan’. It was Grahame’s second book, ‘The Golden Age’ (1895), that was his real breakthrough, a critically and commercially successful collection of stories and reminiscences about childhood that counted amongst its many unlikely fans both Theodore Roosevelt and Algernon Swinburne. In a series of linked stories, the narrator and his siblings play their childish games with deadly seriousness and muse on the mystery of the ‘Olympians’, the adults that provenance has put in charge of them, and whose motives remain utterly inscrutable. Grahame’s stylistic breakthrough here was to narrate the stories from the necessarily limited moral and intellectual perspective of a child, but to give him the language and the sinuous, elevated register of a gifted prose stylist. He uses this high, rhetorical style to present the everyday games and trials of middle-class Victorian children in way that both gives them an ironic distance, and frames them with all the resonance and power that the children in question would have experienced.

These are of course taken out of context, and perhaps don’t illustrate what I mean as forcefully as could the book entire, but here are a couple of examples, picked literally at random from the page. In one scene, sneaking down to the kitchen at night, the eldest child Edward togs himself up as a bold cavalier: “Whatever the audience, Edward, if possible, always dressed for his parts with care and conscientiousness; while Harold and I, true Elizabethans, cared little about the mounting of the piece, so long as the real dramatic heart of it beat sound.” Or, being sworn at by the farmer whose rowing boat they have stolen, the children wonder “where Farmer Larkin, who was bucolically bred and reared, had acquired such range and wealth of vocabulary.”

Sometimes the prose leaps gorgeously into the intimation of higher things; in my favourite chapter ‘The Secret Drawer’, pausing while he investigates an old bureau in a spare room, the narrator looks out of the window: “Westwards the clouds were massing themselves in a low violet bank; below them, to north and south, as far round as eye could reach, a narrow streak of gold ran out and stretched away, straight along the horizon. Somewhere very far off, a horn was blowing, clear and thin; it sounded like the golden streak grown audible, while the gold seemed the visible sound.” It is that far off golden note that rings through all of Grahame’s work, the pagan call of distant adventure, and a long road in the getting of it.

All this seems to raise further questions on the nature of ‘voice’ in narrative fiction. Not to name names, but I have always hated novels where the narrator’s perspective governs the language; in other words, books narrated by children that read as if they were written by children hold no immediate appeal. Rather than the objectively patronising approach of writing with one hand tied behind your back, Grahame’s style seems the most rewarding and the most sincere to me. Nothing other than ultimate meaning is held back from the children in ‘The Golden Age’ (and its sequel, ‘Dream Days’), and they are allowed to express their inner lives with all the vigour of a great talent reaching at full stretch, relishing his command of the language. A direct line can be drawn from this to, for example, Martin Amis’s ‘Money’, where the slobbish, ignorant and inarticulate John Self can narrate his own story with all the acuity of a writer pushing himself to his best achievement.

It’s incredible to think now, but Grahame had tremendous problems getting ‘The Wind in the Willows’ published. After the great success of his earlier books, no one could quite understand this woodland whimsy, and it’s rumoured that an American edition was only secured through the direct intervention of Roosevelt himself, who revered ‘The Golden Age’ and thought its author a genius. The adventures of Mr Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger will remain in print as long as books are read or stories told, but it’s something of a scandal that these three earlier books are currently out of print. Of course, in the infinite bazaar of the internet old copies can be found, but how much more of a tribute to their author would be a decent Oxford or Penguin Classics edition, available in all good bookshops etc, and set to introduce a new generation to one of the most beguiling and near-forgotten talents of the age?

The glove is thrown down; publishers, take up the challenge.



Next Big Thing

This questionnaire has been doing the rounds amongst unpublished/recently published writers in Scotland, and thanks to Kirsti Wishart I’ve been tagged on the list, so here are my answers below:

What’s the title of your latest story?

The last thing I finished was a novel called ‘In Borderlands’.

Where did the idea for the story (or, in this case, novel) come from?

It came mostly from a single image that just popped into my head many years ago, of a man tied to a tree and waiting for something terrible to happen. (In the end, this image doesn’t appear in the book at all, but it was the source for everything that followed.) In addition, I was interested in the idea of someone failing to be punished for something terrible they had done, and how you would deal with that if you didn’t particularly care. (Again, this doesn’t really feature in the completed book. The ideas that get the ball rolling are rarely what make it to the final cut.)

What genre does your story fall under?

Although I don’t think of it as a ‘genre’, I’m aware that plenty of people do these days – so, it could be part of that much-maligned category called ‘literary fiction.’ I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ‘experimental’, but it’s broadly non-realist.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie?

I think that one of the most pernicious trends of recent cultural history is the idea that no work can be fully validated until it has been converted into a film. Cinema, for purely monetary reasons, is seen as the apex of cultural achievement, and books and comics (especially) are rarely seen as anything other than templates or rough drafts for the movies. No one would think that a novelisation of a film is anything other than money-grubbing trash, but you rarely hear people saying the opposite. Not everything could or should be filmed. It’s one of the reasons why poetry, as a form, will last longer than anything else; because it resists this kind of cultural appropriation. But saying all that, Werner Herzog would be an obvious choice to play one of the characters, and whichever generic British actor in his thirties happens to see the script would do for the main character – the blander the better.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?

“Nathan Nixon is content with his solitary, directionless life, but when he is accused of manslaughter he finds himself on a strange journey from the Scottish Borders to a collapsing North African state, in the company of vagabonds, mercenaries, and a dangerous crew of guerilla filmmakers. Entering an ambiguous zone between countries, between dreams and reality, and even between life and death, Nathan eventually finds himself back where he started – only to discover that his experiences have changed him beyond recognition.”

That’s two sentences I know, but you could replace the full stop with a semi-colon I suppose? Anyway, sounds good, doesn’t it? I’d definitely read it …

Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully represented by an agency – I’ve just started that life-affirming process of trying to get an agent and/or publisher interested. Watch this space. (Of course, if any agent or publisher is watching this space, then please get in touch! You’d save me a lot of time and bother.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Just over three years. It was originally an insane and unwieldy 200,000 words long, but I’ve managed to scale it back to around 150,000. It’s fairly long, but not overwhelmingly so.

What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

I found this question quite difficult to answer, not because the book is so wonderful and unique that it defies comparison (which, obviously, it does), but because you try to block out all other influences or analogues while you’re writing, and to make comparisons after the fact seems a bit artificial. Anyway, it has vague affinities with Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’, Jennifer Egan’s work, a superb novel by Steven Amsterdam called ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’, the poetry of John Burnside, and, in a strange and not immediately obvious way, the fiction of Geoff Dyer. I think these affinities are mostly tonal and structural, rather than anything to do with subject matter, and obviously I have to add the disclaimer that I’m not trying to say my work is anywhere near as good. And what’s odd is that these are all writers I started reading only after I was well embarked on the book; they’re not necessarily influences on my writing as a whole (of which I would include the great JG Ballard, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, VS Naipaul, and, again in a strange and not immediately obvious way, Denis Johnson).

Who or what inspired you to write this story?

I’m wholly against the idea of ‘inspiration’, if what the term means is a generative source coming from outside the writer, forcing him or her to write. (The definition of the word, after all, is, ‘to breathe life into.’) What makes me write in general is some kind of weird inner compulsion that I wouldn’t dare to analyse, and a relentless, all-consuming obsession with words and language. At the same time, I like to think that it’s possible and necessary to convey or communicate, through language, the simultaneously incredibly profound and incredibly boring life experience of the average human being; in particular, to deal with that old existential, absurdist question, How do you find value in a world without meaning? (But funny.) Some kind of combination of the two inspired this book, as well as general notions of chance and consequence. There was also a sequence of images I had in my head that I wanted to link together, for reasons that defy explanation.

What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

If you like hyenas, then this book features hyenas.

What’s next?

I’m working on a second novel, provisionally called ‘Cemetery Songs’, about two poets meeting in the ruins of a bombed-out city. Thematically, it’s very broadly about the oppositions between civil and vatic poetry, or lyricism and modernism, and about the way culture is artificially constructed and used towards political ends. (But funny.)

So that’s that! According to the chain letter blog tagging rules, I have to pass this on to five more writers, who will each pass it on to five more etc etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know five other writers who have blogs, I only know three!

And one of them doesn’t even have a blog, so this time next week I will graciously grant him space on mine to answer the same set of questions – he is, of course, the great Martin MacInnes, who has been published in the Edinburgh Review, who co-edits Free State with me, and who is writing about evolutionary biology, Ascension Island and disappearance, amongst many other subjects.

Second is Glasgow-based graphic artist/writer Coll Hamilton, who is co-writer/artist of the online graphic novel ‘Amber and Chelsea’, and whose work has recently been shown as part of the Royal Scottish Academy’s Open Exhibition.

Third is Hannah Renowden – journalist, blogger, and, most importantly, contributor to Free State.

(Neither Coll or Hannah have got back to me on this yet, so very possibly by tagging them like this I might spur them to action. Or not.)

Edit: I can also now add to the list my good colleague Rosie Phenix-Walker, graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing MA programme, and ace bookseller, who writes a blog here!

Enjoy, and see you back here next week for Martin’s answers.

Book review: ‘Lionel Asbo’ by Martin Amis

It’s strange to see a writer as talented and self-aware as Martin Amis with so little understanding of where his talent should be taking him. His memoir, 2000’s Experience, is the watershed title in his career. In the books that came before, including the unassailable classics Money and London Fields (I would also include Dead Babies, The Information and Time’s Arrow), Amis allied a moralist’s sensibility with a prose style of fervid and infectious originality, gleefully excoriating the worst excesses of his culture. Experience though was the refutation of Amis’ long-stressed aesthetic opinion that style itself was morality, and that style alone was enough to sustain a book: as if the depth of your engagement with the surface of things demonstrated the seriousness with which you looked at the world. The memoir showed a surprising (because so unexpected) tenderness, an emotional core that had previously been absent from his work. This is not to say that the earlier books lacked anything – where would emotion and human tenderness have fitted in a scabrous satire like Money? – but it was a welcome development. Experience seemed to point out the direction in which late-period Amis was heading, and it looked fascinating.

It’s because of this that Yellow Dog was so unsatisfying; if he had published it ten years earlier it would have passed without a murmur of dissent. In the context of his memoir though, it looked like a wholly retrograde step. And it’s from this delayed, frustrated sense of missed opportunity that every book Amis has published since is interrogated to see if it’s the elusive ‘return to form’ that it promises to be. It never is, of course, because the ‘return to form’ should be to the form of Experience, not Money.

There are signs that Amis is very slowly beginning to work this out. The Pregnant Widow was a marvellous book precisely because he was balancing the reliable vigour of his prose with the weight of a hard-earned forebearance and human understanding. Amis’s new novel Lionel Asbo, as the title might suggest, does not take this development any further, although it’s not quite the Yellow Dog-style regression you might expect. It’s a minor entry in the oeuvre, and the premise doesn’t quite justify the 276 pages he spends on it, but this is still one of the funniest books published so far this year, and in places contains some of Amis’ best writing on the Dickensian, riotous cityscape that is his exaggerated conception of London (‘the great world city’). In terms of plot, Lionel is a violent thug living in the dystopic London borough of Diston whose life is changed by winning £140 million on the Lottery. Living up to every underclass stereotype, he blows through the money at a staggering rate in a riot of bad behaviour. At the same time, his sensitive, intelligent nephew Desmond lives in terror that Lionel will discover his secret; that for a few months he ‘enjoyed’ a sexual relationship with his own grandmother, Lionel’s mum Grace. The plot is perfunctory, but it does allow a certain forward momentum, and injects real tension into the later scenes. Additionally, with the character of Desmond, Amis is able to focus the same emotional attention he demonstrated so effectively in The Pregnant Widow. Desmond is in many ways the core of the novel, and his development from gawky, scared teenager living in mordant fear of his violent uncle to a confident young man with a family and a decent job is very well handled. It’s his intellectual journey, running in parallel (and, as Amis suggests, one is very much responsible for the other) that seems most convincing. “ […] he communed with the whispers of his intelligence. Did everybody have one, an inner voice? An inner voice that was cleverer than they were?” I can’t think of a better description of burgeoning creative imagination than that. It’s a faculty that’s not absent from Lionel either; as Desmond speculates, you’d have to put a lot of thought into being as stupid as he is, and in the aftermath of Asbo’s grotesquely large lottery win, there are signs that the freedom of money is giving him the space to develop his own inner voice, to commune with the whispers of his own dormant intelligence.

Amis has stressed that this novel should be seen as a modern fairy tale – the life-changing, life-inverting sum of money gifted from nowhere; the ‘citadel’ of the Avalon Towers high-rise where Demond and Lionel live (and it’s no accident that name is so resonant); Lionel’s brutal pit-bulls like circling wolves … The fairy tale aspect excuses a general lack of depth, but in many ways what Amis needs to move away from are his earlier attempts to manufacture depth. The apocalyptic weather systems in London Fields, the cosmological nightmares of The Information and Night Train, even the background of the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow, are all the least interesting parts of those otherwise excellent novels. In Lionel Asbo, Amis is trusting more in those previously scorned aspects of the novel – character and plot. It may not be as essential as his earlier, more urgent works, and does not capitalise on the great leap forward of The Pregnant Widow, but Lionel Asbo is still a playful and engaging work, and worth far more than, say, Julian Barnes’ overrated Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending. It’s worth reading for the scene with the lobster alone.

(Thanks to Chloe and Kate at Random House for the review copy)

For you, the Waugh is over …

First, let me apologise for the atrocious pun in the title above. In mitigation, I’m not the first one to make it; when Waugh put out his 1935 travel/reportage book about the war in Abyssinia, his publishers (against his wishes) entitled it … yes, ‘Waugh in Abyssinia’.

But at last, then, my epic reading of Waugh’s oeuvre is complete. I have over the last three months or so read all of his fiction, and all of his non-fiction, with the exception of his diaries and letters, and the three biographies. Prior to this monomaniacal feat, I had only read Brideshead Revisited (which I re-read as well), reckoned by many to be his best book. Brideshead is certainly a great achievement, but to my mind his best novel is the Sword of Honour trilogy, revised into one volume by Waugh not long before his death. With expert balance it displays some of the best examples of his antic comedy, and mines deeper even than Brideshead the rich seam of Catholicism and decline that so obsessed his later years.

Anyone who likes Waugh seems obliged to make a prefatory defence of his character; the checklist is unchanging. He was a snob; he was virtually a fascist; he was personally cruel and unpleasant; he was an alcoholic. Character traits of course should have no effect on the work being considered, and when the writer in question is suitably distant in time, and suitably roguish in his proclivities, this never seems to apply. (Who now would feel the need to defend Byron before praising his poetry, for example?) Waugh was many of these things, (although the idea that he was a fascist is ludicrous), and in any case, none of them sully his genius or the extent of his achievement.

I remember reading an interview with Martin Amis where he was trying to place his late father in the scale of English letters. He decided that Kingsley would be seen as the best comic novelist of the 20th century, after Waugh. At the time I thought this reasonable, but after reading Waugh I realise how vast is the gulf that separates the two men, as men and as writers. There is something punishing and mortifying (in the Catholic sense of the word) about Waugh’s life, and his stylistic originality puts him well beyond Amis Snr as a novelist. For Waugh, comedy does not come just out of incident, but from an exactness of language as well. The target of his satire is the frivolous barbarity of his age, from the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, rich and empty, to the ‘Century of the Common Man’ which he saw inaugurated by the Second World War. His comedy can also be staggeringly cruel; the ending of A Handful of Dust had me laughing with shock as much as anything else.

Apart from the fiction, it is Waugh’s relentless travelling that marks him out as a writer of distinction. Certainly, he did not seem to do it for pleasure – his best travel book, Remote People, is interspersed with short sections entitled ‘First Nightmare’, ‘Second Nightmare’ and so on, and detail all the brutalities and boredom of prolonged absence from home. He was keenly alert to the cod-Romantic notion that travel broadens the mind, or that the traveller is the ultimate paragon of freedom. For Waugh, travel in difficult countries and across harsh terrain can be mind-numbingly dull and stressful. Picking the jiggers out of your foot in the Brazilian rainforest can be just as irritating as having to dress for dinner in high society. He did it, you think, to escape the sterility of his life in London, and to punish himself for what he must have seen as his shortcomings. He is also refreshingly clear in his travel books that some of his motives are purely literary – he needs to collect material for his novels. In a strange way, the writer he most reminds me of is VS Naipaul, someone who moved from the comic novel through a sequence of profound and original travel books, to a deeper and more coruscating model of fiction in his later years.

If you are at all interested in reading Waugh and don’t know where to begin, here are my personal recommendations:

Of the fiction – Sword of Honour, Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Scoop.

Of the non-fiction – Remote People, A Little Learning, Waugh in Abyssinia

You will not be disappointed.

We could be heroes.

I’ve been watching Sebastian Faulks’ series on the development of character in the British novel, the first episode of which was about the “hero”. Taking us from the resourceful, self-sufficient Robinson Crusoe to the slobbish anti-hero John Self, Faulks’ series is an entertaining, if not very deep, exploration of some of the central themes in British fiction. It’s worth watching, and the second episode (about the figure of “the lover”) is on BBC2 tonight.

Of more interest for me was the short interview with Martin Amis towards the end of the first episode. (Amis is probably my favourite writer, living or dead, although he has been overtaken recently by WH Auden. I need to think about it some more before I come to a firm conclusion.) Faulks was talking about his belief that the heroic character had disappeared from “literary” fiction and was now only to be found within children’s fiction – Harry Potter was the new Robinson Crusoe, in resourceful temperament if not in his circumstances. Asked if he would ever consider writing a children’s novel, Amis responded flippantly by saying that he only would if he’d suffered a brain injury and could no longer write to his highest capabilities – for him, writing was absolute freedom, and he wouldn’t want to constrain himself by aiming his tone and register downwards. So far, so uncontroversial, you might think. But Amis clearly didn’t take into consideration the Guardian newspaper’s Rapid Reaction Amis Response Force, which exists seemingly for the sole purpose of scouring all media for any utterance the man might make in the course of an interview, and then, with positive intent, whipping up a shit-storm over his supposedly “controversial” remarks. The appropriate authorities (who are probably on speed-dial) are invited to make a spittle-flecked rebuttal, denouncing Amis for his sneering bad taste, then usually continuing with something about his teeth, his father, his declining book sales etc etc etc. Here is the link to the article. The comments below the line are particularly vicious. (And fair play to the Guardian for finding someone to respond who is not only a children’s author but also brain damaged.)

There are two things to note about this. One: the Guardian is weirdly obsessed with Martin Amis. Two: if you watch the interview, which takes up all of five minutes in an hour-long programme, you will note that Amis does not say at any time that you have to be brain damaged to write for children, that all children’s writers are suffering from irreversible brain injuries, that children themselves are somehow irreparably brain damaged through their exposure to children’s fiction. All he says is that the stylistic compromises that he personally would have to make in order to write for children would not allow him to do it. The massively disingenuous quote towards the end of the article, “Controversial remarks from Amis … remain a regular occurrence” is a gross distortion of fact. The “controversy” doesn’t exist until the newspaper phones round a raft of people to make a predictable response, then labels and prints the “story” as a controversy.

If you are the kind of person pre-programmed and poised to take “offence” (a word that is increasingly losing any of its original meaning) at the way in which Amis expressed this opinion, then I don’t think anything can be done for you. All sense has left you, and irony is a distant memory. You can hate Amis the writer and his books as much as you like, but this kind of thing should be beneath anyone’s dignity. (Except mine, obviously.)

The Birth of the British Novel

A link here for anyone who missed it to the excellent BBC4 programme that was on the other night, cataloguing the origins and development of the British novel in the 18th century. Not perfect by any means, (where was Tobias Smollett, for example?), this was a refreshingly passionate exploration of the ways in which the novel as medium was formulated and defined. I’m not sure if this is part of a series or not, and whether next week we’ll move into the 19th century, but it’s worth watching anyway.

The Booker Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced this morning, ending literally weeks of speculation as to who was going to make the cut from a commercially successful longlist. I wrote about the longlist in an earlier post, and the faintly contrived controversy it seems to generate every year. This shortlist has generated some comment in that the big hitters and sellers from the longlist – with one tiresome exception – have failed to make it through to the next round. David Mitchell’s fifth novel “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet”, roundly agreed to be a minor work, has been passed over, as has “The Slap”, a title that has generated more column inches than any other in recent years.

It’s to my discredit that I haven’t read any of the books on the shortlist – yet – but I can say that I’m glad the vastly underrated Howard Jacobson is in with a shot, as is Tom McCarthy’s ‘C’. McCarthy has contributed recently to an ongoing literary debate initiated by Gabriel Josipovici about the influence – or lack thereof – of modernism on contemporary British fiction, and his nakedly experimental work is a suitable corrective or counterbalance to the more traditional narratives on offer in what remains Britain’s most important literary prize.

If I wasn’t drowning under the volume of books stacking up on my desk, with Jonathan Franzen’s highly anticipated ‘Freedom’ still to buy at the end of the month, I would certainly be interested in reading every book on the shortlist – with one exception. Peter Carey has been shortlisted again, and he has already won the prize twice. If he wins now he’ll be the first author to make a Booker hat-trick. I have never particularly enjoyed his work, and if the Booker irritates me in any way, it’s in the seemingly automatic inclusion of certain authors, at least at the longlist stage. (Salman Rushdie is another one, but more on him in a later post.) I doubt Carey’s new book is either one of his best, or so good that it deserves to win. Like JM Coetzee, it appears understood that he should be in with a shot with every novel he releases. It’s lazy, and I don’t buy it.

The prize is judged and announced on 12 October – I will certainly be paying attention.

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