False quantities: on Martin Amis’s hobbyhorse

What’s most revealing about Prospect’s recent interview with Martin Amis isn’t his opinion of JM Coetzee – “he’s got no talent” – but the evidence he cites to support it. (It’s hardly a surprise, after all, that the cool wit of a writer whose PhD thesis looks at the manuscript revisions to Samuel Beckett’s Watt should hold no appeal for a man whose aversion to Beckett, vented after “a couple of hundred glasses of wine”, once drove Salman Rushdie to the brink of violence.) Put to one side what Amis says about the Nobel laureate being no fun,* since that’s a matter of taste, and in any case isn’t exactly an original point to make about an author whose best-known book pivots on a gang rape. Of greater interest – because it suggests how blithely Amis can pass off wilful ignorance as critical rigour – is the moment where he tries to convince his interviewer, Tom Chatfield, that cliché is the enemy of literary value:

MA: These are two quotes from Coetzee. How does it go. Oh, yes. A woman is watching him closely. “She watched me like a…”

TC: “… hawk.”

MA: Next sentence. He had said these words in “a voice loud enough to wake…”

TC: “… the dead.”

“Consecutive sentences,” tuts Amis. The passage he’s thinking of comes near the end of Waiting for the Barbarians, where the novel’s narrator, the Magistrate, recounts the fallout from a shaming liaison with a girl who’s supposed to be in his custody. You assume Amis must know – as a loud admirer of Nabokov if nothing else – that we can’t in any straightforward sense assign the Magistrate’s words to Coetzee, but never mind: by simply zeroing in on two phrases from page 149 of a 170-page work published thirty years ago, he avoids having to think about anything meatier than Coetzee’s merits as a neologist (such as – for instance – the way, in Youth and Summertime, he mocks the myth-making of the lit-celeb memoir, or how, in Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year, he casts doubt on the entitlement of famous writers to pontificate on whatever subject takes their fancy). (E.g.)

Pseudo-punctiliousness of this sort was on show last summer when Amis reviewed John Updike’s posthumous collection My Father’s Tears. His piece began with an invitation to discover “if you have what is called a literary ear” by reading a quote from the story Personal Archaeology.

The following wedge of prose has two things wrong with it: one big thing and one little thing – one infelicity and one howler. Read it with attention:

Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land.

The “minor flaw”, said Amis, Professor of Creative Writing at Manchester University, is “the proximity of prior and prime”: it gives us “a dissonant rime riche on the first syllable; and the two words, besides, are etymological half-siblings, and should never be left alone without many intercessionary chaperones”. To say nothing of the “major flaw” (look it up if you must).

On Amis trudged, through the horror of sentences that contained both “walking” and “sidewalk”, “knowing” and “knew”, “year”, “yearbook” and “year”, before confronting, from behind his hands, the climactic ruin of this (admittedly plopping) formulation: “The grapes make a mess on the bricks in the fall; nobody ever thinks to pick them up when they fall.”

Such clumsiness was submitted as evidence of Updike’s late-life decline. That’s to say, for Amis, Updike wasn’t so good any more because in his prose he forgot not to repeat words and sounds too often. But the grim consequence of this logic is that it reduces the A-game Updike whom Amis so admires to little more than a sentient thesaurus with a feeling for rhythm: Amis even implied as much (unwittingly, I guess) once he eventually saw fit to assess My Father’s Tears not as a exercise in elegant variation but as a collection of stories – or “mere narratives” – and found that “denuded of a vibrant verbal surface, they sometimes seem to be neither here nor there”.

Maybe that university professorship is partly to blame for the apparent narrowing of Amis’s vision as a critic. Creative Writing emphasises craft – what else can you teach? – and of his own pedagogy he has stated: “It’s always detail, detail, little things, trying to work on the surface... That’s what I think the job is... By clearing away all the second hand stuff – the clichés, the dead sentences – I think you can make people a lot more alert, and if talent is there” – that word again – “it will emerge quicker if the surface is very strictly attended to”. (Perhaps Coetzee ought to dip into that million-quid Nobel haul and stump up the twelve grand for a course at Manchester.)

It’s impossible to argue with what Amis is saying – essentially, do not be lazy – but such common-sense advice scarcely warrants elevation to the status of a one-size-fits-all critical philosophy. The bathos seems unintended when, in his interview with Chatfield, discussing the merits of Orwell, Amis concedes that Nineteen Eighty-Four, despite being “journalistic” and “non-genius”, is after all a decent novel with “few false quantities” – his term for those unwitting rhymes and repetitions of the sort he finds everywhere in Updike’s last work.

Elsewhere in the interview Amis nods approvingly at Flaubert; not for his famously strenuous efforts to avoid the false quantity, but because he’s “funny”. Well, quite. Flaubert’s sense of humour let him ridicule even his own perfectionism. He once asked his friend Edmond de Goncourt if there was “anything more stupid than struggling to eliminate the assonances from a sentence or the repetitions from a page”. What was the point? Goncourt, for his part, thought there wasn’t one. “Style,” he wrote, in a journal entry for 3 March 1875 – the translation is Robert Baldick’s – “has become so affected... as to make writing practically impossible”:

It is bad style to place fairly close to one another two words beginning with the same syllable; it is bad style to use the word /of/ twice in the same expression, and so on and so forth... This excessive fastidiousness dulls the minds of the most gifted of writers, and distracts them – busy as they are with the intricate manipulation of every phrase – from all the vital, great, warm things that give life to a book.

* But – for what it’s worth – the belief that Coetzee lacks a sense of humour is an obvious canard. C, the Coetzee-ish writer in Diary of a Bad Year, says: “I cast my mind back over the new fiction I have read in the past twelve months, trying to find one book that has truly touched me, and come up blank.” The real JM Coetzee is a notably obliging provider of enthusiastic jacket quotes.

-- Anthony Cummins (21/02/2010)

Readers Comments

  1. Nicholas Murray says... Tuesday 23 February 2010

    The proposition that Coetzee, especially the recent author of Summertime, lacks humour – a rich, delicious, ironic humour – is breathtaking, if I may be permitted a cliche.

  2. mastershake says... Wednesday 24 February 2010

    I still find that 'literary ear' thing baffling - it's GCSE-level analysis and the presuppositions mark Amis out as funamentally shallow, in both his conception of 'good literature' as well as his understanding of voice. As you say, I thought he was supposed to like, and understand, Nabokov? What's really embarrassing or Amis is that he only seems to have read - or rather, skimmed - one novel by Coetzee. It demonstrates a real anxiety - i think Amis knows full well that coetzee is likely to endure where Amis is already fading from view.

    This is worth a look, too - Amis seems to have a lot of time on his hands, writing all these letters. And to back up Nicholas Murray's point - Summertime is a really funny novel. Far funnier than pretty much anything Amis has written.

    as for cliche, too, I'm reading The Information at the moment. From that I'm guesing that paperthin cliches of characters (struggling writer who drinks a lot and has constipation! wow, never seen that before) is fair game? so on the one hand, cliche in langauge is unacceptable - on the other, it's pretty much ot be encouraged in plot and characters? I think that the implications of Amis's dislike of Beckett are showing right through here...

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