The day-to-day business of compiling a novel often seems to consist of nothing but decisions – decisions, decisions, decisions. Should this paragraph go here? Or should it go there? Can that chunk of exposition be diversified by dialogue? At what point does this information need to be revealed? Ought I to use a different adjective and a different adverb in that sentence? Or no adverb and no adjective? Comma or semicolon? Colon or dash? And so on. Martin Amis
It’s true that for years I’ve been thinking aloud – and often wondering if I’ve made myself ludicrous in one way or another. I think the anxiety comes from knowing I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist. I’m employed in an MFA programme, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you? Zadie Smith
Spending an hour each morning, another at night, with Martin Amis and Zadie Smith is a humbling, exhilarating experience. Exhilarating, as the writing bounces you along, firing the synapses in the most stimulating way imaginable. Humbling, as both writers exhibit near-peerless authorial skill in crafting, with iconoclastic intelligence, self-awareness and empathetic understanding, an experience as good as any reader will have between the covers of a book. The Rub of Time and Feel Free reveal the essay form to not just be holding on for existence but of central importance to our literary and intellectual culture. At least, that’s how these essayists make one feel.
Amis (b. 1949) and Smith (b. 1975) are hardly contemporaries. Amis always feels distant and strangely removed as a person when I read his non fiction but only compared to Smith. She is with you in the room, talking quietly, sometimes animatedly but always making certain you actually want to listen to what she has to say. Both are conscious, as Amis relates, that the “battle against illiteracies and barbarisms, and pedantries and genteelisms, is not a public battle” and we sense in both writers this ongoing, very personal yet public struggle to write well.
Amis and Smith certainly had different forays into the literary world. Martin had his father, Kingsley – “the finest English comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century” – to contend with and Smith grew up in North London with not a lot of money. Her first novel, White Teeth, was published in 2000 to astonishingly loud applause. I certainly laughed very hard, especially loving the array of well-drawn and amusing characters. Both had challenges to ensure the integrity of what they produced. Amis quips, “I am the only hereditary novelist in the Anglophone literary corpus. Thus I am the workaholic and hypermanic – and by now very elderly – Prince Charles of English letters. And I have been about the place for much too long.” Amis also commenced publishing in a period very removed from the contemporary reality of life for a writer. He says of his first books:
In 1972, I submitted my first novel: I typed it out on a second-hand Olivetti and sent it in from the sub-editorial office I shared at the Times Literary Supplement. The print run was 1,000 (and the advance was £250). It was published, and reviewed, and that was that. There was no launch party and no book tour; there were no interviews, no profiles, no photo shoots, no signings, no readings, no panels, no on-stage conversations, no Woodstocks of the Mind in Hay-on-Wye, in Toledo, in Mantova, in Parati, in Cartagena, in Jaipur, in Dubai; and there was no radio and no television. The same went for my second novel (1975) and my third (1978).
I read the Amis, alternating with the Smith. It is a measure of the quality of Feel Free that Smith’s essays did not suffer in comparison with Amis, who is surely a strong contender for the greatest living British essayist? His fiction does not have the same impact. Lionel Asbo amused but felt more than a little mean and ungracious. Ever since reading, The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America in the late 80s, I have looked forward to each of Amis’ non fiction publications though, devouring them on release.
Smith’s essays are grouped in five sections: In the World; In the Audience; In the Gallery; On the Bookshelf; and, Feel Free. Amis’ are organised oddly but cover mostly the same sorts of topics as Smith: politics, literature, sport, culture and society. Amis can draw a longer literary bow but Smith is often more interesting as she explores worlds, especially in popular culture, not always covered by such a skilful essayist. There’s no real need to single out essays as the quality is uniformly high but four of her best – Fences: A Brexit Diary, The I Who is Not Me, Life-writing and Joy – particularly resonated. North-west London Blues certainly makes for a great opening and is a contextually important, reflective essay. Amis’ insight into Christopher Hitchens always interests and I know of nothing better to read than Amis about the poet, John Larkin, who he knew through Kingsley. The King’s English, about language and his father, is thoroughly excellent. I find some of his popular culture pieces a little hollow, especially the one about John Travolta. Perhaps that makes sense though. Amis is still a prince among essayists when analysing literature:
“Look at Russian fiction, reputedly so gaunt and grownup: Gogol is funny, Tolstoy in his merciless clarity is funny, and Dostoyevsky, funnily enough, is very funny indeed; moreover, the final generation of Russian literature, before it was destroyed by Lenin and Stalin, remained emphatically comic – Bunin, Bely, Bulgakov, Zamyatin. The novel is comic because life is comic (until the inevitable tragedy of the fifth act); and also because fiction, unlike poetry and unlike all the other arts, is a fundamentally rational form.”
Amis crafts sentences that demand to be re-read, marvelling at how he did it. Beautiful things they tell us much, often in a droll, amusing tone. Some treats in this latest collection should be shared:
In fiction, of course, nobody ever gets hurt; the flaw, as I said, is not moral but aesthetic.
To accuse novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.
Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.
Ronald Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife.
A story is nothing without a listener.
Amis and Smith are pitch perfect, regardless of topic. Amis describes his understanding of form, content and style saying:
“In literature, decorum means the concurrence of style and content – together with a third element which I can only vaguely express as earning the right weight. It doesn’t matter what the style is, and it doesn’t matter what the content is; but the two must concur. If the essay is something of a literary art, which it clearly is, then the same law obtains.”
Both essayists discuss writing as editing and when Amis says, “very often I am simply trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise” one can only nod in agreement that his process realises the goal.
Political essays, or non fiction at least, that is written by those with genuine literary talent always engage this reader more than those written by politicians or insiders. Orwell being a perfect example. Amis’ insights into Jeremy Corbyn are interesting although some may argue they already feel a little out of date. Corbyn appeals to many who are weary of the curtailment of state support for citizens and the neo-liberal excesses of Thatcherism. Smith clearly recognises what has been gradually lost during the political changes wrought since her childhood. Smith knows Britain needs more thinking like that of the late, great, Tony Judt:
The closest I can find myself to an allegiance or a political imperative these days is the one expressed by that old social democrat Tony Judt: ‘We need to learn to think the state again.’
You can see this philosophy continually throughout her essays not least in relation to education and public libraries:
Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.
Like all good books one is sad to finish. Rarely does one have such a reading treat before and after work that stays in your mind, enriching the day. Luckily enough, both of these collections are worthy of re-reading and I will enjoy Zadie Smith’s first collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009) next month. I’ll leave you with Smith’s thinking about writing:
Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two. If my writing is a psychodrama I don’t think it is because I have, as the Internet would have it, so many feels, but because the correct balance and weight to be given to each of these three elements is never self-evident to me. It’s this self – whose boundaries are uncertain, whose language is never pure, whose world is in no way ‘self-evident’ – that I try to write from and to. My hope is for a reader who, like the author, often wonders how free she really is, and who takes it for granted that reading involves all the same liberties and exigencies as writing.
Other titles read during February
Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) by John Bew
The Icknield Way Path: A Walkers’ Guide (2012) by Sue Prigg and Nigel Balchin
George Orwell: A Literary Life (1996) by Peter Hobley Davison
A George Orwell Chronology (2000) by J.R. Hammond
The Holiday (1949) by Stevie Smith
Modern de Quincey: Autobiography of an Opium Addict (1942/2004) by Captain H. R. Robinson
I remember we laughed heartily at:
“Reading him is like staring for a week at a featureless sky; every few hours a bird will come into view or, if you’re lucky, an airplane might climb past, but things remain meaningless and monotone. Then, without warning (and not for long, and for no coherent reason, and almost always in The Naked Lunch), something happens: abruptly the clouds grow warlike, and the air is full of portents.”
William Burroughs: The Bad Bits