Thursday, October 18, 2007

Martin Amis: His eyeballs and Yasmin's reply

Did you see Martin Amis on Jon Snow’s C4 news show last night? The voice has been smoke-cured into a wonderful, neutral rumble, decidedly unfruity in all weathers. His eyeballs said more, shooting this side and that like tennis balls in a bad-tempered knock-up at each lacerating question: if he had shot them heavenwards we might have thought him camp, but Amis is a rapid sideways glancer and is one of the uncampest men of his generation. He was in Snow’s dock over his recent remarks on Islam – see another posting here for the catch-up: he had admitted to momentary racist urges in the wake of 9/11 and other outrages by al Qaeda types: the admission was the salve, that alone would undo the damage of his foolhardy confession, he’d hoped. I suspect Amis has misjudged the broad-sweep nature of public perception. As I write it’s not possible to be a bit racist but not seriously (even though that probably sums up about 80% of us).

In any case his subtleties are lost on columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to whom he wrote the letter condemning his critic Prof. Terry Eagleton. She replies to him in today’s Standard, calling the letter “part affectionate” but “somewhat patronising”. She takes the simpler view that “racism is not an involuntary seizure”. And even if there is the odd urge to racism, “you can train yourself out of it.” She then foolishly cites Boris Johnson as an example – she bets he won’t be using the word “piccaninny” during the London mayoral campaign. “He will become a better man for that restraint.” The difference here is that while Johnson is a racist but is just keeping his public trap shut for PR purposes, Amis is just a bit of a racist who is uncommonly open about it. The hypocritical racist versus the slightly-racist blabbermouth: Whom to prefer? What a choice!

On another matter I learn Deborah Kerr has just died. She had a lovely speaking voice and she ruined many of my Sunday afternoons with re-runs of her fucking The King and I. Still, I blame the feet-up and tea-drinking schedulers.


Claire said...

So, Martin Amis is the British Michel Houellebecq, isn't he?

Madame Arcati said...

Some resemblances - but hasn't he been called the French Salman Rushdie? Houellebecq I believe has made more trenchant criticism of Islam - calling it the worst of religions - but Amis' position is different in that he has said he admires the faith in some respects while being intellectually distant from all religions (as an "atheist").

But the high literary drift against religion, or religious fundamentalism, is a current vogue - as both Amis and Houellebecq demonstrate.

Recusant said...

"while Johnson is a racist"

On what tiny scintilla of evidence to you base that fatuous remark? Or have you been persuaded(knobled) by Ken's shrills?

Anonymous said...

Houellebecq called Islam 'the world's most stupid religion' and then had to hide in Ireland as a result. A bit like saying 'the world is round' in the seventeenth century.

Anonymous said...

For anyone who missed the interview, it can be viewed here:

Anonymous said...



Claire said...

"Houellebecq called Islam 'the world's most stupid religion' and then had to hide in Ireland as a result."

No. He was already living in Ireland when he wrote Plateforme, and his controversial statements about Islam followed the publication of this novel. He now lives in Spain.

Is he the French Salman Rushdie? I don't think so. He's just enough incorrect politically to be equally rejected by the right wing and the left wing :-).

Madame Arcati said...

There's so much evidence that Boris Johnson is a racist that I'd have to open up a new post on the topic, and I don't really want to do that. But for now, has Bojo ever adequately explained how Eleanor Bland's racist poem got onto his website?

Part of this "poem" read: “We have hobby, it's called breeding. Welfare pay for baby feeding. Kids need dentist? Wife need pills? We get free! We got no bills!”

“Britain crazy! They pay all year, To keep welfare running here. We think UK darn good place. Too darn good for the white man race! If they no like us, they can scram. Got lots of room in Pakistan!”

Beneath the text on the email was a cartoon picture of the white cliffs of Dover with the words “Piss off - we're full!” scrawled across them.

Johnson had the poem removed last year when the row blew up over the head of the stupid cunt who wrote this trash. A 100 more examples of Johnson's racism maybe adduced. And he's backed by the Mail - what further proof do you need?

Contrary to the trash propaganda in the right-wing press, Johnson is a mediocrity, a philandering oaf, a joke, an asshole. He lacks self-discipline, he's a shagger, a swine. Don't make me commence.

Duralex said...

I've never read Houellebecq.
I've never read Martin Amis.

Should I ?

Which Amis novel would you recommend ? I'm tempted by "The Information", but maybe it's not the best choice for a first contact. What do you people think ?

Madame Arcati said...

With Amis start at the beginning and read his debut novel The Rachel Papers for its prose verve. Then jump to Money for contrast and contrasting maturity. It's all in the writing, there's no story to speak of in either book. Then if you enjoy those two, read his curious novel that pre-dates Money, Other People.

Certainly don't start with The Information, that's my advice.

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Ms Baroque said...

I thought Amis' reposte to Eagleton seemed strangely wheedling, ending with that weird rhetorical "collegiate" "Shall we?" - It even came out supplicating. I'm sure that's not what he intended but I find it very interesting. What Alibhai-Brown calls "part affectionate" is just archness, I think; "smewhat patronising" is really very patronising. But MA was also disingenuous taking Eagleton to taask for quoting remarks "that aren't in the essay" - when in fact those are remarks by Amis, so it's not exactly as if TE had made them up!

It's interesting how all through this he has lost control of his material - his tone - which is why he's now having to backpedal. I remember his reams of writings in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 - it was astonishing, how he managed to churn out so many thousands of words seemingly immediately! Of course it was mostly hysteria and hyperbole. Everyone was hysterical. I would certainly never go back to anything written in that time. But then, the racist impulse still sees to me an inappropriate response.

And that's the thing. Amis really hasn't got his finger on the pulse. Okay, he hit something with "Money" etc, but he has never been a populist - always a snobbish man - and I think the "isn't everyone a bit like this really" line is disingenuous at best. Would everyone, if they could, simply send all their bank statements unopened to their accountant because it is really "too boring" to have to read them - as Amis once said he did?

Madame Arcati said...

Thank you Ms Baroque ... you don't like Amis fils, do you?

Amis' response to Eagleton was unambiguously hostile; there's nothing supplicating in it so far as I can see. Amis was plainly rattled. I agree that Amis' letter to Alibhai-Brown was faintly patronising; but then that is one strategy in a war of words, a not very effective strategy.

It was Amis himself who pointed out that Eagleton was wrong to say that Amis' remarks on Islam in 2006 were made in an essay when in fact they were reported words from an interview. He then went onto to draw a distinction between airing passing thoughts (or racist "urges") in an interview and calling for discrete action in the written word. I think to Amis there is a big difference (one is a confession to negative thoughts, the other a call to action), but as I wrote in a later post, in the broad-brush world of public perception such a subtle distinction is going to be lost. All people will hear is Islamophobic sentiment and judge accordingly.

I would agree - and Amis has admitted as much in literary terms - that he does not have his finger directly on the pulse anymore. Money wonderfully captured the greed and the soulless brutality or vulgarity of the '80s in a literary demotic that sounded of the times, too. But I'm not sure any writer can capture the moment all his or her life. He produced brilliant work, he does no longer, but who is to say what may come yet?

On a broader canvas, I think Amis - like his godawful pal Christopher Hitchens - may be using the debate on Islam and its "quietism" on Islamicist terrorism to push an atheist agenda: in his letter to Alibhai-Brown, Amis makes it clear that he thinks not believing in a god is superior to believing in a god. It is plainly crass to imagine, let alone say, that a religious faith must mean that one necessarily buys into its moral proscriptions or punishments.

Eagleton's harsh criticism of Amis has had the refreshing effect of a correction and limited retraction from Amis. But in the process we have been forced to ask ourselves whether so many more of us privately yield to occasional racist thoughts or urges - particularly in the wake of atrocity. That Amis admits to such thoughts or feelings is better than spouting what we think others want to hear.