Wednesday, 31 May 2023

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A stylist, yes, but Martin Amis was also right on the money

Amis in 1991 during the release of ‘Time’s Arrow’

Amis in 1991 during the release of ‘Time’s Arrow’ © Sophie Bassouls/Getty

Here is a passage from Tony Blair’s chatty, undemanding and therefore un-Amisian memoirs:

“It’s like when people say to me: ‘Oh, so-and-so, they don’t believe in anything, they’re just a good communicator.’ As a statement about politics, it’s close to being an oxymoron . . . If you don’t have core beliefs as a politician, real path-finding instincts groomed out of conviction, you will never be a good communicator because — and this may seem corny, but it’s true — the best communication comes from the heart.”

In other words, style is substance. Or at least the two things are harder to separate than people pretend. The idea that Blair was a shallow smoothie and Gordon Brown a deep but tongue-tied man is primitive analysis. If Brown struggled to communicate, it was precisely because he was a weathervane, a news-driven tactician, forever second-guessing a tabloid audience here, a liberal one there. Who am I meant to be today?

Martin Amis devoted half a century to making a version of this argument. (His debut novel, The Rachel Papers, came out 50 years before his death last week). No writing is “just” stylish, he thought. If a sentence gives the reader pleasure, it is because it contains moral or psychological truth. How about this, from London Fields, about a miserable marriage:

“When Hope called his name — ‘Guy?’ — and he replied Yes? there was never any answer, because his name meant Come here.” I found that slick and graceful enough at 25. Now, with marriages going to seed all around me, it is the insight, the penetration, that makes me smile/wince. A good joke will often elicit a “how true” just after it elicits a “ha ha”.

Amis’s career might best be understood as a prolonged reply to George Orwell. (“The man can’t write worth a damn,” he said, according to Christopher Hitchens, though his view would mellow.) Orwell’s plain prose is still hailed as a mark of integrity and clearsightedness: of the English aversion to bullshit. Except, as his biographers record, with varying degrees of tact, he wasn’t that averse. We still don’t know if he shot that elephant in Burma. Pressed on an alleged fabrication, he is said to have defended it as “essentially true”. As for clarity…

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