The pub bore of British letters
Martin Amis’s complaint that he is treated badly by the British press is bizarre. Even his painfully bad new novel The Pregnant Widow – full of tits, Islam and pseudo-poetry – has been slavishly well-received.
Martin Amis used to be an author. Now he’s a celebrity-slash-‘much-feared pub bore in Hove’.
You can tell because Amis – the drawling head, with the smoking profile picture, not the novelist – has been all over newspapers like mould for the past six weeks. And because, like all celebrities, he has spent the past fortnight whingeing about all the distorted coverage he’s getting. It’s not his fault, he argues, that he likes to allow fawning journalists to interview him and then their editors blow up his fag-end bon mots out of all proportion, to the extent that his claim that old people could be exterminated in booths on street corners, nursing a martini and a medal, becomes a national news story, when it should have made a mere paragraph in a glowing profile.
I see his point. Really I do. I don’t want to read Diana Athill meandering on about drawing naked men at the age of 92 in the sixthy-fifth rebuttal column to Amis’s attack on old folk. His vision of a ‘silver tsunami’ of the aged threatening to go all ‘Night of the Living Dead’ on their moaning, mortgaged offspring, who then set up euthanasia booths on street corners as an anti-old people reaction, could have made the basis for a bloody good satirical novel, exploiting Amis’s linguistic dexterity and gift for black humour to make the sort of compelling read you would hope for from the author of Money. Instead, in his new novel The Pregnant Widow, Amis has decided to take his alter ego from The Rachel Papers (himself as a 20-year-old), place it in the context of Dead Babies (country-house debauch moves to a sun-drenched villa in Italy) and bore away for 400-plus pages. Readers used to pick up Amis because he made them laugh out loud – in his latest, you have to wait until page 433 for anything resembling a joke:
‘This is not the first time Kenrik had faced trial: credit fraud, VAT avoidance, drunk-driving… Believing as he does that all magistrates are a) right-wing and b) homosexual, he always stands in the dock with a Daily Telegraph under his arm, and gives the magistrate a steady pout of conspiratorial submissiveness.’
Reading The Pregnant Widow is as refreshing as swimming through old porridge – and my only advice is to ditch it in favour of re-reading Experience. So why are the reviews of it so warm and homogenous?
Richard Bradford hails it as ‘beneficent autofiction’ (whatever that is when it’s at home) while someone who’s obviously never read Boccaccio claimed that Widow was nothing short of ‘a flashy Decameron of the sexual revolution’. I think not.
The plot of The Pregnant Widow is as follows. Keith (Mart’s alter ego and favourite ever name: ‘Keith’s probably the most plebian name there is, don’t you think?’) is short. He wants to get laid by pretty ladies. His girlfriend Lily (whose character is principally delineated in numbers: 5’5’, 34-25-34) is not hot. Her mate Scheherazade (whose character is entirely delineated in numbers: 5’10’, 37-32-33) has big honkers and oils them. This makes Amis’s recent attack on Jordan (99-30-30) even more bizarre. At a literary talk he denounced the public’s preoccupation with this ‘two bags of silicone’ before revealing he was so fascinated by bazookas himself that he was going to write a whole novelette about them, called State of the Nation.
Weirdly for a novel which is intended as a critique of the sexual revolution, I haven’t yet seen a single review of The Pregnant Widow by a female critic. Which is curious because chicks are always dispatched to interview Amis nowadays, where they cast off an obligatory mention of his ‘quite amazingly beautiful’ wife (when actually she looks uncannily like Mick Jagger, only bonier) and lets him dodge any questions about why his novels are so increasingly crap.
‘Meeting Martin Amis is not unlike having a tutorial’, explains a lady dispatched by Harper’s Bazaar. ‘The drill is as follows: he takes your hand; he takes you into his drawing room, where two vast fuchsia sofas look like open wounds against the sludge grey walls [no they don’t – that’s just not what they look like is it?]; then, while you plonk yourself on to one of these, he arranges himself on a small, hard chair directly opposite.’
Although Amis may complain about how he is treated by the media – how he’s the Prince Charles of letters – I would really like him to explain to me why a journalist, who sits within breathing distance of me, hated his new novel so much that his review copy (which I pilfered in order to write this) only has marks until half way through – at which point he ceased reading it but nevertheless dashed off a suitably gushing review. Is it for the same reason that a story I wrote during the day job – about Martin Amis giving a talk at the Norwich Playhouse, where the official photographer had a sheet of instructions, among which was a stricture never to photograph Amis smiling – was pulled from the paper? Generally, you know, I’m conspiracy-theory-phobic. But in this case, all Amis’s blustering about how he’s ill-treated seems to mask the reality of a completely simpering attitude to our greatest living novelist utterly regardless of the quality of his literary output.
Regarding The Pregnant Widow – why is a sentence on Italian mailbags (‘Whittaker’s burlap sack did indeed look felon-woven’) greeted with such a thudding pat on the back by the New Statesman? Why does anyone seem to think that Amis’s run-through of the greats of English literature in terms of which woman Keith would most like to shag (Rosamund Vincey over Dorothea; Elizabeth Bennet – literally, as his behemoth-bottomed squeeze Gloria dons a bonnet for him) and his musing that what Jane Austen lacks is sex scenes (‘“Who fucks Fanny?” “What? No one fucks Fanny.” They were resuming their discussion of Mansfield Park’) amounts to fizzing dialogue? Perhaps the weirdest thing about The Pregnant Widow, however, is that it’s not even quite literature – Amis keeps breaking off to weld execrable political points into Keith’s mouth about the savage role feminism has enacted on his little sister Violet and sympathetic remarks about Muslims: how much he fancies their women; how the Taliban could have ‘saved’ his sister.
‘Silvia, the other night, said that Europe was destined to become a Muslim-majority continent by about 2110. “The feminised woman only has one child”, she said. “So the end result of your sexual revolution might be sharia and the veil… Imagine what else’ll happen in between.” Now Keith rolls another cigarette and lights it, and wishes Violet had adopted Islam rather than Christianity. At least she’d be alive.’
Indeed, the only honest review I have yet read comes from an Australian publication, which is thus worth quoting from at length:
‘Reading the new Martin Amis novel provides quite a physical workout. You pick up the book, find your place, read for 20 minutes and then throw it to the ground in weary contempt, whereupon it spins and bounces across the wooden floor, the book itself providing much more action than its plot ever did. This process is repeated at the end of every section, giving the volume a charmingly distressed look, much like its reader, who can’t believe he spent $32.95 on this dreary rubbish.’
And yet Amis endlessly moans about the fact that he can’t get an unbiased review of his work. He says: ‘You could say absolutely anything you liked about [Yellow Dog – his 2003 novel]. It wasn’t just reviewed. Anyone who could hold a pen was having a go.’ For research purposes, I’ve been through many of the British reviews of Yellow Dog and haven’t so far stumbled across a bad one aside from Tibor Fischer’s much quoted comparison between Amis writing Yellow Dog and finding your favourite uncle masturbating in a schoolyard. The Observer hailed it as ‘mind-tinglingly good’. The New Statesman said it marked ‘a return to form and familiar territory’.
Amis has been ‘returning to form’ ever since he got his teeth done (he would suggest that this is because he had his reputation unfairly defecated upon by journalists in the mid-Nineties who were jealous that he could lavish £20,000 on a set of new teeth; I would suggest it is because his old teeth were clearly the source of all his powers…) Before the teeth, Amis surely would never have mimicked David Brent’s revelation that ‘Breasts are there to imitate the arse’, as he does in The Pregnant Widow. And he probably wouldn’t have named a female character ‘The Dog’ before making the issue of whether or not various characters had ‘fucked the Dog’ such a prominent feature. Amis has also developed a horrible habit of concluding chapters with ridiculous pseudo-poetry: ‘It’s hot at night. Hear the sheep, hear the dogs?’ and ‘…maybe it was the love that took the wound, in the Passchendaele of mad dreams’. He even has Keith opine that his whole generation are ‘old ones’ before adding, ‘With the sole exception… of Cliff Richard, he’s still a young one.’ A Radio 4 comedian could have come out with that one with a greater slick of originality. Then, in a final twist, the novel turns out not to have been written in Keith’s voice at all, but by ‘the voice of conscience’.
Reading The Pregnant Widow isn’t as traumatic as Tibor Fischer’s reading of Yellow Dog. It’s not like finding your favourite uncle masturbating at all. No, it’s like realising he died and someone’s impersonating him, and nobody else has noticed.
Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard. Visit her personal website here.
The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis, is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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