Martin Amis And The Primacy Of Words And Style

On 10 June, a year after the death of his friend Martin Amis, Ian McEwan stood in the chancel of St Martin-in-the-Fields church, off Trafalgar Square, reeling off his favourite lines for hundreds of Amis’s admirers. The narrator of the novel Money, from 1984, contemplating the far side of a street and giving up, concluding that in LA “the only way to get across the road is to be born there”. The observation about Salman Rushdie after the fatwa, that he had “vanished into the front pages”. And the man in Success overheard in a toilet stall going about his business, as if emptying a “sack of melons… down a well”. McEwan remembered much discussion about this simile with Martin: it was not to be bricks or potatoes but melons; not one or two, but a sack; not a pond but a well.

The Martin Amis community, from Anna Wintour to Julian Barnes, had filed in to Handel, and perched on their pews beneath the vaulting neoclassical ceiling, as Martin had done for his father Kingsley’s memorial here in 1996. But as light poured in the East Window, laughter filled the church. In McEwan’s tribute and all the speeches and readings that followed – the cast included Zadie Smith, Tina Brown, Bill Nighy, and Amis’s children and wife Isabel Fonseca – Amis’s deep pleasure in language was the dominant theme. His best sentences, McEwan said, had “a warmth about them, a delight in human difference and a sheer glee in creation”. In the act of composition, he recalled, Amis was “joyous”.

What do we truly value in a writer of fiction? Is it moral guidance, political instruction? Is it an ability to capture a collective mood or identity – in the manner of a “national novelist” – or articulate the concerns and character of a particular cohort: the “voice of a generation”? Is it, as DH Lawrence has it in “Why the Novel Matters”, an ability to foster our “instinct for life”? The lesson of Martin Amis seems to be that it’s language above all else.

“Style isn’t something you apply later,” Amis said in 2021, explaining why he couldn’t abide JM Coetzee. “It’s embedded in your perception, and writers without that freshness of voice make no appeal to me. What is one in quest of with such a writer? Their views? Their theories?” Disdain drips from “views” and “theories” – notions that have no worth unless they emerge from living, breathing, playing prose.

Think back to the works that have made the deepest impression on you: the plot and characters may have faded, but kernels of language remain. At any one moment, I find half a dozen lines wriggling under the topsoil of my brain. These could be famous, burnished quotations – F Scott Fitzgerald’s boats “borne back ceaselessly into the past”; moments of deliciously throwaway comedy – PG Wodehouse’s severely hungover character who reports that “a cat stamped into the room”, the man in a Kevin Barry novel with “a face on him like a bad marriage”; Dickensian catchphrases (“What larks!”); or an ordinary but perfectly calibrated line from Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room that, clipped from its context, I still think of as an instruction: “stand rigid; grasp the barrier; fall in love”.

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“The writers we love subtly get under our skin and shift our consciousness,” McEwan said at St Martin’s. “They bend the flow of daily thought and speech.” They do this not with their “views” or “theories” but with their facility for language, which comes from a place of pure pleasure. Too often in our critical debates about the state of fiction we forget that turning an exquisitely funny line is as important as diagnosing the condition of the nation – more so, because the latter cannot exist without the former.

This may seem obvious, but it bears repeating because our culture risks losing its joy in language, abandoning the idea of words as units of pleasure. In their excellent state primary school, my children get plenty of writing practice. But even their creative writing tasks are constrained by a national curriculum that values knowledge above all else. In each assignment they are given specific “steps to success”, criteria that might include using the passive voice, the first person or a certain number of expanded noun phrases (a new one to me). The work is then judged by how effectively they tick these off. This seems to me a grimly utilitarian approach. Acquiring the tools of grammar is essential, but only if you are given space to play with them. The staff I speak to say they wish there was time for genuinely free writing, but the curriculum’s demands are such that every minute of the teaching day must be in its service. It may not be unrelated that the study of English literature is in a dire state: fewer students are taking the subject at A-level and at university, and fewer are training to be English teachers. Amis, who taught creative writing at the University of Manchester in late career, had a motto that “writing is freedom”. When constantly trudging their “steps to success”, how will children discover the exhilaration of sheer invention – or recognise and appreciate it in others?

At the memorial in London, Martin Amis’s children spoke movingly of his capacity to enjoy life. He loved to witness exuberance in others, and would watch and re-watch footballers’ celebrations at the end of matches. He told his daughters that “we have a duty to be cheerful” and advised them “to be suspicious of the humourless”.

The service ended with clips of Amis speaking. “I use the dictionary 30, 40 times a day,” he said in one. “I note the etymology, the origin of words, and it’s always fascinating. ‘Widow’, for instance means ‘be empty’, ‘torture’ means literally ‘to twist’. You look up a word… and find out more about it, then you feel a little grey cell burst into life in your head, as well as all the millions that are dying.” For Amis, language was a well from which he drew delight – and into which he gleefully, to our great pleasure, emptied sack after sack of melons.

[See also: The anti-Baillie Gifford mob wants to police art. Writers must not give in]

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