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Martin Amis, R.I.P.

On the late British novelist.

“Among living writers of English prose there are few who attempt magnificence.” When Evelyn Waugh pronounced this severe sentence upon his contemporaries in 1955, he admitted only two exceptions: Sir Osbert Sitwell, whose delightful memoirs are almost entirely forgotten, and, perhaps more surprisingly, Winston Churchill, who even now enjoys a wide and devoted following among a certain kind of older male reader whose other interests include submarine warfare and reviews (consulted aspirationally) of very expensive cigars.

Waugh did not define the quality whose absence he lamented, but by “magnificence” he seems to have meant the prose of the eighteenth-century: stately periodic sentences set to Handel-like rhythms, decorous semicolons, and occasional dashes leaping across the page like a fox driven to hounds.

Martin Amis, who died on Friday at the age of seventy-three, did not aspire to magnificence in the Wauvian sense. But he almost certainly would have recognized what Waugh meant when he said that in his own age “elegance tends to be more modest.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, especially in America, Amis aspired to—and, I think, ultimately achieved—what Waugh had proposed as a universal ideal for writers: the dutiful cultivation of a highly individual and readily identifiable style.

One noun with which that style has sometimes been associated is “maximalism.” This is not an entirely inaccurate characterization, but it does him both more and less than justice. Amis was certainly a “maximalist” in the sense that for him language was not a utilitarian vehicle for conveying apparently pre-verbal truths or ideas. This in itself sets his work apart from most contemporary serious writing—books published by highbrow imprints or the trade lines of university presses or, I daresay, articles in respectable newspapers and magazines—in which the most important consideration is something that is usually described as “clarity.” This alleged clarity is usually discussed in somewhat ideal terms, as if the norms of contemporary written English were the realization of both philosophical and aesthetic ideals—a considered minimalism after the manner of Hemingway (whom Waugh himself revered for having “imposed limits on his powers only a master can survive”).

Today the overwhelming majority of written English is indistinguishable from the output of a computer: anarthrous noun modifiers crowding around prefabricated descriptions, undifferentiated heaps of metaphor borrowed (when it is even recognizable as such to writers or readers) from sports, entertainment, and that characteristic register which has no name but is, or should be, recognizable to all conscientious readers in which the argots of consulting, contracting, bureaucracy, academia and Silicon Valley run together. Even non-specialist nouns such as “chief” and “head” and verbs such as “back” (meaning support), “hammer” and “grill” (to ask what would once have been called a pointed question or, as the case may be, present a witness with a serious of self-aggrandizing non-sequiturs) have become so divorced from their ordinary meanings that for an untold number of readers their use in these contexts is no longer understood as metaphorical. The language of journalism in particular, especially political journalism, is an endless parade of unwitting martial images and begged questions (“blasted,” “slammed,” “Russia ties,” “discredited conspiracy theory”). Entire realms of moral inquiry are elided by the insertion of a single question-begging adjective (“problematic”). A certain studied glibness has made the experience of skimming headlines emetic (“There’s medicine to quiet his opioid cravings. Getting it can be hard”).

If this is “clarity” or careful minimalism, then Amis was certainly a heedless maximalist. For him literature was, as he put it in the preface to a collection of his essays published in 2001, a “war against cliché.” In an interview with Charlie Rose he once identified the logical and polar opposite of good prose as “heard writing,” which was in turn the result of “heard thinking or heard feeling”: second-hand descriptions arriving in ready-made blocks of three or four words that had emerged not from an individual writer’s attempt to describe his or her experience of the world but from the “dead freight” of consumer culture. The writer’s task, which amounted to something like a moral duty, was simply to “remain faithful to your perceptions,” a process that by definition could not be circumvented: “I repeat these sentences over and over in my head until they sound right.”

This brings me to another reason why one should hesitate to describe Amis’s style as “maximalist.” In the prosecution of the aforementioned conflict, he was sometimes accused of the prose equivalent of war crimes—what his father Sir Kingsley Amis had dismissed in a contemptuous review of Lolita as “a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction.” (The elder Amis—perhaps forgetting that he had introduced a similar conceit in one of his earlier books—is said to have thrown a copy of his son’s novel Money across the room upon discovering that it contained a character named Martin Amis.) But unlike his hero Nabokov, Amis frequently achieved his desired effects by comparatively simple means such as the repetition of a single adjective; in an essay on the pornography industry published in 2001, he described “a porno house” complete with “porno fish in the porno tank (the fish are porno-coloured: yellow, mauve, blood-orange), the porno TV set (as big as a double refrigerator), the porno deck, the porno pool, with a plastic duck floating around in it.” Here the stifling banality of his subject is conveyed by the tediously recurrent neologism; it is the opposite of the bravura thesaurus-mongering characteristic of some of his postmodernist contemporaries. Another decidedly non-maximalist feature of his prose is his use of asyndeton in passages like this one from Money, in which the narrator John Self describes the symptoms of tinnitus: “I heard computer fugues, Japanese jam sessions, didgeridoos.” The absence of the expected terminal and gives us the impression of a ringing that continues indefinitely, transforming itself into an echo of something unknowable and otherworldly.

Amis’s prose was often described in aural terms, as harsh and discordant, even atonal. It is true that he was the first truly great writer whose ear had been formed by rock music. The experience of reading one of his paragraphs is often comparable to listening to a Jimi Hendrix record: we hear the squelch of feedback amid the low drone of the amplifier, the clicking of a distortion pedal and the first notes of a guitar riff—a big sound, aggressive, plodding, dinosaurian—and we nod along, perhaps on the verge of indifference, through a relatively staid verse and a chorus or two before finding ourselves suddenly transfixed by the impossible lyric grace of a solo.

Yet Amis was also capable of achieving effects that were neither cacophonous nor especially modern. His memoir Experience, in which Kingsley is arguably the principal figure, is perhaps the most moving book ever written about a father by a son; it is certainly the funniest. He wrote with equal warmth and humor about his own children; a review of Jurassic Park: The Lost World begins with a description of tucking his sons Louis and Jacob into bed: “When the dino colouring-books have at last been put aside, and they’ve cleaned their teeth with dino brushes and dino paste, and they’re lying there in dino pyjamas, under dino duvets, what do children want to talk about? Dinosaurs.” Here are all the familiar Amis hallmarks—the adjectival anaphora, the half-bemused, half-outraged attitude toward the heedless accumulation of consumer goods—visible in a quiet snapshot of family life.

In his gloomy meditation on the state of English literature in 1955, Waugh foresaw a world in which every writer interested in prose style for its own sake would face the choice of becoming either an “artist or a prophet,” who could either “shut himself up at his desk and selfishly seek pleasure in the perfecting of his own skill” or “pace about dictating dooms and exhortations.” What Amis reminded us is that it was perfectly possible to do both.