Ahead of his unsuccessful assault on the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, as described with wan good humour in one of the essays here, Martin Amis had dinner with Anthony Holden and James McManus (“two of the top writer-players in pokerdom”). McManus, seeing him off after dinner, said: “Don’t be intimidated, man! Remember – you’re Martin fucking Amis!”
Being Martin fucking Amis: as a few of these pieces make clear, it’s a burden and an exaltation. Reading the very entertaining poker piece, for instance, you note that the author quotes the compliment, but also that he spends the rest of the article (which describes the swagger of his ambition and its abrupt deflation when, with Amis all-in, his opponent rivers a better set than his fives) undermining it. He’s Martin fucking Amis; also, fucking Martin Amis.
The Rub of Time is arranged thematically: sections of political commentary; sections of essays on other writers (most of them ones he’s known); reported pieces for magazines; odds and ends of memoir; an unexpectedly well-stocked and very enjoyable section on sport (wonderful riff on assembling a Frankenstein’s tennis player); and a few squibs that maybe needn’t have made the cut. (The squibs include his peevish responses to the Guardian’s readers’ questions, where the questioner’s name indicates the peevometer nudging into the red: “Yes, Jonathan…” “Well, John…” “Also, Oksana…”)
The reportage is some of the best stuff here. For someone who often doesn’t much seem to care for journalists, Amis is a very good journalist indeed. If anyone has written a better, more penetrating, more open-minded interview with John Travolta, for example, I’d like to see it (the description of Rambo as “that lethal trapezium of organ meat”, perhaps with apologies to Clive James, is an incidental gem). Sending a literary writer to report on the porn industry is by now an old joke – but Amis (reprising his horror-day riff from London Fields to describe “stepping out of the porno home – on to the porno patio with its porno pool”, etc, and ending on a note of muted gallantry) does it well. And The Crippled Murderers of Cali, Colombia is a compressed and properly reported piece from South American gangland where moral seriousness (just) eclipses linguistic virtuosity.
Like poles holding up the washing line on which these gaudy items are pegged are three sections – one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end – all called Twin Peaks. The Twin Peaks are Bellow and Nabokov: each “Twin Peaks” gives you an essay on each. All good writers are reading writers and Amis is a rereading writer. On rereading, he still doesn’t think Ada is up to much, for the same reason Finnegans Wake isn’t up to much. He says so twice. He’s bothered by all the underage girls. He says so twice, too.
But, to his credit, he’s still rereading. In the two years between the first essay on Nabokov (2009) and the second (2011), he’s gone back and noticed that Nabokov mentions the Holocaust three times rather than, as originally stated, twice, finding a paragraph in a 1943 short story. A postscript to an essay in which he dismisses the “multitudinous facetiousness of Melville” in passing sees him admit that “after an interval of half a century” he has reread Moby-Dick with “gratitude and awe” and that his dismissal was “gravely inadequate”. That’s conscientious.
When he puts his nose to a text, close up, there are few readers like him. An essay (out of courtesy, posthumously published) about very late Updike charts, with unanswerably persuasive quotation, the way Updike was “in the process of losing his ear”. A semi-offhand piece about screen adaptations of Jane Austen is, in its attention to the nuances of her language and its flattening in the screenplay, very far from offhand. And he is superbly good at capturing the nub of what’s so interesting in DeLillo, deftly sectioning the phases of JG Ballard’s career, tracing the weirdly wonky process of Philip Roth finding his voice or summing up a mood in a glancing phrase: the “dank crew of self-righteous anarchists” in The Secret Agent, for example.
But there’s also, sometimes, a slightly bullying tone to his literary pieces. He seldom sneaks up on a thing or allows himself to be tentative. He writes on page 54 that “evaluative criticism is rhetorical criticism: it adds nothing to knowledge; it simply adds to the history of taste”. He doesn’t half go in for it himself, though: “[It] is at the highest table that Vladimir Nabokov coolly takes his place”; “[Bellow’s] was and is a pre-eminence that rests […] on incontestable legitimacy. To hold otherwise is to waste your breath”; “In quality, Larkin’s four volumes of verse are logarithmic, like the Richter scale: they get stronger and stronger by a factor of 10”; “There can be no argument about the depth, the complexity, and indeed the beauty of [Iris] Murdoch’s mind”; “George Eliot gave us one readable book”; “Milton consists of Paradise Lost”. Professorial flourishes – “we may reflect”; “read it with attention”; “we will return to…” – enter the prose.
Here is something between the querulous monologue of a Leavis in the lecture hall and a dressing-down in a provincial cop shop. “Are you taking notes?” he seems to be saying, or rather: “You will be taking notes.” There’s a rhetorical voltage (as he notes on page 54) to that maximalism, that unwaveringly indicative mood – but you weary of it too, a bit. The same certainty, not always a virtue, is present in his political pronouncements. He obviously knows an awful lot – a surprising lot – about post-revolutionary Iran, for instance. But you wonder: can he really know as much as it sounds like he knows?
Perhaps he does. He’s Martin fucking Amis. Fucking Martin Amis.
• The Rub of Time by Martin Amis is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To order a copy for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99