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My last novel

Short-boy’s complaint

Martin Amis, who believes that to be “funny” is the height of literary endeavour, last week wrote a testily humourless response to the review of his new book in the TLS, explaining that he wasn’t trying to be funny when he wrote, for instance: “Sexual intercourse had come a long way” (fnarr, fnarr). I think that everyone — you, me, Amis and the reviewer – can agree at least that the result isn’t funny?

What initially made me excited about this letter, though, was that Amis begins it by referring to “my last novel”, upon which the hope blossomed in me that he was announcing his retirement from fiction in order to spend more time informing us that his Nobel-winning betters have no talent, that old people smell, that we must pass judgment on ethnicities, or that his more interesting rivals have fat arses. But no! I forlornly concluded that Amis was merely using last in the sense most recent, rather than to indicate the culmination and terminus of his oeuvre. This ambiguity is one of the things that are, or at least used to be, drummed into the heads of arts subeditors, who are or were instructed for this reason to avoid using last to mean most recent when referring to artists’ latest works, but no doubt the Brobdingnagian funny-talent of Mr Amis meant this as a deliberate tease to his detractors.

Have you read The Pregnant Widow, readers?

  1. 1  Dave Weeden  February 18, 2010, 6:57 pm 

    “SI had come [on] a long way…” I don’t think that would make sense or be grammatically acceptable. Mind you, “SI had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind” doesn’t make any sense either. Is he saying that people didn’t think about sex before Martin Amis was a teenager? And how has sexual intercourse come a long way? I thought the mechanics of sexual intercourse were fairly static.

    It’s really very odd that MA can write that “SI … was much on everyone’s mind” and not think that if sex is on people’s minds so much, then the most innocent remark is likely to be read as innuendo.

    NB Have used SI as a contraction for the phrase MA uses because I think it set off the spam filter.

  2. 2  Sarah Ditum  February 18, 2010, 8:03 pm 

    Did he actually say that a novelist isn’t responsible for what his words mean? Yes he did. Amazing.

  3. 3  sw  February 19, 2010, 12:34 am 

    I hesitate to add anything, because, in answer to your question, I have not read The Pregnant Widow (and because your spam filter thinks that I am writing spam??? And so I have to use [SI] for, well, [SI]??? Sigh!!!) – but any hesitation is, of course, a coy, affected reticence?

    So, plunging in: reading the line about how “[SI] had come a long way”, I was reminded of a writer who was very funny on the subject and had this to say:

    [SI] began / In nineteen sixty-three

    Presumably this is a/the reference in the (non?)joke Amis makes about how [SI] has come a long way? Larkin follows this by bracketing himself off in a rather adorable, petulantly self-loathing way, and then puts this perceived genesis of [SI] into the context of how sex has always been on everybody’s mind and how it has been expressed – through censorship and adoration, transgression and sublimated delight.

    (which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the Chatterley ban /And the Beatle’s first LP

    It’s quite vivid, no? So the line “[SI] had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind” – which means nothing to me, but then I haven’t read the book – is like a somewhat amusing, pastiche de-poeticising of a familiar Larkin poem? You know, like when you condense poems into a single narrative line? You see where I’m going with this? I do think it was a joke; I think Amis was just playing with smoke and mirrors in accusing Tandon of necessarily assuming a pun on the word “come” (which, in all fairness, is something that makes me laugh come rain or shine – see what I just did?); and, as a pastiche, if it is a pastiche, it’s not entirely unfunny?

  4. 4  Steven  February 19, 2010, 12:59 am 

    I agree that one can certainly read a (probably deliberate) reference to Larkin in there, though it’s not a pastiche. Is it not entirely unfunny? I don’t know. Possibly nothing is entirely unfunny?

  5. 5  sw  February 19, 2010, 1:11 am 

    Possibly nothing is entirely unfunny?

    Probably true? Although spending an entire evening with Martin Amis would be a good test?

  6. 6  aboulien  February 19, 2010, 9:25 pm 

    Bharat is reading like the Hill fan he is. In his mouthfroth against Sullivan Wieseltier wrote that ‘Dispaced and unglossed quotations […] bristle smugly with implications.’ For Hill, and readers he’s influenced, so does the least prepossessing preposition.

  7. 7  Dave Weeden  February 19, 2010, 11:28 pm 

    Who is Bharat? and how do you know about who he is a fan of? I am a Reginald Hill fan too. What of it?

  8. 8  Steven  February 20, 2010, 1:46 pm 

    Surely we are all Damon Hill fans around here?

  9. 9  democracy_grenade  February 20, 2010, 4:41 pm 

    Surely we are all Damon Hill fans around here?

    Absolutely. But I don’t see why we can’t reconcile that with our love of Arthur Sullivan.

  10. 10  aboulien  February 22, 2010, 4:52 pm 

    Bharat’s the TLS reviewer, OBVS, and about my height, which makes him an inch or two shorter than Amis. Hills come in handy for the both of us.

  11. 11  organic cheeseboard  February 24, 2010, 1:55 pm 

    Finally have time ot add something here. I heard about the plot of The Pregnant widow – sex is used as a metaphor for a bunch of people’s dysfunctions in the 70s, with a little tying-it-all-up bit of retrospect at the end, and though – this is just On Chesil Beach again, isn’t it? Which itself was ‘Annus Mirabilis – the novel’. In fact if memory serves me correctly, Bharat Tandon makes a point pretty close to that in his review.

    what is up with amis writing so many letters at the moment, too? This latest anna ford stuff is spectacularly uninteresting. Is he raging against the dying of his relevance to literary periodicals, and his ending up as some sort of media talking head, a higher-brow version of the people who always appear on ‘i love the 80s’?

  12. 12  Robert Hanks  February 25, 2010, 4:34 pm 

    Can’t be bothered to get into this one, but Steven, can I just say that I think the appeal to authority implicit in the phrase “Nobel-winning betters” is unworthy of you? Or do you genuinely believe having won a Nobel is a guarantee of quality?

  13. 13  Steven  February 25, 2010, 4:42 pm 

    Not at all; I meant merely to distinguish those of his betters who have won Nobel prizes from his many other betters, as well as to hint that Amis is probably jealous of Coetzee’s possession of the gong (for what it’s worth, which isn’t, as you imply, very much except monetarily).

  14. 14  Robert Hanks  February 25, 2010, 4:45 pm 

    Nice rearguard action, but I’m not buying it. YOU APPEALED TO AUTHORITY! YOU DID, YOU DID! NYAH NYAH NYAH.

  15. 15  Steven  February 25, 2010, 4:52 pm 

    That said, of the Nobel lit-gong winners with whose work I am familiar (by no means all!), I can’t see that it ever went to a bad writer, and it seems mostly to have gone to extremely good ones.

  16. 16  Dave Weeden  February 25, 2010, 5:03 pm 

    What this thread clearly needs now is D2 to turn with a long discourse on why Harold Pinter’s poem ‘American Football’ was better than all the plays and worth the Nobel on its own.

  17. 17  Robert Hanks  February 25, 2010, 5:07 pm 

    Whenever anybody mentions the Nobel prize, I start reciting that poem silently to myself. But I grant Steven’s general point, that the Nobel rarely goes to the functionally illiterate; in this respect, it at least beats the Booker. (For professional reasons, I’m just reading Life of Pi. Christ.)

  18. 18  Robert Hanks  February 25, 2010, 5:11 pm 

    PS Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

  19. 19  Steven  February 25, 2010, 5:14 pm 

    I have internalized so much of Craig Brown’s Pinter that I am actually disappointed to see that the vocative “Chum” does not appear in said poem. Adding a comma and “Chum” to the end of randomly chosen lines would improve most poetry these days.

  20. 20  Dave Weeden  February 25, 2010, 5:15 pm 

    Oh my god. What have I done?

  21. 21  Robert Hanks  February 25, 2010, 5:35 pm 

    “Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth, chum.” You’re right, that is better.

  22. 22  Steven  February 25, 2010, 5:38 pm 

    “The waste remains, the waste remains and kills, chum.”

  23. 23  Robert Hanks  February 25, 2010, 5:40 pm 

    Oh well, if you’re going to go back that far:

    “My nerves are bad tonight, yes bad, chum.”

  24. 24  organic cheeseboard  February 25, 2010, 7:29 pm 

    i cannot understand how anyone can like Life of Pi. What an abysmal book.

  25. 25  Dave Weeden  February 25, 2010, 7:32 pm 

    I liked ‘The Life of Pi’. I also actually like ‘American Football’ (but not to the extent of preferring it over ‘The Birthday Party’ or ‘Betrayal’).

    So there, chum.

  26. 26  Robert Hanks  February 25, 2010, 8:22 pm 

    By the way, I’ve been mulling over for a while the idea of starting a campaign to have Hackney Central Library (just down the road from my house) re-christened the Harold Pinter Library. Anybody with me? Chums?

    (Now that’s interesting: notice how as soon as it’s plural, you shift from Pinter to Enid Blyton.)

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