Tag Archives: Martin Amis

Three Women

4 Nov


Joan Didion (copyright  Robert Birnbaum,  circa 1995)


Joan Didion, who is an important figure in the small universe of literary culture became exponentially better known with her two memoirs of grief, one of which, The Year of Magical Thinking, won awards and apparently was a best seller.Having read most of her oeuvre to date, I was not impressed :


I am as near a Joan Didion fanboy as I can get (about anyone)— having read most of her books and had the singular pleasure of a chat with her around the time of the publication of her last novel The Last Thing He Wanted. But for some (I do shy away from stories fact or fiction, about parents losing their children) reasons I have had zero interest in reading her latest offering. I suppose if Ms. Joan were to offer her grocery list for publication, it would be more attractive to me.

Having said that, while it is no surprise to me that The Year of Magical Thinking won a National Book Award (actually, nothing about book awards is surprising), I am puzzled about what about this cultural moment has made this book a best seller. I am not aware that Didion’s acute political –cultural observations in the New York Review of Books (perhaps it’s the venue) have attracted the enthusiastic, near hysterical audience as for her more personal work, Where I was From and the newest book. Is it the fascination with the ineffability of death, grief and suffering that is the focus of Didion’s memoir? Or the harrowing experience of losing both one’s life partner and child? Or would it be a hunger for tramping around the private and personal matters of others? Does the numbing effect of a society working overtime, or in the current argot, 24/7, turning us into efficient consuming units make Didion’s hyper sorrowful meditation the ultimate cathartic antidote?

I suppose I should be able to answer these questions but at the moment I can not. Perhaps I’ll have to get around to reading Joan Didion’s book. But not now.


Reportedly having previously eschewed any interest in a documentary in which she was the main subject, she succumbed to her nephew. Griffin  Dunne’s request, the result being  Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,  a title like her first essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968),  quotes the W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming.  Glenn Kenny concludes his  take on Dunne’s film noting, “… reminded me of an observation by D.H. Lawrence: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” Ms. Didion’s triumph, as a writer and a human being, has been to take the age for what it is, to pinpoint how she saw it, and to stick it out.”


There are many morsels of delight and wonder in this pastiche of questions and answers and contemporaneous images and clips and of course, the camera on Didion as she speaks and makes inscrutable gesticulations with her hands.One of my favorite clips is New York Review of Books editor Robert Silver being asked if he knew Didion could write a dispatch from El Salvador (which at the time was inflamed by a deadly civil war). To which he replied that he wanted to find out…A  small reminder of what a brilliant editor he was …

One more tangential digression, Martin Amis in reviewing Didon’s second collection of essays The White Album (1980) (some of you may remember that is also the title of the Beatles last album)  cannot conclude his notice without taking stage center in a piece putatively about someone else) with this pedagogical assertion:*


‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’ is, of course, a literary reference itself. As Miss Didion dramatically points out in her Preface: ‘This book is called Slouching towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.’ The whole of ‘The Second Coming’ is indeed printed a few pages back, along with a deflationary extract from the sayings of Miss Peggy Lee (‘I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant’). The title essay duly begins: ‘The centre wasn’t holding.’ It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her with the necessary force that ‘The Second Coming’ was written half a century ago. The centre hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the centre was never holding, and never will hold. Probably all writers are at some point briefly under the impression that they are among the first to live and work after things fell apart. The continuity such an impression ignores is a literary continuity. It routinely assimilates and domesticates more pressing burdens than Miss Didion’s particular share of vivid, ephemeral terrors.





Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend  by Cristina De Stefano   Marina Harss (Translator)


Cristina de Stefano’s ( translated by Marina Harss) biography of  Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend  would not have received Fallaci’s cooperation had she been alive as reviewer James Marcus **points out. When she came to the United States after the Second World War, spending time in Hollywood and as Marcus writes

It exposed her to a wider world and taught her that celebrities were often hollow shells: Potemkin Village personalities. It also seemed to crystallize her peculiar mixture of vulnerability and high-decibel truculence. “She was fragile,” recalled one companion, “but she used aggressiveness as a shield. She attacked first. As a result, Americans were often terrified of her.”

Eventually, she turned her gaze to the wider world, traveling through much of Asia .She ended up in Vietnam,  staying until  the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, observing presciently,“The Communists are splendid while they fight, and intolerable once they have won.”  Marcus points out some delightful career highlights:

While she continued to function as a war correspondent, Fallaci found another way to vent her rage at the abuse of power: the interview. There is a wonderful irony here. Having cut her teeth interrogating the merely famous, she upgraded to the high, the mighty, the Shakespearean movers-and-shakers. They were mostly men, and they were mostly intimidated by this wily, theatrical, fearless woman with a microphone. “To what degree does power fascinate you?” she asked Henry Kissinger. (The answer, predictably and unconvincingly, was not at all.) Talking with the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, she responded to a jeering comment about her respectability by ripping off her chador: “I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now. There. Done.” (Khomeini fled the room at once.)

He concludes

But her entire life was a war on the party line, the politically expedient, the prefabricated opinion, and she never stopped fighting, at least not on the page. Blame it on Uncle Bruno, perhaps, who drilled his main journalistic precept into Fallaci’s head as a child: “First of all, don’t bore the reader!” Early and late, she almost never did.



The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick  by Elizabeth Hardwick  edited and intro Darryl Pinckney


The  other great cultural paragon affiliated with the New York Review of Books,  Elizabeth Hardwick, has been  brought current with  her Collected Essays (ably introduced and assembled by Darryl Pickney )   Even before she became one of the founders of one of the truly respectable and useful literary journals her essay The Decline of Book Reviewing  (1959) sparked much-needed self-evaluation by more serious critics. Here is the opening paragraph of that seminal  critique,***

The reviewer and critic are still thought of as persons of dangerous acerbity, fickle demons, cruel to youth and blind to new work, bent upon turning the literate public away from freshness and importance out of jealousy, mean conservatism, or whatever. Poor Keats were he living today might suffer a literary death, but it would not be from attack; instead he might choke on what Emerson called a “mush of concession.” In America, now, oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect — all the great moments of artistic tragedy and misunderstanding — still occur, but the natural conditions for the occurrence are in a curious state of camouflage, like those decorating ideas in which wood is painted to look like paper and paper to look like wood. A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it “The Communists are splendid while they fight, and intolerable once they have won.”. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have “filled a need,” and is to be “thanked” for something and to be excused for “minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.” “A thoroughly mature artist” appears many times a week and often daily; many are the bringers of those “messages the Free World will ignore at its peril.”


Hardwick was no-sit-at-home armchair commentator as her piece on the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago exhibited (being a witness to some of the week’s festivities, I found her account to be judicious and insightful) In Dwight Garner’s piece on her craft, he opines:

It’s a mistake to boil a writer down to her best lines. No one is the sum of her entries in Bartlett’s or the Goodreads.com quotation vaults. But a critic who can’t mint an original phrase is rarely worth heeding.

To move one’s way through Hardwick’s essays is to bump into brightness on nearly every page. On hypocritical politicians: “Family men, pictured a million times with their first ladies, die in the arms of their second ladies.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley fretting about underground newspapers during the 1968 Democratic convention is “like a dinosaur choking on bubble gum.” The blank and oversexed young women in a Marge Piercy novel are “like a jar of peanut butter waiting for a thumb.”





*Apropos of nothing but amusing of you are enthralled by either Marin Amis or Joan Didion …One wonders if he could write about a woman writer in that tone today?






Just Talking: How to Do Things with Words

26 Feb


In the last three decades I have undertaken an open-ended independent post-graduate course of study. Included in my syllabus has been nearly a thousand conversations with people I place under the broad rubric of story tellers. And here I have provided public access to an incomplete list of my notes from my chats, from all across the Internet:

From A (mis) to Z (inn)

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis

Andre Dubus III

Ben Katchor

Tony Earley


Amy Bloom

Ron Rash

Arthur Bradford

William Giraldi

John Summers

Josh Ritter

Julian Barnes

Adam Gopnik

Ruben Martinez

Chip Kidd

Paul Lussier

Edith Pearlman

Attica Locke

Charles Yu

Jo Nesbo

Alan Gurganus

George Saunders

George Sciallaba

Alan Lightman

Darin Strauss

Manil Suri

Joan Wickersham

Ann Enright

John Sayles

Tony Horwitz

Thisbee Nissen

Jim Harrison

Ben Fountain

Benjamin Anastas

David Shields

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Howard Zinn


In Memoriam Rosie (The Dalai Labrador) 1997-2007

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]


21 Nov
The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

After I'm Gone by  Laura  Lippman

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito  Gadzano

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by


Everything I Never Told by Celeste Ng

I'll Take You  There by Greg Kot

I’ll Take You There by

The Exile's Return by Elizabeth de Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth de Waal


Fourth  of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

We Are Not  Ourselves by  Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Euphoria by Lily KIng

Euphoria by Lily King

Hold The Dark by Wiliam Giraldi

Hold The Dark by Wiliam Giraldi

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

The Narrow Road to  The Deep  North By Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to The Deep North By Richard Flanagan

The Next Life Might  B e  Kinder by  Howard Norman

The Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman

Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Untold by Courtney Collins

The Untold by Courtney Collins

Men Explain Things to Me by  Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Something Rich and Strange by  Ron Rash

Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash

The Violence of  Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

*Because I say so?

When the Trouble Began

14 Oct
Columbus With Tainos

Columbus With Tainos

Hats off to the city of Seattle. Exchanging a celebration of Indigenous Peoples for what ought to be a national day of shame, is an inspiring act of much needed revisionism. The American Exceptionalism, which if I recall correctly, was originally a scholarly term of approbation has now been embraced as
by neoliberal mandarins (not the least of whom is our current president)as great positive attribute.


Utopian as this notion might seem, I would offer that instead of the mania for for the so-called Core and the misguided emphasis on Algebra ought to be supplanted or at least balanced by an American History that reflects the actual events that occurred —warts and all. Certainly the introduction into the educational conversation of Howard Zinn‘s “People’s History” is a good step (this despite the efforts of states like Indiana to ban all Zinn’s works from being taught in that state’s public schools).Maybe someone can show me what the harm is in filling in the details of Columbus and his comrades’s expropriation of already settled lands. Or a slavery hating American icon breeding with his slaves. Or the great Tennessee populist joyfully exterminating various indigenous tribes. And what about the land grab for Mexico’s territories and the self serving mandate of manifest destiny which when there was no more land to “acquire” led to USA’s crusades in Cuba and the Philippines. Setting aside the depredations of US presence in Central America and the rest of the world it might be helpful to the current generations of students to have a coherent presentation on the US adventure in Vietnam.

Looking for photo credit

Looking for photo credit

As I see it, the greatest distortion of American culture is the both the recollections of the Civil Rights Era and the feel good notion that we have come a long way in the march to civil equality (for which the events of Ferguson, Missouri are a vivid countervailing example).

I was watching the documentary The 50 Year Argument and there was a riveting snippet by the great black writer James Baldwin*:

We haven’t invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I have always known—I had to know by the time I was 17 years old— what you were describing was not me… what you were afraid of was not me, it had to be somebody else. So it had to be something you were afraid of that you invested me with. I learned this because I had to learn it But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is still necessary. Well, its not necessary to me. It must be necessary to you. I give you you problem back. You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

If you need a refresher or an introduction to that roiling and volatile period (“Burn, baby, burn”) in the not so far back past, the monograph, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, created by the Brooklyn Museum for its exhibition including over a 100 artists response to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.The exhibition honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 consists of works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, David Hammons,Melvin Edwards,Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, and Philip Gusto.

Freedom: Now Forgotten Photographs by Martin Berger

Freedom: Now Forgotten Photographs by Martin Berger

And as police dogs, high pressure fire hoses,burned out churches, maimed and murdered Emmett Till and truncheon wielding police are part of the American history, Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle edited by Martin Berger, stands as testimony of the barely acknowledged story of depredations suffered by American blacks.Bob Adelman, Fredrick Baldwin, Dr Doris Derby, Benedict Fernandez,Bob Fitch, Matt Herron. Bill Hudson, Danny Lyon. Charles Moore and Chamian Reading

Copyright Bill Hudson

Copyright Bill Hudson

Berger curatorial vision includes and goes beyond the handful of iconic photographs that have some currency in the popular contemporary history. As the book’s’ title suggests goes beyond the accepted record. As the publisher notes,

Martin Berger presents a collection of forgotten photographs that illustrate the action, heroism, and strength of black activists in driving social and legislative change. Freedom Now! highlights the power wielded by black men, women, and children in courthouses, community centers, department stores, political conventions, schools, and streets.

Lunch Counter Protest in Raleigh North Carolina by Unidentified photographer

Lunch Counter Protest in Raleigh North Carolina by Unidentified photographer

A People's History by Howard Zinn

A People’s History by Howard Zinn

Perhaps citizens of the USA ought take a page from the Jews (as unlikely as that maybe) and designate one day a year as a day of atonement—I know the day I would choose.

* Baldwin begins his soliloquy at 11:22 of The 50 Year Argument

Currently reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Knopf)

Self Vs. Self

3 Sep
Shark by Will Self

Shark by Will Self

In lieu of spending hours transcribing my most recent (2014) chat with the now maturated ,bad boy novelist and social commentator Will Self, I call your attention to his recent auto auditory opus. Along with Martin Amis, and despite the challenges of their fiction, they are two of the most engaging and stimulating conversationalists I have encountered. “The author of novels including the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella and the newly-published Shark asks himself whether he is willfully obscure, what role addictive illness plays in his work, what it’s like living with the same character for 25 years – and how come he’s only just noticed how tall he was.”

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I talked to Will a few times last century and the first time in this one, in 2003 for his newest novel : d most recently Dorian: An Imitation. Here’s a tidbit from that:

Robert Birnbaum: Do people still attach the word ‘jolly’ to the phrase “old England”? Is there a jolly old England?

Will Self: No. Jolly has gone. I think where you can mark the real decline of jollity somewhat paradoxically, is to the Blair regime, the Blair government. When they came into office in ’97, on a tide of apparent jollity, a reassertion of social democratic virtues, a kicking out of the previous corrupt conservative regime that had been in place for seventeen years and was riddled with actual pecuniary corruption, that jollity was very quickly perceived publicly as an act of media manipulation. And the focus then turned to the idea that this was a new regime that was predicated in a way that no previous regime had been, not to quite the same extent, on appearance rather than reality. This was a government of spin-doctors. A government of public relations, a government that fixed its policies on the basis of focus groups, that went out and tried to get people’s assent to a policy and then moved that way around it rather than actually being a creative government. [A government] That introduced a great deal of cynicism into the British political sphere. At the same time you had a kind of schizophrenia entering public life over the issue of whether we were an economy and a society that was really taking our model from American neo-liberal economists or whether we still had a serious interest in a united Europe. That’s really been the sawhorse upon which economics and politics in Britain has very painfully fallen on its crotch for the past six years. That tends to undermine any conception of jollity. At the same time all kinds of—things have happened in Britain—like the crack cocaine epidemic has finally reached Britain.

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

And then there is:

RB: I recently read Colum McCann‘s Dancer, which touches upon this period of AIDS, Warholian fame clique in Manhattan and what was a matter of interest was that now looking back this need to excise all or any fun out of that era, a retrospective moralizing and denunciation…

WS: I would not quite take that view. No, I think you can say that everybody’s experience is going to be partial. Whether you are having fun is an existential proposition not a universal one, isn’t it? And fun, the very idea of fun, is curiously atemporal.

RB: (Laughs)

WS: You know you are having fun when you know what time it is. So almost by definition it’s not gonna be an observation about cultural history to say, “Didn’t we have fun?” It’s gonna be an observation about cultural amnesia.

RB: Didn’t we have fun?

WS: That’s of course a different inquiry. My take on all of this is—and it’s an era I lived through—people say “How do you have the right to write about this?” I was an IV drug user during this period. I had my first HIV test in 1985. I was aware of the spread of AIDS epidemic which was savage in the IV-drug-using community just as much as it was among gay people. Now, I’m not saying, “Now look at me, I’ve suffered too.” I kind of despise that attitude. The truth is I haven’t got the virus and I feel very fortunate about that. The fact of the matter is I was aware of it during this period and I did see what it was doing. My perception was that following the Halloween parade riots and the real outburst of gay liberation at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, one thing is true in life, in the realm of the emotions, events that are consecutive are interpreted causally. You have a row with your lover and they rush out into the street and ten hours later they are killed by a bus and you caused that. I think the perception both outside the gay community and within the gay community, was we gained some level of social acceptability or at any rate we were allowed to be out publicly. We then had a lot of fun and games. We then fell victim in large numbers to a sexually transmitted virus. Our behavior caused that. Now, people of the so-called Moral Majority and on the right were saying that. My perception is that lot of gay people internalized that as well. And felt that as well. I remember talking to people about this at the time. There was a sense no matter how unjustified, of guilt around this behavior because of that ‘law’ of the emotions, if you like. And some people have said this text has a kind of homophobic taint to it. It looks at those ideas. As far as I’m concerned, again, like that point about fun, there is a retrospective desire now because of highly active retroviral treatment—really the evil bloom has been taken or people perceive it as being taken off the AIDS epidemic. People want to deny it ever happened. They want to kind of forget about it, “Let’s just forget about that stuff.”

Will Self  circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre (Scribner)

Wes Anderson’s Grand(iose) Budapest Hotel

7 Mar
The Wes Anderson Collection

The Wes Anderson Collection

Wes Anderson has made some about a half dozen films(Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom) that have garnered good notices and him a devoted audience.His new film Grand Budapest Hotel judging from John Powers will not doubt do the same. Yet in his thoughts on Wes Anderson and the putative homage to the great and renascent Stefan Zweig that is tacked on this film ,David Thomson reminds me why his style of thought provocation is usually a fruitful ruminative effort. As Martin Amis points out quotes and citations make a review and Thomson no doubt unpopular assessment of Anderson is amply larded with shrewd and thoughtful observation:

So why is the name Zweig so startling at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel? To put it simply, because this film is the work of a talented and vacant young director whose “brilliance” (I’m sure the word will be used) should not conceal his indifference to the depth of experience that preoccupied Zweig


So Grand Budapest Hotel is dazzling, exhausting but bereft. It relates to the atmosphere and texture of Stefan Zweig like an achingly sweet pastry on a tin plate at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a rococo dead end, a ferment of decoration, unwitting complacency and ignorance.

So we know that David Thomson is not a fan and that this film borders on sacrilege (allow the hyperbole) using Stefan Zweig. Thomson’s notice ends with quote from Zweig’s Beware of Pity which is illustrative of his refined sensitivity— his character comes upon a sleeping invalid

But I must not disturb this sleep, which kept her from herself, from the dread reality of her existence! It is a most wonderful thing to be close, to be near to the sick during their sleep, when all their feverish thoughts are held captive, when they are so completely oblivious of their infirmity that sometimes a smile lights upon their parted lips as a butterfly upon a delicate leaf, a smile foreign to them, a smile which does not belong to them, and which, moreover, is scared away on the very moment of awaking.

The WES ANDERSON COLLECTION by Matt Zoller Seitz (Harry N. Abrams)

Here’s a melange of previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera collected by Seitz including a lengthy conversation ( one reviewer noted, “The purpose of an interview is to allow an artist to illuminate his work. But the only thing illuminated by the conversations in this book is that Wes Anderson gives a terrible interview.) between Anderson and the book’s creator. And Michael Chabon contributes a 1200 word introduction. I can’t remember the last director whose art direction was codified in book form though Anderson’s work most certainly manifests countless interesting images and sets warranting this coffee table behemoth. Michael Chabon contributes a 1200 word introduction.

Image form The We Anderson Collection

Image form The We Anderson Collection

Currently reading Ripper by Isabel Allende (Harpers)

Me And Marty

3 May

That Mick Jagger was once considered the “Martin Amis of Rock n Roll” should give you an inkling about Amis’s celebrity quotient in his native England. At one point his dental maladies were tabloid news.Although, that bit of bottom feeding journalism was attached to his dismissal of his long time agent (the wife of long time pal Julian Barnes).

I am aware of Amis’s unfortunate publicity magnetism because I have “interviewed”/chatted with him a half dozen times since he published Time’s Arrow or The Nature of the Offence (1991)(some of which are accessible somewhere in the great digital ether. Though I am (still) fascinated by Martin Amis it has recently occurred I really don’t enjoy reading his fiction (The Information excepted).Why then you might (should)ask, do I make a point of reaching out to his publishing publicity aparachiks to arrange some Amis face time? Easy answer, my inquisitive friend,Amis is a supremely engaging conversationalist and a very nimble and original mind. And, incidentally, Amis’s memoir Experience and his various essay anthologies,especially War against the Cliche are well worth reading.

Amis, by the way, has moved to Manhattan,which some snarky commentators might aver was because he had worn out his welcome in London’s civil society. In any case Martin has a news novel coming to the cultural news cycle in September. Not so distant an event that the shiny new Los Angeles Review of Books has found it propitious to publish a 2500 word literary exegesis covering his oeuvre, the recent ill regarded biography of Amis and, naturally, Amis’s new opus Lionel Asbo (Knopf). As averse I am to reading “reviews, Morten Hoi Jensen’s take in his “Mr Amis Planet” is fair-minded and thoughtful:

If Martin Amis hasn’t exactly mellowed with age a certain degree of tenderness has nevertheless entered his more recent work. For all the horrors it chronicled, The House of Meetings was a work of daring human compassion, while The Pregnant Widow took a broad view not just of the sexual revolution and the English novel, but also of ageing (“it’s the death of others that kill you in the end”: hard not to think of Christopher Hitchens, Amis’s dearest friend, when you read that now).

Not to be crass, but that’s the money graf for me.

Stay tuned for my Nth chat with Martin Amis.

Currently reading Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain (Ecco)

Good Bye Hitch

16 Dec

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001 Copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

One of the reasons that there will be an inordinate amount of ink, literal and virtual,spent on the passing of the mighty Christopher Hitchens is that, unquestionably, his talents were the envy of anyone who ever aspired to reportage and or writing. To say that his prodigious output seemed effortlessly achieved is attested to by everyone who ever worked with him or watched him work. Now he has passed on and all those of us who knew him or of him can behold in wonder what he had wrought.

I am pleased to recall a few hours I spent with (so-called) Hitch on 2 separate occasions— one a leisurely summer mid day where he impressed with his legendary capacity for distilled liquids and conversation and another in which we briskly discussed his energetic little feulliton, Letters to A Young Contrarian It should not go unsaid that I recall those occasions vividly.

Since there will be an oceanic outpouring allow me to guide you to two invaluable sources on Mr Hitchens. One,by his dear friend Martin Amis who recently had pause to comment on the coming departure of his dearest friend— the headline of which bellowed ‘He’s one of the most terrifying rhetoricians the world has seen’ He concludes

…The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot.

Anyway, we do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now.

Also there is an inspired précis of Hitchen’s recently published essay anthology, Arguably (Twelve)by the insufficiently celebrated George Sciallaba.Scialabba turns the wonderful trick of viewing Hitchens as a latter day Edmund Burke quoting William Hazlitt:

Burke was an acute and accomplished man of letters—an ingenious political essayist. … He had the power of throwing true or false weights into the scales of political casuistry, but not firmness of mind enough (or shall we say, honesty enough) to hold the balance. When he took a side, his vanity or his spleen more frequently gave the casting vote than his judgment; and the fieriness of his zeal was in exact proportion to the levity of his understanding, and the want of conscious sincerity.

Rest in peace does not strike me as quite the right tone with which to bid Christopher Hitchens adieu— I’ll best remember him quoting the inscription he claimed adorned the Freud memorial in Vienna: “The voice of reason is small but persistent”

Currently reading The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun by Robert Greenfield (Simon & Schuster)

By George

1 Dec

I am not inclined to read book reviews —in large part because American media venues have so degraded the enterprise that I have found very little to be learned by attending to what seems to pass for literary criticism (except maybe the airing of various grudges and petty jealousies). Occasionally I do find something worth reading, as in the recent New Yorker publication of Martin Amis’s enthusiastic appraisal of Don Delillo and his recent (and first) story collection.

Now I have stumbled across (well okay I have Katherine Powers to thank for pointing the way) a superb survey of Christopher Hitchens by the inestimable George Scialabba. Hitchens, a thinker to be reckoned with is in excellent hands—clearly Mr.Scialabba is familiar with both Hitchen’s literary efforts( a prodigious oeuvre) and his evolving politics as well as maintaining an even handed view of Hitch as a public figure. The essay ends quoting William Hazlitt on Edmund Burke:

Burke was an acute and accomplished man of letters—an ingenious political essayist. … He had the power of throwing true or false weights into the scales of political casuistry, but not firmness of mind enough (or shall we say, honesty enough) to hold the balance. When he took a side, his vanity or his spleen more frequently gave the casting vote than his judgment; and the fieriness of his zeal was in exact proportion to the levity of his understanding, and the want of conscious sincerity.

To which Scialabba appends, “Whether or not one finds this true of Burke, it is Hitchens to the life.

By the way,The Modern Predicament (Pressed Wafer)

George Scialabba copyright 2011 George Scialabba

George’s (if I may be so familiar) new opus is one of the subjects I hope to take up in conversation with the author in the coming year or in the fullness of time.

Here’a an insightful snapshot of George Scialabba by Scot McLemme

… it is about time someone brought out a collection of Scialabba’s work. That it’s only happening now (15 years after the National Book Critics Circle gave him its first award for excellence in reviewing) is a sign that things are not quite right in the world of belles lettres. He writes in what William Hazlitt — the patron saint of generalist essayists — called the “the familiar style,” and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. That is no way to create the aura of mystery and mastery so crucial for awesome intellectual authority.

Currently reading Bloodland by Alan Glynn (Picador)


25 Nov

I suppose I could be seen to be abdicating my duty as a literary journalist by pointing readers in the direction of Martin Amis’s cerebral encomium

Martin Amis Copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

of Don Delillo and more specifically Delillo’s new and first ever short fiction collection The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (Scribner). That is, as opposed to offering my own pale insights into both or either Delillo or Amis.

And, no doubt, sloth enters into the roiling wellspring of motives. Okay then.

About Martin Amis, whom I have had the delight of conversing with regularly since the publication of his compelling novel Time’s Arrow and most recently coincidental with his novel House of Meetings,I find him to be a more accessible and readable essayist than novelist.Thus this note.

Amis begins his piece playfully, bordering on glib. opining:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less…

…Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are…

Of course what follows is aconcise lesson how one could read Delillo (that’s what good critics do) whom Amis calls “… the laureate of terror, of modern or postmodern terror, and the way it hovers and shimmers in our subliminal minds.”

And then this resonant conclusion:

Creative gaiety, a sense of fun and play, has been too firmly suppressed by the almost morbid tentativeness of his most recent novels and novellas. Literature seeks to give “instruction and delight”: Dryden’s tag, formulated three and a half centuries ago, has worn pretty well. We reflect, all the same, that whereas instruction doesn’t always delight, delight always instructs. Very broadly, we read fiction to have a good time—though this is not to deny that the gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary. There is right field, and there is left field. He comes from third field—aslant, athwart. And I love “The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.”

Currently reading The Drop by Michael Connelly (Little Brown)