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Martin Amis, RIP

Matthew Walther at The Lamp

Photo by DDP / Unsplash

“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”).

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