RIP Martin Amis. If only you were around to write an essay about Barbara Stiegler.

Yachts are the symbol of the neoliberal predation of the world… We are all impregnated by [neoliberalism’s] hegemony.

Martin Amis has died.

Like his buddy Hitch he was charismatic, sexy, unruly, hilarious. Also intensely and sensitively literary. Here are all my Martin Amis posts.


Parul Sehgal on her love of Amis:

Amis’s saw-toothed sentences seized me by the scruff and carried me off for good. The insolence of the novels, the high silliness, the shame, the jokes: “After a while, marriage is a sibling relationship — marked by occasional, and rather regrettable, episodes of incest.”

Wow – an essay about Don DeLillo by Martin Amis.

Should be a lot of fun to read. I’m doing that right now.

Live blogging my responses… Okay, we both love DeLillo. Our lists of books of his that we don’t love (we love most but not all of him) are pretty similar, but I disagree about The Names. It took me a number of rereadings to warm up to this oddball, philosophically ambitious, beautifully written novel, but it’s now gotten to the point where I feel ardor for it. I understand why Amis – why anyone – would have trouble with The Names – it can feel portentous, pretentious, as it digs down for spiritual meanings – but it’s actually a grounded and compassionate inquiry into the human soul.

The phrase “midnight in Dostoevsky,” we’re told, comes from a poem, and is probably intended to conjure some epiphany of willed despair.

Well, I tell you what the poem is, and offer some analysis of it and its connection to the story, here.


[It] is his general receptivity to the rhythms and atmospheres of the future that we should value… [T]he gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary.


Martin Amis on Vladimir Nabokov: Final Post

Martin Amis concludes his remarkable essay on Vladimir Nabokov with praise, and with the same uncanny clarity of understanding he’s shown throughout the essay. He expresses the essence of Nabokov’s miraculous genius.

They call it a “shimmer” – a glint, a glitter, a glisten. The Nabokovian essence is a miraculously fertile instability, where without warning the words detach themselves from the everyday and streak off like flares in a night sky, illuminating hidden versts of longing and terror. From Lolita, as the fateful cohabitation begins (nous connûmes, a Flaubertian intonation, means “we came to know”):

Nous connûmes the various types of motor court operators, the reformed criminal, the retired teacher, and the business flop, among the males; and the motherly, pseudo-ladylike and madamic variants among the females. And sometimes trains would cry in the monstrously hot and humid night with heartrending and ominous plangency, mingling power and hysteria in one desperate scream.”

Isn’t this the same sort of sentence we saw here, in Part Two of my series of posts on the Amis essay? Recall the sentence from Nabokov’s short story, “Signs and Symbols,” the sentence Amis calls a “one-sentence demonstration of genius.”

Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.

Both sentences offer amusing lists of homely human attributes and homely human types. Then, either with a dash or with a new sentence, both suddenly shift to death, power, and hysteria. From the trivial to the thunderstruck, from ordinariness to extremity, from insipid to insane, these small sentences first settle us into the world and then shatter it.

They shatter it in the direction of truth. The plangency in the Lolita sentence is, by frightful implication, Lolita’s, in bed with Humbert. The power and hysteria is Humbert Humbert’s hideous self-imprisonment.


Versts? A verst is a Russian unit of distance. The word is obsolete.

The Martin Amis Essay: Part Three

I have read at least half a dozen Nabokov novels at least half a dozen times. [A novelist reading a novelist is a marvelous thing. Bellow reading Joyce, Amis reading Nabokov, Foster Wallace reading DeLillo… You know they’re not really reading; they’re grazing. Slowly, repeatedly, they’re nourishing themselves, they’re ruminating, chewing on this phrase and that figure. The Amis essay is terrific in part because it’s all about this special sensibility: The hyper-receptive writer working a verbal field. Nobody knows another writer as well as another writer.] And at least half a dozen times I have tried, and promptly failed, to read Ada (“Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle“). My first attempt took place about three decades ago. I put it down after the first chapter, with a curious sensation, a kind of negative tingle. [For what it’s worth, our own UD, mad lover of Nabokov, bought, when she was an undergrad, the black hardback of this novel and opened it all agog. Fifty pages later, weary and vaguely embarrassed, she closed it.] Every five years or so (this became the pattern), I picked it up again; and after a while I began to articulate the difficulty: “But this is dead,” I said to myself. The curious sensation, the negative tingle, is of course miserably familiar to me now: it is the reader’s response to what seems to happen to all writers as they overstep the biblical span. The radiance, the life-giving power, begins to fade. Last summer I went away with Ada and locked myself up with it. And I was right. At 600 pages, two or three times Nabokov’s usual fighting-weight, the novel is what homicide detectives call “a burster”. It is a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat. [First, there’s the reader’s purely visceral rejection response. Then — and this is what’s so good about Amis — there’s the explanation. Listen up.]

When Finnegans Wake appeared, in 1939, it was greeted with wary respect – or with “terror-stricken praise”, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges. Ada garnered plenty of terror-stricken praise; and the similarities between the two magna opera are in fact profound. Nabokov nominated Ulysses as his novel of the century, but he described Finnegans Wake as, variously, “formless and dull”, “a cold pudding of a book”, “a tragic failure” and “a frightful bore”. Both novels seek to make a virtue of unbounded self-indulgence; they turn away, so to speak, and fold in on themselves. [Old people – and old, venerated writers, tend to do this, no? Withdraw from the world, indulge more and more deeply in their own fantasies, give themselves license to do any old thing because they’re don’t care about or can’t deal with the world outside themselves anymore.] Literary talent has several ways of dying. With Joyce and Nabokov, we see a decisive loss of love for the reader – a loss of comity, of courtesy. The pleasures of writing, Nabokov said, “correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading”; and the two activities are in some sense indivisible. In Ada, that bond loosens and frays. [This is crucial, I think. Julian Barnes writes that there’s a “strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer and reader,” and it’s just that delicate and profound transaction that gets betrayed when writers fold in on themselves. The writer no longer makes the courteous effort to conceive, as he writes, the existence of a creature, a consciousness, separate from his own. Perhaps he tells himself he’s so powerful a writer that he’s creating a new consciousness in the reader, bringing the reader to greater heights of awareness, to a form of understanding analogous to the writer’s own, in forcing the reader to enter the writer’s hermeticism. But every careful reader instinctively senses the difference between a jarring aesthetic sensibility that changes her as she makes the effort to enter into it, and a sort of plugged-up verbal belligerency.]

There is a weakness in Nabokov for “partricianism”, as Saul Bellow called it (Nabokov the classic émigré, Bellow the classic immigrant). In the former’s purely “Russian” novels (I mean the novels written in Russian that Nabokov did not himself translate), the male characters, in particular, have a self-magnifying quality: they are larger and louder than life. They don’t walk – they “march” or “stride”; they don’t eat and drink – they “munch” and “gulp”; they don’t laugh – they “roar”. They are very far from being the furtive, hesitant neurasthenics of mainstream anglophone fiction: they are brawny (and gifted) heart-throbs, who win all the fights and win all the girls. Pride, for them, is not a deadly sin but a cardinal virtue. Of course, we cannot do without this vein in Nabokov: it gives us, elsewhere, his magnificently comic hauteur. In Lolita, the superbity is meant to be funny; elsewhere, it is a trait that irony does not protect.

In Ada nabobism disastrously combines with a nympholepsy that is lavishly, monotonously, and frictionlessly gratified. Ada herself, at the outset, is 12; and Van Veen, her cousin (and half-sibling) is 14. As Ada starts to age, in adolescence, her tiny sister Lucette is also on hand to enliven their “strenuous trysts”. On top of this, there is a running quasi-fantasy about an international chain of elite bordellos where girls as young as 11 can be “fondled and fouled”. And Van’s 60-year-old father (incidentally but typically) has a mistress who is barely out of single figures: she is 10. This interminable book is written in dense, erudite, alliterative, punsome, pore-clogging prose; and every character, without exception, sounds like late Henry James.

In common with Finnegans Wake, Ada probably does “work out” and “measure up” – the multilingual decoder, given enough time and nothing better to do, might eventually disentangle its toiling systems and symmetries, its lonely and comfortless labyrinths, and its glutinous nostalgies. [Lovely writing from Amis here in this list of items — and at this point, who could miss the alliterative sweetness of each? The letters T and S played out in the first; L in the second, G in the third — along with the devil-may-care making of neologisms — nostalgies… Sounds a bit French, which does nicely for Nabokov… Or, okay, not so much a neologism as the opposite: nostalgies is archaic.] What both novels signally lack, however, is any hint of narrative traction: they slip and they slide; they just can’t hold the road. And then, too, with Ada, there is something altogether alien – a sense of monstrous entitlement, of unbridled, head-in-air seigneurism. Morally, this is the world for which the twisted Humbert thirsts: a world where “nothing matters”, and “everything is allowed”.

But again, as Amis notes, Lolita will condemn everything is allowed, while the self-important convolution of Ada will appear to endorse it.

Amis on Nabokov: Part Four

Fourth part of a series of posts on University Diaries about an essay by Martin Amis on Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, has just appeared.

Left to themselves, The Enchanter, Lolita, and Transparent Things might have formed a lustrous and utterly unnerving trilogy. But they are not left to themselves; by sheer weight of numbers, by sheer iteration, the nympholepsy novels begin to infect one another – they cross-contaminate. We gratefully take all we can from them; and yet . . . Where else in the canon do we find such wayward fixity? In the awful itch of Lawrence, maybe, or in the murky sexual transpositions of Proust? No: you would need to venture to the very fringes of literature – Lewis Carroll, William Burroughs, the Marquis de Sade – to find an equivalent emphasis: an emphasis on activities we rightly and eternally hold to be unforgivable. [Amis seems to express his thoughts spontaneously here, as he asks himself questions, pauses, produces an ellipsis or two — it feels as though we are following, in real time, the movement of his mind as he attempts to clarify for himself the nature of Nabokov’s obsession, and the degree of condemnation — aesthetic, moral — he ought to bring to it.]

In fiction, of course, nobody ever gets hurt; the flaw, as I said, is not moral but aesthetic. [Something a little too quick and dismissive here, no? No fictional character gets hurt, true. But literature has profound effects upon us, and it’s no good insisting there’s a bright clear line between weightless pretend little stories and the big hefty actual world of moral and immoral human beings.] And I intend no innnuendo by pointing out that Nabokov’s obsession with nymphets has a parallel: the ponderous intrusiveness of his obsession with Freud – “the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world” of “the Viennese quack”, with “its bitter little embryos, spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents”. Nabokov cherished the anarchy of the inner life, and Freud is excoriated because he sought to systematise it. Is there something rivalrous in this hatred? Well, in the end it is Nabokov, and not Freud, who emerges as our supreme poet of dreams (with Kafka), and our supreme poet of madness. [Part of the attraction of this essay lies in its both confident and tentative feel. Amis, from the outset, is a deeply informed lover of the best literature, the sort of practitioner who knows exactly where to go for the most inspiring writing – the most lucid, controlled prose. Yet he also understands, and cherishes as much as Nabokov did, the anarchy of the inner life, and the right of each anarchist to a bit of privacy as he lives that life. And he understands that great literature often emerges, in some alchemical way, from a special sort of mucking about in that inner life — the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, Yeats called it. So Amis in this essay shows you his struggle between a desire to grant the artist’s inner life as much freedom as it likes, and a recognition that what Nabokov, as he got older, did with that freedom — aesthetically — produced both bad art and bad morality. The Freud point is particularly intriguing — that perhaps the root of Nabokov’s way over the top detestation of Freud was his sense that psychoanalytical thought is about bringing to the artist’s conscious awareness internal patterns of which the artist wishes to remain unaware.]

One commonsensical caveat persists, for all our literary-critical impartiality: writers like to write about the things they like to think about. And, to put it at its sternest, Nabokov’s mind, during his last period, insufficiently honoured the innocence – insufficiently honoured the honour – of 12-year-old girls. In the three novels mentioned above he prepotently defends the emphasis; in Ada (that incontinent splurge), in Look at the Harlequins!, and now in The Original of Laura, he does not defend it. This leaves a faint but visible scar on the leviathan of his corpus.

Soltan on Amis on Nabokov: Part Two

In this section of his essay (I’m being selective; it’s quite long), Martin Amis simply wants to establish Nabokov’s artistic control in Lolita, the way the text makes its condemnation of Humbert Humbert brilliantly clear to the careful reader:

Lolita’s … judgment of Humbert’s abomination it is … severe. To establish this it is necessary to adduce only two key points. First, the fate of its tragic heroine. No unprepared reader could be expected to notice that Lolita meets a terrible end on page two of the novel that bears her name: “Mrs ‘Richard F Schiller’ died in childbed”, says the “editor” in his Foreword, “giving birth to a still-born girl . . . in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest”; and the novel is almost over by the time Mrs Richard F Schiller (ie, Lo) briefly appears. Thus we note, with a parenthetical gasp, the size of Nabokov’s gamble on greatness. “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book,” he once announced (at the lectern), “one can only reread it.” Nabokov knew that Lolita would be reread, and re-reread. He knew that we would eventually absorb Lolita’s fate – her stolen childhood, her stolen womanhood. Gray Star, he wrote, is “the capital town of the book”. The shifting half-tone – gray star, pale fire, torpid smoke: this is the Nabokovian crux.

The second fundamental point is the description of a recurring dream that shadows Humbert after Lolita has flown (she absconds with the cynically carnal Quilty). It is also proof of the fact that style, that prose itself, can control morality. Who would want to do something that gave them dreams like these?

“. . . she did haunt my sleep but she appeared there in strange and ludicrous disguises as Valeria or Charlotte [his ex-wives], or a cross between them. That complex ghost would come to me, shedding shift after shift, in an atmosphere of great melancholy and disgust, and would recline in dull invitation on some narrow board or hard settee, with flesh ajar like the rubber valve of a soccer ball’s bladder. I would find myself, dentures fractured or hopelessly misplaced, in horrible chambres garnies, where I would be entertained at tedious vivisecting parties that generally ended with Charlotte or Valeria weeping in my bleeding arms and being tenderly kissed by my brotherly lips in a dream disorder of auctioneered Viennese bric-a-brac, pity, impotence and the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.”

That final phrase, with its clear allusion, reminds us of the painful and tender diffidence with which Nabokov wrote about the century’s terminal crime. His father, the distinguished liberal statesman (whom Trotsky loathed), was shot dead by a fascist thug in Berlin; and Nabokov’s homosexual brother, Sergey, was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp (“What a joy you are well, alive, in good spirits,” Nabokov wrote to his sister Elena, from the US to the USSR, in November 1945. “Poor, poor Seryozha . . . !”). Nabokov’s wife, Véra, was Jewish, and so, therefore, was their son (born in 1934); and there is a strong likelihood that if the Nabokovs had failed to escape from France when they did (in May 1940, with the Wehrmacht 70 miles from Paris), they would have joined the scores of thousands of undesirables delivered by Vichy to the Reich.

In his fiction, to my knowledge, Nabokov wrote about the Holocaust at paragraph length only once – in the incomparable Pnin (1957). Other references, as in Lolita, are glancing. Take, for example, this one-sentence demonstration of genius from the insanely inspired six-page short story “Signs and Symbols” (it is a description of a Jewish matriarch):

“Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.”

Pnin goes further. At an émigré houseparty in rural America a Madam Shpolyanski mentions her cousin, Mira, and asks Timofey Pnin if he has heard of her “terrible end”. “Indeed, I have,” Pnin answers. Gentle Timofey sits on alone in the twilight. Then Nabokov gives us this:

“What chatty Madam Shpolyanski mentioned had conjured up Mira’s image with unusual force. This was disturbing. Only in the detachment of an incurable complaint, in the sanity of near death, could one cope with this for a moment. In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself . . . never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because . . . the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind . . . but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.”

How resonantly this passage chimes with Primo Levi’s crucial observation that we cannot, we must not, “understand what happened”. Because to “understand” it would be to “contain” it. “What happened” was “non-human”, or “counter-human”, and remains incomprehensible to human beings.

By linking Humbert Humbert’s crime to the Shoah, and to “those whom the wind of death has scattered” (Paul Celan), Nabokov pushes out to the very limits of the moral universe. Like The Enchanter, Lolita is airtight, intact and entire. The frenzy of the unattainable desire is confronted, and framed, with stupendous courage and cunning…

Why is that sentence from the short story a demonstration of genius?

“Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.”

Well, for one thing… speaking of rereading… I’m always rereading “Signs and Symbols,” and not only because I teach it when I teach The Short Story. I read it all the time because it’s beautiful and mysterious. And this particular sentence that Amis cites always gets to me; it jumps out at me. I think it’s because it compacts into itself so much – the smartly listed attributes of Rosa, her farcical delight in bad news. She’s a comic Jewish stereotype, the woman who greets everyone she knows with Who died?

Having sketched her wild tremulous hyperactivity, Nabokov just as quickly has the Germans put all that hyperactivity to death – thereby conveying the staggering, naked rapidity of her murder, the instant sledgehammer of the real, as opposed to the soft, scattered, mainly fantasized disasters with which she liked to excite herself. Nabokov’s phrase “put her to death,” in this context, echoes sickeningly with the image of a parent calming a child and putting her to bed. The final phrase of the sentence – “together with all the people she had worried about” – carries a very strong force of restrained outrage; it seems the longterm result of a disgust so distilled as to become a sort of weird, sardonic stoicism.

‘Well, that’s just snobbery, isn’t it?’

Edith Pretty says this to the hilariously uppity archeologist, who disdains self-taught Basil Brown, in the film The Dig — and I gotta tell you, this film was MADE for UD. She has watched it three times already, and it’s clear she’s not done with it. A fictionalized account of the staggering Sutton Hoo discovery, it’s got everything UD: archeology, architecture, reading, philosophy, music, British accents (UD loves British accents), moody landscapes, true dark skies (Brown brings his telescope to Pretty’s rural firmament)… And UD ain’t alone! A just-released film she figured would attract an audience of a few dozen already ranks third on Netflix.

UD’s preferences here are exactly those of UD‘s mother – the trowel doesn’t fall far from the tree. A student of Wilhelmina Jashemski’s at the University of Maryland, UD‘s mother accompanied Jashemski on several digs at Pompeii … And UD‘s mother dragged wee UD herself, one hot summer, through all that site’s ins and outs (her mother’s association with Jashemski meant we got access to off-limits human casts and villas), which was wonderful but exhausting.

All those moment-of-death human bodies, all that vast charred living landscape – it was a morbid treat, in the way powerful unburied ruinous settings tend to be; and The Dig is exactly the sort of extended memento mori one would like, with Pretty’s impending death – and the possible death of Europe itself in the impending war – haunting the narrative. “What’s left of us?” “We die. We rot.” The film’s characters, gazing into the faint outline of a submerged sixth-century ship in the Sussex dirt, fall into this grubby nihilism all the time in the film; but they are always lifted out by friends and lovers, who voice a soulful faith in the human story of which we are imperishably a part.


But snobbery, now. What got me going on that?

Easy. The letter Christopher Hitchens’ widow and agent just sent to his friends and associates commanding them not to cooperate with a biography of him that’s in the works. So at odds, rhetorically, with Hitchens’ own relaxed and democratic voice, the letter was jarring to UD, a huge Hitchens fan.

We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher. We read his proposal and are dismayed by the coarse and reductive approach. We have no confidence in this attempt at the man in full. We are not cooperating and we urge you to refuse all entreaties by Mr. Phillips or his publisher, W.W. Norton. In solidarity…

I found the “in solidarity” particularly jarring, drawing as it does on a political tradition dear to Hitchens – that of the social justice left, as in his oft-expressed solidarity with democratic forces like the Kurds. It seems cheap of these authors to assume that mantle when the rest of the note locates them clearly in the trivial and off-putting realm (“dismayed,” “one,” “self-appointed”) of the literary mandarin.

They make no effort, for instance, to explain what in the manuscript is likely to be coarse and reductive; they simply high-handedly invoke these terms and let it go at that. Coarse is particularly problematic, since anyone who has read gobs of Hitchens and watched virtually all of the Hitch YouTubes knows he had no problem with coarseness – he exhibited it often, and made its relative absence in women one of the main bases of their inability (most of them) to be funny. Was it coarse for Hitch and Martin Amis to go trolling whores in New York City? I guess so. I mean, Hitch thought it was. Is his biographer supposed to overlook it, or somehow snob it up?

As David Nasaw writes:

Blue-Hitchens and [Steve] Wasserman are well within their rights to refuse to cooperate with this particular biographer, but by reaching out, as they have done, to so wide a universe of individuals who might have something to say on the subject, they are engaging in a sort of preemptive censorship, intended to frighten away not just this one writer but any others who might not, for one reason or another, pass muster with them.

Breath and Pulse

At George Washington University, where I’m an English professor, two students have committed suicide this semester, one in January, and one last month. A third student death has also lately taken place, not yet confirmed as a suicide.

All universities tremble a little, crouch a little, when suicides happen in succession like these; administrators know about suicide clusters, the weird capacity of the act to embolden others who might be leaning toward self-destruction, and they try to heighten scrutiny – through resident assistants and the like – of their student population in the aftermath of these events. Via their president, they issue – as GW’s president did – university-wide emails that remind people to take care of themselves and each other, to reach out to people who seem troubled, to make use of campus therapists, to call the following phone number if they think they might need counseling.

I’ve read, and blogged, about university student suicides – and other kinds of suicides – for years. I’ve read Hume and Durkheim and Camus. My father committed suicide. I’m teaching modern American poetry this year, which sometimes feels like a suicide-compendium. Each morning as I walk toward the end of the Metro platform on my commute to Foggy Bottom, a sign in front of the train tunnel implores me not to throw myself on the tracks. So many hurl themselves from the Golden Gate bridge that a decision has finally been made to install a mesh net.

Suicide, especially among the promising young, always shocks us; yet it is far from uncommon. Suicide, experts say, is a very impulsive act, and the young are inclined toward impulsivity. A lot of people seem to carry suicidal thoughts around with them from day to day, but it takes a special combination of personal attributes and environmental factors to actually make it happen. Being young makes it easier to make it happen.

When I hear (usually from colleagues) about a student suicide at GW, I tend to have one immediate feeling (pity) and one immediate thought (was this one of my students?). Then my mind goes to the last minutes of the person; I can’t help imagining the silent misery and desperation surrounding the act itself. Of the student suicides that have happened during my decades at GW, I tend to think most about the undergraduate woman who took the short Metro ride across the Potomac River from her dorm room to soulless Crystal City Virginia (a stark landscape of skyscrapers and parking lots), where she checked into a hotel and killed herself. I’m not sure why her scenario in particular moves me. Maybe her final gesture of removing herself from the social and intellectual buzz of a heady urban scene to the anonymous white noise of Crystal City evokes for me the gesture of suicide itself – the impulse to deafen yourself even to the most seemingly seductive blandishments of existence.

Martin Amis, in his autobiography, Experience, writes that “the writer is the opposite of the suicide, constantly applauding life and, furthermore, creating it, assigning breath and pulse to a ‘nonexistent prodigy.'” (The last phrase is taken from The Eye, by Vladimir Nabokov.) The creative writer may indeed embody suicide’s opposite principle, but this doesn’t stop surprising numbers of literary artists from ending their lives.

We are all, if you like, literary artists every day of our conscious life, telling stories in our heads about ourselves (“God, we simply must dress the character,” Stephen Dedalus broods in Ulysses), keeping journals that plot our progress through the world. Every morning we assign breath and pulse to the self we are as we rise. My teaching life has been about sharing not just formal poetic and fictive and dramatic narratives, but asking students to think about our informal universal demand for stories from our story-tellers – a demand that starts in early childhood. As we get older, we take over the task of narrating our life story and, like Scheherazade, keeping that narrative thread going for the sake of our survival. To teach literature is mainly to deal with successful story-telling: the finished novel, the realized poem. But it is also to remind students that the content of some of that successful literature will be the failure of characters to maintain their fictions. And that the larger story of some of this art will be the personal narrative failure of its flesh-and-blood creator.

A summer night.

Martin Amis says:

History has speeded up in the last generation, and that is antithetical to poetry. What a poem does, what a lyric poem does, is stop the clock and say we’re going to examine this moment. Shh! Stop the clock. And people are too hyper for that now. They don’t like to stop the clock. The clock is running too fast for them.

And also, a huge part of poetry is self-communion. When you read a poem, you’re communing with yourself in a deep way. People don’t like that. Why do you think they’re on their phones all the time? They don’t like being alone. They’re like children; they get all frantic if they’re alone, they feel lost. So people go around mumbling to their associates. And it’s not an introspective culture. They talk about dumbing down, but there’s also such a thing as numbing down. They don’t want to be sensitive.

If he’s right, summer would be the most poetic season, with winter coming in second, and autumn and spring tied for last. Summer’s the quietest, most becalmed, most stop-clocked of seasons – and thus the likeliest to prompt in poet and reader the hushed arrested introspective examination that generates the lyric. As in:

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.


Wallace Stevens never gets any verbal liftoff at all here. The poem’s a few repeated monosyllabic words, a few repeated phrases. A reader in a house becomes lost in her book – became the book became, with its echo of calm, becalmed; the distance from became to book is not all that great… book is the first syllable of became.

Not just summer – that’s not quiet and calm enough – summer night. Even calmer, quieter. As James Agee writes:

High summer holds the earth.

So introspective, so private is the setting that not only the reader’s self falls away, but also the physical pages and binding of the book itself, so that its expressive being, its entire meaning, floats out onto – becomes – the night air. The summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book.

The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

But the reader still wants to lean — the word is so close to learn that one almost reads it like that — over the book, wants the words to stay on the page and to be a thing that the reader can in a scholarly analytical way shape into Truth.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.

So here the summer night would be not the pure emanation of human expressivity, or let’s be even more ambitious and say the music of the spheres, but rather the perfected form of an unassailable philosophical truth the reader has gleaned from leaning over the book.

The reading, truth-seeking mind finds perfect outward conditions for the generation of perfect truth from the page: The world entirely quiets itself to allow truth to assume language. The profound silence of the summer night, from this point of view, would be the unanswerable “articulation” of the truth of being.

The reader, in other words, is someone who demands a verbally articulated Truth that she must lean over, glean, and learn, rather than someone who simply accepts a naturally, earthily articulated conscious being.

The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

The reader herself, as part of this calm world, is meaning – is the only meaning there is. The truth of this calm world is its pointless inarticulable pulsing being. The book has meaning, but the world only has being. The book, the reader of the book – these are meaning generators, meaning seekers. They project meaning into the world. But the world itself – which the utter silence and immobility of the summer night reveals – is meaningless.

Whisper to me.

“[A]s one gets older, and parents and peers begin to die, and the obituaries in the newspaper are no longer missives from a faraway place but local letters, and one’s own projects seem ever more pointless and ephemeral, … moments of terror and incomprehension seem more frequent and more piercing, and, I find, as likely to arise in the middle of the day as the night,” writes James Wood, in a New Yorker review of a book about secularism.

Like André Comte-Sponville, who, in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, celebrates as ‘atheist spirituality’ the experience of Rilkean moments of self-dissolution which allow one to feel the true being of the world and one’s natural place in it, the contributors to The Joy of Secularism (its cover archly done up to resemble The Joy of Cooking) argue that secularism is “not a negative condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of ‘fullness’ that religion has always promised.”

One of Joy‘s contributors, Bruce Robbins, extends Comte-Sponville’s ecstatic immanence, his worship of the earth and of humanity’s habitation upon it, beyond the mystically experiential, arguing that religious fullness – of meaning and value – may be derived from social action. Wood writes:

[Robbins] faults Charles Taylor for assuming that modern secular life “is beset with the malaise of meaninglessness.” Weber’s word for disenchantment, Entzauberung, actually means “the elimination of magic,” but it is a mistake to infer the loss of meaning from the loss of magic. If a malaise besets contemporary life, Robbins writes, it may have been produced not by the march of progress but by the faltering of progress — “by the present’s failure to achieve a level of social justice that the premodern world did not even strive to achieve.”

Here, Robbins, like many secularists, aligns himself with Camus’ existential defiance of meaninglessness through the free, creative, ascription of meaning to a Sisyphean world – a meaning which, founded on the human, and on the love of the human, would inevitably have social justice at its core.


But Wood points out that all the secular – indeed, all the religious – affirmation and comfort in the world can’t really stop us asking our “tormented metaphysical questions.” (Why is life so short? So inexplicable?) As Adam Phillips, a contributor to the Joys volume, says elsewhere:

There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail… [T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.

Indeed we prove recalcitrant even to the foundational project of spiritual calming, or at least spiritual clarity; we continue to harbor hatred of, and rage at, our stingy, undisclosing world. Wood quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

For one moment she felt that if [she and her companion] both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she said aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay!” The tears ran down her face.

Beautiful, joyous, vigorous, wise Mrs. Ramsay must be summoned from the dead to share her wisdom about life, and to tell us why she, so vigorous and good, had to die; yet she stays as silent as the friend Donald Justice addresses in his poem, Invitation to a Ghost:

Whisper to me some beautiful secret that you remember from life.


“The main condition of absurdity,” writes Thomas Nagel in a 1971 essay, The Absurd, “is the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanent, limited enterprise like a human life.” He anticipates the problem with Comte-Sponville’s atheist spirituality: we simply seem constituted toward transcendence, toward the positing and sensing of so much more than this. We try to allow ourselves to be dragooned (a gloriously absurd word, that) back into the limited enterprise of a human life, but we remain unconvinced; as soon as we get there, a collision occurs “between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.” When we’re truly earthbound, our curious but rather impressive “capacity to see ourselves without presuppositions, as arbitrary, idiosyncratic, highly specific occupants of the world, one of countless possible forms of life” is activated.

Hence our absurd predicament: We may have trouble believing in heaven, but we are, most of us, entirely unable to believe exclusively in earth. For us, things seem always to ramify, things are fraught, things are always spiraling outward with transcendent implication. Caught on an earth which ever catches us up, we’re in a predicament, writes Nagel, both “sobering and comic.”


If there’s not much disentangling absurdity discursively, there’s its aesthetic treatment (hence Wood’s recourse to Woolf), in which this dilemma is staged in ways that elucidate it and reconcile us to it.

In his preface to a selection of Philip Larkin’s poems, Martin Amis attempts to account for Larkin’s status as the best-loved of post World War II British poets. It’s odd that he’s so loved, given his sour – even ugly – personality, and what Amis rightly calls the “militant anti-romanticism” of the poems.

Seamus Heaney’s misgivings are probably representative: Larkin is “daunted” by both life and death; he is “anti-poetic” in spirit; he “demoralises the affirmative impulse.”

Yet of course Larkin, more powerfully than any other poet of his time, places himself precisely in the thick of absurdity; he is the emblematic sober and comic stick in the mud.

His greatest stanzas, for all their unexpectedness, make you feel that a part of your mind was already prepared to receive them – was anxiously awaiting them. They seem ineluctable, or predestined. Larkin, often, is more than memorable. He is instantly unforgettable.

We absorb him like that because he captures our recalcitrance to our projects, and even makes this recalcitrance sing. We recognize ourselves in Larkin’s resigned irony because so often that is exactly where we are. Larkin doesn’t whisper to us beautiful secrets; but he whispers our strange and even somehow beautiful truths.

Thomas Emma, once the captain of the Duke University basketball team…

.. and author of a series of books on strength conditioning, has killed himself.

He suffered from depression.

He jumped off the roof of the New York Athletic Club.


On the same day, an opinion piece in Emma’s city’s newspaper, The New York Times, features this phrase:

suicide is generally wrong


Indeed the opinion piece’s headline makes the wrongness of suicide paramount. It asks:



This is the writer’s second column, in the last couple of days, on suicide. In neither column does he even begin to hint at a justification for the claim that suicide — assisted or non-assisted — is wrong. Let’s see if we can do that.

There is an obvious religious way in which suicide is wrong. You are born by God, you live by God, you die by God. For many religious, taking your death into your own hands is – like abortion – denying the will of God in regard to the most basic of human realities. It is a sort of grotesque disobedience, a usurpation of divine powers, essentially unforgivable in its extremity.

Other spiritual traditions may not bring so punitive and outraged a rhetoric (and indeed damnation) to suicide, but they may well see it as … not exactly wrong, but, as the Buddhist Matthieu Ricard explains:

[W]anting not to exist any longer is a delusion. It’s a form of attachment that, destructive though it is, binds you to samsara, the circle of suffering existence. When someone commits suicide, all they do is change to another state, and not necessarily a better state either.

Here, suicide is just sort of stupid, since it doesn’t accomplish the surcease you’re after. On the contrary, it almost guarantees the unpleasantness of your next go-’round.

If you’re not part of a spiritual tradition in which the will of God or karmic action prevails, in what way is suicide wrong, or ontologically mistaken, and therefore to be rejected?

Here are three possible ways: One is the harm argument; a second is the antithetical-to-life argument; and, finally, there’s the cowardice argument.

Harm: Everyone knows that suicide hurts other people. When suicides write notes (apparently Tom Emma did not), they almost always include the words I’m sorry. Weighing on their minds as suicides do the deed is the shock and despair and guilt they’re handing people who love them, and they routinely ask their forgiveness.

Just as for the religious you are, in killing yourself, denying yourself to God, for human beings you are denying yourself to them. The act is the ultimate taking. Hence, suicide is wrong because it is cruel beyond reason.

Antithetical to life: In his memoir, Experience, Martin Amis writes that “because of what I do all day ,… suicides … are antithetical.” An artist, a writer, creates, makes something out of nothing. Her material is us — living breathing human beings and their ongoing dilemmas — and she needs us to be there, to keep at it.

When we check out, we take the air out of everyone’s tires. We threaten the fundamental, unthinking commitment we’re all supposed to have to the human comedy and our part in it. Life is good… or at least interesting… or at least compelling in its pleasures. Something like that. Each suicide is thus an intimately demoralizing act for the rest of us. Why persist? Why create? Who says life is good? Suicide is wrong because in killing oneself one ontologically puts at risk all of us.

Cowardice: Old age, people like to say, is not for sissies. All of life is full of challenges and deficits and sorrows and anxieties, and old age is of course rife with them; but, as the cliché suggests, only a sissy would take the easy way out. Life, under any circumstances, is a gift. Your life is a gift to you, and to others. Suicide is wrong because its commission makes you a supreme sissy, someone whose unseemly fear of existence itself blights your very being.


UD would argue that none of these three arguments succeeds in marking suicide as wrong.

No sex please, we’re British.

Good piece in the Guardian about the melancholy long withdrawing roar of sex from British novels. “[N]o one [is] writing much about sex any more.”

Some people blame it on the annual, hilarious Bad Sex Award, pantingly chronicled on this blog year after year. Writers live in dread of it.

Some say it’s a generational thing, with ‘sixties people (Martin Amis, for instance) still into it, but younger types bored.

I dunno. I doubt it’s even much of a trend.

But the article cites an exchange from the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial that UD very much likes. The author of the essay quotes from Kenneth Tynan’s reporting from the proceedings fifty years ago:

“[The crucial incident of the trial] occurred on the third morning during the testimony of Richard Hoggart,” [Tynan] observed, “who had called Lawrence’s novel ‘puritanical’. Mr Hoggart is a short, dark, young Midlands teacher of immense scholarship and fierce integrity. From the witness box he uttered a word that we had formerly heard only on the lips of [prosecutor] Mr Griffith-Jones; he pointed out how Lawrence had striven to cleanse it of its furtive, contemptuous and expletive connotations, and to use it ‘in the most simple, natural way: one fucks’. There was no reaction of shock in the court, so calmly was the word pronounced, and so literally employed.

“‘Does it gain anything,’ he was asked, ‘by being printed f-?’ ‘Yes,’ said Mr Hoggart, ‘it gains a dirty suggestiveness’.”

So. As I was saying.

Here’s this spectacular essay about Vladimir Nabokov by Martin Amis. Way better than any literary essay I’ve seen in a long time. And now that I’m back from my Saturday walk with Mr UD (Brookside Gardens. They were moody on a mid-November day. Burnished late fall leaves. Decorative lights laced through the trees. The sky was all gray and wavy and if gaunt branches weren’t a cliché I’d report gaunt branches.), maybe we should walk through this wondrous prose. So wondrous that we will forgive its multiple misspellings.

Language leads a double life – and so does the novelist. You chat with family and friends, you attend to your correspondence, you consult menus and shopping lists, you observe road signs (LOOK LEFT), and so on. Then you enter your study, where language exists in quite another form – as the stuff of patterned artifice. Most writers, I think, would want to go along with Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), when he reminisced in 1974:

“. . . I regarded Paris, with its gray-toned days and charcoal nights, merely as the chance setting for the most authentic and faithful joys of my life: the coloured phrase in my mind under the drizzle, the white page under the desk lamp awaiting me in my humble home.”

Well, the creative joy is authentic; and yet it isn’t faithful (in common with pretty well the entire cast of Nabokov’s fictional women, creative joy, in the end, is sadistically fickle). Writing remains a very interesting job, but destiny, or “fat Fate”, as Humbert Humbert calls it, has arranged a very interesting retribution. Writers lead a double life. And they die doubly, too. This is modern literature’s dirty little secret. Writers die twice: once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.

What do you see, from the outset?

I see confidence — the strong initial assertion about language, an assertion whose meaning we don’t yet know. Yet precisely the confidence of assertion coupled with the mystery of the assertion’s meaning draws us forward. He’s put it in second person – you – and that makes sense, because he’s a novelist, like Nabokov, and he gets what novelists are about. They spend much of their time in the same utilitarian language world the rest of us inhabit; but they also inhabit a private world rich with the “stuff of patterned artifice.” (Note the poetic phrase here – the repeated sound of the letter T: sTuff / paTTerned / arTifice. The very idea of artful writing – its patterned artifice – is exemplified, brought to linguistic life, in the lilting words Amis has chosen.)

After the lovely praise of writerly inspiration he quotes from Nabokov, Amis begs to differ from it a bit. In fact inspiration isn’t faithful; as a writer ages, he can’t rely on it at all. Talent dies. Think of Philip Larkin, arguably the greatest English-language poet after the modernists, who stopped writing poetry years and years before his death because whatever power had been inspiring him to write poetry withdrew.

Notice how from the start Amis lightly, easily seeds his essay with exactly pertinent quotations from Nabokov, a practice that both deepens our understanding of Nabokov and reassures us that we are in the hands of an essayist who knows his work intimately.

Nabokov composed The Original of Laura, or what we have of it, against the clock of doom (a series of sickening falls, then hospital infections, then bronchial collapse). It is not “A novel in fragments”, as the cover states; it is immediately recognisable as a longish short story struggling to become a novella. In this palatial edition, every left-hand page is blank, and every right-hand page reproduces Nabokov’s manuscript (with its robust handwriting and fragile spelling – “bycycle”, “stomack”, “suprize”), plus the text in typed print (and infested with square brackets). It is nice, I dare say, to see those world-famous index cards up close; but in truth there is little in Laura that reverberates in the mind. “Auroral rumbles and bangs had begun jolting the cold misty city”: in this we hear an echo of the Nabokovian music. And in the following we glimpse the funny and fearless Nabokovian disdain for our “abject physicality”:

“I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around, and everything connected with it – the wrong food, heartburn, constipation’s leaden load, or else indigestion with a first installment of hot filth pouring out of me in a public toilet . . .”

Otherwise and in general Laura is somewhere between larva and pupa (to use a lepidopteral metaphor), and very far from the finished imago.

Even as he’s writing in sorrow (he reveres Nabokov, but this last unfinished work is terrible), Amis is linguistically playful, echoing Nabokov’s twisted, antic ways. This is lively, fun prose, with its butterfly homages and alliterations (following, funny, fearless).

Apart from a welcome flurry of interest in the work, the only thing this relic will effect, I fear, is the slight exacerbation of what is already a problem from hell. It is infernal, for me, because I bow to no one in my love for this great and greatly inspiring genius. And yet Nabokov, in his decline, imposes on even the keenest reader a horrible brew of piety, literal-mindedness, vulgarity and philistinism. Nothing much, in Laura, qualifies as a theme (ie, as a structural or at least a recurring motif). But we do notice the appearance of a certain Hubert H Hubert (a reeking Englishman who slobbers over a pre-teen’s bed), we do notice the 24-year-old vamp with 12-year-old breasts (“pale squinty nipples and firm form”), and we do notice the fevered dream about a juvenile love (“her little bottom, so smooth, so moonlit”). In other words, Laura joins The Enchanter (1939), Lolita (1955), Ada (1970), Transparent Things (1972), and Look at the Harlequins! (1974) in unignorably concerning itself with the sexual despoiliation of very young girls.

Six fictions: six fictions, two or perhaps three of which are spectacular masterpieces. You will, I hope, admit that the hellish problem is at least Nabokovian in its complexity and ticklishness. For no human being in the history of the world has done more to vivify the cruelty, the violence, and the dismal squalor of this particular crime. The problem, which turns out to be an aesthetic problem, and not quite a moral one, has to do with the intimate malice of age.

That should be despoliation, by the way.

But now we have Amis gradually shifting from his general point about the failure of talent as even the greatest writers age (there are exceptions – Bellow wrote Ravelstein in his eighties), to his particular point about the form that failure took in Nabokov. And again, via his subtle, knowing extraction of just the right bits from Nabokov, Amis establishes that writer’s deeply unpleasant obsessive recurrence to the theme of sex with very young girls.

An aesthetic, but not quite a moral, problem, he says. What does that mean? As with his initial provocative assertion, one wants to know more.

The word we want is not the legalistic “paedophilia”, which in any case deceitfully translates as “fondness for children”. The word we want is “nympholepsy”, which doesn’t quite mean what you think it means. It means “frenzy caused by desire for the unattainable”, and is rightly characterised by my COD as literary. As such, nympholepsy is a legitimate, indeed an almost inevitable subject for this very singular talent. “Nabokov’s is really an amorous style,” John Updike lucidly observed: “It yearns to clasp diaphonous exactitude into its hairy arms.” With the later Nabokov, though, nympholepsy crumbles into its etymology – “from Gk numpholeptos ‘caught by nymphs’, on the pattern of EPILEPSY”; “from Gk epilepsia, from epilambanein ‘seize, attack'”.

doesn’t quite mean what you think it means. This is sassy writing, taking liberties with the reader — You think it means this, but it doesn’t. And note how his use of the second person has sort of shifted from being about himself and other writers — as if he were writing this to himself as a sort of exhibitionist meditation — to being a direct address to you out there. You, me, the lot of us reading this essay… The use of the second person is always a touch insolent, with its implicit presumption — you think this, you’re wrong about that — but I think we rather like that insolence. It perks us up, makes us consider whether we want to be defensively at odds with it, or uneasily okay with it, etc.

Amis quotes from another spectacular writer, John Updike, to get at the underlying reason for Nabokov’s nympholepsy; he was a messy, compromised, and corrupted animal searching always for the uncorrupted “diaphonous exactitude” (diaphanous is spelled incorrectly) of youth. But at some point he lost control of the hunt and became the hunted; he fell into a nymphetic frenzy.

More later. Dinner break.

Get a load of…

…this spectacular essay by Martin Amis. I’ll have more to say about it as soon as I cool down from a major raking of leaves.

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