13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 37

Savaging the author is replacing hunting the fox

The phenomenon of Martin Amis puzzles and intrigues me. He seems to arouse a passion and hostility based on envy that are quite incommensurate with his literary importance or success or genius — or the absence of it. He figures constantly in the gossip columns or pseudo-news stories, never without a note of malice_ The reviews of his latest novel, some of which I have read, seem animated by systematic hatred or malign delight at his supposedly failing powers. How is it that so many denizens of that panier de crabes, the London literary world. want to dig their pincers into him? He has obviously earned too much money for them to stomach, pulled too many beauties, rated too many headlines, and has had far more fun than patience will allow. And now, the time being ripe, the cowardly pack has closed in for the kill.

By contrast, I have always felt a little sorry for Amis, whom I remember as a child, frail but luminous, tiny but somehow significant. Old Kingsley must have been a marvellous father in many ways: like Evelyn Waugh, he could make his children laugh endlessly with unforgettable fantasies and imitations. But Kingsley, being an only male child, was selfishness personified, neglectful in fundamental ways, and his infidelities and the family chaos they generated made it hard for Martin's mother to do her duty. Had it not been for the efforts of Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had the strong sense of responsibility of her class, Martin might never have got the education his talents deserved.

As it was, however, he learnt to enjoy the limitless felicities of the English language, building on his father's obsession with words, and the joys of manipulating them, to construct a verbal religion of his own. He is not the writer for me, I fear, for I see the first page of a novel as a picture-frame, inviting me to look at the start of a narrative landscape, peopled by one or two intriguing characters, with the promise of more to follow. If I like what I see, I step into the frame and lose myself in its contents, wandering at the bid of the author into fear and laughter, triumph and tragedy, quite oblivious to the world beyond the frame until, the last page read, I step outside it again. In short, I need a compelling story, enacted by characters in whom I can believe and whom I can love or hate. Martin did not provide this; indeed his father did only in three books, Lucky Tim, Ending Lip and The Old Devils. I recall discussing the problem with Kingsley not long before he died, and telling him that to bring off the trick three times was an enviable achievement.

Martin is not a teller of golden tales but a word-master, a syllable-smith, a magician of the telling or teasing or convulsive phrase, a writer who jabs tiny morphemes or gross etymons into his pages until they blaze, rather as Turner, on Varnishing Day, used to scumble prodigious quantities of flake-white, flaming with crimson or orange, on to his canvases, until they glowed fiercely, extinguishing their neighbours. This may not be great novel-writing, but it is a contribution to literature of a sort, and perhaps of a significant and durable sort, which will charm future readers, just as Cesar Franck's harmonies beguile composers today even though they do not think much of his symphony.

In any case, this mugging of a professional writer by aimless gangs of critics is an odious spectacle, gruesomely typical of the way in which the media turn on individuals, be they royalty or politicians, sportsmen or entertainers, or just celebs or nobodies who have wandered on to the stage of events by accident. A character is built up into fame, then hunted down into notoriety and oblivion by newspaper and television, in the great blood sport of our age, in which human suffering and humiliation provide entertainment for millions and well-paid employment for media hound-dogs, motivated not by animal instinct but by greed and sadism. But in the case of Martin Amis we cannot blame journalists; it is his fellow writers who scream the view-halloo.

Such collective shooting parties are surely new. Shakespeare's envious contemporaries scrapped with him as individuals. Milton was bruised by political disaster and blindness, not by venomous pens. Keats may have been murdered by The Quarterly, and Coleridge was certainly hounded by Haziitt, who savaged his works even before they were published. But such assassins believed great public issues were at stake; they felt they were engaged in a literary war, as did the frenzied audience who fought at the first night of Hemani in 1830, But Amis is not a political or public figure in this sense. He neither advances nor opposes any heated principle. He is a professional writer making a living for wives and ex-wives and the progeny thereof, hoping to entertain his readers in the process. As Dr Johnson so

justly observes, 'There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.'

Besides, Martin critics in the book world always tend to bring into their requisiwires aspects of his private life that evidently grate on their susceptibilities. They burrow and pry, or rather take advantage of the prying of professional gossip columnists. Literary men and women have always contended with the natural evils of their trade, but they were usually allowed a few secrets. Dr Johnson felt at times that he was being watched, but no one. until his death at least, dwelt publicly on his peculiar marriage or his neglect of his mother or his strange relationship with Mrs Thrale — the padlocks in his cupboard were not made to rattle in his lifetime. Hazlitt's escapade in the Lake District did not become public knowledge, and if his humiliation at the hands of his landlady's snaky daughter did, that was entirely his own doing by publishing his Liber Amon's. Wordsworth's illegitimate French daughter remained arcane. Thackeray was never harassed over his tragic infatuation with Mrs Brookfield and its cruel outcome. When George Eliot chose to live in sin with G.H. Lewes, the usual social consequences followed in some quarters but her choice was never held against her in reviews of her novels. Indeed, though she was not sortable in the ordinary way, she went everywhere she chose and presided over a literary salon of impressive deference and severity. Dickens's fame has never been equalled in European literature, and he himself chose to announce his rupture with his wife. But little or no censorious comment followed in the prints, and no efforts were made to hunt down Miss Ternan. Equally, Victor Hugo, almost as famous as Dickens, was not persecuted when caught in flagrante delicto with a married woman, who was promptly sent to prison under the then regime des moeurs, while he pleaded his peerage and remained at liberty.

It has been a different matter since the first world war. If we except the peculiar case of Oscar Wilde, who may be said to have asked for it, Kipling was the first literary fox, hunted by the Bloomsbury and academic pack. Hemingway was another, Camus a third. But even in these cases politics was a factor. Today the cult of celebrity, egged on by the literary-prize game, has inspired a bloodlust which seeks cruelty for its own sake, and bodes ill for literature,