Spring Books Preview: Martin Amis, Plane Speaking


There are few things the British press enjoys more than giving its least favorite son, Martin Amis, a hard time. In his memoir, Experience, the comic novelist speaks of “all those months of crucifixion” in 1994 when the tabloids took a malign delight in luridly embellishing the details of his divorce, his break with longtime friend Julian Barnes, and his chronic dental problems. The evisceration of his novels by critics has become routine. Tibor Fischer, who happened to have a novel coming out the same week as Amis’s Yellow Dog (2003), described the book as “not-knowing-where-to-look bad” and compared the experience of reading it to discovering “your favourite uncle [. . .] in a playground, masturbating.”

Last year, however, it seemed, for a while at least, that they had found something a little more substantive to complain about. In an interview in August 2006, given a week after the British government announced it had foiled an Al Qaeda plot to blow up 10 transatlantic airliners, Amis went on record as saying the following: “There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms.”

At the time, these remarks passed largely without comment. A year later, however, Terry Eagleton, the Marxist professor of literature at Manchester University (where Amis now teaches creative writing), wrote an article in which he claimed that Amis had “advocated a deliberate programme of harassing the Muslim community in Britain.” A cascade of public indignation soon followed, in which the words “racist,” “bigot,” and “Islamophobe” were generously doled out. According to a piece by Ronan Bennett in The Guardian, Amis “got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time.”

Of course, Amis was not “advocating” anything but merely expressing an “urge”—an ugly and destructive urge, to be sure, yet one that very many people were no doubt feeling at the time. Perhaps, given the ulcerated sensitivity of the issue, he could have gone a little further out of his way to clarify the difference, and it should be made clear that he has since explicitly rejected the idea of systematically harassing British Muslims. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “the harshness Amis was canvassing was not in the least a recommendation, but rather an experiment in the limits of permissible thought.”

Such experiments are, of course, what Amis does best. His flare for geopolitical analysis, however, remains to be seen. His new book, The Second Plane, is a collection of essays, reviews, and stories published since the terrorist attacks of 2001. What makes it so engaging is not so much the substance of its comments on the Middle East and global terrorism—many of which often seem as though they belong on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal—as the evolving picture it gives of a practicing novelist trying to justify the continued relevance of imaginative work at a time when the imagination appears to be “fully commandeered, and to no purpose.”

“After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001,” Amis writes, “all the writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin menacingly urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of profession.” Yet the climate of competing fanaticisms in which these pieces were written, and the apparent diminution of creative work that it has brought about, also helps him to clarify the enduring value of his profession: “Literature—the aggregate of written works—has always been the most persistent candidate for cultification, partly because it nonchalantly includes the Bible and all other holy texts. It also has an advantage over conventional faiths in that there is, after all, something tangible to venerate—something boundless, beautiful, and divinely bright.”

The Second Plane: September 11, Terror & Boredom by Martin Amis, Knopf, 224pp., $24, April

Spring Books Picks

Blood Kin

by Ceridwen Dovey, March

Divided into a series of monologues spoken by the chef, barber, and portraitist of a recently ousted ruler who are now all being held hostage by the new regime, South African writer Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel is a tense and sparsely written fable on the erosion of our moral principles by the promise of material comfort and security—or, as Upton Sinclair put it, on how difficult it is “to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” Viking, 183 pp., $23.95

Eternal Enemies: Poems

by Adam Zagajewski, March

Like his forebear Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski has set himself the not inconsiderable task of praising—or attempting to praise—a world vandalized and disfigured by the horrors of contemporary history without sounding mawkish or effete. Accordingly, his verses are full of “yellow rivers swollen with corpses” and “executioners” who “sing joyfully.” But Zagajewski is determined, as one of his titles has it, not to let the lucid moments dissolve. Translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh, FSG, 128 pp., $24

On Empire: America, War, & Global Supremacy

by Eric Hobsbawm, March

Probably the most knowledgeable, authoritative, and well-known living historian, at age 91 Eric Hobsbawm has turned his attention to the chaotic and ominous times in which we currently live, a world shaped “by the decision of the U.S. government in 2001 to assert a single-handed world hegemony, denouncing hitherto accepted international conventions, reserving its right to launch wars of aggression or other military operations whenever it wanted to, and actually doing so.” The outlook, in a word, is bleak. Pantheon, 128 pp., $19.95

The Silver Swan

by Benjamin Black, March

The Irish writer John Banville, whose masterpieces Shroud, The Untouchable, and The Book of Evidence constitute the foremost examples of what might be called large-sweaty-man lit, has been taking a break from the verbal luxuriance and explorations into the abyss of the human ego that have characterized his work to date by writing crime fiction under the moniker Benjamin Black. Last year’s Christine Falls introduced us to the amicable Dublin pathologist and boozehound Quirke, who comes to discover that his adopted family is masterminding a transatlantic baby-smuggling operation. In The Silver Swan, what looks like the suicide of an old friend starts the now sober Quirke on another journey of similarly hideous and improbable proportions. Henry Holt, 290 pp., $25

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

by David Hajdu, March

Before Internet porn, gangsta rap, and even rock ‘n’ roll, the task of threatening the moral fabric of American society belonged to the comic book. Responding to the appearance of this lurid and affordable new form in the mid-1940s, the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers proclaimed, “The criminal and sexual theme of these tales have [sic] been the direct contributing cause of many incidents of juvenile delinquency and to [sic] the imbedding of immoral and unhealthy ideas in the minds of our youngsters […] The police power can and must be exercised so as to eliminate the vice of objectionable comic books.” In this wry piece of cultural history, David Hajdu, the author of Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, has written an acute satire on the twin vices of sanctimoniousness and hysteria, which are, after all, as old as America itself. FSG, 435 pp., $26

Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and About Mayakovsky

Edited by Michael Almereyda, April

When he shot himself in the heart on April 14, 1930, Vladimir Mayakovsky was a few weeks shy of his 38th birthday and one of the most renowned poets in Soviet Russia. Though he was embraced by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and John O’Hara (as well the Man of Steel himself, Joseph Stalin), current readers and writers have been less receptive to Mayakovsky’s tumultuous and scathing Futurist verse: “Comrade life,/let us/march faster,/March/faster through what’s left/of the five-year plan.” This is the first fresh English translation of his work to appear in over a generation, and it comes complete with various reminiscences by those who knew him and the chaotic, disintegrating world he wrote about. FSG, 304 pp., $27

Sea Change

by Jorie Graham, April

Jorie Graham’s intricate, sophisticated, and mercurial poems have long been one of the splendors of contemporary American literature. In her latest book, she turns her attention to death, and the result is perhaps her finest collection yet. Ecco, 80 pp., $23.95

Posthumous Keats

by Stanley Plumly, May

At an age when most people would be happy to have secured a college degree and a full-time job, John Keats had already written some of the greatest poems in the English language. Keats died at 25 from tuberculosis, and Shelley’s words in “Adonais,” his elegy for him, have so far proved accurate: “till the Future dares/Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be/An echo and a light unto eternity!” Writing against the grain of contemporary wisdom on the subject, poet and academic Stanley Plumly has produced a moving and insightful book on the supposedly outmoded idea of literary immortality. Norton, 400 pp., $25.95