A roll of fallen literary heroes: John Updike, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, further back to Robert Heinlein and Paul Theroux, now, perhaps, joined by Haruki Murakami. Writers whose work once replied to inner urgent whispers, now induce a gelid indifference. Is it that the stream of human events, deaths, loves, sadnesses, journeys, alters our literary needs so that once cherished books cease to offer cathartic release? Or is our literary sensitivity attuned by a higher nutrient diet, purged by Samuel Beckett, J. M. Coetzee and Virginia Woolf? Who are your fallen literary heroes?
It was only after his death that I begun to read Christopher Hitchens. Unconsciously I had ignored his work, associating him with the fraternity of English bloviators that were his friends: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.
I’m reading his last book of essays Arguably and, though they are not without a familiar pomposity, quite enjoying them. As a proficient essayist Hitchens is able to interest me in subjects as diverse the early nineteenth century Barbary Wars (the first US ‘War on Terror’), Benjamin Franklin’s wit and the death penalty.
Though only a quarter of the way through this 788 page volume I am so far hooked, not only by the diversity of subjects, but the penetrating quality of his well-researched essays. His Nabokov and Newton essays are so far my favourites. Here’s a taster of the Nabokov, a review of Lolita, which succeeds in offering me new insight into a well-loved fiction.
Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless game of decoding the puns and allusions and multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may be allowed) that give this novel its place next to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to agree with Freud that the unconscious never lies. Swinburne’s poem Dolores sees a young lady (‘Our Lady of Pain”) put through rather more than young Miss Haze. Lord Byron’s many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thin soft cheek a parent’s kiss,” and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold’s absent daughter (who like Byron’s child and Nabokov’s longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert’s first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to Byron’s first wife, Anna Isabella, who was known as “Annabella,” and she has parents named Leigh, just like Byron’s ravished half-sister Augusta.
At Bellow’s memorial meeting, held in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, two years ago, the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed on non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal.
From Christopher Hitchens’s review (2007) of two Library of America collections of Bellow’s fiction. In Arguably this easy is entitled Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator (pages 62-63).
Though I’d agree with the central premise of McEwan’s position, I’d couple Bellow and Philip Roth as heirs to European classicism.
Although I have read Barnes and McEwan fairly extensively, I find myself agreeing with Josipovici’s argument:
Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.
The insight of that analysis is precise and powerful.
Josipovici also summarised my own recent response to Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man:
While great novels deal with complex events beyond the full understanding of both the characters and the reader, too many contemporary works follow traditional plots with neat endings, he said.
Referring to graduates, like McEwan, of the University of East Anglia’s famous creative writing course, Josipovici said: “They all tell stories in a way that is well crafted, but that is almost the most depressing aspect of it — a careful craft which seems to me to be hollow.”
Its all a tad depressing having two favourite authors lowered from their pedestals, but Josipovici describes the process of disillusion with considerable insight. The criticism is timely. I have been pondering what serious novel I can read with any conviction after reading Ulysses. Joyce’s book makes so much that I planned to read paler by reflection.
I am looking forward to reading Josipovici’s forthcoming What Ever Happened to Modernism?