‘The Rub of Time’ forms a working miscellany of the non-fiction prose of novelist Martin Amis, dating from 1994 to 2016. Given his proclivity for tightly phrased narrative and dialogue in his fiction, it comes as no surprise that this volume is articulate, intelligent, and ruthless in its observation of the world.
The subjects covered are refreshingly diffuse, with Amis’ reflections ranging from lawn tennis to the American Presidency, via John Travolta and Saul Bellow. Broadly arranged around the areas of personal life, literature and politics (with some additional subjects peppered throughout) Amis appears to be equally at home in commenting on John Updike’s aesthetic encounters with the American healthcare system, as he is in parodying Donald Trump’s hairstyle (which he caricatures as a ‘woodland animal’ teetering on the then presidential candidate’s head).
Amis’ political observations can be acerbic, but also lend themselves to tremendous pathos (his meditation on the death of Neda Soltan in Iran is particularly affecting), and his literary criticism is vivified by the curiosity of a reader as well as the inside knowledge of a practitioner. Throughout the prose is lucid, economical, learned, and deeply suggestive – the one exception being an obscenely unreadable treatment of the porn industry.
Spiritually this is an elusive book. The whole volume is bookended by interaction with Vladimir Nabokov. While the concluding piece celebrates the love between the author and his wife Vera, the opening article wrestles with ‘the problem from hell’ – Nabokov’s fixation on young girls in his novels. Amis judiciously wrestles with the salacious content of Nabokov’s work, but ultimately fudges the fallenness of the novelist’s obsession by writing it off as an aesthetic rather than moral problem.
In eulogising the then gravely ill Christopher Hitchens, Amis appeals to him to renounce atheism in favour of agnosticism. ‘When I hear a man declare himself an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself an individualist’. The agnostic remains open to ‘the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being called (hesitantly) the multiverse’. This idea of grandeur, of wonder, punctuates all of the pieces in this book. For Amis writing is something connected with the soul, a ‘spooky art’ (a la Norman Mailer) and not a materialist enterprise at all.
Nabokov aside, Amis also has a sharp moral sense. The aforementioned chapter on pornography carries the weight of aversion therapy even in its opening paragraphs, and political figures are broadly assessed via the category of character rather than policy.
This is a stimulating and intelligent book, embodying a polymathic engagement with the world around us, deriding duplicity, extolling creativity, and hinting from time to time at the transcendent world which just might lie beyond the weight and scope of an intellect like that of Amis.
The Rub of Time
JONATHAN CAPE, 2017