When I read about or hear talk of Martin Amis, I am always reminded of Hugh Walpole. Who he? you might ask. Exactly. Who he? But that is the point I am making. Walpole (you can find a potted biography of the chap here) was, for many years in the Twenties and Thirties, the popular novelist, celebrated by everyone who mattered, made wealthy through his work and generally l’homme du jour. But: who he? Amis fulfils rather the same role. Years ago, when he was all the rage, the Eighties’ l’homme du jour and one of the young Turks of Anglo-Saxon literature, I tried to read a novel by Amis, but couldn’t. Not only did it not grab me — one reason for that might be that I was the wrong demographic, being, in the mid-Eighties, already in my mid-30s, but I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. (Will Self another: keeps using obscure words and I can’t but suspect that all he wants to do is make us sit back in admiration.)
Since then, of course, Amis (see here if you are in the slightest bit interested. I’m not but there’s no harm in being charitable) has remained, for those who take these things seriously, in the literary spotlight, although he is by no means any more a young Turk, but has followed in his father Kingsley’s footsteps to become a voice of modern reaction. I suspect that he us still rather prosperous because when the going was good and he still was a name, he cracked the U.S. market and still has sufficient readers there to pay for the Highgate flat and weekend cottage. The U.S. market is so vast that even an also-ran with comparatively poor sales seems to be able, to a certain extent, to cream it. Amis must be in his 60s (er, like me), and I doubt he will be quoted or remembered 30 years from now.
I thought of Hugh Walpole (‘who he?’) and then Amis because I was looking up a quotation. It is something a character said in the film I’m All Right, Jack, a character called Fred Kite, a Communist shop steward (played by the incomparable and highly neurotic Peter Sellers) who is the foil to Ian Carmichael’s young toff working on the shop floor and who falls for Kite’s very pretty daughter. During a conversation when Carmichael is asked for supper at the Kite household, Kite waxes lyrical about Soviet Russia and his lines highlight the fatuous nature of those benighted folk who continued — and continue — to support Joe Stalin despite knowledge of his murderous ways becoming widespread. “Ah, Russia,” says Kite, “all them corn fields and ballet in the evening.” Or not, as we now know.
Looking up that quote, I came across the name Alan Hackney (which sounds as though it is made up, like my fictitious shop steward Ken Vauxhall, but isn’t). Hackney, according to his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, ‘wrote some 30 screenplays, countless television scripts, half a dozen novels – including an international best-seller – and contributed comic pieces to Punch for several decades’. The film I’m All Right, Jack, was based on his novel Private Life, and he also wrote the screenplay.
And the point of it all? Alan Hackney: who he? Barbara Pym, who she? There was a time, believe it or not, when people were asking ‘Johann Sebastian Bach: who he? Despite his widespread reputation during his lifetime both as a an outstanding musician, improviser and composer, Bach was forgotten and almost entirely obscure until he was ‘re-discovered’ 100 years after his death.
Walpole, Pym, Hackney to which we might add Sillitoe, Lawrence, the Flemings (Peter and Ian) and any number over nameless Victorian writers. Who in his or her right mind would be intent on making their name in literature. A fool perhaps. Someone like me. The only definite outcome is bitter, bitter disappointment.