There is something tiresome about our intellectuals. I am reminded of this when I hear Martin Amis promote his latest book.
It is trying because Amis has become predictable, particularly when accounting for the writer’s process and plight. He will inevitable refer to Nabokov and Updike approvingly; Hemingway as the ‘other’ (Bragg 2000)*; give a nod to Shakespeare and maybe his father, his buddy Clive James or Philip Larkin. His namedropping extends to his own ‘old guard’ – the familiar cast the late Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie.
Whether intentional or not Amis conjures up the idea of a a sort of intellectual meeting room, where a lofty, nonchalant and erudite air of intellectual curiosity is kept alive. After Hitchens’ passing Vanity Fair arranged a filmed tribute with speeches from the usual suspects. Amis contributed an archetypal scene where Hitchens, Amis “and others settled down for 16 or 17 hours for food, drink, tobacco, conversation …” and related Hitchens’ verdict: “What could be more agreeable?!”.
It seems Amis is attempting to suggest a reenactment of the Greek intellectual ideal – the symposium. Populated with a loyal and successful intellectual mafia, he creates an image of himself belonging to a particular set., reassuring both the public and himself that such an intellectual group is still out there.
Reflecting on the need for belonging to a community of intellectual friends – and the need to communicate it – I am reminded of Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize speech:
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
Maybe Amis is indulgent? Maybe afraid of loneliness? Either way, his need to be mollycoddled is boring, especially as an established writer.
Bragg, Melvyn. 2000. “Masculinity in Literature.” In Our Time. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00546lx.
*See Note §83 for more on this episode of In Our Time.