Visiting Mrs. Nabokov
These “excursions” take Martin Amis as far afield as China and America, and his subjects range from darts to nuclear weapons, but he finds human nature is the same everywhere. So whether in Europe or New York or his native London, he punctures pretensions and deflates rhetoric, with less ridicule than sympathy, but always with a keen eye for human foibles and vulnerabilities. He does not spare himself, and one of the most engaging essays in this collection concerns the price he pays for boozy bravado during an emergency plane landing.
Amis’s irreverence flags only with writers he esteems, such as Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, V.S. Pritchett, Vladimir Nabokov, and Salman Rushdie. As a highly regarded writer with a thorough grasp of his craft, his views on these men are weighty and convincing. His accounts combine a novelist’s eye for details of character and setting with a native flair for turning a phrase. However, his wit seems keener when he is less reverent, as with Roman Polanski, Anthony Burgess, John Updike, and especially Philip Larkin. In his memoir of England’s poet laureate, an old family friend, Amis creates a poignantly funny portrait of Larkin as an eccentric bard of discontent.
The rest of the essays are often not as humorous at their tone would have us think. Most are casual pieces — author interviews, travel pieces, or reports from dim corners of English life, like the darting world or a West Indian street carnival. These last do offer the charms of slumming; it is not clear, on the other hand, why ESQUIRE paid him to play snooker or poker with famous friends and write about it. Fortunately his cultural reporting is generally successful, especially his views on this country. From the 1988 Republican convention to the filming of ROBOCOP II to the self-marketing of Madonna, Amis depicts America as a bizarre melange of the self-promoting and dehumanizing.
The majority of pieces this book are no more memorable than most journalism, but their author comes across as a marvelous traveling companion. Compassionate, ironic, learned, Martin Amis is a specimen of that literary type found few places but England, the man of letters.