Sunday, December 12, 2010

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions by Martin Amis

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993) is the most purely journalistic of Amis' essay collections. In the introduction he states dismissively "Writing journalism never feels like writing in the proper sense. It is essentially collaborative: both your subject and your audience are hopelessly specific" (p. ix). That specificity plays against a reading of this book 18 years later, much of it feels very dated. The collection of essays is essentially random "Getting out of the house is the only thing that unites the pieces in the present book" (p. ix).

There are many delectable tidbits. He interviews Salman Rushdie in exile. We learn from Graham Greene that "I never eat vegetables. Castro was shocked..." (p. 4). The review of Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak is unintelligible without having read the book. Amis has amusing comments about the tennis player Gabriela Sabatini - "Her beauty alone scares the life out of her opponents - because tennis is above all an expression of personal power and, i the women's game, is closely bound up with how she looks" (p. 64). He has a great piece about chess. "Let us take an average experience of chess. You master the moves, start to play frequently, buy a book or two, learn some ground-rules, some openings, develop a little 'vocabulary', a bit of 'pattern recognition'...After a while you notice that you have stopped improving. Your progress, so far, has felt like a slow ascent along rising ground; then you pause, look up, and see a cliff face almost beyond the dimensions of the globe, whose crest is merely a false summit, itself the first of many" (p. 84). He comments on Bobby Fischer's sense of decline in the game it had "an air of ubi sunt" (p. 85), meaning 'where are' (those who were before us) ? He picks on Dan Quayle's famous gaff at the 1988 Republican Convention in New Orleans - "The question today is whether we are going forward, or past to the back" (p. 108). Oops, shoulda been "back to the past."

Regarding John Lennon, "I felt a sense of shock well beyond what I felt at the deaths of the Kennedys and Luther King" (p. 185). He trashes the Rolling Stones at Earl's Court (1976), but applauds Madonna, who possesses a "protean quality, her ability to redesign herself" (p. 263), and is "the most post-modern personage on the planet" (p. 256). In the Introduction he says "The great post-modern celebrities are a part of their publicity machines, and that is all you are ever going to get to write about: their publicity machines" (p. viii). He reviews her book Sex, which "merely confirms that she is exhausting her capacity to shock" (p. 261). She is "a masterpiece of controlled illusion" (p. 264). By the way, he only reviews the book because she rebuffs him on the interview opportunity.

Amis' greatest literary influence was Vladimir Nabokov. He suffered enforced exile from revolutionary Russia, the hyper-inflation of Weimar Germany, a precarious stay in France as the country fell to the Germans, and last minute escape (Véra is Jewish) to the U.S. Amis visits widow Véra Nabokov at the Montreaux Palace Hotel (where she had taken residence) in 1981, ten years before she died. They are joined by Dmitri, her only son. When he died in 1977, they were entrusted with Nabokov's literary executorship, devoted to the full time job of translation of Nabokov's novels. Also fascinating is the existence of samizdat printings of Lolita. It is curious (some would say not) that Véra is the only woman he talks to (Madonna snubbed him) in the entire book.

Amis reveals small bits of himself, including his expulsion from grammar school in Battersea, South London. "I had been 'expelled', and felt all the heaviness of this rejection" (p. 188). Ultimately, it was his good fortune - "I had far less to fear than those who remained" (p. 188).

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