- The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America by Martin Amis
Cape, 208 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 224 02385 3
Martin Amis begins this collection of ‘left-handed’ (i.e. journalistic) pieces by deploying two standard topoi. The first is the modesty topos, duly described by Curtius, though under the tendentious title of ‘affected modesty’: ‘I am inadequate to the subject; I haven’t really done enough work, etc.’ ‘Oh, no doubt I should have worked harder,’ writes Amis, ‘made the book more representative, more systematic, et cetera. It remains, however, a collection of peripatetic journalism.’ He goes on to say that it’s quite hard work xeroxing from bound volumes of periodicals, and that the actual writing of the pieces put him to some trouble. So much for modesty. The second topos, unnoticed by Curtius, might be named ‘accidental book-writing’. Somebody asks you to write a book about America, and, riffling through your clippings, you discover to your gratified surprise that you’ve already written it. Many of us have had this experience, peering hopefully at our disject reviews and essays, written in all probability when we should, in our own opinion, have been doing something more right-handed, more systematic, more serious. It’s like having a baby without knowing you’re pregnant: no nausea, no check-ups, just the bother of getting the layette together in a hurry. Alas, such pregnancies are usually of the phantom variety, and the product, like that of the usurer’s wife in the folktale, turns out to be nothing but a little moneybag. He who depends on the accidental book-writing topos had better use the modesty one as well.
Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986
SIR: Frank Kermode’s ‘pregnant’ simile in his review of Martin Amis’s The Moronic Inferno (LRB, 24 July) is rather muddled, isn’t it? ‘It’s like having a baby without knowing you’re pregnant: no nausea, no check-ups, just the bother of getting the layette together in a hurry. Alas, such pregnancies are usually of the phantom variety …’ Alas for Frank Kermode, they are not! He is linking together two completely different things.
A woman who has a baby without knowing she is pregnant undoubtedly has a baby in the end, but, as far as physical awareness goes, has no pregnancy. On the other hand, a phantom pregnancy is all pregnancy and no baby at the end. I once had a most distressing encounter with a phantomly pregnant woman and so can speak from some experience. We had both, for some months, been attending the ante-natal clinic of a well-known London maternity hospital and were at the six-months stage when the encounter happened. This was many years ago (the result of my own pregnancy at that time is now the father of my four grandchildren), and in those days one was given a rather more extensive examination at the six-months stage than one had been subjected to hitherto. This examination resulted in the discovery of the woman’s non-pregnant state. However, at that time she looked far more pregnant than I did, and her preparations for the phantom baby’s arrival were far more advanced than were my own: she even had the pram and cot ready, and was, naturally, extremely upset at being told there was to be no baby. I found the encounter distressing partly because of a natural sympathy with the woman’s distress, but also, in some degree, because of the frightening insight it gave me into the terrible powers of the subconscious mind. It was brought home to me, with unforgettable emphasis, that this can produce in us physical symptoms and manifestations for which there are, in reality, no physical reasons or necessities. In this particular case, the manifestations were palpable enough to deceive not only the unhappy woman herself but her GP, who would have referred her to the maternity hospital, and the doctors and nurses with whom she came into contact during the several months that passed before the true state of things was revealed.
I have never been able to feel myself absolutely certain of anything since that time.
Frank Kermode writes: I had a feeling that all was not well with my obstetrical trope, and am grateful to Mrs Simon for explaining how it miscarried.