Dickens and Martin Amis
Martin Amis’s novel, London Fields, has created problems for its reviewers, some of the most intractable of which have been Amis’s own suggestions – some made within the book, some not; some made playfully, some not – concerning the place of the narrator/novelist, not in the novel he writes and acts in, but in the literary tradition to which he may be said to belong. Amis himself, from what I can gather, tends to place his Sam among the contemporary American novelists: Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov and Philip Roth. Indeed, it may be that he works too hard for the novel’s good to reinforce Sam’s modern American ancestry, and that the Nabokovian and Bellovian aura that he is lent fails to contribute, as it were, to the novel’s economy.
London Fields makes passing references to Dickens, and so does Julian Symons in his review of the book (LRB, 28 September 1989). Symons aptly compares Amis’s Keith Talent with Dickens’s Quilp, from The Old Curiosity Shop. The book of Dickens’s that I have in mind, Our Mutual Friend, makes a less pointed, but possibly more important contribution overall to London Fields. Dickens’s novel has an inoffensive social butterfly named Twemlow; Amis’s has a rankly offensive champion darts player, Kim Twemlow. Amis’s Guy Clinch – ‘rich handsome stupid honourable’, as Symons describes him – is often described by the fictional novelist Sam as a tool, or a fool. ‘I know who will be the foil,’ he says on his first page, ‘the fool, the poor foal, also utterly destroyed.’ In Our Mutual Friend, Bradley Headstone’s bungled attempt on his rival Eugene Wrayburn’s life only serves to reveal to Lizzie Hexam her previously sublimated love for that apparently caddish young man. Lizzie and Eugene go on to marry, to Headstone’s despair. As Dickens says (Book Four, Chapter 15), Headstone ‘had dipped his hands in blood, to mark himself a miserable fool and tool’. Amis, it seems to me, may have gone further, drawing upon, and imaginatively transposing, the whole of Dickens’s fatal triangle – Headstone-Lizzie-Wrayburn – in making that triangle his own: Guy-Nicola-Keith. Finally, we might be right to see in the dénouement of Amis’s novel what Symons describes as a parody of the conventions of the detective story. We might be right, too, to compare that ending to some of Nabokov’s fictional manoeuvres. However, we might remember that if ever any novelist made a name for himself by ruthlessly despatching his characters, either for bathetic effect (Little Nell), or simply to rid himself of someone his audience didn’t care for, that novelist was Dickens.
This is not to say that Amis is guilty of going under false pretences where Sam is concerned; he is not ‘guilty’ of anything at all. Only, it may be that a novelist will strive to leave an impression on his readers by every power at his disposal – for example, that his narrator is a Jewish American novelist transplanted to West London – and still fail to leave that impression if the novel finds it not to the purpose. Similarly, the novelist may advertise his dependence on some aspect of the literary tradition, while the novel itself draws on an altogether different dependence.
Germans and the German Past
Professor Nolte’s ‘revisionist’ thesis, that the policy and practice of the Third Reich towards the Jews was ‘in no sense unique’, might have carried more weight with J.P. Stern (LRB, 21 December 1989) if Nolte had made some mention of the Armenian genocide of 1915 among the episodes he compares to the Jewish Holocaust. For this widely unrecognised genocide does have a bearing on the Nazi atrocities: Professor V. Minorsky noted, in the Forties, that ‘it is an astonishing coincidence that Hitler (from evidence produced in Nuremberg) suggested that the extermination of enemy races could be carried out with impunity in view of human forgetfulness.’ ‘Who now talks of the extermination of the Armenians?’ were Hitler’s very words when he gave orders on 22 August 1939 to his ‘Death’s Head Units’ to kill without mercy all men and women of the Polish race.
Making and breaking
Any account of the creation of the Health Service would be a complex tale and no one – not even Rosalind Mitchison (LRB, 21 December 1989) – can make a fully-documented history as easy to digest as a pamphlet on the plight of poor children. A few printing errors do not impede understanding or justify the ridicule that pours from her mean-spirited pen. Sir Douglas Black, an eminent member of the medical profession, found much to praise in my book, citing its lively writing style as well as its historical thoroughness (British Medical Journal, 18 November). Peter Hennessy, Britain’s foremost authority on the Civil Service, found it ‘packed with new stuff’ – Mitchison fails in her duty as a reviewer to indicate what this consists of.
Let me cite the more salient points: 1. The book shows vividly how civil servants can dominate policy-making within a government department. Not until Bevan became Minister did their influence wane. It was Sir John Maude, the Permanent Secretary, who conceived the initial plan for a salaried service under municipal control, and he even showed it to the Secretary of the British Medical Association before he cleared it with his own minister. 2. The study describes for the first time how the consultant service developed, revealing the tortuous tactics Lord Moran pursued in an attempt to remove GP-specialists from the hospital world. Not until Bevan nationalised the hospital service did he have any hope of success and that explains why Moran supported the Minister so strongly. 3. Bevan’s bête noire – Dr Charles Hill, the BMA’s fiery Secretary – was surprisingly less hostile in private than in public. In May 1946, he told Bevan’s Permanent Secretary what it would take to force GPs into the service, isolating abolition of the sale of practices as the last ‘big outstanding point’ and making GPs ‘swallow it’. That is precisely what happened two years later. Hill deserves to go down in history not as an opponent but as an unsung hero of the Welfare State. 4. Uncertainty still surrounds the origin of Bevan’s decision to nationalise the hospital service, but we now know that it was opposed by two of the leading civil servants in the Ministry of Health-Sir Arthur Rucker, Deputy Secretary, who was anxious to preserve the voluntary hospitals, and Maude, Permanent Secretary until Bevan took over, who aided Herbert Morrison in his efforts to retain local-authority control of municipal hospitals. 5. New light is thrown on the reasons why Britain abandoned the insurance principle in 1948 and created a comprehensive service based on taxation. Beveridge, who initiated the movement, was influenced by pressure from the Trade Unions who, like the doctors, wanted to abolish the approved societies that administered cash benefits under the National Health Insurance system.
Of course, I know what the ‘dole’ was, but Mitchison fails to understand that many of the unemployed did not see it as an alternative because of the means test and other conditions involved.
Rosalind Mitchison writes: There seems to be a gulf between the concepts of an author’s obligation to his or her readers as held by Frank Honigsbaum and myself. But, as his letter shows, he can write clearly when he is annoyed, so there is always hope of bridging the gulf.
Touché by Michael Mason (Letters, 21 December 1989) about Wordsworth’s moon in ‘Strange fits of passion …’ But I am sad he thought my review ‘disfigured by hostility towards Wordsworth’. Coleridge said everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian, and maybe we are all by nature either Coleridgeans or Wordsworthians. When Barbara Pym was asked in an interview why she was so hard on men in her novels she wanted to reply: ‘Oh but I love men.’ Mutatis mutandis, I am equally attached to Wordsworth and to Coleridge, but in different ways: no other two poets need to be – have to be – taken more subjectively. Incidentally, I was not reviewing two books on Coleridge and one on Wordsworth, but one on Wordsworth, one on Coleridge and one on his daughter.
St Catherine’s College, Oxford
I was puzzled to see Keith Flett (Letters, 7 December 1989) ascribe to Charter 88 – and Mary Beard – an ‘all-pervading pessimism about the possibilities of real change’. Consider its demands: PR, a Bill of Rights, a democratised second chamber; consider its achievement of, as Beard wrote, ‘involving women and men in a new set of discussions about what the ingredients of politics should be’. How ‘real’ do changes have to be? Granted, pessimism sets in when we survey the political landscape which Charter 88 will have to traverse. Here Flett is acute, noting the Left’s historic ‘failure to organise independently of Stalinism and Fabianism’. The Left’s ability to achieve this independence will be crucial to the success of Charter 88’s radical democratic project, which is unfamiliar territory to Fabians and anathema to Stalinists (and most Leninists). I must, however, dissent from Flett’s apparent belief that organising independently of (etc) is a simple matter of paying adequate attention to one’s Marx, and that it has never yet been done. To criticise the legacies of Fabianism and Bolshevism from the standpoint of a commitment to both democracy and socialism, and to win significant numbers of people to that critique, is a long and difficult task. It is, however, a task which has occupied years of many people’s lives, from the first New Left on.
Keith Flett should take heart. There is much about Charter 88 which we, as democratic socialists, find immensely positive – not least the fact that a ‘campaign for real democracy’ can gain such wide support. Charter 88 is not an agenda for socialism, but that should not lead socialists to deride it as meaningless, reformist, bourgeois. The line of Marx’s which Flett quotes – ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – referred to the transformation of society by the bourgeoisie.
Socialist Society, London Wl
I presume that Doris Lessing’s piece (LRB, 11 January) is intended as a challenge. I’m therefore submitting just three titles. London Blitz novel: Strike the father dead by John Wain. Burma War novel: A Soldier Erect by Brian Aldiss. Business novel: The Admen by Shepherd Mead.
Justice for John Lehmann
Jean MacGibbon may rest assured that Lehmann and New Writing are not forgotten (Letters, 7 December 1989). A collection of essays titled John Lehmann: A Tribute, edited by Professor A.T. Tolley, was published by Carlton University Press, Ottawa in 1987. Next year Edwin Mellen Press will be publishing John Lehmann’s ‘New Writing’, comprising an author-index to the 60 volumes of the magazine compiled by my wife Ella Whitehead, and a long introductory essay.