Frank Kermode

  • 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.

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