Friday, March 17, 2017

The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 by Martin Amis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart."

While reading The War Against Cliché (2001), a voluminous collection of literary reviews by Martin Amis, has been a lot of fun it has also been a deeply humbling experience. Comparing Mr. Amis' deep, witty, polished reviews with my own attempts is like comparing paintings by Velázquez with a toddler's smears. The reviews in the collection are gorgeously written and very funny, often viciously and sarcastically funny. At the same time the reviews expose the author's cynical and common-sense outlook on our crazy world. Mr. Amis is an extraordinary writer in terms of the literary technique. In fact, I much prefer his reviews to his fiction (I have reviewed several novels on Goodreads, for instance, Time's Arrow , Success , and many more), which - although interesting and very readable - are no match for the excellence of his literary reviews.

I guess my admiration for this collection is mainly due to the fact that Mr. Amis addresses several topics that are my idées fixes about literature and its perception:
1. Most books are too long.
2. Cliché is a rot that begins on the surface of a book, i.e. in the language, and diffuses toward its deeper layers: moods, emotions, meanings.
3. Readers might benefit by shifting their focus from the story told in a novel to the artistry of the story teller.
4. Nothing in art conveys reality better than well-written fiction.
(After the rating, I include Mr. Amis' quotes that illustrate the above four points.)

Quite a few reviews in this set are devastating and devastatingly funny. About Michael Crichton's writing: "Animals [...] are what he is good at. People are what he is bad at. People, and prose." Thomas Harris' Hannibal is obliterated as a "novel of such profound and virtuoso vulgarity." Andy Warhol's self-absorption and vacuousness are made severe fun of. And on the topic of "funny": there is a passage in the review of Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, which is one of the funniest anecdotes I've heard in my life. I strongly recommend checking out the story to which the punchline is "That's how good Drenka was."

Mr. Amis conveys his loving admiration for great literature and offers extended analyses of works he calls "Great Books": among them Don Quixote, Ulysses, and Lolita. Yet another wonderful feature of this collection is that the pieces are engrossing even when they are about things that do not interest me in the slightest, such as football and poker.

Four and a quarter stars.

Some great quotes:
On books that are too long:
"There are two kinds of long novel. Long novels of the first kind are short novels that go on for a long time."
Alas, the majority of long novels fall into this category. On the second item in my list above the author writes:
"Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart. Cliché always does."
Nabokov's quote (on Emma Bovary's reading habits) re-quoted by Mr. Amis illustrates the third item:
"The subject may be crude and repulsive. Its expression is artistically modulated and balanced. This is style. This is art. This is the only thing that really matters in books.
And on the power of fiction:
"[...] when fiction works, the individual and the universal are frictionlessly combined."

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