1p Review: Visiting Mrs Nabokov and The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis

A couple of years ago, I went to interview Keith Deller, 1983 World darts champion. He took the crown in one of darts’ most famous matches, an upset win over the allegedly unbeatable Crafty Cockney, Eric Bristow. In the pre-Sky, four-channel era, the final went out on one of those nights when everyone in the country seemed to be having their tea in front of the box, and Keith rounded off the victory in style with a 138 finish, a number that to this day is known reverentially as ‘the Deller Check-Out’ in arrows circles.

Keith is a very nice man indeed, funny and kind. His current job, when he’s not off on cruise ships or corporate days with Bristow, endlessly re-staging their final (‘I spend more time with him than I do with my wife’), is as a ‘spotter’ for Sky Sports. He sits in the broadcast truck and tells the director and the commentators which way the current titans of the oche are likely to finish, so that the camera can linger on the correct bed. It keeps the wolf from the door.

Luckily, the interview was for a simple Q&A – lucky for two reasons. The first was that I got the chance to ask Keith about the other highpoint of his career, as the early model for (and partial namesake of) Keith Talent, the indelible bad guy and aspiring darts champion in London Fields. The second was that I didn’t need to write about darts, because that could not be done better than it was by Martin Amis, and not just in London Fields.

Darts: Gutted For Keith’ appeared in the Observer in 1988, and is collected in Visiting Mrs Nabokov, published six years later. Amis wrote it as a kind of warm-up for London Fields, to ease himself in the darters’ headspace. He gleaned a lot from his trip to Enfield with Deller and the then-number one player Bob Anderson, aka ‘The Limestone Cowboy’. He was tickled by the name Keith, which had already done service for a dwarf in Dead Babies, but Deller’s world offered him much more, like the grudging acknowledgment of someone else’s good play (the single word ‘darts’, uttered under the breath), plus dirty jokes, brilliant competitions (Deller had also won the Double Diamond Masters, surely the inspiration for the Sparrow Masters that Keith Talent yearns to enter), and an idea of just how good at darts you have to be to be good at darts. Yet ‘Darts: Gutted For Keith’ is not research: it remains the best piece written on the subject (admittedly not the widest field) and exists as a rebuke to most of what passes as feature writing in the current Sundays.

In Visiting Mrs Nabokov, it sits alongside several other articles – ‘Watford In China’, ‘Tennis: The Women’s Game’ and ‘Chess: Kasparov versus Karpov’ – as some of the best sports writing you’ll read. Amis was a superlative journalist, as Visiting Mrs Nabokov [1993] and The Moronic Inferno [1986] — both available for a penny from Amazon — show. Not in the reporting sense – he wasn’t a story-breaker, he didn’t go through anyone’s bins or pop up on the frontlines of Srebrenica – rather, as he says in one of his intros, his journalism was of the type that got him out of the house. And whilst he was out, he was an amiable and interested companion, a dazzling observer and best of all a lethal and cold-hearted phrasemaker. Here he is on Mick Jagger, during an ill-fated trip to Earl’s Court to watch the Rolling Stones: ‘He does not really dance any more: it’s simply that his head, his shoulders, his pelvis, both his arms, both his legs, both his huge feet and both his buttocks are wriggling, at great speed, independently, all the time’.

And here he is, in The Moronic Inferno, on Brian De Palma and Scarface: ‘Even with an award-winning writer [Oliver Stone], an award-winning star [Al Pacino] and an unlimited canvas [$22 million and three hours of screentime] De Palma showed no inkling of human complexity: Scarface might as well have been called Shitface for all of the subtlety he brought to the monotonous turpitude of Tony Montana’.

De Palma is fantastically rude to Amis throughout their meeting, and yet Amis warms to him hugely, as he does to many of the people he visits. And, perhaps because his ego is assuaged by his fame in other spheres, he is able to remove it from his writing. His encounter with an ageing, ailing Truman Capote in The Moronic Inferno ends with him asking Capote to sign his copy of Music For Chameleons: ‘Rousing himself, Truman sat up and began to fuss with his pen… To my alarm I realised he had forgotten my name, if he indeed had ever known it. He sniffed and looked up cautiously: ‘The name’s Tony isn’t it?’ he croaked. ‘No, it’s Martin’, I said, trying to make Martin sound quite like Tony…’.

Then he is off to see Norman Mailer, and is soon in awe of the great novelist’s excess: ‘Mailer has accumulated six wives and eight (or maybe nine) children. He is obliged to earn over $400,000 per year to stay abreast of alimony and tuition fees. Last year his summer house was confiscated by the taxman. He has received, and spent, a $635,000 advance on an unwritten novel. And he is still half a million dollars in debt’.

Mailer is one of his favourite subjects: there are three pieces on him in The Moronic Inferno, and Amis uses them to show, brilliantly, the difference in scale between here and there. But he can write equally well about JG Ballard and his Shepperton semi, about Graham Taylor and Philip Larkin and second division football.

There is an eerie familiarity to some of this. The Stones, for example, are accepted as well past it – ‘the two or three new Jagger-Richards’ compositions left the audience embarrassingly cold’ – yet the piece is from 1976, when the Stones’ latest album was Black And Blue, in retrospect their halcyon days. Now they really are past it, but Mick’s dancing is still uncannily the same. But those days are gone too. Mart has, of late, lost all his mirth and he doesn’t write this kind of thing any more, even if he could find a paper that would run it. Significantly, perhaps, there’s very little about politics in either of these books, save for a goggle-eyed glimpse of Jerry Falwell and a piece on Ronnie Reagan and his beloved nukes.

Keith Deller remembered Martin Amis fondly, and still had his copy of London Fields. ‘He met my wife too,’ Keith said [his wife is called Kim, also the name of Kim Twemlow, Keith Talent’s darting hero]. ‘And the girl’s the bad one in the book isn’t she? I always say to her, ‘he got you right, love, didn’t he!’…’

Jon is the author of Muscle and (the brilliant and unforgettable – Ed) The Years of the Locust.
Do you want to recommend a book that can be bought for a penny online? Email your nomination and review to editorial@thedabbler.co.uk
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About Author Profile: Jon Hotten

Jon writes about cricket all over the place, is the author of Muscle and The Years of the Locust and also has his own fine cricket blog called The Old Batsman.

11 thoughts on “1p Review: Visiting Mrs Nabokov and The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis

  1. Brit
    May 9, 2011 at 09:19

    can write equally well about JG Ballard and his Shepperton semi, about Graham Taylor and Philip Larkin and second division football.

    Sounds like Amis would make a good Dabbler, I’ll have to ask him next time I bump into him.

    I’m buying these – not sure why I haven’t already, as ‘War Against Cliche’ and ‘Experience’ are brilliant and I prefer his non-fiction to the novels.

    “…trying to make Martin sound quite like Tony”…Heh heh. It’s a shame if he has ‘lost all his mirth’…

  2. will@agentletheoryofrubbish.com'
    Will Rubbish
    May 9, 2011 at 11:21

    I must admit that I enjoyed the first part of this review very much. It nearly, so nearly, made it to the end without..

    Ever since Amis let the side down by refusing to follow the literary left into Gallowayan politics, there’s been the guarantee of applause for anyone who’ll take a stab at him. Nor will anyone who decries his recent work find themselves wanting for company.

    But this a trend, not, in my opinion, a truly sustainable thesis. Most reviews aren’t actually about Amis anymore: they’re about the reviewer, sending a dogwhistle out to everyone in that world that they’re on message, with the team, that they get it, that they get it, that regardless of the substance of the arguments, you choose Eagleton, not Amis.

    “Significantly, perhaps, there’s very little about politics in either of these books, save for a goggle-eyed glimpse of Jerry Falwell and a piece on Ronnie Reagan and his beloved nukes.” That’s an almost incredible statement: the two collections are saturated with politics. But the books date from a time when Amis’s anti-nuclear, powerfully feminist, mixed-economy stance was acceptable speech to the point, perhaps, of invisibility. He’s still all of these things.”Political” is when you disagree..

    But it’s all out of date. He has basically refused to spend time looking over his shoulder making sure he’s thinking what “everyone” is thinking. Doesn’t he KNOW that the enlightenment is now de trop? That it’s islamophobia he should be fretting about? Even the editor of the Lancet is up there on stage, screaming. And Israel. Martin, just call for its destruction at the ICA: is it too much to ask?

    He could get them still by writing a few cheques, so to speak. A couple of years saying the right things, and the next novel’s a dramatic return to form! Throw in a mea culpa, and we’ll even grant you “reassessment” and “a fresh look” at your “strangely neglected” “middle work.”

    (FWIW, “Yellow Dog” is probably Martin Amis’s equivalent of “Jake’s Thing”, the bad book that isn’t actually all that bad but which clearly came from a bad place. “Pregnant Widow” is excellent and thought-provoking in a way the novels from his youth never were. I recommend it).

  3. Gaw
    May 9, 2011 at 13:50

    It’s a pity that, much like his father, Martin Amis has developed into what used to be known as a saloon-bar bore (not sure saloon bars exist anywhere now). I reckon he comes out with his calculatedly offensive opinions simply to get attention.

    His latest unpleasantness – about needing to be brain-damaged to write in the register [sic] of children’s literature – did indeed get him attention. But what an ignorant and unpleasant opinion! Someone who’s enjoyed the enjoyment of children being read a good book would struggle to come out with this stuff – unless they were a bore who’s only objective was to get a rise.

    I suspect it’s symptomatic of a straining for effect that is all too apparent in his fiction, the problem setting in around about the time of the self-consciously portentous London Fields. It’s probably no coincidence his truly excellent playful journalism petered out a little later.

    But then you may want to discount all that as I’m sure to be part of a vast anti-Amisian conspiracy….!

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      May 9, 2011 at 20:44

      Perhaps he’d just seen where JK Rowling was on the Sunday Times Rich List when he came out with that one…

  4. Gaw
    May 9, 2011 at 14:01

    Great review by the way. He was a truly great feature writer, wasn’t he? Is there a lot less of this sort of excellent journalism about now? It’s probably always been in short supply. However, I suspect journalists today write too much.

  5. jonhotten@aol.com'
    May 9, 2011 at 19:48

    Gaw, you’re right I think, he is turning into Kingsley in many ways. He’ll look exactly like him in a few years, too… Wish he’d just write something funny again, just for the hell of it.

  6. jonhotten@aol.com'
    May 9, 2011 at 20:07

    Will, I think you credit me with too much nous – I wasn’t trying to suggest anything about his more recent work other than he seems quite burdened by life and what he feels about it. I really enjoyed The Pregnant Widow too – the vignette where Adriano goes on the parallel bars will live forever. That kind of thing is his greatest gift, I think, and his journalism had it too.

  7. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    May 9, 2011 at 23:50

    Forget about that Amis wallah, your description of the game of darts Jon makes it seem, for the first time for me, very interesting indeed, more please. Until now the only thing of interest, darts wise, was that immortal comment “Jockey Wilson’s fit”

    The man was stood there, under the lights, vision impaired by cigarette smoke, his belly overhanging his trousers, sweating profusely, a pint in his non-dart mitt, a Capstan full strength dangling from his bottom lip and visibly shaking.

    The mind trembles at the thought of a, then, unfit JW.

  8. Gaw
    May 10, 2011 at 06:03

    This post has now dove-tailed nicely with the previous Horny Pop one – anyone who saw Dexy’s perform Jackie Wilson Said in front of a huge blown-up portrait of the near-eponymous dartist on Top of the Pops won’t forget the sight.

  9. will@agentletheoryofrubbish.com'
    Will R
    May 10, 2011 at 10:01

    Funnily enough, Gaw, I did think that the children’s fiction thing was another example. But I’m not, or I’d have used the word, talking about a “conspiracy” – that word belongs to the mad or to the police. Instead this is about how an opinion can distribute and generalise without it necessarily standing up to close scrutiny.

    Here’s the original quotation about children’s books.

    “”People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book,” Amis said, in a sideways excursion from a chat about John Self, the antihero of his 1984 novel Money. “I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

    “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write,” he added.”

    Basically, he’s treating the question as if he were, let’s say, the artist Francis Bacon and someone were asking him if he’d ever thought of drawing for Walt Disney. It’s a deep view that he holds about the nature of fiction and the nature of genre. You have to yank it quite hard to turn it into a comment about the mental state of children’s authors. He’s saying that I, Martin Amis, would not be able to write children’s fiction without betraying what I’m best at, and I won’t betray what I’m best at.

    It’s pretty clear that the Guardian grabbed the one phrase about brain damage and then rang around a series of children’s authors, fed it them and asked for killer quotes. Cue disgust and outrage. I’ve some sympathy for the writers concerned, because they ended up playing a newspaper’s game, and that’s always creepy to witness.

    And I come back to my original analysis: that at any given time, there are some subjects on which it is de rigeur to speak loudly and some on which it has become old fashioned to do so.

    For example, the whole burkha issue has muddied feminist discourse. But that doesn’t put a feminist into the same category of person as the bar-room bore going on about immigrants. One is an expression of ideological panic as anti-racism and anti-sexism collide. The other – well, we’ve all met the other.

    And what the other doesn’t do is think, reflect or contextualize. Terry Eagleton tried to turn Amis’s comment about his reaction to seeing his little daughter frisked at an airport – that if Muslims don’t sort their act out, they are going to have to face severe sanctions until they do – into a plank of Amisian opinion about race and religion. In other words, Eagleton took advantage of the ideological collision to revive a specifically literary dislike of his. Clever, given that Amis’s analysis of Islamism is heavily based on a feminist outlook. Clever too in that Amis is an agnostic who does not line up with his friend Christopher Hitchens on the religious issue in that sense, but Eagleton managed to make him look as if he did. All of which managed to inspire others to join in and drown out Amis’s reflections on his comment, his feelings at the time of the incident and his actual long-term feelings on the matter (which are anti-sanctions, funnily enough, although you’d expect that from a traditional 70s leftie).

    I’ve gone on wayyyyyy too long on this of course, and I did enjoy Jon’s piece very much! But I do think that the current trend view on Amis has unpleasant origins, and there may be value in putting up an alternative view.

  10. rosie@rosiebell.co.uk'
    May 11, 2011 at 20:41

    I own both of these books and they’re good journalism. I remember a fairly crap essay on AIDS and one on Roman Polanski which pointed out how weird and creepy he is decades before the story on him surfaced again. Amis, when he knows what he’s talking about, is excellent. When he doesn’t – i.e. anything about politics – he’s thin and unconvincing.

    I can’t read his novels as I can’t stand that over-written style – reading him is like standing too close to the speakers. But I can read a fair amount of his non fiction. When he takes something to pieces – eg the novel Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs – he is hilarioius. However he often jars on me eg in Experience when he goes on and on about his cousin, Lucy Partington, who was one of Fred West’s victims – I felt he was making loads of bricks with not much straw, and that it was fairly repellent. Amis loves writing about people who do horribly evil and nihilistic things, and then, lo! a great break – this happens in real life! in his own family! I believe that the cousin’s family were upset about him doing his writer’s flourishes over the tombstone of their daughter and sister.

    On his spat with Eagleton – Eagleton was right in the main, though totally wrong in detail – especially in conflating father and son, when they are very different writers, both artistically and politically.

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