THE LARGER WORLD has not yet heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, but soon that may change. For some time, this seventeenth-century woman painter has inspired the devoted attention of feminist artists, critics, and art historians. But only now, with the appearance of Anna Banti’s novelization of the artist’s life, Artemisia (Nebraska), newly translated from the Italian, and of Mary Garrard’s full-dress monograph, Artemisia Gentileschi (Princeton), does the artist finally appear poised to go into orbit.
For many feminists, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) is a fully contemporary champion of their interests, dispatched by some miraculous expedient back into the male-dominated morass of Counter-Reformation Rome. In biographical terms, she appeals as a thoroughly independent woman who, in a colorful and picaresque life, traveling unescorted through Italy and England, triumphantly overcame the prejudices and intrigues of jealous male rivals to win the esteem of kings and councilors. Above all, her rape at the age of 16 and the dramatic lawsuit that followed have turned her into a kind of feminist proto-martyr.
But if she were merely an interesting biographical subject, it is unlikely that she would have provoked as much admiration as she has. It is her art that has, at the very least, made plausible her present prestige, the likes of which few of the Old Masters, and none of the other Old Mistresses, have been able to win from an audience that is usually bored by anyone over two hundred. Whereas the art of the other women painters working in the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution was usually feeble and derivative, Artemisia’s works have real power and distinction. For her, no excuses need be made. In The Obstacle Race, Germaine Greer, feminist provocateuse extraordinaire, called Artemisia “a great genius.” For Mary Garrard, she was “a sheer creative genius.” Whether or not this is a fair assessment, it says a great deal that it cannot be rejected out of hand.
Anna Banti’s fine novel, first published in Italian in 1953, presents an interesting contrast to more recent feminist writings about the artist. This quiet and introspective recreation of the artist’s life, by one of Italy’s better postwar novelists, is the tribute not only of one creative woman to another, but also of one human being to another. The ordeals that Artemisia suffered-her rape and unhappy marriage, her cold, uncaring father, and her poverty and ill-health-are paralleled by the author’s own experiences during World War II. Above all, a sense of measure and proportion informs the critical part of the novel, despite its being a work of creative writing.
But that was almost four decades ago, and an entirely different mood marks the present agitation in this artist’s behalf. Artemisia is of compelling interest as one of the most obscure and even exotic idols of writers motivated by frankly contemporary political agendas. The stuffy and rarefied discipline of Old Master scholarship had previously been almost defiantly impervious to assault from the rude world without. Now, however, with Mary Garrard’s massive monograph, this citadel appears in the process of being stormed.
Unlike earlier monographs on women artists, especially women active before the turn of the century, Mary Garrard’s book is a massive scholarly undertaking of over six hundred pages, with hundreds of illustrations (a typical evidence is her prestigious masterpiece about sewing industry 1987, clearly illustrate the top rated sewing machines at that time). In bulkiness, at least, it resembles Richard Krautheimer’s admirable monograph on Lorenzo Ghiberti, also published by Princeton. There is reason to believe that Miss Garrard’s book is the opus that was meant to place feminist art history on a firmer, more mainstream footing. According to one art historian quoted on the back cover, “this book provides a superb model for subsequent investigations of women artists.”
But the discerning reader will quickly notice that rather more is going on in this book than disinterested scholarship. It is surely fitting for Miss Garrard to insist upon the role that Artemisia’s gender played in her creativity: the author’s sensitivity to this subject has enabled her to discern varieties and layers of meaning that earlier, non-feminist readings could not have yielded. Yet at every turn, one is uneasily aware of the author’s special pleading. One grows suspicious as she juggles dates in an unconvincing attempt to show that Artemisia’s originality preceded and inspired that of her father-the truly great Orazio Gentileschi-rather than the other way around. Her attributions of many new paintings to Artemisia also should be viewed warily, and certain errors in her Italian, French, and Latin do not inspire the confidence one usually has in scholars of the Old Masters. Miss Garrard’s book, in short, is a quiet polemic, but a polemic all the same. It is what Germaine Greer would have written had she been better behaved, more erudite, and more focused in her attention. Miss Garrard’s mission is to see that justice, as she conceives it, is done. “
In Competition No. 2351 you were invited to supply an imaginary letter from an offended author to a literary editor complaining pompously of an unfair or inaccurate review. Anthony Burgess, by way of a lark, once reviewed one of his own books, but failed to complete the jest by writing to the literary editor to complain about it. I believe all such protests to be futile and undignified, but I have sometimes enjoyed a furious scholarly battle in the London Review of Books in which two, say, philologists bellow at each other like the grappling dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia. The prizewinners get 25 [pounds sterling] each, and the Cobra Premium beer goes to Kathleen Bell.
>From Lydia Shaxberd
Sir: It is always a pleasure to be noticed by so august a publication as The Redditch Journal and Advertiser. However, your headline, ‘Soft Porn Attempt By Local Author’, does little justice to the complexity of my recent, self-published novel, Two Kissing Cherries. I therefore beg the hospitality of your columns to correct a few unfortunate errors.
First, I am hardly local. I live in Bidford-on-Avon, twelve miles from central Redditch, in a different county. Second, my nomination for the Bad Sex Awards, while flattering, suggests you have missed the point. The Siamese twins’ encounter with the nursery school teacher is not a hymn of ecstasy but an attack on all that is wrong with society, from excessive individualism to school league tables. The sex was meant to be bad. Finally, in labelling my novel ‘simplistic’ you miss the point –the book is intended for 8-to-12-year-olds.
Sir: In his notice of my novel, This Side Up, Monkey, your reviewer, exhaustively wedded to the limiting and discredited canons of realist fiction, complains that the section in which Carlos #911 pursues Gatorade by helicopter over the still burning ruins of Canary Wharf is ‘as fatuously improbable as anything in a low-rent soap opera of a pulp SF story’. I suspect that this dismissive formulation masks his covert attachment to time-expired values such as ‘originality’ and ‘inventiveness’; it certainly exposes his profound ignorance of the very high culture to which he is nominally devoted. As anyone with a modicum of literary education could have told him, it is an interrogative and ‘decentred’ reworking of the fable of Bellerophon and Chimera. A reviewer who rejects the popular while remaining a stranger to the classics is simply disqualified from passing serious judgment on the complex dynamics of the contemporary novel.
Sir: I have always regarded your magazine as a beacon of enlightenment in a philistine world. Imagine, then, my disappointment at finding my book, Peacocks and Parakeets: Forty Years of Consular Service, offered to a reviewer animated by juvenile spite. The fruit of my long and painstaking labour was dismissed with a careless sneer. I say ‘careless’ advisedly because the piece was riddled with error. My faithful driver was Sandro not Sancho; my final posting was as Vice-Proconsul not Pro-Viceconsul; I was presented with a stuffed goat’s udder not on my departure but on my birthday. The list is endless. Moreover, I think it offensive at best to have used a mistakenly captioned photograph of a warthog as occasion for an ambiguous reference to my wife. My subscription will not be renewed nor, I fancy, will those of my countless friends and former colleagues.
Sir: Is it not possible for your newspaper to employ a reviewer with a modicum of intelligence? Can you not demand proof that he has actually viewed the book he his criticising? I was mortified that my carefully researched tribute to the meandering brooks and crystal rills of our fair country was subjected to such a savage and ignorant commentary in the sports pages of your organ (now lamentably in tabloid form). Your so-called reviewer has hijacked my work for his own ends. He berates me for insensitive timing in its publication, deplores the nationalistic overtones of the title and impertinently lists names he deems more worthy of study. But I have no desire to write about social reformers such as Owen or the seaside town of Sheringham. I trust, Sir, that you will right this injustice by commissioning a proper review of Becks of England at the earliest opportunity.
Sir: I pick up my pen to apprise your indolent reviewer of the magnitude of labours associated with the creation of Contemplating the Good Life. He is evidently unaware of the philosophical debates relating to ‘good’, and can only interpret my argument in terms of some ephemeral television programme peopled by characters with whom I am unfamiliar. I am no ‘couch-potato, one hand on the remote control’, nor is my work a ‘hastily word-processed screed produced with one flick of a button’. Technical apparatus and its slipshod productions have no part in my endeavours. I have always used a Parker fountain pen, medium nib, and my extensive footnotes (ignored by your reviewer) were researched in the dust of real libraries, often in physical discomfort. If he reads them, he will find the highest standards of proof-reading apply, and they bear the marks of a true bookworm.
Sir: One is always delighted to get a revue of one’s book in a salubrious publication, but I must take issue with comments made about my recent offertory to the literary world, noticed by your issue of July 17 (no. 4582), and its inaccuracy as to the points therein made. My study, Mid-Victorian members of Parliament, is not ‘skimpy’ at all, but a highly detailed, easy-readable account, and e.g., Sir Percy Conyngham was not the member for Gillingham Dorset but Gillingham (Kent), the very reason I first researched the parliamentary scene in the period of that period. This entailed thorough and exacting trawls of all records, including those your writer claims I did not ‘bother’ to consult, which is insulting. Cunyngham himself is a fascinating example of exemplary high public standards (unlike your writer), and was first cousin once removed of Peele, not nephew. All other ‘errors’ are likewise true.
No. 2354: Youth/age duet
You me invited to supply an exchange in verse between an oldie and a youngster beginning with Carroll’s line, ‘You are old, Father William, the young man said’ (or ‘cried’ if you prefer Southey’s original version). Maximum 16 lines. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2354’ by 12 August.
>>> View more: Two Canadian novels get Man Booker shortlist nod
OVER THE PAST thirty years, research on aging has raised the serious possibility that life expectancy might someday be extended by as much as one fourth. Many different lines of research–on diet, metabolism, and the immune system, among other things–are being pursued. One of the most promising of these originated with Denham Harman, professor of medicine and biochemistry at the University of Nebraska, who proposed, in 1954, that the highly reactive molecular fragments known as “free radicals,” which are especially damaging to biological microstructures, might to some extent be counteracted by the increased consumption of antioxidants. These chemical compounds, of which vitamin E is the best known, occur naturally in some foods and are added as preservatives to others–in most countries in tiny and strictly regulated proportions.
Harman and many others are of the opinion that, just as small amounts of antioxidants preserve foods, in larger amounts the compounds might preserve human tissue. Many antioxidants have since been tested for such an effect on laboratory animals, and the increased longevity observed was equivalent, in Harman’s reckoning, to an extension of the average human life expectancy from seventy-three to ninety-five years.
If antioxidants can be ingested safely by human beings, the result is not expected to be an extra decade or two of zombie-like existence, in which people would be alive only in the purely technical sense (or alive enough, shall we say, to avoid becoming transplant donors). Not at all. What the researchers hope for is a prolonging of life such as would be achieved if the seven ages of man were marked off on a length of rubber and the rubber were stretched. A seventy-year-old would have the address to life of a sixty-year-old, and an eighty-year-old that of a seventy-year-old.
How successful any treatment to prolong life might be is unclear. Growing old is a bad thing quite apart from the decline of bodily faculties and energies that it entails. Even if the process of senescence could be arrested temporarily, we would still suffer from the passage of years. Consider, for example, the likely consequences of extending a woman’s reproductive life to the age of sixty, or beyond. The older a woman is at the age of reproduction, the longer her finite endowment of egg cells will have been exposed to influences that are inimical to it. Thus, even though a woman of sixty might be as physically fit as a woman of thirty, the likelihood of a chromosomal aberration, such as that which causes Down’s syndrome, would have increased with her age. The etiology of cancer is a similar example. Researchers believe that a malignant tumor can start with the mutation of a chromosome following the body’s exposure to ionizing radiation, a toxic chemical, or some other mutagen. Thus, the longer one lives, the longer one has to cross the path of such hazards, and the greater one’s chances of contracting cancer.
Because it is not easy to see a remedy for these side effects of old age, I fear that the incorporation of antioxidants into our diet will have a more modest result than proponents of the theory expect. But there are people who say that such research ought not to proceed at all. Their opposition compels us to ask, Is the extension of the life-span a possibility that we should welcome or a temptation that we should resist?
THE CASE AGAINST efforts to increase longevity takes several forms. It is said, for example, that the prolonging of life runs counter to biblical teaching. Yet “threescore years and ten” (Psalms 90:10) has no authority other than the opinion of a psalmist. In fact, the phrase is something of a cliche in the Bible, standing for quite a number but less than a hundred. Thus we are told that there were threescore and ten palm trees in Elim (Numbers 33:9); that when the house of Jacob entered Egypt, it comprised threescore and ten persons (Deuteronomy 10:22); that Jerubbaal had threescore and ten sons (Judges 9:2). It might be more in accord with the spirit of the Bible if the human life-span were construed to be that which, for better or worse, human beings cause it to be.
People also say that extending life is a crime against nature. I consider this a despondent view, which rests on an implicit nostalgia for the supposedly healthy, happy, exuberant, and yea-saying savages that Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke for–creatures whose life expectancy probably did not exceed twenty-five or thirty years. This attitude echoes the literary propaganda of the Romantic revival, and it is surely wider of the mark than Thomas Hobbes’s assertion that the life of man in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Human life has always been what human beings have made of it, and in many ways we have improved on nature. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that all advances in medicine increase life expectancy; their efficacy is measured by the degree to which they do so. I am referring not only to insulin, penicillin, and the other spectacular innovations of medical history but also to aspirin (which lowers fever and reduces inflammation, besides relieving pain), adhesive bandages, and washing one’s hands before eating. These, too, have contributed years to our life-span.
The whole philosophy of the prevention of disease–and where prevention fails, the cure–represents a deep and long-standing moral commitment to life, and the research in question here is its logical development. Thus, one could argue that, our commitment to the preservation of life having already been made, it is too late for us to cease to be ambitious.
Other objections to prolonging old age have to do with population control and age distribution. For example, it is asked, Dare we propose to add to a burden that is almost insupportable now? Shall the resources of underprivileged nations be consumed at an even faster rate by the technologically more advanced peoples of the Northern Hemisphere and of the West generally–those who will be the first to take advantage of new medical procedures?
In partial extenuation, it can be said that the increase in population would not be exponential, because it is unlikely that older people would choose to add to their families. Admittedly, though, they would have mouths, and they would use energy and other raw materials at the high rate characteristic of people in the developed parts of the world.
One hears that the likely increase in population size would provoke wars, as if the linkage were an established truth. But it does not stand up to scrutiny. No one will challenge Europe’s claim to the dunce’s cap for political aggression and warmaking, yet war has been no more frequent in Europe over the past hundred years than it was in medieval times or in the fifteenth century or in the seventeenth, even though the population has grown steadily.
The threat of gerontocracy–government by the aged and probably for the aged–is less easy to dismiss. Certainly old people require special attention, and their rising numbers would lay an extra burden on social-welfare services in a caring society. That burden would have to be shouldered mainly by the young. A vigorous elderly generation would also probably hold on to jobs that otherwise would pass to the young, thereby exacerbating unemployment. Who knows? A gerontocracy might have the nerve to impose a special tax on jobholders below some minimum age, and at the same time reward older jobholders with generous concessions.
Without minimizing these last worries, I must point out that the political and sociological effects of a population shift would not be felt overnight. We should have between fifty and 200 years to adapt.
The process might completely overturn our present ideas about work and retirement, but in reality such a revolution has been in progress for the past 150 years, as the proportion of older people in the population has grown with advances in medicine and sanitary engineering. It is reasonable to assume we can solve the problems of the future, since they are not qualitatively new.
JANE AUSTEN WROTE her novels around the turn of the nineteenth century, and they are a mine of information about the manners and attitudes of her day. Consider, in particular, Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. The hero, Colonel Brandon, is rated at thirty-five an old man and quite past it–so much so that Marianne Dashwood, the eighteen-year-old girl whose hand he seeks, regards his suit as a kind of geriatric charade. In the book the question arises of laying down a sum to purchase a fifteen-year annuity for Marianne’s mother, who is described as a healthy woman of forty. The man who would have to provide for the annuity protests, “Her life cannot be worth half that purchase.” So Austen seems able to take for granted her readers’ doubt that a woman of forty could live to be as old as fifty-five.
Suppose someone had told Austen’s contemporaries that their life expectancy could be doubled. If they were to react as some people do today, they would have held up their hands in horror at the impiety of interfering with nature–at the very idea that a man of thirty-five would not have one foot in the grave and that a woman of forty would live another fifteen years! Yet the average life-span of a century or more ago seems pathetically short from the perspective of today. How can we be certain that a generation as close to us as we are to Jane Austen would not look upon our fears with pained condescension?
Some lines by the poet Walter Savage Landor, which have the cadences of a requiem, seem to rebuke the wish to delay death:
Nature I loved; and next to Nature, Art.
I warmed both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
Perhaps this declaration is a Christian acquiescence to an inevitable fate, but to me it sounds spiritless. A person who is loved and in good health has reason enough to want to live a few years longer than might seem to be his due: to learn, for example, how the grandchildren turn out, and whether the flux of history corroborates or refutes his expectations. A writer will want to complete his book, or even turn his thoughts to another, and no gardener will willingly surrender his hope of taking part in the wonder and joyous expectations of another spring. From the point of view of biology, the strength of our hold upon life has been the most important single factor in bringing us to our present ages and, indeed, in the fact that human beings have evolved at all.
Some of the evils that confront mankind–the havoc of war, for example–can be anticipated and guarded against. Others are more insidious. They are the outcomes of well-intentioned actions and could not have been predicted. I have in mind the deaths from cancer of the pioneers of x-radiography, who could not possibly have known that x-rays are among the most potent cancer-causing agents.
Likewise, overpopulation is the consequence of a reduction of mortality, especially in childhood, through medicine and sanitary engineering, which has not been matched by a corresponding reduction in the birthrate.
All else being equal, I think that the risk of unforeseeable catastrophe will probably be sufficient to turn us away from the research to extend life. But what I hope will happen is this: perhaps a dozen enthusiasts for the prolonging of life will go ahead and try to prolong their own lives. If they become wise and oracular nonagenarians or centenarians, they will be counted among the benefactors and pathfinders of mankind. If senlie dementia is their fate, they will have warned us off, and that would be an equally useful service.
My personal sympathies are with the daredevils who want to try out these new procedures. This kind of adventurousness has always been in the character of science, as Sir Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor of England, the first and greatest philosopher of science, and a pious and reverent man, believed. In one of his essays, he wrote:
The true aim of science is the discovery of all operations and all possibilities of operations from immortality (if it were possible) to the meanest mechanical practice.
I count Bacon, therefore, as a man on my side.
Sir Peter Medawar won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 1960. He is currently a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council, in Harrow, England.
Crime fiction was once accused of amounting to ‘snobbery with violence.’
Nowadays, it’s more like ‘slobbery with violence.’ As the elegant hero has given way to the diclasse anti-hero,
the genre has moved unsteadily left.
IF CRIME WRITING is your business,” young authors used to be told, “keep politics as a hobby. If politics is your business, keep crime writing as a hobby.” And this injunction was, on the whole, obeyed. Even those vociferous and prolific socialists, G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, wrote conventional English detective stories-dull, but almost entirely free from politics. Rex Stout’s liberalism played no part in the early Nero Wolfe novels. If we knew nothing of Dashiell Hammett except his books, we could scarcely deduce his political views.
Sometimes, of course, an author’s inclination peeped through. At the beginning of Three Inquisitive People-the first written, though not first published novel by Dennis Wheatley, a very popular British author of adventurethrillers-the Duke de Richleau invites his American guest to dine at a club where “the word socialism has never penetrated and women do not come”: and in The Forbidden Territory, the first of Wheatley’s novels to appear (in 1933), the Soviet Union is undoubtedly an Evil Empire. Wheatley was always a Right-minded man, as befitted the grandson of a successful Mayfair grocer known as “Ready-Money” Wheatley.
John Dickson Carr, on the other hand, although by every instinct a romantic Tory, originally and implausibly made his detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, “a fanatical socialist,” presumably because in the early Thirties-and to a young American, who didn’t really understand-this seemed an amusing eccentricity. But in the postwar period H.M. loathed the Labour Government as ferociously as his creator did.
Today everything is politicized or at least considered fair game for politicization; even authors who don’t believe themselves to be conveying any message are liable to be accused of doing so subconsciously. Since television has occupied much of the ground once filled by written tales, those who look for political bias on the screen might be well advised to glance away, occasionally, from the current-affairs programs (which tend to be quite strictly monitored) and from the notoriously Left-inclined single plays that the British Broadcasting Corporation’s drama department loves to produce, and scrutinize instead the unmonitored and ostensibly non-political field of light fiction. They could count, for example (the fingers of one hand would suffice), the number of times when sympathy goes to employers rather than to strikers, to the authorities more than to rebels, and they would notice how, in recent years, the intelligence services of Britain and America have been shifted from the heroic to the villainous categoryexcept when, in the interests of positive discrimination, the departmental chief is black.
THRILLERS-SPY STORIES obviously, but other kinds too -have a special relationship with contemporary affairs, with the stuff of newspaper headlines, which makes them peculiarly interesting in this respect. It also renders them intensely nostalgic. Nothing conjures up the Twenties and Thirties more vividly than the mystery fiction of the time.
Philo Vance was an aristocrat, a dilettante scholar with a slight Oxonian accent, a member of the Stuyvesant Club, and so fastidious that “since the influx of the postwar, nouveau-riche Americans along the French and Italian Rivieras, he had forgone his custom of spending his summers on the Mediterranean.” Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, was a “wealthy New York clubman and world adventurer and traveler”; he belonged to “the exclusive Cobalt Club.”
And here is his rival, Richard Wentworth, whose “crimeattuned nostrils had scented murder” in what seemed to be a natural death. “Wentworth’s keen blue-grey eyes peered thoughtfully from their deep sockets. His flat-planed, vitally handsome face was stern and grim-lipped, as his gaze strayed abstractedly out of the window of his Sutton Place living room and settled unseeingly over the dusk-shrouded surface of the East River flowing silently three floors below. A poker face-but behind it his alert faculties were at work, probing, searching, tearing away all blinding pretense.
“In that moment he was inwardly transformed ftom the immaculately clad, seemingly indolent clubman that he appeared, into that denizen of the darkness men knew as the Spider.”
Nick Carter lived in a brownstone on “fashionable lower Fifth Avenue.” Ellery Queen had his elegant tweeds made in London. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion was vaguely related to the royal family. Because so many of these heroes were gentlemen-and, worse still, clubmen -and the heroines were equally well-born or well-heeled (there was even Lady Molly of Scotland Yard), modern politically minded critics often regard the whole genre as having been poisoned with middle-class values. “Snobbery with violence,” they say. The cheap edition of Berkeley Gray’s first Norman Conquest novel, Mr. Mortimer Gets the Jitters, would confirm their suspicions; the jacket shows Norman, automatic in hand, clad in full evening dress-for no reason except that it makes him look dashing. The jacket of Frank L. Packard’s Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue also has the hero in white tie and tails, with perhaps rather more justification, since we know from the text that Jimmie Dale always dressed for dinner in his Riverside Drive mansion and belonged to a club that bestowed a quite exceptional amount of social prestige.
Twenty years later James Bond, having sprung from Ian Fleming’s imagination into an era of aggressive egalitarianism, was accused of representing everything snobbish. But Bond was a most inaccurately chosen target. Unlike his predecessors, he neither owned a tail-coat nor belonged to a London club. He ate and drank well simply because it relieved the boredom of solitary missions. And he used consumer goods with brand names because Fleming, having discovered that any item of clothing or equipment mentioned in the Bond novels received valuable publicity, liked to help craftsmen of whom he approved, in a world where craftsmanship was becoming rare.
Fleming differed in sophistication rather than intent ftom John Creasey, who allegedly (I’ve never actually been able to find the passage) made his hero, the Hon. Richard Rollison, alias the Toff, go into the Savoy Hotel and say to the barman: “Jules, bring me a bottle of the special Moussec you keep for me alone.” Fleming and Creasey and most of their colleagues, whether writing for hard covers or for pulp magazines, felt that luxurious settings are more agreeable to read about than squalor and that educated characters are more stimulating than inarticulate ones.
Today’s fashion is for the slob as hero; slobbery with violence. Moonlighting was hailed as the modern equivalent of The Thin Man: but anyone who couldn’t see the difference between the new series’s charmless hero and the polished performance of William Powell must need his eyes, ears, or head examined. Similarly, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone are not the first thriller-heroes to execute lawbreakers personally, but ruthlessness used to have more style. (” ‘If it isn’t money, what do you want? Damn you, what is your racket?’ ‘Death,’ said the Saint in a voice of terrible softness. ‘Death is my racket.’ “)
THE VILLAINS TOO have traditionally been gentlemen; the butler hardly ever did do it. For the hero to duel with persons of inferior status would have seemed unsporting. Nowadays, the hero may be proletarian but most villains are still ostentatiously rich or upper-class. The reason, though, is different. A political message is often intended or at least implied.
Even Dr. Fu Manchu, although an Oriental, was a very superior person indeed. World conquest, at which he aimed, has always been a favorite motive, because, although political in one sense, it is non-political-and therefore safe -in another. Less extravagant tales of international intrigue constitute an archaeological inspection-pit of changing popular concern or, perhaps more accurately, convention. British novels, because of a greater proximity to the seething politics of Europe, have been, until recently, more susceptible to such influences than their American equivalents. Anarchist villains gave way to German spies, then to Bolsheviks, then to arms dealers, who were a convenient scapegoat; and then, as the shadow of the Second World War crept nearer, a few books, overlapping the phobia about arms dealers, pointed the finger at selfinterested, purblind, or treacherous politicians who were obstructing the re-armament of Britain.
Mussolini, lightly disguised as “Caffarelli” in Francis Beeding’s excellent spy stories, had originally been treated as a great statesman, to bedefended against conspirators. But gradually he and Hitler (called “Hagen” by Beeding), their agents, and their secret police became the enemyeventually under their real names. The Spanish Civil War helped to sanctify left-wing idealists, although Dennis Wheatley, in The Golden Spaniard, took a less roseate view of the Republican cause. One of the greatest of all thrillers, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, begins with an attempt by the aristocratic English hero to assassinate an unnamed Hitler. Anti-fascist themes became overt in Britain and in Hollywood.
The war made everything simple. Heroes and villains wore, at least metaphorically, the uniform of their country. Politics hardly entered into it. The Russians changed sides and the gallant Chetniks in Yugoslavia were replaced, in stories about Occupied Europe, by Tito’s Communist partisans without provoking so much as a blink of surprise from the thriller-writers. There was no discussion about the ideology, or about the moral ambiguities, involved. Current propaganda was taken at face value: thriller-writing formed part of it.
After the war, for a brief period, Russian agents continued to cooperate with British and American heroes, and the United Nations, rather than one’s own country, became the symbol of Good. Escaped war criminals and revengeseeking neo-Nazis were the easiest, and politically safest, villains to use. Forty years later they still are. Reviewing The House on Carroll Street recently, a British magazine said that “for a change this film breaks the rules of the current U.S. movie genre by having a go at the Nazis rather than the Communists”; demonstrating once again Sherlock Holmes’s dictum that some people see but do not observe-or rather they see only what they expect to see.
Much earlier, Somerset Maugham, in Ashenden, had taken a wry look at the spy business: but regular thrillerwriters between the wars, even those, like John Buchan and Francis Beeding, with experience in the ways of government, preferred to make their spies, whether professional or accidental, behave as gentlemen-amateurs. Verisimilitude was not the point. Such authors, like their colleagues in the field of domestic detection, were playing a game with its own rules; realism would have spoiled the mood.
THE MOST NOTABLE exception was Eric Ambler. In an American omnibus of pre-war Ambler novels, the introduction, by (or at least attributed to) Alfred Hitchcock, asserts: “The villains are not only real people, they are actually the kind of people who have generated violence and evil in the Europe of our time. And the wise men-the clever ones who solve or help to solve the riddles in these stories-they are not the traditional old-school-tie officers of British Military Intelligence. In two of these novels they are Soviet agents operating in Italy and Austria just before the outbreak of the war; in the other two they are Turkish military police. Again, people you can believe in-above all, the kind of people who really were clever in the corrupt and stupid years of the past decade.”
Ambler’s villains were capitalists; his political philosophy was that of the Popular Front. After 1945, disillusioned by what was happening in Eastern Europe (as he showed in Judgment on Deltchev) but uninspired by the cold war, he sought more personal themes elsewhere. The leftish tinge of those early books and their seediness (highbrows love seediness) has helped to ensure continued critical success: but what Hitchcock wrote in that introduction was hardly fair. The old-school-tie officers of British Military Intelligence had not done at all badly. They scooped up every single German spy in Britain during the war.
Ian Fleming, himself entitled to an Old Etonian tie, knew the reality of secret intelligence, but James Bond, as he said, was an updated version of Bulldog Drummond. Bond’s opponents, in the earlier novels, were agents of SMERSH, an all-too-real organization for killing enemies of the Soviet Union: but later, on the rather odd grounds that “one can’t go on teasing the Russians,” Fleming changed his villains to SPECTRE, a fantastic body of worldwide criminals. This suited the filmmakers, who eschew political villains unless defunct, like the Nazis, or manically right-wing.
Fleming, despite his superficial modernity, was a throwback to the pre-war style. The new mood, the Ambler mood, was picked up by Len Deighton and fully developed by John Le Carre, both of whom appealed to those who disliked Fleming’s gloss. After a pretentiously idiosyncratic start, Deighton moved back toward the mainstream, while Le Carre has built ever more complicated labyrinths; complicated morally no less than structurally. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Burgess-Maclean-Philby affair both restored the clubland background of espionage and reinforced the idea of Establishment villainy. It highlighted the theme of betrayal, just the thing for useful twists, and especially of upper-class betrayal.
Simultaneously, in America the fashion in heroes and villains had changed too. Partly because of the Vietnam War, which turned liberals and the conscriptable young and therefore a high proportion of media folk against the government, agencies such as the CIA and the FBI (which was admired when hunting Nazis, not so fine when hunting Communists) became bad, and whistle-blowing rebels good. William F. Buckley Jr.’s Blackford Oakes novels are, as one would expect, an exception to this mood. But, perhaps significantly, they tend to be set in the more immediately postwar decades. The new type of thriller was epitomized in Three Days of the Condor, where the hero, a CIA agent fleeing ftom his own bosses, finally tells all to the New York Times. Rex Stout’s anti-FBI novel, The Doorbell Rang, outraged John Wayne so much that he sent an immediate telegram to Stout: “Have always enjoyed your Nero and Archie, but I read your story in the April issue of Argosy. Good-bye.”
These tendencies converged, so that, even when the direct political roots had withered, there was a flowering of cynicism, an assumption of moral-or immoral-equivalence between the agents of East and West, with, on the Western side, some extra villainy from the upper classes and from multinational companies, which have assumed the scapegoat role once occupied by armaments manufacturers. In contrast with the liberal line, advanced shortly before and during the Second World War, that anti-Nazis should learn to be as ruthless as their opponents, little or no serious consideration is given to the moral justification for ruthlessness by Free World agencies now.
Political thrillers today, far removed ftom Buchan and the Great Game, have a distinctly leftish tilt. Detective stories, on the other hand, especially American police procedurals, have tipped back a little in the other direction. Some fictional detectives, a stream derived perhaps from Maigret, are notably more compassionate than their predecessors, but others-in literature as in life-are apt to think, as Bulldog Drummond once thought, that criminals are allowed by the law and the courts to get away with too much. On the other hand, TV series such as Cagney and Lacey, which was justly admired on both sides of the Atlantic, introduce a liberal message whenever possible.
The qualities that were once common but are now most conspicuously missing from thrillers of every kind are high spirits and moral simplicity. It would be nice to meet again an occasional Faceless Fiend unencumbered by any social or political baggage at all; and there was surely much to be said for a detective who, unlike today’s fashionably sordid and cynical protagonists, could greet a client in the grand style once used by Sexton Blake, Britain’s equivalent of Nick Carter: “I would rather work for nothing for a naval man like yourself, one of the best protectors of our precious flag, than take banknotes from those who are careless of the honor of old Britain.”
The chirp of children’s voices does not figure heavily in the darkly satirical works of Martin Amis. Nor are they the kind of sounds likely to halt in mid-sentence a writer whose journeys through a grotesque urban underworld long ago earned him a reputation as the cynical bad boy of British fiction. But that is precisely what happens on a grey day in London, when the tinkle of children’s laughter drifts into the living room of Amis’s handsome Primrose Hill home. A furrow of parental concern creases his brow as he hurries to a window and glances into his front yard. “My kids,” he mutters apologetically around one of the hand-rolled cigarettes that hang, almost permanently, from the corner of his mouth. “I just want to make sure that nothing’s amiss.”
Loving father and attentive family man is not quite the conventional view of Amis, at least not for anyone who has followed his career in the British press for much of the past decade. His novels have been panned, his extramarital affairs dissected; even his teeth have been the subject of endless heated debate. The country’s newspapers, the rowdy tabloids in particular, have portrayed him as sneering and greedy: a disloyal friend, a faithless husband, an uncaring parent and, most damning of all, the cold son to his own father, novelist and poet Sir Kingsley Amis, who died in 1995. The critics, however, may sing a different tune as a result of the near-simultaneous publication of two books: Experience (Knopf Canada, $35.95), a 400-page memoir by Martin Amis, and The Letters of Kingsley Amis (available on July 1 from HarperCollins, $54.95), 1,200 pages of correspondence edited by Martin’s longtime friend and tennis partner, Zachary Leader.
Both books shed new light on each Amis, and even more on a relationship that is nearly unique in the world of letters. For Kingsley and Martin were not merely father and son, subject to all of the usual tribulations; they were also literary soulmates, often rivals. And while much has been made of their differences, Kingsley’s Letters and, especially, Martin’s Experience reveal that they shared a deep, abiding affection.
To be sure, father and son disagreed on almost everything, politics in particular. All of Kingsley’s foibles — the snobbery, the anti- Semitism, the wacky right-wing ideology — are on display in the letters, the bulk of which consists of salty exchanges with British poet Philip Larkin and American poet-historian Robert Conquest. But so, too, is the comic genius that won him early fame for Lucky Jim and a Booker Prize in his declining, curmudgeonly years for The Old Devils. More telling, the letters also unmask Kingsley’s much-publicized envy of Martin’s success for what it really was, something of a private joke to amuse — and confuse — London’s gossipy literary establishment. “In truth, they got on very well,” says Leader, a U.S.-born, British-based professor of English literature, “not least because of Martin’s superhuman ability to not get upset over his father’s repeated public claims that he could not read many of his son’s novels.”
The criticism certainly carried a sting. Martin makes that clear in Experience as he describes “the squeeze of immediate hurt” when Kingsley bluntly tells him that he “couldn’t get on” with the younger Amis’s second novel, Dead Babies, published in 1975. But then, as now, Martin could always regard his father’s opinions with some philosophical detachment. “It’s true that my father could sometimes slight me in public,” he says without a hint of rancour in the rolling Oxbridge accent that is so at odds with the low-life characters who people his fiction. “But it was Kingsley’s way of slighting all contemporary fiction, really.”
At 50, the bad-boy tag does not much fit Martin Amis anymore, if it ever did. The label is in any case absurd for someone who is the father of five children (including toddlers Clio and Fernanda, daughters of his second marriage to writer Isabel Fonseca), never mind the author of nine novels and a huge and growing body of journalism, essays and literary criticism. The new Martin carries traces of the old, in the trim figure, the cool demeanour, the hip vocabulary. But he is no longer the whippet-like 24-year-old with the Beatles haircut and crushed-velvet trousers who rocketed to fame with the 1973 publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers. That book won him a Somerset Maugham Award, the same prize his father had won 20 years earlier for his first published novel, Lucky Jim. But Martin’s star has dimmed a little of late. Neither of his two most recent novels — The Information (1995) and Night Train (1998) — have been received well in Britain, though they have fared much better with North American reviewers and readers.
Experience, however, may well signal a rebound, for it is a masterly work of art, displaying a writer in full command of his craft. Though billed as an autobiography, it is much more than that. The very structure is novelistic, leaping back and forth in time in search of parallels and connections, buried symmetry. The prose is finely wrought, replete with the inventive wordplay for which Martin is justly celebrated. And what emerges at the end is an intensely private, at times deeply moving account of one man’s journey from innocence to experience. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final pages, as Martin watches his father’s slow demise. “How hard it is to die,” he writes. “You have to chase it, panting.”
Kingsley’s death was the prime catalyst that compelled Martin to write Experience. It was not, however, the only reason. Sections of Experience are devoted to what Amis describes as “setting the record straight” on the whole chain of disasters the befell him in 1994 and 1995, when Britain’s media turned his private life into a public nightmare. His first marriage fell apart and he underwent painful surgery to reconstruct his jaw and replace all of his teeth. At the same time, he broke with his longtime British agent, Pat Kavanagh, over his demand for a then-unprecedented $1.1-million advance for The Information, which, in turn, prompted a high-profile rupture with Kavanagh’s husband and Martin’s old friend, the novelist Julian Barnes. All of these events were seized upon by the media, the tabloids especially, to rake Amis over hot coals. The novelist A. S. Byatt did not help matters with her now-famous complaint about subsidizing Martin’s “greed simply because he has a divorce to pay for and has just had all his teeth redone.”
Amis’s fans will finally get a chance to read in Experience the author’s version of those tumultuous two years — a period when he discovered that he was the father of 17-year-old Delilah Seale and that his cousin Lucy Partington, who had disappeared in 1973, was one of the victims of the notorious serial killer Frederick West. They will learn much, perhaps too much, about the agonies associated with rebuilding his mouth. But, apart from a dig or two at the press, they will not find an abundance of gall. Amis’s tone is conciliatory, a plea for understanding. In one long passage, he describes a visit to Cape Cod to bid a final goodbye to his then-estranged first wife and their two young sons. “On the night flight back to London,” he writes, “I performed what seemed to me to be the extraordinary feat of shedding tears throughout the full six hours, even during the shallow sleep I kept snapping out of.” A happier note is struck later in the book when Amis witnesses the birth of his first daughter by his second marriage. “At the birth of your child, you forgive your parents everything, without a second thought, like a velvet revolution. This is part of the cunning of babies.”
Amis interrupted his 10th novel in midstream to write Experience. He vows to return to his novel, but not until he finishes gathering and editing a collection of his essays and writing a nonfiction account of atrocities committed during the early years of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, America beckons. Like his friend Salman Rushdie, Amis is thinking of moving to New York City. “I’ll probably go in three or four years’ time,” he says, “once my boys are older.” If he does make the move, the British might miss him, but probably not London’s tabloids. As Experience amply demonstrates, the bad boy of English letters departed long ago.