MA Week Seven - Amis

Last week with Martin Amis we looked at Graham Greene's The End of the Affair.  I read most of this sitting in Birmingham New St train station.  I'd finished work early, so I sat in the waiting room of the station for two hours with a coffee and a huge bar of chocolate, my headphones on, and the book in my hand.  I was pleased I got through the whole thing - not because I didn't enjoy it (I really like it) but because a crazy old drunk guy talked at me almost continuously for over an hour - he's not a fan of bicycles, I learned, but he thinks trains are just super, and he didn't see why I'd want to read a book the whole way through, or have a helmet for my bicycle, or want to travel to Manchester.  He didn't understand why I'd be in Birmingham if I wasn't actually from Birmingham, or why I'd want to leave now that I'd found myself there in New St Station (glorious place that it is), and he insisted that I was a college student rather than a university student, which was funny, given I'm going on thirty. (Non-UK people - 'college' here doesn't mean a third level institution, like it does in Ireland and the US, but rather the last two years of school, when you sit your A-Level exams or some other equivalent.  Dead confusing.)  I did ask him to stop talking to me several times, held the book right up to my face and turned the volume on the mp3 player up, but it didn't deter him at all; he was one hell of a determined conversationalist.  I eventually went down the the platform half an hour early and crouched on the ground there just to get some peace. Mentalists flock to me; I need some sort of repellent device. 

Anyway, the seminar with Amis on Greene wasn't ever going to top the actual reading of the book for sheer weirdness, but it was entertaining in its own way. He didn't like the book - like quite a few of my classmates, he found it unconvincing, particularly regarding the female character's religious fervour, and the narrator's eventual succumbing to belief himself.  So we spoke for a while about that - he told us that Flaubert described  the religious impulse in people as 'lovable', and that Conrad saw it as a 'sorry contrivance', an 'outrage on our freedom'.  Amis wondered if, in dealing with religion, it is possible to avoid cliché, because a cliché is an inherited formulation, and so is organised religion, because to the religious mind, originality is heretical, and the world of the believer is a ready-made moral place.  He said that writing is a god-like thing to do; the author has no limits, no restraints, but religious schemes are full of rules, and are therefore distorting to the would-be writer.  I'm not sure this is a particularly tenable position - I'm not a religious person (far from it!) but freedom from religious belief doesn't mean that  the writer is un-indoctrinated - countless ideologies inform people's view of the world, and hence their morality and their writing.  I would think there's no such thing as an undistorted position from which to inscribe an image of the world - and writers such as Flannery O'Connor work from a deeply religious position, but that doesn't make her work any less important or astounding.  She would argue that it makes it more universal.  Also, with Greene's novel, I think it's a mistake to conflate the character's conversion with the author's beliefs; and I don't think that a character who displays an ideological affiliation that differs extremely from that of the reader is therefore incomprehensible or irrelevant - it's always cheering to see one's own beliefs reflected back from a fictional perspective, but it's also enriching to be granted insight into how other minds work.  I think that's one of the greatest pleasures of reading.

We went on to talk about why we write, how the novel seems to follow the structures of power (the English novel during the Empire, the rise of the American novel in the twentieth century), and how writers work on a different level of preoccupation to other people; I guess that's a matter of opinion, but it made us feel important!   Next time we'll be looking at A Clockwork Orange - haven't read that since I was about sixteen, so I can't wait to get stuck in.  

2 comments:

TOM J VOWLER said...

Interesting piece, Valerie.

Valerie O'Riordan said...

Cheers, Tom. It's a funny issue; in real life, I could happily rant against religion for months on end, but I don't think you can dismiss a text because you don't have the same belief system as the characters or author, any more than you can dismiss one outright because psychologically, or politically, you disagree with them, or you come from a very different culture, etc. Otherwise we'd have a very barrow band of stuff available to us... And how would we learn how other people see the world? Man, I can feel myself getting into rant mode. Must get back to work...