This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
For this year’s holiday reading special — where The Critic suggests some older fiction that might more profitably fill your beach-y or gîte-y afternoons than the latest screamers from the bestseller lists — the theme is, well, death in summer. We offer you the best-known novels by three writers who died, in reputationally-reduced circumstances, in 2023. As an aside, all three novels were published in the early 1980s, showing the range of that decade in British fiction.
“You’ve got to stand the test of time,” said Martin Amis, “which is the only test there is.” The test begins now. He also identified what he called the “talent novel” — the book the serious writer delivers, early in their career, which shows they offer more than mere promise. Money (1984) is his talent novel, a fat and well-sustained comedy of superficial achievement and profound failure whose success rests on the voice of his narrator, John Self. (“I’m called John Self. But who isn’t?”)
Self is an adman-turned-film-director, an Englishman in the “smiting light and island rain” of New York, who is “200 pounds of yob genes, booze, snout and fast food”, “addicted to the twentieth century” and its most glittering attractions: pornography, celebrity and most of all money.
The plot has Self shuttling between London and Manhattan, raising funds for his first feature whilst conjuring up the script, stroking the egos of his all-star cast such as the superannuated Lorne Guyland (“Is this the body of an old man, John?”) and trying without success to be unfaithful to his girlfriend Selina Street. “In the sack”, he intones, your girlfriend’s best friend “can give you the one thing your girl can’t give you: a change from your girl”.
Amis gives Self such a hard time (“Refreshed by a brief blackout, I got to my feet … ”) that it must breach some law against cruelty to dumb creatures. Self comes off worst in almost every transaction, whether playing tennis whilst desperately unfit (“after five minutes I was playing with more or less a permanent mouthful of vomit”) or skulking in a newsagent, browsing porn mags (remember those?), when he’s confronted by a young woman: “‘Why aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ ‘But I am,’ I said.”
This is the key to why Money is more than just — just! — a comic masterpiece. Self has enough awareness to know how far he is from where he needs to be. On the one hand he bristles with bravado: “Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: It’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck!” Then he confides, “I long to burst out of the world of money and into — into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.”
Self’s life is filled with money and what it can buy because it’s a life with a hole in it. Yet it was only on re-reading the novel this year — my fourth or fifth time — that I detected the tenderness in the brief passages about Self’s mother, the woman he lost who can never be replaced. “You never had a mother, did you John,” asks one of his actresses as she hugs him to her bosom. “No, I never did,” he replies. Later, he tells us, “My mother, she just entered a mysterious decline. I used to get into bed with her after school. I could feel her falling, dividing.”
The reaction by some readers to Amis’ books suggests a wholesale missing of the point, as though his novels are not exposés of terrible types of manhood, as though by satirising aspects of masculinity, Amis was enacting them. The women in Money always come out best, from old friend Martina Twain who tries to educate Self, to screenwriter Doris Arthur who rebuffs his clumsy advances: “I don’t want to go to bed with you. I don’t want men like you to exist.”
Self hates what he is, but he can’t stop: it gives him too much pleasure. That’s just as well for us, as we get to revel in the “dash and heft and twang” of his slow-motion collapse. “That’s right,” he says a couple of times in the book, as passersby — and readers — gawp at his latest humiliation. “Get your staring done with.”
There is a scene near the end of Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party (1980) where the cast of characters is arranged in one scene, like a camera panning across a painting. The static shot strains with the potential of those relations, representing a culmination of the series of short, tense vignettes that built up to it.
The novel describes, we are told at the beginning, “an error of judgement which resulted in a death” in the autumn of 1913. The nature of the error and the death are not so hard to figure out, given that the setting is a weekend of shooting on the land of Sir Randolph Nettleby, but the glory is in the telling.
That telling involves a large cast of characters. There are guests, such as the rivalrous Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephen, each fearful that the other will bag a greater haul of birds; staff such as John the footman (who is not above rescuing an abandoned love letter from a guest’s waste-paper basket); and outsiders like Cornelius Cardew, a vegetarian and animal rights activist, who finds an unreceptive audience to his appeals for “universal kinship” with animals. “Good heavens, ordinary kinship is bad enough, if one thinks of one’s relations,” says one guest.
The scenes, being short and intense, are often reminiscent of Waugh at his sharpest. “Cosmopolitanism [is] a vice,” thinks Sir Randolph. “Generally speaking a man should stick to one country and be proud of it. If one wanted to travel there was always the Empire.” Yet he is open to Cardew’s arguments for the improvement of the lot of the poor, provided this includes the rural environment, too. “The agricultural depression’s getting worse all the time,” he grumbles, which causes one blithe guest to twitter, “Is it really so bad? The countryside looks so beautiful.”
Colegate, who herself grew up in affluent, rural surroundings, had no interest in demolishing the system, but her upbringing gave her a clear view of it. “Life is so extraordinarily pleasant for those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born in the right place,” says Lionel. “Ought it to be so pleasant?”
Colegate’s books “have come and gone”, she said in 2020. “It’s no good worrying what happens to them.” Since then, however, five of her other novels have accompanied The Shooting Party back into print. Quality will — for a time — out.
D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel (1981) is one of the lost novels of the 1980s. Ubiquitous in its day and shortlisted for the Booker Prize (it lost to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children), it now finds a natural habitat in second-hand bookshops. My 1981 paperback promises “soon to be a major film”, though it was lost in development hell despite having Bernardo Bertolucci and David Lynch attached to it.
It is a failure, but a highly ambitious one, of the sort that few writers today would attempt to cram into 240 pages. It is multifarious in form — letters, poetry, case study — but solidly focused in its content: psychoanalysis and sex. The sex is frequent, graphic and an odd combination of the dated (heaving bosoms and parting thighs) and the toe-curlingly blunt (“that night he almost burst my cunt apart”).
The problem with it is not only that the account of a sexual affair is repeated, once as poem and once as prose, but that whilst it is ostensibly from the viewpoint of a young woman, it has the prurience of a middle-aged man running through it. This was not unusual in the author’s work, where “sexually enlightened” young women recur so often that he earned the Private Eye nickname “Thomas the Wank Engine”.
The rest of the book takes apart the love affair, which seems to be the fantasy of a young Ukrainian woman, Lisa Erdman, in the early 20th century, as told through the case notes of Sigmund Freud, who psychoanalysed her in 1919. The result is no less ridiculous than we might expect (“the drying-out umbrella in the hall was symbolic of the discharged penis”), although Thomas seems not to be satirising Freudian obsessions (“I do not intend to put into question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis,” he adds in an author’s note).
Lisa’s dreams are filled with the recurring symbol of a white hotel on fire, and she suffers pain in her left breast and ovaries, which we initially attribute to her imagined violent sexual encounters on a train. The truth is messier and the source of the novel’s greatest controversy: a brutal account — cheek by jowl with the “gross expressions” of sexual abandon — of the Babi Yar massacre in 1941.
How this precisely ties in with Lisa’s visions is unclear — the timing suggests they are more premonition than recollection — but it is this cussedness that is arguably the most impressive aspect of The White Hotel. Thomas cared for no one’s sensibilities and ploughed his own furrow. The book has no antecedents and, more significantly, spawned no imitators. Its failure does not detract from its ambition, but nor does its ambition undo its failure. Thus its popularity in its day, thus its dispersal to a charity shop near you — whilst stocks last.