Martin Amis, a generation-defining writer since the 1980s, and a voice that was distinctive and celebrated wherever English was read, died recently. Amis was one of my literary heroes. As indeed he was for a lot of people of a certain age and of a certain literary persuasion.
His combination of high style and street cred, his wit and verve and fizzing comic zest, his throwaway bon mots, made his allure irresistible.
Most of all, there was the unique voice – much imitated but never emulated. Amis himself said only detective novels needed plot. Otherwise, style and voice were everything. Amis was a writer who made me want to write literary journalism.
I learnt of Amis’s death as soon as I got off a Delhi-Vancouver flight. My wife and I were in Vancouver to attend our daughter’s graduation ceremony at the University of British Columbia. She was waiting to greet us in the Arrivals area. It was a thrilling, momentous occasion.
Standing near the baggage carousel, though, I felt a deep, acute sense of loss.
Immediately, I wanted to go back to his books. Money and London Fields, his greatest novels, big books that redefined the form of the English novel; his memoir, Experience, where he is at the height of his powers; and his collections of journalism, especially The Moronic Inferno and The War Against Cliche. But my books were all on my shelves in Delhi. There was no way for me to reread him and pay tribute.
This is what I do when one of my literary heroes dies. When VS Naipaul passed away, I took refuge in the comedy and world view of his breakout novel, A House for Mr Biswas. I reached for The Bend in the River and its chilling, premonitory, unsurpassable opening sentence: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” When John Updike died, I buried myself in Rabbit is Rich, the third novel in the Rabbit quartet and one of finest postwar novels written in the English language. Philip Roth’s death sent me to rediscover his magnificent, late efflorescence: from the manic energy of Sabbath’s Theatre to the pared down brilliance of Exit, Ghost.
It seems appropriate. It is quite right, this reading, to pay homage to writers I have admired for decades. How else can one memorialise someone who dealt with words and ideas than to reacquaint oneself, as a reader, with those words and ideas that have yielded so much pleasure over the years?
When one of my sporting heroes dies, though, it is not quite like that. Athletes die twice: once when they retire from their chosen sport; and once they actually, physically pass away. Once they have retired, they begin to slip away from my consciousness. I cherish their exploits, I remember them with awe and affection. But because they are no longer part of my daily life, because they no longer dominate the court, the pitch, the field or the TV screen, because they no more sprinkle their magic star dust on my everyday life, they are relegated to the cobwebbed recesses of my memory.
When Diego Maradona died, I visited as many YouTube clips as I could. I watched that goal against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico over and over. The low centre of gravity of his body, the slaloming run, feet pounding the turf in a blur of motion, the nutmegs, the swagger that screams “Here, take this, stop me if you can!” And finally, the ball slipped into the back of the net with a sense of triumphant inevitability. How did he do that?
When Shane Warne died, I did the same thing on YouTube. I allowed myself most time with the Gatting Ball, the Ball of the Century, to dismiss Mike Gatting in the first Test of the 1993 Ashes series at Old Trafford in Manchester. I watched it on a loop. Warne’s waddle to the bowling crease, chubby and peroxide blonde, the prodigious turn that you could measure by a set square, the bemusement all around at the unprecedented, miraculous nature of it all.
Still, it is not the same as a literary hero dying. Because, in a sense, we have lost our sporting hero already. The event has a great deal of emotional charge. But we are not grieving for a practising artist who still had much to offer us. (Unless it is Roth, who officially retired from writing a few years before his death.)
Besides, the joy and sense of drama I derive from watching sport relies heavily on its unpredictability, its unscripted nature, its element of shock and surprise. Who would have thought that could be possible? When I watch clips on YouTube, I know the story.
Whereas, great writing is all about the words, the sentences, the voice, the style, the ideas. It matters little that I know the story. Rereading yields instruction and delight because I discover something new every time I go back to a book I admire.
Literary heroes die only once. But their creations are on my shelf, to be savoured whenever I feel so inclined. In that sense, they are immortal.