Monday, July 04, 2011

American Account

The last of Martin Amis's Public Lectures tonight at the Martin Harris Centre at the University of Manchester was an independence day special, with him being joined by Erica Wagner and Will Self to talk about America. As Ian Mcguire, from the Centre for New Writing, made clear in the introduction, its a big subject. Too big in the end.

All three speakers were a little bit American. I didn't know that Self had an American mother (but British passport, which delayed him somewhat in one post-9/11 visit, "Are you an apple or a pear?" the customs guy asked him, repeatedly.) Wagner, an American by upbringing and accent has lived here since her late teens. Amis, of course, writes American, however English he speaks, specifically in the accented "Night Train", but also in his attempts to bring the full American hubbub of U.S. prose to his British writing. (He also emigrates on Wednesday, with his American wife and American children, becoming a - very - Englishman in New York.)

The big subject was a problem. Amis talked of the discovery of America across the frozen Baring Straits; Self, accidentally given the anti-American role (not really necessary, I thought), preferred personal anecdote to historical relativism, though smirking at the space mission naming of its Atlantis after a mythical, sunken continent, whilst Wagner seemed almost apologetic of her accent; whilst conceding that being an American in England had given her immediate authority on its literature, even if she didn't quite know it. One of her first book reviews was of a Western... so, hell, she'd better know a bit more about Westerns.

It seemed a given that we should talk about America in the context of anti-Americanism, the post-9/11 dislike and misadventures across the world. I'd have preferred a debating point on "why America matters" rather than another going over the decline of Empire. Certainly, on July 4th, it was interesting to hear an overview of America that crossed time and nation. There were some interesting points. "America is a world", said Amis, "India is a world, Brazil is a world," disagreed Self, "not America." It could have made an interesting debate in itself, but wasn't followed through. It was, Wagner, I think , who talked about American literature being better for embracing a multiculturalism it had found in British literature. I'd have liked more on that. Is it true that the British + authors like Rushdie and Ondaatje have made America think more about cosmopolitanism? I'd dispute that, but I think she was hitting at a larger truth, that in a globalised market place, authors are now hybrids. Books like "The Kite Runner" or authors like Junot Diaz are American +. But as Amis pointed out, Bellow (as a Jew) and others were always American + anyway.

The beauty of tonight's talk, looking back on it, was that there was a certain joie de vivre about it, despite the concentration on America's myopic world view. There were a few open goals missed, I felt. That there's been a Reagan statue unveiled in London today, for instance. The post-Iraq, post-Blair worldview seemed a little too easy. Everyone's a little disappointed in Obama it seems; but Britain, and its own neo-con coalition was not mentioned. Talking about Blair seems easier somehow. Misadventures abroad have longer consequence.

Yet, when we did touch on novel writing, the three speakers were mostly acute. The instance response to 9/11 of writers hasn't been that great. As Amis said, DeLillo got terrorism much better in "Mao II" and "White Noise" than "Falling Man." Self's dismissal of Jay Mcinerney's "The Good Life" (though he didn't mention it by name) seemed the wrong choice. Mcinerney tries to incorporate 9/11 into the early 21st century contemporary sequel to "Brightness Falls" and though it does feel contrived in parts, I actually think he is doing the very difficult task of being too contemporary, which meant that 9/11 had to be incorporated. The incorporation seems trite, but I don't think he ever exploits the subject.

But that conversation, like a lot tonight, didn't go much further. After all, Amis is one of those who has written extensively post-9/11, and readers of "The Second Plane" are quite rare. The audience questions were, in that uniquely Manchester way, as random as you might expect. I've often felt a "Question Time" format with submission before the event might work well at this kind of event, but, for these public lectures the University of Manchester have stuck with a slightly dull format that could probably benefit, as gracious as Mcguire was, from a more pro-active chair, or a more mediated public response.

As ever it was good to pull out the best thoughts from our esteemed speakers. I'd have liked to hear more from Wagner on literature, as I've always been impressed by her editing of the Times book section, but she was relatively quiet on the subject. It was Amis who mentioned most books by name. Self was funny, particularly when asked to respond to the maddest of the audience's questions (something about drugs and religion that none of us really understood), and made a good case for reading Kafka's "America" if you really want to understand the country. Amis got his best response when he quoted Larkin; Manchester audiences always enjoying the erudition (I think it was Milton last time I saw him here.)

If tonight felt a bit like a missed opportunity, I don't think the audience were too minded. I didn't recognise a single person from the Manchester literary scene, yet the Martin Harris centre was virtually full. Here, it seems, is a very different audience than you see elsewhere at literary events in the city. The slightly null feeling I had at the end of the evening probably came from this juxtaposition. Finishing his four years in Manchester, Amis has proven there is an audience for this kind of event, and it will be interesting if he's left some kind of legacy on the city, with the students he's taught, the conversations he's had. Perhaps even in what he writes next.

With Colm Toibin replacing him in the Autumn there's clearly more than a change of "manager", like when Derby County replaced Brian Clough with Dave Mackay: the styles were very different, but they got a similar result.

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