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Martin Amis and the liberal dilemma

McEwan, Hitchens and Amis: a “formidably talented bunch”

English culture has produced a number of cliques, says Terry Eagleton in UnHerd, from the Bloomsbury Group to the Angry Young Men of the 1950s. Martin Amis’s gang – Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens et al – were a “formidably talented bunch”, mostly products of Oxbridge in the 1960s and 1970s, an era of “intense creativity”. Amis, the “great poet of the postmodern metropolis”, ushered us into a “depthless, deregulated world of appetite, self-interest, and purely vacuous freedom”, a world he held together by the brilliance of his literary style. (He once remarked he would sell his grandmother for a finely turned phrase.)

But there’s a disparity between the sordid events Amis describes and “the tamely conventional views” that silently underpin his fiction. He and his fellow writers portray a late-capitalist world which shows “the bankruptcy of liberal values” but, nervous of convictions like most liberals, they offer no real alternative to such values. (Hitchens was the ultimate champagne socialist, “though as his career progressed the champagne gradually took over from the socialism”.) Their great modernist predecessors – the likes of Joseph Conrad, DH Lawrence, WB Yeats and TS Eliot – were much more radical, even if their radicalism was predominantly of the right not the left. Almost all were visionaries who thought deeply about politics, philosophy and the future of civilisation. That is one reason why their work, “taken as a whole, has never been equalled in the century or so since it appeared, and certainly not by the Amis group” – gifted writers though they were.