Martin Amis’s 1989 London Fields – or ‘The Murderee’ as it was nearly called – is a virtuoso exercise in black humour, deceit, burlesque and biting misogyny.
As Simon Schama put it in 2011: “Martin Amis’ glorious fury, London Fields; the never-likely-to-be-bettered bedtime story from the heart of Mrs Thatcher’s darkest Albion; stained with punk spit and pub puke; glossy as polished leather and sexy as hell. Amis’ masterpiece isn’t exactly neglected but neither is it established as one of the all-time great London novels, but that’s what it is. Thick with allegory; packed with characters you’ll never forget; a rendezvous with desire, craziness and death; what more could you want?”
Somewhat ironically, London Fields has been praised for its originality of plot. Yet central themes come from a novel set to a very different time and place.
Dostoyevsky’s 1868 The Idiot has a complex set of characters, a profusion of dialogues on religion, philosophy and the character of Russia. Nonetheless, threaded within is a love triangle between Nastasya Fillipovna, a ‘fantastic, demonic beauty’; Prince Lev Myshkin, refined and comfortably rich, a ‘holy fool’, subject to the ‘sacred illness’ of epileptic fits; and Parfyon Rogozhin, a swaggering small-time gang-leader. Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin early on exchange crosses, symbolising brotherhood, but the competition between them for her love continues. Nastasya Fillipovna turns to one and then the other. Her death is sudden, brutal and self-foreseen (“…. all my life I will be near you … I shall soon be dead”1).
London Fields’ anti-heroine is Nicola Six, a name which, after some transpositions – Nicola 6, Nicola F (6th letter in the alphabet), NF (initials are a motif of London Fields) – can be seen as a variant on Nastasya Fillipovna. Alluring, mischievous, Nicola prefers death to decline. She seeks someone to murder her, and recruits two unknowing assistants into a love triangle – Guy Clinch, refined, comfortably rich, naïve and weak, who twice succumbs to a ‘fainting fit’; and Keith Talent, a swaggering, conniving petty thief with a passion for darts. Guy Clinch and Keith Talent meet and bond at the Black Cross pub; Nicola sharpens their conflict. Her end is sudden, brutal and self-foreseen (“ ‘You’, she said, with intense recognition”).
Angst and reverence towards class; avarice; anti-intellectualism (“people spoke in horror of how many books they had read”) and passion for beauty are constant themes in the two novels. But the differences in characters’ obsessions highlight important changes in values.
Prince Myshkin is the focus of The Idiot, a ‘truly beautiful soul’, generous, honest and forgiving, adept at speaking truths even-handedly and managing reconciliation amongst quarrellers. Prince Myshkin experiences epileptic fits as moments of epiphany, taking up the challenge of tackling ‘a spiritual pain, a spiritual thirst, a yearning for something more exalted’. He fails, ultimately, but leaves behind a trail of puzzled admiration. By contrast, Guy Clinch is a gullible cipher, a nice loser (his ‘fainting fits’ occur when his attempts to caress Nicola Six go beyond limits set by her) with no redeeming anti-hero qualities. He is dismissed by the narrator as having an ‘archaic heart’. Lacking the Prince’s ability to assess and describe relations as they really are, he is a wealthier version of everyman, seduced into betraying a loveless marriage. By the end he learns the power of hate and mistrust.
Nastasya Fillipovna’s behaviour is explained away by the narrator and her peers as a symptom of madness; veering between hauteur and hysteria; transferring loyalties with a wrenching abruptness; full of passion, doubts and self-loathing. Her changes of heart are open for all to see; her choices are dominated by instinct. Nicola Six, on the other hand, is an accomplished actress and manipulator (“The demeanour of the glamour model proclaimed that you could do what you liked with her. The demeanour of the fashion model proclaimed that she could do what she liked with you …”), with a formidable armoury of clothes and kisses, shackled only loosely by a conscience. Her motivations are the absence of love and presence of mortality; and for this she is prepared to lie and cheat, and even suffer boredom. What makes her flawed and human is that she, too, is a loser, watching helplessly as previous lovers scampered away.
Crude and impatient, uncaring of society’s views, Rogozhin mirrors Nastasya Fillipovna in his passion, doubts, and self-loathing – swearing brotherhood to Prince Myshkin one minute, then hours later swooping at him with a knife. Rogozhin has huge energy and determination, but this is focussed only on his pursuit of Nastasya Fillipovna. By contrast, Keith Talent, a meaner, moodier version of Del Boy, disdains monogamous constraints, legal constraints and normal moral scruples. Loud and a master of lies, for him, confidence comes before truth, money before friendship, and Darts: Master the Discipline acts as his chapbook for tenets on life. London Fields depicts in sardonic tones his progress to the final of a major darts championship, and the qualities that make him ‘knight of the Black Cross’ – his will to dominate, cod friendliness, rawness and chutzpah. He too is a victim; trapped and complacent in a low-horizon world.
London Fields’ claustrophobic world emphasises two sides to one of The Idiot’s love triangles in the characters of Nicola Six and Keith Talent, each strong-willed and wily con artists that appal and fascinate the reader. More than twenty years since publication, its irreverent, post-modern exploration of the allure of greed, sex and Machiavellian truths remains vibrant, sexy and fresh. But there are no real moments of peace, and only dreams of love. The sense that there could be ‘something more exalted’, something to give even a bleak optimism to the reader, is missing.
The Idiot, in a convoluted, unevenly passionate way, explores that territory. It has moments that describe Prince Myshkin’s wonder at the beauty of nature, and his connection to it; it has moments of true reconciliation between quarrellers (though not necessarily lasting reconciliation). And those simple pleasures and spiritual values were important then, and are important now.