Night in Review: 2018 PEN Canada Gala with Martin Amis

PEN Canada’s 2018 Gala with Martin Amis

Christopher Hitchens memorably described Martin Amis’s style as “a synthesis of astonishing wit and moral assiduity.” Both were much in evidence as Amis spoke with the novelist and biographer Charlie Foran at PEN Canada’s 2018 gala dinner. 

Emceed by Here and Now Toronto host Gil Deacon, the gala celebrated the release of One Humanity recipient Eskinder Nega – imprisoned since 2011 – and screened a short video about PEN’s security training workshops for female journalists in Guatemala. The audience included Sir Rick Trainor, Rector of Oxford University’s Exeter College  (Amis’s alma mater), Mrs Florence Richler, director David Cronenberg, PenguinRandomHouse publishers Louise Dennys and Kirstin Cochrane, and PEN Canada’s 2018 New Voices Award winner Mikko Harvey. 

Unpacking his dictum that writers shun not only “cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart,” Amis effortlessly recalled stylistic lapses in the work of contemporary novelists, historians and biographers, and showed how they squandered a reader’s momentum. Received wisdom– cliches of the mind – could, he argued,  amount to an entire belief system, as Joyce showed with his sceptical interrogation of Catholicism in Ulysses; sentimentality – the heart’s cliche – occurred when a writer tried to evoke unearned emotion. 

Expanding on the novel as a ‘social form’, Amis said that writers like Bellow and Nabokov, were like ideal hosts: putting the reader at ease with a friendly welcome and a glass of good wine, presenting characters gradually, leading you gently into the story. Less considerate authors  – even someone of Joyce’s stature – often dispensed with these manners, abruptly handing over some half-warmed tea and, perhaps, a reheated kipper, before leaving you to make your way through the narrative. 

Amis closed the conversation with an endorsement of PEN’s mandate to show solidarity with threatened writers – especially when, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo – there was considerable pressure to do otherwise.