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Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story (Graham Roumieu For The Globe and Mail)
Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story (Graham Roumieu For The Globe and Mail)

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Do the lions of Brit lit still have it? Add to ...

Generous with hair and confidence, the ancient rock gods bestrode the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. Glossy remnants of Queen and The Who strutted and noodled as the vaunting sound of the seventies was revivified.

There were nods to other branches of the British arts during the ceremony – cinema, stage and catwalk, to our shamelessly creepy children’s classics – but not to the nation’s novelistic heritage. Yet what a supergroup might have been formed of Britain’s literary lions, the dazzling male novelists who also came of age in the 1970s. The original hip young gunslingers – Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis – were all born between 1946 and 1949, and leaped before the reading public as dandies, provocateurs, stylists with swagger. However distinct, their voices were louche, satirical and mordant, occupying a gleaming register between high and low culture that many found thrillingly contemporary.

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Now in their sixties, the gunslingers – no longer hip, no longer young – continue to fire off titles with impressive frequency. Barnes’s sly and bereft The Sense of an Ending won Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, last year, while McEwan, a former winner, unleashes his latest, Sweet Tooth, reviewed today in Globe Books. Lionel Asbo, Amis’s new novel, has just recently commanded prime review spots.

Literary careers are hard to pursue. As publishers’ advances shed zeros for all but the most fortunate, as the book as a physical object looks nervously at that empty museum case next to the dodo, it becomes ever more difficult to negotiate the fallows of middle career. The lions, however, made and sealed their reputations early, and seem proof against tepid reviews or inconsistent sales. They haven’t even required the aid of cinema and TV adaptations: Apart from McEwan (whose The Comfort of Strangers, Enduring Love and Atonement have all inspired interesting and successful films), the swagger style translates poorly to the screen.

The lion who most reliably generates newspaper headlines is Amis. Not yet a national treasure, he is something close to a national pastime in Britain. The press details his luxury dentistry and domestic arrangements, and are baited by his controversial interviews and opinion pieces that accompany each new book. Muslims should “suffer until they get their house in order,” Amis opined in 2006; the elderly should be offered euthanasia booths, going out “with a martini and a medal,” he suggested in 2010. More recently, he noted how Mitt Romney “looked so crazed with power” during the campaign for the Republican nomination. Although Amis is routinely cold-shouldered by the Man Booker (Time’s Arrow secured his sole nomination, in 1991), the snub always overshadows the actual short list.

Many British reviewers don’t see their nation reflected in Amis’s latest novel, Lionel Asbo, though the foreign press has been more generous. Charles Foran, in The Globe and Mail, hailed “a typically bravura performance [by] the most original sentence-writer in English,” and noted the writer’s kinship with Dickens, as did Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times, who finds each of them “an insistently moral writer.” For me, the more telling forebear is Jonathan Swift: a connoisseur of relish and disgust, a satirist looking to redeem humanity from the mire.

Although Amis’s best-known books paddle through the spew of contemporary London, he has also audaciously squared up to 20th-century atrocity, the camp and the gulag, and even his victims are no saints: House of Meetings (2006), set in one of Stalin’s slave camps, has a narrator who in 1945 “raped my way across what would soon be East Germany” and who set about beating and killing the camp’s informers (“Pluck out your Western eyes,” he exhorts his queasy reader). Amis is an artist who goes beyond.

I review fiction less regularly these days, which means I can read principally for pleasure. And pleasure turns out not to include much recent Amis or Rushdie, despite the giddy rush of their sentences. I still seek out Barnes and McEwan, but the British writers who pique my interest are more often not the lions but the lionesses. A.S. Byatt, Zadie Smith, A.L. Kennedy and Sarah Waters: These are the authors who produce a slaver of anticipation. Above all, these days, Hilary Mantel.

I’ll say this before you do: The imagination flies free and we shouldn’t discuss writers by gender. True. But I’m struck by how many of my favourite established British authors are female, how their rich and consistently unexpected work draws me in. Perhaps it helps that, unlike their male peers, they didn’t establish a persona with their early books. Reinvention is easier and, as their careers continue, they have been able to develop in all directions. Byatt burrows ever deeper into myth and cultural history (most recently in The Children’s Book and Ragnarok); Smith’s language fizzes while she keeps close to the ground in Britain and the United States. The Observer in London, reviewing Smith’s new novel NW, made a sharp distinction between the author and the lions: “She has all of the sass of the young Martin Amis, and none of the swagger.”

There’s little swagger in Mantel’s novels. For a long while, they seemed a private pleasure. Everyone I liked received a birthday gift of Beyond Black (2005), a uniquely discomforting story of a psychic peddling her dubious arts around England’s more dismal small towns. But I wouldn’t give Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies as gifts: The recipient would doubtless have got there first and be up to the farthingale in Mantel’s compulsive and spectacularly written story of Thomas Cromwell’s subtle, bullying progress through Henry VIII’s court. In these grim times, it’s a comfort to know that a third volume is due, though I also long to know where else Mantel’s attention may turn.

And the lions, of course, will slouch forward, with their pelts of greying gold. Unlike rock stars, novelists rarely hope they die before they get old. Nor should they. Creeping mortality, flickering memory, the indignities of illness or late-flowering lust: These all provide fertile fictional material. They are subjects that can’t be illuminated by fireworks alone.

David Jays writes about the arts for the Sunday Times in London and is editor of Dance Gazette.

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