Martin Amis

Born: August 25, 1949;

Died: May 19, 2023

AMONG his peers, Martin Amis, who has died aged 73 from oesophageal cancer, was regarded as the writer against whom they must measure themselves. One such was Clive James who, in a spoof interview, described him thus: “Oh yes, he had the long words, Martin Amis. And he knew how to use them. He not only had the metaphors, he knew exactly what words like ‘metaphor’ meant. He knew what ‘trepidation’ meant. They had told him at Oxford. He had the education. He wasn’t going to forget it.”

While one can sense when writers are covering up their limitations, this was never the case with Amis. In his pomp, in the 1980s and ’90s, he wrote at full throttle, as if desperate to deliver on deadline. In that sense he was more American than British, his heroes novelists like John Updike and Saul Bellow. Like both of them, Amis gloried in the possibility of words, possessing what another American novelist – Richard Ford – said was “sheer verbal virtuosity”.

What Amis prized was style suited to content, which was “intrinsic to perception”. Nor was there, as he readily accepted of his own work, such a thing as a perfect novel. All novels are imperfect in their own way, long ones especially. Writing about Bellow, but perhaps with himself in mind, he insisted that “the art of the long novel is an inexact art.” Time, as Amis acknowledged, is the true test of a writer’s legacy.

For someone with such an impressive back catalogue and such a high public profile he was remarkably unrecognised by prize givers. His first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), written when he was 24, was unusual in that regard, winning the Somerset Maugham Award. One reviewer described its 19-year-old hero as “both a gilded and a repulsive creature”. “I accept this description,” remarked Amis, “for my hero and myself.”

He was much fancied to make the Booker Prize shortlist in 1989 for London Fields, but was vetoed by two women judges who were discombobulated by his treatment of his female characters. At an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Amis pointed out they were characters not real people. Moreover, hadn’t Muriel Spark, in her novel The Driver’s Seat, done something similar, and created a character who sets out to find a man to murder her?

By then, however, Amis, denounced as a misogynist, had become the kind of writer feminist critics loved to hate, and subsequent books were often reviewed brutally. Amis – roll-up in one hand, glass in the other – was no mean counter puncher, but the damage to his reputation lingered. His legion of admirers would point to novels such as Money (1984), The Information (1995) and the much-maligned London Fields as evidence of a writer of ambition, wit and devilish talent. Amisland was a male domain, redolent of pubs, pool halls and porn dives. It was the bleakest and most sordid of places. Once immersed in it you felt that civilisation itself was under threat, hence Amis being labelled a pessimist, as if that were a criticism. Civilisation was, is, under threat. No one reads a book by Martin Amis to cheer themselves up. Having said that he can make you laugh until it hurts.

Martin Louis Amis was born in Oxford in 1949. He had an older brother, Philip, and a younger sister, Sally. His father was Kingsley Amis whose first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), became a runaway bestseller and transformed the history of fiction in England. Amis fils, as he was often slightingly called, attended over 13 schools in Britain, Spain and the USA and then a series of crammers in London and Brighton. As a teenager he grew his hair long – much to his father’s irritation – and played truant. Nevertheless he was admitted to Exeter College, Oxford, where – underlining his precocity – he gained the rare distinction of a formal First in English. After university he found his way to Grub Street, becoming an editorial assistant at the Times Literary Supplement and literary editor of the New Statesman.

It was the latter publication that ran a competition in which readers were invited to suggest titles for Amis’s autobiography. The winner was the ferociously ironic My Struggle, with its undisguised accusation of nepotism. Among his colleagues were James Fenton, Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes. He left ‘The Staggers’ in 1979, having established himself as a novelist with the aforementioned The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1977). Then, in 1984, came Money. Couched as a 400-page suicide note, it featured John Self, a money-grabbing, jet-setting porn addict adrift in New York, and collected rave reviews. London Fields and The Information confirmed Amis as a dystopian laureate.

With the world heading to hell in a handcart, he sought refuge in comedy, the only genre he felt had any future. Reading his later work, including non-fiction, one sensed that he would have subscribed happily to Bob Dylan’s line: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.” 9/11, brutal dictatorship, international terrorism, the shadows of Nazism and Stalinism darkened his already dark prose. The murder of his cousin Lucy Partington by the serial killer Fred West and the death of his sister through drink added to the gloom.

Novels continued to appear – Yellow Dog (2003), House of Meetings (2006), Lionel Asbo (2012), The Zone of Interest (2014) – but they did not generate the excitement or appreciation of earlier work. Better received was his memoir Experience (2000), which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography. In it, he described his peripatetic upbringing, his relationship with his father, the break-up of his first marriage (to Antonia Philips, a wildlife artist with whom he had two children), his second marriage (to the New York born Uruguayan writer Isabel Fonseca, with whom he also had two children), and the media’s obsession with his dental problems.

“My life, it seems to me, is ridiculously shapeless,” he wrote near the end of Experience. “I know what makes a good narrative, and lives don’t have much of that – pattern and balance, form, completion, commensurateness. It is often the case that a Life, at least to start with, will resemble a success story; but the only shape that life dependably exhibits is that of tragedy ...”

Alan Taylor