Martin Amis

Multi-talented, master craftsman, peerless wit and a very human being
Amis at the Booker Prize in 1991, for which “Time’s Arrow” was shortlisted but failed to land him the Award. PA IMAGES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTOS

This is a piece about Martin Amis written in the full knowledge that Martin Amis himself would not have approved. Nothing to do with the contents: simply the timing. Only a few weeks have passed since his death, which is several orders of magnitude less than he would have deemed appropriate to assess his reputation. “There is only one value judgment in literature: time.” And he didn’t just mean in his own case. “I don’t keep an eye out for the sensational new novel by so-and-so, the 25-year-old genius, because it’s just an uneconomical way of dividing your reading time: their stuff hasn’t stood the test of time in a way that the senior guys and girls have. It might go on to be part of the canon; it might completely disappear. I don’t want to take that chance.”

He was certainly part of the canon. Along with Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, he made up one of the quartet of great English male novelists who were born in the half-decade following the end of the Second World War and shook up the then rather tweedy literary scene in the ’70s and early ’80s. Even here, Amis was an outlier. Though the youngest of the four, he was the first to be published; he was the only one who never won the Booker Prize (the nearest he came was being shortlisted for Time’s Arrow and longlisted for Yellow Dog); and along with Rushdie (for very different reasons) he was the only one who penetrated the wider public consciousness.

English novelist, essayist, memoirist and screenwriter Martin Amis, who was the author of fourteen novels, two collections of stories and eight works of non-fiction died on 19 May 2023. HOMER SYKES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

One of the easiest and most common comparisons made about Amis was to Mick Jagger. It was usually meant superficially – their physical resemblance as young men, the effect their Byronic magnetism had on women (Germaine Greer confessed that Amis left her “helpless with desire”), the shock value of their charisma, the drawl in their voices – but in fact the similarities ran in deeper and more interesting ways. Both men produced what are by common consent their masterpieces relatively early on: Money for Amis aged 35, Gimme Shelter when Jagger was only 26.

Where Rushdie’s lyrics for U2’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet are sweetly and softly banal, one can easily imagine Amis helping pen, say, Sympathy For The Devil, with its flourishes about laying traps for troubadours and monarchs fighting for the gods they made. Himself aside, Amis’s protagonists were rarely men of both wealth and taste, certainly not at the same time, but they usually embraced the deadly sins with alacrity (and there is a certain nomenclative irony that at least three of those protagonists were called Keith rather than Mick). Plus, as Amis said: “Why isn’t Mick Jagger known as the Martin Amis of the rock world? It’s a conundrum, that.”

He attracted gossip the way film stars usually do, rather than novelists. Leaving his wife Antonia Phillips for Isabel Fonseca; ditching his agent Pat Kavanagh for Andrew Wylie who would secure him ludicrous advances; picking spats with other writers such as Gore Vidal and Tibor Fischer: these were news because they were Amis. He was box office.

Even before I checked the cover of John Walsh’s recent Circus Of Dreams: Adventures In The 1980s Literary World, I was sure that Amis’s picture would be right at the top, for who else would you have put there? And while it’s easy to say that no author starting out now would be able to do so with a novel such as 1973’s The Rachel Papers or while enjoying the kind of private life Amis did back then, it’s also not inaccurate: the world has become too censorious, too invasive, too moralistic.

He attracted gossip the way film stars usually do, rather than novelists

The tennis player Goran Ivanišević once spoke of the three Gorans who coexisted within him: Good Goran, who played wonderful tennis and charmed the crowds; Bad Goran, who had meltdowns when things weren’t going his way; and Emergency Goran, who would appear when in dire trouble, smash a couple of aces to get himself out of the hole, and then disappear again.

A similar tripartite identity could be seen with Amis, himself a tennis aficionado and player. There was Writer Martin, who crafted his prose to exquisite levels and who saw neither contradiction nor difference between style and substance: he would always seek the precision of “minimum elegance” in his writing, “subvocalising a sentence in [my] head until there’s nothing wrong with it”. Edward Docx described “the ravishing luxuriousness to all his writing. You get to revel and recline in the great opulent apparel of our language as if it were yours to drape yourself in all along. Which, of course, it is…. You feel more subtle in his company, you feel your own vocabulary expand, your sensibility for words is reconjured, your vow of love for the English language is remade; in the moment of reading his best work, you feel richer… [This is] the heart of Amis’s work: a delighted, forensic, monumental and epic commitment to language itself.”

Nor did Amis see any contradiction between the comic and the serious. “Every novel worth reading is funny and serious. Anyone who’s any good is going to be funny. It’s the nature of life. Life is funny.” Docx speaks of Amis’s “exuberance – an intoxicating joy, a pleasure, a live kinetic vitality that lives word to word in his work”. And some of his lines are as coruscatingly, brilliantly funny as it gets: “Cilla and Lionel were known in the family as ‘the twins’, because they were the only children who had the same father.” “His divorce had been so vicious that even the lawyers had panicked.” “Limp hardly did justice to the spectacular unevenness of Mrs Botham’s gait: she walked like a clockwork hurdler.”

Then there was Private Martin, kind and good-humoured to friends and acquaintances alike. Many who interviewed him spoke of how easy he made it for them, how much time and care he took to make the experience a mutually rewarding one rather than yet another turn of A Great Man On Autopilot. “He was (at least in my experience, and I know in that of others) a mensch,” said Sam Leith. “He was the first writer I ever chaired on stage. I had been in awe of him since I was a teen… On stage, he took command of the show, answering my gauche questions in long, fluent, witty paragraphs studded with epigrams. It was an act of great generosity.”

And there was Public Martin, who waded into furores often of his own making (such as suggesting that there should be euthanasia booths on street corners for old people to get a “Martini and a medal” before having the mortal coil removed, or saying post-9/11 that “the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order”). At times it was hard to escape the feeling that this last persona was a deliberately overblown fictional one, a character named Martin Amis in a Martin Amis novel (which of course he had done already in Money, though in that case mainly as a counterpoint to the antihero John Self).

In late middle age, as the equilibrium in this triskelion began to shift, Amis spent a few years teaching creative writing at Manchester University. An enterprising newspaper, using creative calculating techniques, posited that he was getting paid more per hour than Wayne Rooney down the road at Old Trafford. It was his last major role in Britain, a nation that Amis seemed to feel he’d outgrown: the pre-eminent chronicler of Thatcherism now seeking a bigger stage with more epic characters than a gradually waning Albion could provide.

That he ended up living in New York was not just unsurprising but fitting. He had long been the most transatlantic of writers, melding American conceits such as distinctively voiced monologues with a particularly British frame of cultural reference points. His primary literary influences came from both sides of the pond, Philip Larkin sitting alongside Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, and his best friend, Christopher Hitchens, was another Englishman who had made his home stateside. Even Amis’s celebrated obsession with his teeth spoke of this dual identity: nothing – not guns, not religion, not abortion – divide Britain and America the way dentistry does.

No novelist ever fully dodges incoming flak, and Amis copped more than most. In “white male novelist is best at writing “white male characters” shocker, many of the women who appear in his books were one-dimensional and defined primarily through the base, lascivious male gaze as either vamps or frumps. The two female judges on the 1989 Booker Prize panel, Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil, refused to consider London Fields on the grounds of misogyny. Another former Booker judge, Sameer Rahim, said that Amis “would never win a racial sensitivity award… until Lionel Asbo, black characters in his novels are peripheral figures of fear or fun”.

Amis’s defenders would point to the fact that he was broadly misanthropic, certainly in his novels. That he wrote white men better did not mean that he let them off the hook: quite the opposite, in fact. John Self, Keith Talent and Lionel Asbo are all grotesques unspared by Amis’s eagle eye or laser pen. But there was depth there too, “a surprising tenderness not far beneath that surface”, said Kazuo Ishiguro, “His characters were always yearning for love and connection.”

Amis also spent a few years teaching creative writing at Manchester University. A newspaper posited that he was earning more there than Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford. LARRY D. MOORE - CC BY SA 3.0

One could also argue that his parts were greater than the whole: that in almost any Amis novel the nuggets of jaw-dropping gold need to be mined from seams of longueur and self-indulgence, and that the later the novel the lower the ratio of signal to noise (a mixing of metaphors which he would never have stomached, of course). There are flashes of the old Amis in, for example, 2006’s House of MeetingsThe Pregnant Widow (2010) and even 2012’s Lionel Asbo, but they are relatively few and far between.

To this extent, his non-fiction collections, encompassing not just literary criticism but topics as diverse as Islamic terrorism, Stalinism and darts, hold up better than many of his novels. The essay form showcased him at his best and, as Geoff Dyer said: “His signature strength as a writer – the electrifying prose – was also a component of his shortcoming as a novelist.” In Amis’s own words: “If the prose isn’t there, then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form.” But these aren’t secondary interests for most novelists: they’re precisely what constitutes the discipline. Style and voice when done well – and God, few did it better than peak-era Amis – can whitewash all other shortcomings, but when either start to go, then the artifice is laid very bare. In Inside Story a character describes a Bellow book as “a babble novel… You know. Him just going on”, to which Amis replies: “It’s the calibre of the babbler that counts.”

The reference, though wry, was more on the nose than it may first appear, for Bellow had ended up with dementia. “Saul no longer knew he’d written all those books. It is the vacancy that’s so shocking. Because he had such a busy mind, such an interested mind, and then it all fades into indifference and gratuity.” By dying relatively young with his mind intact, Amis was at least spared this fate. “Writers die twice,” he said, “once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” It was his, and our, fortune that the two came very close together in his case.

According to Rushdie, Amis wanted “to leave behind a shelf of books – to be able to say: ‘From here to here, it’s me.’ His voice is silent now. His friends will miss him terribly. But we have the shelf.” We do indeed, and we always will.

Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now

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