Martin Amis was born in Oxford in 1949, the son of the writer Kingsley Amis.
He was educated in schools in Britain, Spain and the USA, and graduated from Exeter College, Oxford, with First Class Honours in English. He wrote and published his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), while working as an editorial assistant at the Times Literary Supplement. The novel won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1974 and was followed by Dead Babies in 1975. He was Literary Editor of the New Statesman between 1977 and 1979, publishing his third novel, Success, in 1978. Regarded by many critics as one of the most influential and innovative voices in contemporary British fiction, Amis is often grouped with the generation of British-based novelists that emerged during the 1980s and included Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. His work has been heavily influenced by American fiction, especially the work of Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow. A loose trilogy of novels set in London begins with Money: A Suicide Note (1984), a satire of Thatcherite amorality and greed, continues with London Fields (1989), and concludes with The Information (1995), a tale of literary rivalry. Time's Arrow (1991), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Other books include Night Train (1997), a pastiche of American detective fiction, an acclaimed volume of autobiography, Experience (2000) - winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize - and Koba the Dread, a non-fiction work about communism in the twentieth century (2002).
Amis is also the author of several collections of essays, including The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions (1993), and The War Against Cliché (2001), which includes essays and book reviews. His two collections of short stories are Einstein's Monsters (1987), and Heavy Water and Other Stories (1998). House of Meetings (2006), takes the form of a novella and two short stories, and The Second Plane (2008), is a book of essays and short stories.
He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers, magazines and journals, including the Sunday Times, The Observer, the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times. He was awarded an honorary LittD by the University of East Anglia in 2000, and was Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester from 2007.
His latest books are The Pregnant Widow (2010) and Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012). Martin Amis lives in Brooklyn, New York.
‘I don’t want to write a sentence that any guy could have written,’ says Martin Amis.
As Adam Mars Jones has written, these unmistakable sentences have been some of the most important in modern British fiction, “the voice in a generation’s ear, charming without charm, insistently dazzling, milking the paradoxes until their teats are sore and they have no more nourishment to give. It’s easy to write Amis-like sentences, hard to write good ones” (London Review of Books, June, 2012)
Martin Amis has been for upwards of 35 years the By Appointment purveyor of classic sentences to the reading public. In Money (1984) he achieved something that was as much of a breakthrough for our insular literature as Bellow’s had been in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) for American writing, a manner electric, impure and unimpressed, except sometimes by itself, mixing refracted slang with swaggeringly artificial cadence. As the New York Times puts it, its “rollicking, repulsive picture of London and New York in the late 20th century, awash in cash, corruption, pornography, junk food, junk art, self-promotion and wretched excess of every imaginable variety” was borne forth on a devastatingly effective overflow of virtuosic sentences.
If it seems astonishing that Money is now nearly as old as Augie March was when Money itself was published, then the reason must be the aura that certain books take on, of seeming to inhabit the permanent present they have defined. These books stand out, even if you can see their flaws, sending a little pulse of shock not just into the future, producing wave after wave of imitators, but into the past, making recently viable styles seem to recede into distance.
To say the least, it is not a manner that appeals to everyone. Just as Amis once confessed (or boasted) that he stopped finding Madonna attractive when she went ‘hard-body’, so there are readers in good numbers who prefer something suppler in their sentences than articulated armour-plate and an almost arthropod vision of imaginative prose. Many of these disaffected readers are likely to be female. When Amis insisted on a bidding war for The Information, the last volume of his loose West London trilogy, prospective publishers examined his sales figures, which were lower than his reputation would have suggested. Women, who tend to buy more books than men, were tending to buy relatively few of these ones.
It is this sense of a primary responsibility towards Style which so distinguishes Amis’s writing – and so divides his admirers and detractors. For some, the energy and extravagance of his work, his distinctive voice, are the hallmarks of a writer of particular importance. James Wood, for instance, argues that Amis’s ‘word-coining power’ and ‘verbal and formal ambition’ have been crucial forces for the revitalization of the novel in English since the 1970s. Amis is singular in his ready articulation of the language and mores of the moment, and in his conscious relation to movements in the contemporary European and, above all, American novel (Nabokov and Bellow are two major influences). He is, in his own way ‘addicted to the twentieth century’ (like his character John Self in Money: A Suicide Note, 1984), engrossed in the themes, riffs and rhythms of the millennial, apocalyptic metropolis. The force of his satirical and comic imagination is concentrated in prose of energy and wit: one can take phrases at random from his novels which illustrate the point – from London Fields (1989),‘Guy had grown up in the age of mediated atrocity; like everyone else, he was exhaustively accustomed to the sad arrangements, the pathetic postures of the dead’; Terry, the narrator of Success (1978), sees himself ‘as a connoisseur of ennui, as satiety’s scholar’; in Time’s Arrow (1991), the same dexterity and precision is in the service of a different tone, as when the narrator notes that ‘something enveloped me, something that was all ready for my measurements, like a suit or a uniform, over and above what I wore, and lined with grief’.
For other readers, however, this verbal ingenuity is shallow, its author overly concerned with the glister of the sentence at the expense of the realised aesthetic whole. Jason Cowley describes Amis as ‘a turbocharged cartoonist’, trapped in ‘the monotonous sublime of caricature’. His aspirations to writing of a broad, normative moral significance or resonance – aspirations consistently explicit in the austere severity of his critical journalism and occasional writing (a substantial and impressive achievement, usefully collected in The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America, 1986, and The War Against Cliché, 2001) – remain, for such critics, under-realised in the fiction, despite the ready address to ‘Big Themes’ such as the Holocaust (Time’s Arrow); or nuclear catastrophe and apocalypse (Einstein’s Monsters, 1987; London Fields). The argument was at its fiercest around the publication of Time’s Arrow, a fictional autobiography, narrated in reverse by the uncomprehending and repressed soul of the Nazi doctor Odilo Unverdorben. This dazzling, troubling work is a rhetorical and technical tour de force, but its very success in this regard – in its voicing of the unspeakable – opens the novel to accusations of opportunism and impropriety. Its subtitle ‘The Nature of the Offence’ indicates the serious intent; this is a search to locate meaning in the Holocaust and a quest for lost innocence, even for repair of the century’s trauma.
In a review of Saul Bellow’s work, Amis remarks admiringly that, ‘To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the twentieth century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work’. It is clearly a challenge to which Amis also responds and it is a tribute to the quality of his writing, and his determination over three decades, that the critical debate about his prose has largely replaced prurient attention given to controversies attending his person. For long the ‘Bad Boy’ of British Fiction, Amis was criticized for his persistent attention to sexual themes (pornography, sado-masochism and the sex trade are common features in his novels) and his eager documenting of the more vicious fatuities of contemporary living, an attention which, it was argued, shows too much relish for its ugly subject matter. His private life gained, for a novelist, unprecedented negative exposure. High-profile episodes such as the break with his agent over the size of an advance on one novel brought accusations of avarice and greed; marital discord was taken to confirm the identification between author and the more the unsavoury male figures of his novels. Above all, Amis spent many years in the shadow of comparisons to his father, Kingsley, a dominant figure in the post-war English novel, and by all accounts also a daunting paterfamilias.
The turning point in his public reputation was arguably the publication of Martin’s disarming memoir, Experience (2000), which was favourably received as a mature, generous and surprisingly moving account of a difficult, even at points tragic, family life, revealing something of the author’s humility and vulnerability. As the title suggests, the work is about the painful process of the loss of innocence. An opening into ‘the geography of the writer’s mind’, the memoir centres on Amis’s changing relation to his father, but the narrative also weaves together Amis’s discovery that, as a young man, he had fathered a child of whom he knew nothing until her mother’s death; the story of his cousin, Lucy Partington, who was a victim of Fred West, the notorious serial killer; and moving, acute examinations of the break-up of his own first marriage and its impact on his children. Experience marks a radical shift in Amis’s writing, which alters significantly the perspective from which his oeuvre is to be perceived, acknowledging whilst reworking the known facts of the private life in order to explore the nature and determinants of one creative imagination.
Jibes about the ready access enjoyed by Amis fils to the literary world ignore the pressure of critical intelligence and broad reading which characterize his work. If he was ‘tied by a quirk of birth to the writing life’ (Cowley), Amis has, as the bibliography above indicates, now more than served his apprenticeship. The early career as a literary journalist soon gave way to recognition as a cult-ish novelist producing a series of funny, dark, perverse tales of youth in the city (The Rachel Papers, 1973; Dead Babies, 1975; Other People: A Mystery Story, 1981). This status shifted dramatically with the triptych of bravura novels of the late 1970s and 1980s – Success, Money: A Suicide Note, and London Fields – which captured the chaos and energy of the Thatcherite period, and cemented Amis’s reputation as a foremost chronicler of contemporary London. In the 1990s the work was more overtly political, explicitly engaging those ‘big themes’. There was also important experimentation with the short story genre, evidenced particularly in Heavy Water (1998), a collection characterized by the use of ‘doubles’ and ‘invented worlds’.
The 2000s developed into one of Amis’s most productive decades in both fiction and non-fiction. The jolt in public mood from the calm solipsism of much of the 1990s to the world-historical urgency of the 2000s seemed something of a catalyst to his art. His talent for provocation and for amassing and exercising a variety of enemies remained acute and remarkably unsparing. The decade began with the political essay Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002), which took aim at the complicity of the left for its alleged sympathy for Stalin and wilful blindness to his purges. Needless to say, it offended many of his former friends, and Christopher Hitchens offered a vituperative response in the Atlantic.
His return to fiction with Yellow Dog (2003) resulted in a remarkable feeding frenzy in the British media. Here, the later Amis’s voice once again erupted into satire and the themes of male violence, millennialism, sexual dysfunction and the groaning sewer of tabloid culture. But to many there were diminishing returns. In a famous hatchet-job, the novelist Tibor Fischer remarked that "Yellow Dog isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It's not-knowing-where-to-look bad … like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating. (The Guardian, August 2003) Laudably laughing in the face of such criticism, Amis retorted to his baying critics that "no one [today] wants to read a difficult literary novel or deal with a prose style which reminds them how thick they are.”
One of the stranger shifts in Amis’s writing came with the imaginative connection that he began to feel with world-historical events. Koba the Dread, for example, had been mocked for the way in which Amis had weaved the mass murder of political prisoners together with the cries of his own infant child sleeping at home. To many this was not only narcissism but distasteful and cloth-eared. This personal investment and attempt to project himself into the zeitgeist resurfaced in equally troubling form with a pair of stories, originally scheduled for the collection House of Meetings (2006), which placed the novelist in the courtroom of Saddam Hussein, and most controversially of all, in the mind of the 11 September hijacker Muhammad Atta. By way of companion to these fictional experiments, Amis published a collection of essays on the War on Terror, The Second Plane (2008), which collated his prolific journalistic output on the topic, and attracted a combination of respectable sales, and wildly varying reviews.
As Tim Adams observed in The Guardian in 2010, “for at least the past decade” Amis had “seemed intent on making the most distinctive comic voice in contemporary British fiction do the most unlikely things. He's put it in the mouths of historical tyrants and 9/11 plotters, he tried it out for size – for laughs – as an impotent monarch and – in earnest – as a survivor of Soviet purges”. The appearance of The Pregnant Widow, with its return to the sexual intrigue and dark glamour of his early works such as Dead Babies, was therefore a major “relief”. The novel had originally been intended as more explicitly autobiographical, but had developed in the direction of fiction, set in the summer of 1970, with a thinly fictionalised Amis as 20-year old Keith Nearing, navigating the sexual revolution. To Edmund White in the New York Review of Books, it was a “return to form … a new depth brought to familiar themes.” Fittingly, given the obsessions of the past decade, one of those obsessions turned out to be the sleeping presence of Islam in his life in the form of previous lovers.
During the furore surrounding Yellow Dog, Amis had found himself spending some years in Uruguay. But a more seemingly permanent departure came in 2010 as Amis moved to what he himself recognised as the somewhat clichéd novelist’s nirvana of a Brooklyn brownstone. Over his shoulder, he tossed one last grenade at his native country in the form of Lionel Asbo (2012), a scabrous condition-of-England work. The novel centred on working-class Desmond Pepperdine and his antihero uncle Lionel Asbo (acronymically named after the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, much-mocked instruments of dealing with petty crime in Tony Blair’s Britain) and their misadventures in the fictional Diston Town. Though Amis was careful to point out in interviews that this was a “fairytale world” rather than an accurate depiction of Britain, the savage satirical intent was unmistakably blunt.
Unfortunately, for many, it was also embarrassingly off-the-mark, and was the subject of vicious ridicule in the British press. Even the usually sympathetic Telegraph thought that “as socio-political commentary, Lionel Asbo feels helplessly off course and out of date. Most of its main targets — pitbulls, hoodies, chavs, Jordan, lotto louts, I’m A Celebrity — feel about a decade old” (Tim Martin, 15 June 2012). Nonetheless, as ever there were sympathisers. Some of his younger admirers such as the novelist Nicola Barker, seen by many as an inheritor of the Amis mantle, proved that the cathartic potential of his provocations was still alive: “Is [Lionel Asbo] an offensive book? Hell, yes. Deeply. But then maybe modern England needs offending” (The Observer, 10 June 2012).
For decades, Amis has seemed to thrive on this cocktail of affection and abuse. As the Guardian noted in 2012, “Amis-bashing has long been a popular pastime in the British press”. The attention he receives, and the passions his fiercely vivid novels, stories and essays provoke, remains far beyond any of his contemporaries or those of younger authors, none of which has yet managed to unseat him as the current father of English letters. At their best, those famous sentences continue to be some of the most powerful in British fiction, and though it now seems more often to be for the wrong reasons, the publication of an Amis novel remains an event in contemporary writing.
Dr Sean Matthews 2004 and Dr Tom Wright 2013