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November 29, 2023

Martin Amis: An Appreciation

Martin Amis: An Appreciation

An Appraisal

Our critic assesses the achievement of Martin Amis, Britain’s most famous literary son.

Martin Amis in 2007.Credit…David Levenson/Getty Images

On May 6, at the age of 74, Charles III was crowned king of England. A few weeks later, at 73, Martin Amis died at his home in Florida. One event seemed almost comically belated, the other tragically premature. Charles took over the family business well past normal retirement age, while Amis was denied the illustrious dotage that great writers deserve.

It’s hard to accept either one of them as old. The point of princes is that they’re young; Amis, much like the former Prince of Wales, had enjoyed (or endured) a decades-long career as a dauphin. These near-contemporaries, who once argued at a dinner party about the persecution of Salman Rushdie, shared a curious generational destiny. They were forever sons, defined and sometimes overshadowed by famous parents, dynastic heirs trying to figure out how to be self-made men.

Amis, whose father, Kingsley (1922-95), was a very famous novelist, once described himself as “the only hereditary novelist in the Anglophone literary corpus.” We all know about Charles’s family. He and Martin were the leading nepo babies of the British baby boom.

There are writers who disdain the idea that generations matter. Amis was not one of them. From first to last — from “The Rachel Papers” to “Inside Story” — his novels bristle with characters who not only live (and sometime drown) in the flow of history, but who relentlessly historicize their own experience. Their libidos unfurl like banners in the sexual revolution and soldier on in its aftermath. Their political views and social attitudes follow the left-right zigzagging and centrist muddle of the Reagan/Thatcher and Clinton/Blair eras. Their economic prospects wane and wax with the cycles of global hypercapitalism.

The closer these characters come to Amis himself — most recently in the retrospection of “The Pregnant Widow” and “Inside Story” — the more overt this generational mapping becomes. But it’s also evident in his “State of England” fictions, including the 1996 story of that name and the 2012 novel “Lionel Asbo,” which recycles the phrase as a subtitle. There, the working-class protagonists situate their own frustrations and satisfactions, their aging and their coming-of-age, within an ambient dialectical narrative of progress and decline. In the shorter “State of England,” an upwardly mobile, almost-divorced bouncer named Mal reflects that

class and race and gender were supposedly gone (and other things were supposedly going, like age and beauty and even education): all the really automatic ways people had of telling who was better or worse — they were gone. Right-thinkers everywhere were claiming that they were clean of prejudice, that in them the inherited formulations had at last been purged. This they had decided. But for those on the pointed end of the operation — the ignorant, say, or the ugly — it wasn’t just a decision. Some of them had no new clothes. Some were still dressed in the uniform of their deficiencies. Some were still wearing the same old shit.

Even when Amis’s fictional attention veered toward other histories, notably and controversially the Holocaust and Stalin’s terror, a reader couldn’t help hearing the voice and sensibility of a worldly and well-placed citizen of post-imperial literary London.

By all accounts — certainly by Amis’s accounts — to be young in that twilight was, if not quite heaven, then an awful lot of fun. The 1970s, when Amis, still in his 20s, served as back-of-the-book editor of The New Statesman and published his early, funny novels, were a swirl of deadlines, love affairs, literary quarrels and long, boozy lunches with brilliant friends. Such friends! Amis’s cohort of male British writers included Ian McEwan, James Fenton, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom (especially Hitch) pop up frequently in his pages.


Martin Amis in 1983.Credit…Tim Jenkins/Penske Media via Getty Images

In his criticism, though, Amis’s gaze was more frequently cast backward over his shoulder, toward his father’s peers — Philip Larkin, Iris Murdoch, John Bayley, Robert Conquest — and across the Atlantic. There (which is to say here, in the United States) is where he found the surrogate dads, dashing uncles and swaggering older brothers who spurred and challenged his aspirations: John Updike, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller and above all his “twin peaks,” Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow.

Even as he ascended to trans-Atlantic fame and best-selling fortune, Amis was happy to embrace his junior status, to cast himself as an admiring, critical, sometimes rebellious acolyte. This isn’t to suggest that he was modest or diffident. On the contrary: He reveled in precocity, cheekiness, iconoclasm and snark. He tapped at the clay feet of his idols with the chisel of his irreverent wit, even as he clambered onto their shoulders to see farther, and more clearly, than they ever could.

If I accept the mightiness of Bellow and Nabokov, it’s partly because Amis persuaded me, both by the precepts of his criticism and the example of his fiction, which grapples with and overcomes their influence. What I mean is that I liked him better, and trusted him more.

The best way I can find to pay tribute, to conduct an honest appraisal — no small challenge with a writer who was singularly gifted at self-appraisal — is to lay my own generational cards on the table. I’m a member of what Amis called “the Crap Generation”: “I mean the one that came after the baby boomers — those born around 1970 (the Generation Xers).” He once proposed a “polemical work” about how crappy we were, which is especially hurtful, though not necessarily surprising. We were his biggest fans.

To come of reading age in the last three decades of the 20th century — from the oil embargo through the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the way to 9/11 — was to live, it now seems clear, in the Amis Era. He cut, for guys around my age (and not only guys, as Zadie Smith might agree), a figure not unlike the ones that Bellow and the other Americans represented for him. A giant, yes, but also a familiar, provoking, somehow approachable writer. Someone you could envy as well as admire, resent as well as respect.

It was easy enough to point out the lapses, blind spots and missteps: the alternately sentimental and slobbery view of women; the taste for cruel, downward-punching humor; the occasional slippage of liberal common sense into reactionary bluster. But it was also easy to imagine arguing about all that over drinks and cigarettes, thanks to Amis’s inexhaustible intellectual brio and his undentable good humor.

That quality, even more than his satirical flair or the buoyant elegance of his prose, marks his greatest feat of self-invention. The first time I wrote about Amis in these pages, I too cleverly called him “the best American writer England has ever produced.” What I was responding to was not just his evident Americanophilia, or the scale and audacity of his ambition, but also his optimism, his open-mindedness, his energy.

Whether these are still — or ever were — defining characteristics of American culture is an argument for another day. The point is that they were decidedly not attitudes associated with English writers up until then, especially not those of Kingsley Amis’s generation.


Martin Amis at his home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, in 2012.Credit…Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

Those guys made art out of their grudges, resentments and prejudices, none better than Larkin, Kingsley’s difficult pal from their undergraduate days at Oxford. Larkin, who detested children and had none of his own, was a spectral presence in Martin’s boyhood and the subject of some of his most searching and productive mature criticism.

Larkin, who Amis called “the novelist’s poet,” is his crucial precursor. “Inside Story,” Amis’s avowedly autobiographical last novel, broaches the idea that he may have been Martin’s actual father as well. That’s the claim made by Phoebe Phelps, Martin’s lover in the late 1970s, who tells Martin, many years later, that she heard it from Kingsley himself, who was trying to get her to go to bed with him.

All it takes to debunk this revelation is a glance at a few book jacket photos. Martin’s resemblance to Kingsley is impossible to miss. And at least superficially, the apple landed very close to the tree. Martin grew up into a comic novelist and a prolific periodical scribbler, just like dad. He was gregarious and well traveled, which Larkin was decidedly not.

But the fantasy of Larkin’s secret paternity in some ways improves on the actual literary succession. What Martin Amis inherited from Larkin, genetically or otherwise, was a streak of kindness, a tenderness that Kingsley in his writing almost entirely lacked.

Larkin, a gloomy bachelor with a wretched romantic life, a proud provincial decidedly not clean of prejudice, was a great love poet. His meanest appraisals of the human condition admit a glimmer of affection, which sometimes deepens into a glow. You find that in Amis too, sometimes where you least expect it: amid the apocalyptic tremors of “London Fields,” the fratricidal savagery of “The Information,” the decadence and thuggery of “Lionel Asbo.” And in everything he wrote about the writers he revered.

In his poem “Posterity,” Larkin imagines how he might look to a future biographer, a fictional academic named Jake Balokowsky. “One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys,” is how he sees Jake seeing him. It’s possible to think of Amis along similar lines, as a man of his time, even if it was a very different time. Much as it’s impossible to picture Larkin young, it’s hard to think of Amis as anything but. And now, all of a sudden, he’s no longer young. He’s permanent.

Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.

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