Martin Amis: the Biography
Constable, 432pp, £20
Martin Amis - snooker player, smoker, pithy interviewee, latter-day Napoleon of Notting Hill, sledgehammer satirist, underbelly fetishist, sporadically great novelist, victim of press intrusion and dental surgery, weepy memorialist of middle-age woes - needs a biographer who can separate the myth from the truth, who can pick through the debris of aphoristic soundbite and self-mythologising anecdote and find . . . something.
Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. His book fulfils the main duty of a biography - it is informative - while failing to attain any of the possible virtues. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness (testimonies are pasted straight on to the page) and surreal bossiness: "Keep walking and you will reach the British Leyland car plant", "Pick up a novel by either of them . . . compare both with a work chosen at random by any other major postwar writer". It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing - about spectacularly good writing. A passage in Money is "symphonic in the way that levels of humiliation and degradation are segued towards an apogee".
We don't know whether Amis considered Bradford the man for the job, but we do know that he requested changes to an earlier version of the biography, and that his request was met. (It is rather telling that, for Amis, the "real fun" of Andrew Field's Nabokov: His Life in Part resided in "the spectacle of Field being shoved round the board by the old Grandmaster".) The published book starts with a note of thanks to Amis for "co-operating helpfully" and to his wife, Isabel Fonseca, who "generously provided assistance with the preparation of the work". And how, after all this helpful co-operation and generous assistance (and pre-publication censorship), does Amis emerge? "He is kind, affably short-tempered and as a family man incomparably caring." What a guy. Even his short temper is affable.
As an interviewer, Bradford is tactful when he ought to be tough. He exercises tact most strenuously when the subjects of his interviews - essentially, his co-authors - say something that needs challenging. Elizabeth Jane Howard would consent to returning to Kingsley Amis, Martin says, only "if he agreed to some inflexible conditions, mainly that he should give up alcohol completely. Kingsley was not an alcoholic." Well, if he wasn't an alcoholic, why wouldn't he give up drinking to save his marriage? More to the point, why doesn't Bradford, the author of Lucky Him (2001) and notionally an expert on both Amises, speculate about Martin's reasons for issuing such a denial? Indeed, "denial" is a useful word when considering Martin Amis. Did his experience of sexual molestation as a child leave any psychological scar? "No, I don't think so."
The index to Bradford's book lists plenty of "parallels and contrasts with Kingsley", but he makes little of one of Martin Amis's less attractive and possibly destructive inheritances. According to Zachary Leader's magnificent authorised biography (2006), Kingsley Amis possessed "wholly traditional notions of the female domestic sphere, which included shopping, cleaning, cooking, budgeting household expenses and educating children". (When he and Howard moved house in 1976, he wrote to Robert Conquest explaining that his main contribution to the move "so far has been drinking up the nearly-empty bottles".)
In one of many testimonies that could have done with cleaning up a little, the philosopher David Papineau, talking to Bradford about Martin Amis's first marriage, to Antonia Phillips, has this to say: "Martin has never had a great deal of time with things like answering letters, paying bills and so on. Add to that rates, grinding banalities such as central heating oil, shopping for things - from loo roll to bread - and well, forget it."
A moment of extreme incuriosity on Bradford's part comes when the much-quoted Christopher Hitchens explains that, at a certain point in the late 1980s, Amis and Phillips entered "a new regime of monogamy and to an extent he kept his word . . . I don't know of any significant transgressions." Right, so after the old regime of adultery, the new regime of monogamy was honoured "to an extent". Bradford does not follow up the line of inquiry, or pass comment on Hitchens's words. Later, Amis and Phillips simply drift apart, or (Hitchens again) become "oddly detached from one another". Oh, and Isabel Fonseca happens to be on the scene.
Francis Wheen proves a more mischievous, less protective witness, at one point throwing light on a possible area of tension in the first marriage - Phillips's status as a "trained philosopher". For some years, the cleverest novelist in England wasn't even the cleverest person in his own household. Hitchens insists that Amis "could hold his own" intellectually when his wife's friends Richard Wollheim and P F Strawson dropped by. Well, if he says so. (In a rather unflattering moment of direct quotation, Amis says that Wollheim "explained to me his ideas on art".) Finding a way between conflicting testimonies - Hitchens on one side, Wheen and the publisher Anthony Blond on the other - is what the author should be doing, but you wouldn't catch Bradford saying that his man couldn't keep up with Richard Wollheim.
It's about time that somebody gave serious thought to Amis's intelligence rather than his individual opinions. You might have thought his biographer would be the natural candidate, but he is too busy countenancing the hyperbole of Amis's friends. When Clive James says that Amis is "the finest literary critic of his generation", Bradford ought to perform the prose equivalent of a double-take.
Reading through The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000, one encounters page after page of drive-by insights and peerless put-downs, but just as much generalisation and caricature. Again and again, Amis throws himself on one principle - "writing well" - and his finest moments can hardly be considered instances of, never mind contributions to, literary criticism: "At his best Crichton is a blend of Stephen Jay Gould and Agatha Christie. He emplaces a series of zoological mysteries which are far more arresting than the conveyor-belt jeopardies of his plot. Animals - especially, if not exclusively, velociraptors - are what he is good at. People are what he is bad at. People, and prose."
Frank Kermode hit on an uncomfortable truth when he observed that much of Amis's "less brilliant writing" tends to occur "in essays on the authors he most respects" - authors such as Saul Bellow, in whose presence he mostly gawps and sighs. Kermode was right to identify him as a "post-literary-critical critic", just as Adam Mars-Jones, writing about Amis's fiction, was right to call him "the champion writer", rather than the pre-eminent novelist, of his generation.
But perhaps it is foolish to expect trenchant analysis from a book of this kind. As Amis wrote in 1973 (and it is no less true today), critical biography habitually portrays the subject's work as "a stupefied outpouring on the life": "this poem 'reflects' these events, that poem 'lays bare' those tensions". Bradford would probably say that Amis was "prescient", because this is exactly what he has done with, or to, his work. If we are to believe the biographer's sleuthing presentation of things, Amis wrote the way he did because of the people he met - "hybridised versions" of whom populate the novels - and not because of the writers he read.
Bradford declares that Amis would never admit to anything so compromising as an influence, yet his own attempts to spot the influence are wide of the mark. Tackling things the wrong way around, he says that the plot of Nabokov's 1941 novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is "almost identical" to that of Amis's third novel, Success (1978). For "almost identical", read "vaguely similar". Success in fact alludes to, and steals from, the work of numerous writers, including Dickens, Kafka, Larkin and yes, Nabokov, especially Lolita and Pale Fire. But Amis's evocation of an "exhausting, frightening, migraine world"; his two narrators' sense of defeat and their frequent use of parentheses; indeed, the splendidly gritty descriptions and the boisterously weary tone of most of his narrators, all take their cue from Joseph Heller's Something Happened (1974).
Amis declares the debt. When Gregory starts to crack up, suffering a panic attack on the Underground ("I don't like the subway," says Heller's Bob Slocum), he asks: "What happened to me down there? Something did." An unspecified "something" haunts Gregory ("Something's coming. Oh, go away"), in much the same way as "nothing", in its various idiomatic forms, stalks Richard Tull through The Information: "It's nothing. Just sad dreams", "Nothing ever happens to novelists", "And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night".
It was in Success that Amis, with Heller's help, forged his voice. It was also where he established himself as one of the few significant novelists whom we read almost exclusively for jokes, alliteration and adjectives. And it was where he first displayed a concern with loss and decay that, robbing him of his eloquence, emerged as a "why me?" plaint.
In one of many fine essays on the Amises, the critic James Wolcott identified the turn from "slang and noise-density" to "Listerine-garglinglocutions" and "a parliamentary drone" as a turn for the worse. Bradford registers no such disappointment. Why would he? After all, The Information is a novel of "outstanding quality", Yellow Dog (2003) is "a work of genius", House of Meetings (2006) is "the closest that anyone has come to a fictional version of Browning's dramatic monologues" and The Pregnant Widow (2010) is "an addictive read . . . that begs to be returned to after a first encounter". Most Amis admirers wonder what happened to him. It is symptomatic of this book's retreat from unhappy realities that the answer it provides is not "something", but "nothing".
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.
Tags: Martin Amis