“If you’ve read my novels, you already know absolutely everything about me,” wrote Martin Amis in Inside Story, his 15th and final novel, published in 2020.
But in saying that, the British writer, who died at his Florida home on Friday, at the age of 73 of cancer of the oesophagus, was only continuing the dance between fiction and reality that was a hallmark of his novels and short stories from the start. In Inside Story, for instance, Amis comes full circle and returns almost 50 years on to the figure of a teenage girlfriend, “Rachel”, who was the subject of his 1973 debut The Rachel Papers.
That novel, published when its author was 24, won the Somerset Maugham Award. Amis was immediately in the spotlight as the son of Kingsley Amis, then one of the most famous novelists in Britain (Kingsley won the Booker Prize in 1986; Martin never did, although his book Time’s Arrow was shortlisted in 1991).
Despite his illustrious literary father, however, it was in fact Amis’s stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had encouraged his writing career — Amis often paid her generous tribute, saying that until she introduced him to Jane Austen he had read nothing but comic books. And in fact Kingsley had little time for his talented son’s output. In Experience, Amis’s memoir published in 2000, he vividly documented how “buggering about with the reader; drawing attention to himself” were among his father’s snorting criticisms of his work.
Amis was born in London in 1949, to Kingsley and his wife Hilary Bardwell; he had an older brother Philip, and younger sister Sally, who died in 2000. His parents separated in 1963; his father married Howard in 1965.
Once the younger Amis discovered literature, there was no holding him back. A “congratulatory first” at Oxford led to a first job at the Times Literary Supplement, followed by the literary editorship of the New Statesman, then a powerhouse of young talent whose cramped and grubby offices housed, besides Amis, the future novelist Julian Barnes, the poet and critic James Fenton and the essayist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who would become one of Amis’s closest friends.
This tight circle of eager young male writers — they were all male — became the nucleus of Britain’s new literary golden age. They were outspoken, deliberately outrageous, revelling in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, fiercely ambitious and ferocious in their criticism of their elders, especially more senior women writers. They set out to do their own thing. Early fame and an element of swagger new to the British scene quickly made Amis and his circle tabloid fodder.
True literary heroes, for Amis, lay across the Atlantic: Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth. And he was out to shock. The Rachel Papers was swiftly followed by Dead Babies (1975): The New York Times dubbed his style “the new unpleasantness”. Literary pyrotechnics were in fashion and Amis, eager to capture the zeitgeist, provided dazzling, witty, sardonic, multi-faceted prose in his best-known works. These included Money (1984), a satire about Thatcher’s consumerist society, London Fields and The Information.
Time’s Arrow (1991) used reverse chronology to reconstruct the life of a Holocaust doctor, one of several times that Amis tackled Nazism, genocide and Stalinism as subjects. Another was 2002’s Koba the Dread, and later The Zone of Interest, about a Nazi commandant living next to Auschwitz: Jonathan Glazer’s film version of the book had its debut at the Cannes film festival this week. Other explorations into the dark reaches of human nature included House of Meetings, again about Stalin’s reign in Russia.
Amis, for all his cool, bad-boy front, was also notably erudite, and his five volumes of collected journalism and criticism mixed with memoir and social commentary investigated everything from his literary idols to film and sport, John Travolta to Donald Trump. His journalism, in particular, did not always win him friends: one American critic described his output as “notable more or less equally for wit, intelligence and nastiness” — perhaps because Amis had entitled his 1986 book of essays about America The Moronic Inferno. Many other readers, however, revelled in the first two of those qualities. Another critic wrote that the book “includes some of the best profiles of writers ever written”.
Even though there were often stretches of several years between novels, Amis was seldom out of the limelight and his views always ignited fiery reactions: an example was his response to the 9/11 attacks, trenchantly expressed in the press, and subsequent remarks that were taken to be Islamophobic.
In 2003, his novel Yellow Dog brought some unfavourable reviews, and that year Amis moved to Uruguay with his second wife Isabel Fonseca (herself Uruguayan-American) and their two daughters. Following their return to London, and despite his earlier views on America, he relocated from London to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn around 2010. His parting shot to a Britain he said he had come to dislike was Lionel Asbo (2012), a novel about a vicious layabout who wins millions on the lottery and launches himself into an even more pointless, though much wealthier, life. After that, Amis’s preoccupation with Britain’s social underbelly was mostly replaced by reflections on American society and literature, particularly in his non-fiction and essays.
Amis was previously married to Antonia Phillips; they have two sons. He also had a daughter with Lamorna Seale, although he was unaware of her until she was a teenager. When she presented him with a grandson he said — typically scathing about the ageing process — it was “like getting a telegram from the mortuary”, although he was in fact, apparently, a doting grandpa.
Novelist, essayist, commentator, teacher and influencer; a writer always surprising and controversial, always dividing opinion and at the nexus of critical argument: it would be hard to overstate Amis’s importance in the literary landscape of the English-speaking world over the past 50 years.