At first glance, the natural reaction to “Martin Amis: The Biography” might be to place a question mark after the title — but is the very notion of such a biography that risible? After all, Mr. Amis is well into his 60s and this year marks a full four decades since he burst into print and instant fame with his first novel, “The Rachel Papers.” So, notwithstanding the usual concerns surrounding biographies of a living figure, there is something to be said for this particular one.
British academic Richard Bradford has written about many of his nation’s more recent writers, including Martin Amis‘ redoubtable father, Sir Kingsley Amis, and his best friend, poet Philip Larkin. The way Mr. Bradford is immersed in all things Amis is at once this book’s greatest strength and the root of some of its more serious weaknesses. As the reader is plunged into private and public moments of the Amis family — and how they are reflected in sundry published works by pere, fils and assorted spouses, lovers and friends — he might be forgiven for finding the experience dizzying.
When we are dealing with a writer like Martin Amis, who has given us an outright autobiography (2000’s “Experience: A Memoir”) and plenty of autobiographical fiction, culminating in 2010’s “The Pregnant Widow,” it is perhaps just as well to have as assiduous a biographer as Mr. Bradford to sort through fact and fiction knowledgeably and intelligently. The trouble begins with his assessment of Mr. Amis, which is much too high. Sometimes this can be simply overheated:
“Significance: Is He a Great Writer? The short answer to this is yes. He is the most important British novelist of his generation. Martin Amis has changed the direction and the culture of British fiction.”
Where to start on this ludicrous claim? A glance at the winners of the most prestigious prizes, such as the Booker, might begin to engender grave doubts. Mr. Amis doesn’t even stack up among his cronies, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie or Julian Barnes (with whom he famously fell out). Outside that little cocoon, A.N. Wilson, Peter Ackroyd and Hilary Mantel, to name just a few of his other contemporaries, show how poorly his talent stacks up and how limited his influence. Mr. Bradford’s attempt to justify his verdict on Mr. Amis is so procrustean that it only serves to highlight how off-base it is, and when he writes that ” ‘Money’ is as important a literary landmark as ‘Ulysses,’ ” laughter seems the only response.
What emerges from these pages is a portrait of a man skilled at exploiting the advantages of a famous name and a father with connections to the world of publishing. A first novel has a contract from one of London’s most distinguished houses before it is written, and its author is as skilled at inserting himself into influential literary establishments as he is giving an interview or riding the tiger of press coverage from tabloids to the most prestigious. The women he dates are glamorous and well-connected, including Tina Brown, a Rothschild and a granddaughter of Winston Churchill. The backgrounds of both his wives make for fascinating reading and certainly provided this scourge of money and privilege with still more access to both.
It is a pity that by concentrating on these showy aspects of Mr. Amis‘ life and career, to say nothing of those attempts to establish his literary importance, Mr. Bradford slights his subject’s finest hour, which has come in this century. He does give a fair amount of attention to “Koba the Dread” — an unsparing analysis of Stalin’s disgusting career and the shameful pass given it by so many intellectuals — and the outraged reaction it engendered.
Even here, though, it is typical that more emphasis seems to be placed on the spat, ultimately resolved, with close friend Christopher Hitchens, a prime example of the kind of intellectual under attack. It is a pity that there isn’t more about Mr. Amis‘ impassioned condemnation of Muslim fundamentalism and the threat it poses. Too often challenged as strident, it is in fact a reasoned if certainly passionate and outraged polemic of great skill and force. Mr. Amis may not have reshaped culture, but he is today one of its greatest defenders.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.