Martin Amis Deserves a Better Biography Than This

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Nov. 6 2011 6:34 AM

The Amis Papers

Martin Amis deserves a better biography than this.

Martin Amis.
Martin Amis

Photograph by Ian Gavan.

It is easy to see why a writer such as Martin Amis would be displeased with his biographer

In this first biography of Martin Amis, Richard Bradford finds two kinds of parallels “intriguing”, “fascinating” or, at the very least, “worth noting”. First, there are the resemblances between people Amis has known and the characters in his fiction: former girlfriend Mary Furness for Nicola Six in London Fields, former wife Antonia Phillips for Martina Twain in Money and so on. Then there are the parallels between father and son, Kingsley and Martin, in their writing and their personal lives. Both were in their forties, for example, when they met the women – Elizabeth Jane Howard and Isabel Fonseca respectively – with whom they would set up homes after their first marriages went belly up.

But what of their biographers? How did father and son fare with the men deputed to write their uniquely entwined lives? Kingsley’s biographer, Eric Jacobs, became, in Bradford’s phrase, a kind of “ghost writer in all but name”; the resulting book and the aftermath of its publication upset Hilly (Kingsley’s first wife and Martin’s mum) and angered Martin (as explained in his memoir, Experience). Kingsley’s life was written up again by Bradford and since Martin liked what he saw it made sense for Bradford to go dynastic and take the Amis saga into the next generation.

The proposed book had an uncertain status in that, while Amis agreed to extensive interviews, it was not exactly “authorised”. And this time, after reading half of the manuscript, Amis didn’t like what he saw and the original publisher pulled out. So the book, now that it’s been resurrected by a different outfit, has the added attraction of giving us a glimpse of what might have stuck in Amis’s craw.

One suspects that it was not the so-called “revelations”: “ridiculously handsome” Martin slept with lots of gorgeous, brainy and rich women! Was incredibly patient and affectionate with his dad! Earned a ton of dough! Was always at his desk by eight in the morning, no matter what he’d been up to the night before! Became the most influential prose stylist in Britain of the past 50 years. Was part of a coterie that included Julian BarnesChristopher Hitchens and the “raffishly liberal” Clive James. Had a big bust-up with Barnes after leaving his agent (Barnes’s wife) for über-agent Andrew Wylie. Spent a load of dosh getting his teeth fixed. Got into a ruck with Terry Eagleton over Islam … Compared with the VS Naipaul who emerges from Patrick French’s biography, Amis is practically a saint.

No, my own guess is that it was Bradford’s prose that did for Amis. Amis is hyper-allergic to bad writing and seeing his life half-swaddled in Bradford’s sentences must have induced anaphylactic shock. Jeez, they gave me a shock – though with its suggestion of brevity, as in “short, sharp”, it is not the right word, for the sense that this is shockingly bad writing deepens with exposure. This shock came as a bit of a surprise, so to speak, since the late Humphrey Carpenter is quoted as saying that Bradford, in his Kingsley biography, rose “to Amis’s stylistic level” – enormously consoling news for those of us who have never been persuaded to read Amis the elder. Either that or, since Martin has spoken warmly of Bradford’s trawl through his father’s life, the present book represents a precipitous decline in quality.

But, in the perverse way of things, it was the woefulness of Bradford’s writing that sustained my interest long after I realised that the book was not going to add significantly to the general sense of Amis’s life as gleaned from Experience and 20-odd years of seeing stuff by or about him in the papers. (I didn’t know that “the unpretentious Lothario-in-chief” had stepped out with Claire Tomalin when they were at the New Statesman in the mid-1970s but I don’t feel sadder or wiser now that I do.)

My concerns about the prose started small – just a pause and a re-read because the way I first read a sentence didn’t quite coincide with what the author intended – and they started early: in the first line of the introduction. “I was on a plane somewhere above Continental Europe and a man, a seat away, was reading … ” Ah, OK, so he wasn’t over Europe and a man. Got it, no big deal. But there are further indications, on the next two pages – “He is a great writer and the retching man on the aeroplane”; “he will not like many intellectuals smother pain with ideas” – of what will become a defining breathlessness.

Faults in writing do not exist in isolation; like muscle pulls, they result in over-compensation, which causes a different problem elsewhere. And so Bradford’s headlong urgency is countered by a preparatory hesitancy, which then takes on a pell-mell quality of its own. “Before examining the literary and intellectual controversies that beset Martin during the 1970s it would perhaps be best to first offer a brief summary of his love life.” That “perhaps” is actually a mild symptom of a tendency that more usually manifests itself negatively: “It therefore seems not unreasonable to assume”; “One cannot help but note some resemblances between Tina [Brown] and Diana Parry of Dead Babies.”

Bradford’s attempts to put the brake on his runaway train of thought produce a splendid pile-up of signature redundancies later in the book: “One cannot help but notice, even from this brief summary, a number of intriguing parallels between Bellow and another figure … ”

Taking my cue from Bradford’s scrutiny, I could not help but notice that he sometimes gets so tied up in nots that a curious reversal takes place. Of the creation of Money, Amis informs him that “it would be ridiculous to say I was in a trance. It was not automatic writing.” A page later, Bradford tells us that the book’s narrator, John Self, was created in a “‘trance-like’ bout of ‘automatic writing’”. It makes one wonder about the wider implications of translation into Bradfordese. Did Amis spend his time complaining to the biographer about all the chicks he hadn’t slept with?

By the halfway point any worries about routine infelicities (“We should wonder: what should a novel do for us?”) have given way to the suspicion that Bradford is himself in a trance of inattention. “Popular culture had arrived in all its popular, tasteless and profitable manifestations.” (What would popular culture have been like if it wasn’t popular?) Did Bradford not read what he had written? More to the point, did no one at his publisher? Apparently not, for on page 345 we get a Kafka-esque metamorphosis when Saul Bellow changes, mid-paragraph, into Joseph Heller.

You could argue that this is an oversight, an unfortunate bit of carelessness, and that it is unfair, when reviewing a book whose purpose is to give us the facts, to dwell on stylistic shortcomings. If Bradford were writing the life of a retired admiral, then this mitigating plea might work. As the subject of this biography has pointed out, however, style is not something added after the fact, like nice wrapping paper. It is the thing, the gift, itself. And once the sentences start running away from a writer, everything else goes as well – the writer’s impatience transmits itself to the reader.

I realised that due to my inattentiveness I had read about the composition of Money but had somehow missed the section about its publication and reception. I went back and checked – a larger scale version of the slight check that occurred when reading the book’s first sentence – and discovered: no, in the narrative scheme of the book Amis’s next novel, London Fields, was being left off the Booker shortlist and Money had still not been published.

Naturally, Money features at the end, in a feeble consideration of Amis’s literary “significance”. By then, however, there will be few people left in the house to listen. For every time Bradford quotes some bits from Amis – a few lines from an article, even a drawled response in an interview – they shine so brightly as to cast everything around them into not just darkness, but unrelieved dimness.

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