Monday 20 November 2017

Review: Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

Constable, €26.99

FAMILY MAN: Martin Amis
with his wife Isabel and their
children Fernanda and Clio
FAMILY MAN: Martin Amis with his wife Isabel and their children Fernanda and Clio

Ronan Farren

BIOGRAPHIES of living people tend to be hostile and salacious or adulatory and discreet, depending on whether they are produced by hacks after a quick buck or old pals anxious to please their subject.

Richard Bradford, who clearly knows the novelist Martin Amis well, and has already written a Life of Kingsley Amis, that seemingly pleased the son, goes to some lengths to show impartiality (he allows himself the luxury of attacking one of the minor books), but it's not very convincing.

The idea started in the late Nineties when Bradford was in Northern Ireland giving a lecture on Kingsley and was joined on stage by Martin. On the way to Belfast Airport Amis asked, "Who's next?" and Bradford said, "I'm not sure. How about you?" Amis agreed on the spot.

Which is perhaps surprising when one considers all the hostility, much of it hard to explain, that Amis had experienced at the hands of the British tabloids, and, indeed, from some fellow writers.

Martin had not liked an earlier biography of his father, by Eric Jacobs (and Jacobs perceived antagonism from Martin and other relatives while working on the book), but it is clear that Kingsley, who went on ferocious drinking sessions with Jacobs (research, it's called), kept taut control over what was written. Did Martin impose similar restraint over Bradford? Well, there's little doubt that certain areas of MA's life were virtually out of bounds. For example, his first wife, Antonia, remains a shadowy figure and it's likely that Bradford did not interview her.

But, with those reservations, we do learn much about Martin Amis's temperament, his principles (never much on the tabloid agenda), his work methods, his amiability and generous capacity for friendship, his acute intelligence and -- importantly for those who admire him as a writer -- his daring and rigorous approach to each new book, as a postmodern novelist who never repeats himself.

At the same time, as I dutifully went through Martin Amis: The Biography, I found myself reflecting that anyone who had read Zachary Leader's 2006 biography of Kingsley Amis and, more pertinently, Martin Amis's own memoir, Experience (2000), had been gifted with a greater depth of insight on the subject of MA. Without denigrating Bradford's workmanlike biography, it must be said they are better books.

Martin Amis, born in 1949, grew up in a chaotically bohemian household, first in Wales where Kingsley lectured in University College Swansea, then in Cambridge, where Amis senior laboured in Peterhouse as fellow and tutor in English. He had caused a stir with his first novel, Lucky Jim, in 1954, though the more dusty Cambridge dons resolutely declined to admit to having heard of him.

"If Swansea had seemed charmingly dissolute," writes Bradford, "Cambridge had an air of self-destructive decadence about it." Endless booze-fuelled parties were held in his parents' Cambridge house, which boasted numerous dogs and a donkey as well as a kind of "posh slave" named Nickie who seems to have slept with everyone, including the tireless satyr Kingsley, and who eventually relieved Martin's brother Philip of his virginity at the age of 14.

Martin took all this in his stride, assuming all households were like that, and when Bradford asked him if his childhood was happy said: "Happy? Yes, I think it was." -- almost as if the question had not occurred to him before. As a pupil in various schools he was a bit of a disaster, but suddenly turned studious in his late teens and started reading; amazingly he got into Oxford and emerged, after a regime of sheer hard work, with an impressive first.

His first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published in 1973, followed two years later by Dead Babies. The former won the Somerset Maugham Prize, as Lucky Jim had for Amis senior 19 years earlier. They were respectfully reviewed but sold comparatively few copies, and Martin earned a living with the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement while acquiring a reputation as the recipient of the avid attentions of a series of eager young women. It is Bradford's contention, incidentally, that all of these bright women were stunningly beautiful, though photographs don't necessarily support this view.

Among the panting throng was the famous Tina Brown, another "brilliant" Oxford graduate with whom the landscape, in Bradford's view, was littered. (She went on to be editor of the New Yorker and is now editor of Newsweek). She was welcome, as were all the girlfriends, at the hospitable home of Kingsley and his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard. In one of the livelier anecdotes (Bradford doesn't do irony or satire much) Brown -- who it is said could be unintentionally funny and was seen with some indulgence and amused fascination by Kingsley -- phoned the Amis senior house. The call was answered by Colin Howard, Kingsley's brother-in-law. He records her asking: "'Is Martin there?'" I replied he was not. 'Well, what about Kingsley?' Sadly no. 'Jane?' No, not Jane. There was a long pause. 'Is anybody there?'

"We had met on a couple of occasions but I replied the house was empty, I was merely a disembodied presence, and I replaced the receiver."

Her manner, he adds mildly, could be stentorian, "especially for a 20-year-old."

Martin's first wife, Antonia, as I have indicated, remains mysterious and there is no photograph here. The divorce was clearly very painful for Amis and he took full responsibility for the situation; it left him more or less broke. His second wife, Isabel Fonseca ("To call her glamorous and cosmopolitan surpasses understatement," twitters Bradford) is an intellectual and her book Bury Me Standing (1995), about the centuries-long persecution of gypsies in central and eastern Europe, is highly regarded.

In the long run, of course, the gossip and chatter don't matter a lot, though they can be fun: it is all about the books. In contemporary British fiction there is no one to touch Martin Amis. From Success (1978) to Money (1984), London Fields (1989), Time's Arrow (1991), The Information (1995), House of Meetings (2006) and the latest, The Pregnant Widow, he has thrown a series of literary firecrackers into the placid pool of genteel English fiction. He is simply the brightest and the best and remains, at the age of 62, unchallenged and unassailable.

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