Mart’s Art is Not Just Smart

Book review of Martin Amis: A Biography by Richard Bradford

George Walden

What’s in a first name? If you’re writing a literary biography of Martin Amis and call him Martin throughout, quite a lot. Assumptions of intimacy negate critical distance, the whole point of the book. Bradford’s excuse — that he has to distinguish between Amis senior and junior, and that he’d seen a fair bit of junior when compiling his biography — might just wash, were it not that Amis the younger comes out of it embarrassingly well. Embarrassing, that is, for Martin. 

It would be interesting to know what Amis thought about this. Did Bradford ask permission? In Amis’s position I would have refused. If ever an author’s reputation stood in need of a no-nonsense, non-matey biography to blow away media froth and straighten out judgments so frequently warped by envy and political resentment, and generally take an objective view, it is his. 

Personally I believe that many of the novels — because that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it? — would still come out of it pretty well. Maybe the man too, though the English habit of focusing on the performer rather than the performance warps intelligent criticism; Degas was a misanthrope and a virulent anti-Dreyfusard, but look at the pictures. In the light of the wilful fault-finding and scabrous coverage of Amis the man a cooler perspective was overdue. 

As chairman of the Booker Prize judges in 1995 I was amazed by the refusal of three fifths of the panel to admit that The Information (not his best book, admittedly) had any virtue at all. As if in chastisement of the Amis approach to writing a prissily didactic novel won. Against The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, whose First World War hero is a modern paragon-anti-war and a war hero, lower class but well-read and intelligent, and bisexual to boot-Amis’s messed-up, woman-harming lead character never stood a chance. 

Bradford shoots off in the opposite direction, giving us an image of author and novels so over-glossed you can smell the varnish. To a writer dogged by accusations of nepotism, celebrity-mongering, social alpinism, big advances, vanity teeth-fixing and the rest, surely this is a disservice to his hero? Inevitably critic after critic has underlined Bradford’s partiality for his subject. To the old joke My Struggle, by Martin Amis, we can now add a critical counterpart: Mart: The Life.

Not that it’s a bad book, and for someone like myself who was always more interested in the novels than the gossip there are revelations. A striking (and I hope not overwritten) chapter concerns his passage from self-styled teenage yob who had not troubled to read his father’s books, let alone the classics, to shameless swot, who at 17 began toiling away at his Beowulf and his Keats and his Latin and got to Oxford on personal merit; with the sons of meritorious fathers, as one of the Miliband brothers reminds us, it was not always the case at the time. We are also given what I assume to be a true picture of the high social plateau inhabited by his women (boho aristos or equivalent, most of them frequently clever too) to set against the determinedly lowlife pastimes of the author in his twenties. 

Throughout his novels and critical writings the word “talent” recurs with obsessive frequency, to the point where for Amis, you sometimes feel, it marks the great human divide. (Back to Degas: Amis would have relished, one suspects, the old boy’s magisterial admonition to the feckless Whistler: “You behave like a man with no talent.”) Except for a single slobby mate of his youth his charmed circle consisted of more or less gifted folk (Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes, Clive James, etc), an exclusive and nakedly ambitious clique with fashionable attitudes to match, and where Trotskyism was an indulgence, like drink or women. 

   His own wariness of politics when all about him were conforming to type was and remains to Amis’s credit. Think of the damage to his work if he had reacted against his father’s stagy rightism and toed the arts-person’s political line: imagine the glorious John Self reformed, at the end of Money, and with a leftist agenda. But then Amis had too much sense of humour for earnest causes. 

A major reason to enjoy his work is his Gogolian aspect. As in Dead Souls or The Government Inspector, the objects of his satire are not so much sociopolitical entities as grotesque specimens of true humanity (think of the wastrel Khlestakov in The Government Inspector as Keith Talent, or the bully and cheat Nozdryov in Dead Souls as John Self). More democratic than the average British satirist, Amis looks down as well as up for his material, and could never have written a book as silly as Ian McEwan’s Booker-winning Amsterdam, where a British Foreign Secretary is lampooned as a cross-dresser. 

You could of course argue that domestic politics were too pettifogging and insular for his not too modest ambitions. When he finally engages with political events it is later in his career, and on a global scale: Stalin and his Western admirers in Koba the Dread, the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow, and Islamism in The Second Plane. And of course he has outraged the prejudices of his peers; hence in part the increased critical pasting of his fiction. 

His only concession to bien pensant fashion was an impetuous commitment to nuclear disarmament, perhaps as a counter to those who said he was lacking in beliefs of any kind. But then what do “commitment” or “anti-nuclear” mean? I do not recall too many bomb-lovers from my time as a diplomat dealing with Soviet and Chinese affairs, in need of an epiphany about the awfulness of these weapons. It is not as if Amis engaged in an informed critique of arms reduction strategies, and suggestions of a better way. Nothing so solid, or so tedious. 

It would be wrong to be too hard on this book. When linking the novels to the life, Bradford has his moments. A frighteningly talented, hard-nosed girlfriend, Mary Furness, was the model it seems for Nicola Six in London Fields, whose ball-breaking image scandalised two female Booker judges in 1989. The real scandal of course was the pusillanimous failure of the chairman, David Lodge, to come off the fence and ensure that this superb novel won. Instead it was Ishiguru’s deathly Remains of the Day, a kind of no-garden of a novel, but then the English can never resist a butler.

So there is real meat here, but everywhere the veneration intrudes. Throughout the book the swell of eulogy grows into a wave that breaks in the last chapter, in which Bradford drowns in his own hyperbole. Yes, Amis is superior to Barnes and McEwan (is that saying so much?), but superior to Nabokov, as he at one point claims? Wonderful as it is, is Money up there with James Joyce and Ulysses? And is the (admittedly over-derided) Yellow Dog in fact a “brilliantly orchestrated” masterpiece? 

Bradford’s book is an opportunity lost. Here we have that rare thing, a modern British author able at his best to match up to some of the American giants, but his biographer spoils it by cosy excess, unable it seems to contemplate the possibility that his subject is not always at the top of his form. The result is another example of the wearisome boosterism that has come to characterise so much of British culture. With a PR smoothichops leading the country and a circus barker as Mayor of London, must we go in for unseemly puffery in the arts as well? More selective praise would have helped cut the ground from under Amis’s purblind or rancorous detractors. 

The best critical passages are a reminder of the man’s quality, so much greater than his father’s, and of the seriousness beneath the humour. In this regard, more could have been said about Amis’s The War Against Cliché and his prowess as a critic. Recently reviewing Public Enemies, the exchange of letters between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, I found myself casting around for a pair of British essayists who could pull off a similar performance: only an Amis/Hitchens correspondence occurred to me. And on the subject of what Amis might have written, the great mystery is why he has never taken on the pop industry. Don DeLillo had a go in Great Jones Street, with his Bucky Wunderlick character, and Salman Rushdie with his rather cloying The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but with his lack of deference to the rock world and feeling for gargantuan pretence, Amis would be the natural man to do it.

In a literary market that has become toppy and frothy, as the City boys say when shares soar above their underpinnings, and in need of a correction, how does the Amis oeuvre look when set against his frequently bloated rivals? Let’s take the simplest measure. People will be reading this work in 50 years’ time, it is routinely and dubiously maintained of many an ephemeral Booker laureate. With the best of Amis junior, the prize’s most distinguished non-recipient, they really will.

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