A towering figure in British literature, Amis was the author of the generation-defining novel Money.
One of the burdens of having a famous father is trying to measure up to him in the same field. British writer Martin Amis, who has died at the age of 73, not only matched his illustrious father, Kingsley Amis, but for a while rose beyond him.
The influential author’s 1984 novel Money became one of the books that summed up a generation. “Money doesn’t mind if we say it’s evil, it goes from strength to strength. It’s a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy,” he said, in the Novelists in Interview publication, a year after his book came out.
Depicting self-serving greed in Thatcherite Britain and the US under Ronald Reagan, Money: A Suicide Note, to give it its full title, is regarded as one of the most searing, insightful, and bitingly funny English-language novels of the 20th century.
It follows “a semi-literate alcoholic”, John Self, an advertising executive with an appetite for pornography, drugs, and fast food, as he dices between London and New York in a bid to make a movie. The characters border on cartoonish but the language is sharp and vivid and the comedy is as darkly acerbic as anything his father wrote.
Arguably, it is the tour de force in the Amis canon, although some might argue for his 1989 novel London Fields or for 1991’s Time’s Arrow which has a narrative that moves backwards—including dialogue in reverse—as it purports to be the autobiography of a Nazi concentration camp doctor. Time’s Arrow was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an award which eluded Amis throughout his career.
“We are devastated at the death of our author and friend, Martin Amis,” Amis’ publisher, Penguin, tweeted. “He leaves a towering legacy and an indelible mark on the British cultural landscape, and will be missed enormously.”
Amis was “one of the most acclaimed and discussed writers of the past 50 years and the author of 14 novels,” said the website of Booker Prizes, the leading literary awards for fiction in the United Kingdom, on May 20. His wife, Isabel Fonseca, told media that the author died on May 19 after a bout with esophageal cancer.
His death was announced on the same day as the showing of British director Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Amis’ 2014 novel The Zone of Interest, which is set in a Nazi death camp and is currently receiving plaudits at the Cannes Film Festival.
“The novel is an incredibly intimate portrait of a writer,” Amis once told the BBC, looking back at his career. “Although I am not an autobiographical writer, I am all over my books.”
Martin Louis Amis was born in Oxford on August 25, 1949, the second of three children that Kingsley Amis had with his first wife, Hilary Bardwell. Kingsley was a huge figure in the literary world when Martin was growing up, riding high on the success of his 1954 novel Lucky Jim. That took the family to Princeton in the US where he taught, where he lived up to the image of the acerbic curmudgeon that he carefully nurtured.
After graduating from Oxford University in 1971, Martin Amis worked as an editor at The Times Literary Supplement and later as the literary editor of The New Statesman. He published his first novel The Rachel Papers in 1973 and followed up with Dead Babies two years later, which marked his first dalliance with morbid humour. In the years that followed, he enjoyed some success with Success and Other People, before hitting the big time with Money, London Fields, and Time’s Arrow.
It was the third of his “London” novels, The Information, published in 1995, which launched him into the gossip columns. The reason was money. Amis was handed a £500,000 advance, which coincided with him leaving his agent, Pat Kavanagh, the wife of one of his best friends, fellow novelist Julian Barnes. It caused a rift between the two writers.
By that stage Amis had already left his first wife Antonia Phillips, an American academic, with whom he had two sons, to begin a relationship with Isabel Fonseca, an heiress who had interviewed him for a British literary review. They married in 1996.
Celebrity in his own right
Amid the hip 1980s British fiction boom that included fellow novelists Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan, Amis was a celebrity in his own right. Ever since his debut, his life was often chronicled by London tabloids: his love life, his change of agents, even his dental work were fodder for stories.
“He was the king—a stylist extraordinaire, super cool, a brilliantly witty, erudite, and fearless writer, and a truly wonderful man,” said Michal Shavit, his editor in England. “He has been so important and formative for so many readers and writers over the last half century. Every time he published a new book it was an event.”
But Amis’ writing also explored the dark soul, examples being the Holocaust as the topic of Time’s Arrow and Josef Stalin’s reign in Russia in House of Meetings. “Violence is what I hate most, is what baffles me and disgusts me most,” Amis told The Associated Press in 2012. “Writing comes from silent anxiety, the stuff you don’t know you’re really brooding about and when you start to write you realise you have been brooding about it, but not consciously. It’s terribly mysterious.”
Critic Michiko Kakutani wrote of Amis in The New York Times in 2000 that “he is a writer equipped with a daunting arsenal of literary gifts: a dazzling, chameleonesque command of language, a willingness to tackle large issues and larger social canvases and an unforgiving, heat-seeking eye for the unwholesome ferment of contemporary life.”
In recent decades, Amis became a public intellectual, frequently appearing on television, sometimes alongside his long-time friend Christopher Hitchens, a British-American writer and renowned atheist who died in 2011.
The 1990s were the peak of Amis’ literary powers, even when he was being accused of misogyny and, later, Islamophobia—claims he firmly rejected. “I not only think of myself as a feminist but as a gynocrat,” he said in 2018. “I look forward to a utopia where women are in charge.”
His 2003 novel Yellow Dog made the Booker Prize longlist but was largely derided, memorably by another British novelist Tibor Fischer, who said in a newspaper review that it was so bad it was “like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating”.
Amis and Fonseca, who had two daughters, settled in Brooklyn, New York, where in 2010 they bought their house for $2.5 million. They also had homes in London and Uruguay.
As well as a string of novels, Amis wrote two collections of short stories, six non-fiction books, and a memoir. But, for many fans, the acerbic brilliance of Money makes it his standout novel, reflecting perhaps Amis’s own views on the waning powers of the older writer. “Age waters the writer down,” he wrote in 2009 in a newspaper review of a John Updike book. “The most terrible fate of all is to lose the ability to impart life to your creations.”
Amis told Reuters in 2012 he was happiest with his most recent novel at the time Lionel Asbo: State of England, and less happy with its more celebrated predecessors “all the way down the line”. He said over time “what happens is your genius gets weaker and your talent gets stronger”.
In a 2020 interview with The New York Times, Amis said, “We read literature to have a good time. Not an easy time, necessarily, but not a hard time and not a bad time.”
(with inputs from AFP, AP, and Reuters)