This review first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Irish Times on 26th November 2011.
In his memoir, Experience (2000), Martin Amis observes that “the fit reader, the ideal reader, regards a writer’s life as just an interesting extra.” Biographers, of course, are under no obligation to agree. To the biographer, the life is where it’s at. Thus: Richard Bradford, an academic who has written studies of Kingsley Amis (Lucky Him, 2001) and Philip Larkin (First Boredom, Then Fear, 2005), has produced a biography of the greatest living prose stylist in English – the first scholarly account of Martin Amis’s “interesting extra.” The results are, I’m afraid, pretty disastrous.
For one thing – and it’s best to get this out of the way up front – Bradford’s prose is full of stubbed toes and gashed shins. He uses “et. al.” when he means “et cetera.” His distribution of commas borders on the impressionistic: “I was on a plane somewhere above continental Europe and a man, a seat away…” There are rhymes – “joined annoyingly,” “select recollection” – and tautologies: “consensually agreed.” There are repetitions: “Popular culture had arrived in all its popular, tasteless, and profitable manifestations.” There is first-year lit-crit banality: “The novel is a mechanism quite different from the poem”; “We should wonder: what should a novel do for us?” There are sentences that pine for revision: “The performer’s mask has slipped and Kingsley cannot help but disguise a genuine sense of fear.” And there are sentences that are just plain bad: “Intemperate reality would trample across this reverie of nuances.”
There are also some bizarre omissions. “[Amis’s] early books,” Bradford writes, “were the subject of fierce critical debate.” But from the rest of Bradford’s account, you’d never know it. He doesn’t bother to scrutinise the contemporary critical reception of any of Amis’s novels, except when he rehashes the contention that London Fields (1989) was kept off the Booker shortlist by accusations of misogyny (he also nods towards the specious allegation that Amis, in Time’s Arrow , exploited Auschwitz “for profit”). Also absent is any serious engagement with the deeper aspects of Amis’s friendships: Christopher Hitchens is quoted liberally throughout, but Bradford seems to have zero interest in the nature of the Hitch’s relationship with his pal Mart – surely one of the most mythologized double-acts in contemporary letters.
More disturbingly, Bradford keeps ignoring what Martin Amis says. “It would be ridiculous to say that I was in a trance,” Amis remarks, of the composition of Money (1984). “It was not automatic writing, every sentence had to be battered into shape, polished.” A page later, Bradford is insisting that Money was composed “in a “trance-like” bout of “automatic writing.” Two chapters further in, Bradford has decided that a passage in The Information (1995) parodies the opening of William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach (1990). Has Amis read Brazzaville Beach? “I haven’t.” Bradford outlines his thesis anyway – and, unsurprisingly, he is wrong.
Clinchingly, for Amis obsessives, Bradford doesn’t seem to have read the fiction closely enough. There are a number of pretty basic errors: Gwyn Barry, in The Information, does not “succeed magnificently” with his first novel, as Bradford insists; in fact, Amis’s narrator remarks of Gwyn’s debut that “a small paperback edition limped along for a month or two.” Worse, Bradford thinks that “the information of the title is never properly disclosed… We never learn precisely what it is.” But the novel tells us what “the information” is over and over again – “the information” is “nothing,” “the answer to so many of our questions,” including what happens to us after we die. Similarly, it isn’t Nicola Six’s “memoirs” that Samson Young finds in London Fields – it’s her diaries.
All of this aside – what about the “interesting extra” itself – Martin Amis’s life? Well, anyone who’s read Experience already knows the basics. Martin’s childhood and adolescence were shaped, and to some extent deformed, by the bourgeois-bohemian antics of his parents (“Ah, breakfast in the wine shop,” Martin’s brother Philip would remark, upon finding the kitchen table cluttered with empty bottles every morning). Kingsley’s “limitless taste for adultery” broke up the family when Martin was in his early teens. At Oxford Martin subjected himself to a stringent crash-course in English literature; within a year of graduating, he was drafting The Rachel Papers (1973) and working for the TLS.
During the 70s Amis was a lodestar of London literary life. He became friends with Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. He slept with, and parted from, a large number of attractive women, none of whom could ever bring themselves to hate him. (Another Bradford clunker: “The parallels between Martin the lover and Martin the novelist are so outstanding as to render comment almost superfluous.” Are they really?) Martin’s first marriage, to the American academic Antonia Phillips, ended. His second marriage, to Isabel Fonseca, is still going strong. He became friends with Saul Bellow and fell out with Julian Barnes. He is at his desk every morning at 8:30 and he doesn’t take lunch on days when he works.
The impression of Amis the man – as opposed to Amis the writer – left behind by Bradford’s biography is of a thoroughly decent chap, alternately extroverted and soulful, doing his level best to cope with the average messiness of an average life. But that could describe almost anyone. Adumbrating Saul Bellow’s string of failed marriages in Experience, Amis writes: “But that’s life. We all have lives. It was the writing that excited me.” Richard Bradford, sad to say, is insufficiently excited by the one thing that makes Martin Amis worth writing about: his books.