FEW living writers excite as much opinion as Martin Amis. The English novelist, who turned 61 in August, has been the source of much attention since bursting onto the literary scene with his debut novel, The Rachel Papers, almost 40 years ago.
He is a rich topic for biography; indeed, he launched a preemptive strike in 2000 with his masterful memoir, Experience.
Richard Bradford, who has chronicled the lives of several other giants of 20th century British literature, including Philip Larkin and Kingsley, Martin Amis’s father, has fleshed out the story. His account is based on several interviews with Amis they’ve known each other for a dozen years) as well as with family and cohorts. Bradford’s biography is contentious and only emerged after a couple of delayed publication dates.
Amis’s upbringing was unconventional or, in his own words, “boho”. His mother was only 18 when she became pregnant with his older brother by a year. She used to allow her kids to ride on the roof rack of their car. Kingsley Amis, exuberant and unpredictable, once took the three female guests at a dinner party in Swansea out to his garden to have sex with them. Their marriage, unsurprisingly, came unstuck when Martin was 13. His mother tried to commit suicide shortly after.
He stuttered his way through school, managing to get into Oxford after a cramming year. His trans-formation from idle, shiftless teen to dazzling novelist and fearsome literary critic in the space of four or five years was remarkable. He was incredibly driven, a focus which he has retained. His working day starts at 9am at the latest and continues through until early evening, only rarely stopping for a lunch break, or an occasional afternoon of tennis, one of his obsessions.
His love of women was another passion. (He is on his second marriage, with two daughters to add to three children from previous relationships.) Several of his friends deny he was a sexual predator; rather that he beguiled. “It involved no industry on his part,” testifies Clive James.
Of all the contributors, the memories and assessments of Christopher Hitchens, best man at his second wedding, are the most luminous. Martin left his long-time literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, in the mid-1990s. It prompted a stinging letter from his old friend Julian Barnes, the agent’s husband and recent winner of the Man Booker Prize.
According to Hitchens, “it was beautifully, evilly crafted, especially the last comment on Martin’s [recently ended first] marriage. He didn’t of course compare this explicitly with Martin’s decision to leave Pat but he didn’t need to… Julian’s response was made up of pure malice. I’d never seen a letter like that. Martin eventually got back with him, to an extent. But I have not.”
Amis is intense, thoughtful, full of charm and has kept a broad base of friends. Since the 1980s, one of his companions has been Chris Mitas, a former judo champion, who wheels and deals in property and restaurants, and has never been that impressed by his friend’s literary efforts. “Martin,” he once asked, “have you ever tried to read one of your books?”