“You turn away, on your side, and do the dying”: so Martin Amis wrote of the death of his father Kingsley in his great memoir Experience (2000). “He is showing me how you do it.” And now, at the age of 73, he has “done the dying” too.
The death of famous artists, musicians and writers has its own, unacknowledged Geiger counter. Though civility generally prevents us from saying as much, it is not often that we are well and truly poleaxed; bereft in a way that says as much about us as it does about them.
The loss of David Bowie in January 2016 was one such moment. And the death of Martin Amis – for a great many people, at any rate – will be another. True, the writer of 15 novels, from The Rachel Papers in 1973 to Inside Story in 2020, will not be commemorated with candle-lit vigils and instantly painted murals near the places where he lived and worked. There is still a difference between a rock star and a “rock star writer”.
Yet Amis’s death undoubtedly deprives the literary skyline of one of its mountains. It confronts at least two generations of readers with a sudden, shocking absence. When Amis’s greatest friend, Christopher Hitchens was dying in 2011, he could not quite believe it. As he wrote: “’Christ, it’s so radical of him to die,’ I said. ‘It’s so left wing of him to die.’”
Now, 12 years later, he has died of the very same illness, oesophageal cancer, that killed Hitchens. And this is not just very sad (though it is most certainly that). Suddenly, the cultural continuum feels as though it is shuddering, warped out of shape by what Amis would have called a “Main Event”. When Kingsley died, he said that “we were all chastened by the dimensions of the void that replaced him.” Exactly.
His own literary mountains (other than his father) were Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, masters, respectively of the so-called “higher autobiography” and of high style. It was, naturally, Hitchens who introduced him to the writings of the former. “Look at Humboldt’s Gift,” he said on the staircase of the New Statesman in 1977, or thereabouts.
As Amis recounted: “I looked instead at The Victim, and after very few pages I felt a recognition threading itself through me, whose form of words (more solemn than exhilarated) went approximately as follows: ‘Here is a writer I will have to read all of’.”
This is precisely the response his own writing evoked in so many others. I can remember exactly that sensation when, aged 13, I read Other People in 1981. Almost four decades on, it is hard to convey how much of a haymaker he delivered to literary culture in 1984, in his first longer novel, Money. Just savour its first paragraph:
“As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows. We banked and hit a deep welt or grapple-ridge in the road: to the sound of a rifle-shot the cab roof ducked down and smacked me on the core of my head. I really didn’t need that, I tell you, with my head and face and back and heart hurting a lot all the time anyway, and still drunk and crazed and ghosted from the plane.”
The kinetic energy, distinctiveness of voice and arrogant neurosis do not let up for 400 pages. Money was a game-changer of a novel, an instant literary landmark in the thrilling, glamorous, pitiless Eighties. It felt as if the decade itself was speaking through its narrator, John Self, who often seems no more than an aggregate of dissolute appetites.
No less ambitious was London Fields (1989), a murder mystery set against a backdrop of multi-faceted dystopian horror described as “the Crisis”. It is a novel which is as profoundly fascinated by the micro-societies of the pub and the drinking club, by darts and football, as it is by the mortality of the individual and of the human race. In his creation of Keith Talent – “Keith looked like a murderer’s dog, eager familiar of ripper or bodysnatcher or gravestalker” – Amis displayed his genius as a writer of the demotic, no less intoxicated by low culture than he was the product of deep erudition.
By the 1990s, Amis had become a true celebrity, with all the hideous implications that distinguished this new form of media status from old-fashioned literary fame. His £500,000 advance for The Information (1995); his new teeth; his divorce from Antonia Phillips and marriage to Isabel Fonseca; the bitter end of his friendship with fellow novelist and New Statesman alumnus Julian Barnes: all were splashed in prurient detail across the front pages.
Because its plot hinged upon the rivalry between two writers – the vacuously successful Gwyn Barry and the failed novelist Richard Tull – The Information was often assumed to be a crude roman a clef about Amis’s falling out with Barnes. In fact, it is more accurately understood as a troubled exploration of the professional writer’s soul: the endless war that is waged within every author, between Barry and Tull, between hunger for recognition and literary integrity.
As ever, the personal and the cosmic were intertwined. The Information is as much about mortality as it is about the shabby promptings of envy. It is also a novel about sunderings, especially powerful in its exploration of the cost to children of divorce: a subject that was much on Amis’s mind (“There was something terribly wrong with Marco: there was nobody at his side. And yet the child’s solitude, his isolation, unlike his father’s was due to an unforgivable error not his own.”)
In his non-fiction, Amis addressed the unspeakable horrors of nuclear war, of Auschwitz, of Stalinism and of 9/11. His collection of essays and short stories on jihadism and the West’s response, The Second Plane (2008), was one of his most controversial books, and one of his best.
In Koba the Dread (2002), he tackled the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union under Stalin and interrogated the indulgence extended towards communism by so many western intellectuals; even those who knew of the gulags and the torture and the tanks. The book provoked a feisty row in print with Hitchens, a card-carrying communist in his youth, who felt that Amis’s analysis was weakened by dilettantism. Few punches were pulled.
What puzzled some observers was that this very public punch-up did not have the slightest impact upon the two men’s fraternal love for one another. They considered themselves soldier-citizens of the republic of letters, obliged to stand by their convictions and their writings, but no less committed to raise a glass to one another after a busy day’s pugilism at the keyboard: the legendary sessions of “sodality” as Hitchens described them, that often involved other literary luminaries such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and James Fenton.
This sort of robust behaviour is much less common in today’s world of polarisation and brittle spirits. Which is why the sense of loss is especially pointed: in 2023, we need Amis’s writing more than ever.
We live in an age of stultified self-censorship and politeness, monstrously enforced by social media; of bullet points, blandness and writing that is simply the carbon-based version of ChatGPT.
In the sharpest imaginable contrast, Amis ran towards gunfire: towards the dangerous terrain of class, sex, genocide, violence, and the twisted depravities of fundamentalist religion. His novels were unsafe spaces. His non-fiction was untroubled by the fear of causing offense. “I don’t want to tread carefully and be editing myself,” he told the Guardian in 2010.
Indeed, the idea of his prose being purged by modern-day “sensitivity readers” is intrinsically hilarious. “Fiction is freedom,” he said, “and any restraints on that are intolerable”. Today, all contemporary novelists and publishers still pay lip service to that dictum; but very few of them observe it in the recklessness, audacity and fire of what they write and put into print.
In this context, the most common charge against Amis – already being repeated on social media – was that his portrayal of women was misogynistic. And it is true that none of his characters escaped the comic ire of the lifelong satirist. But as he pointed out in a 1993 Face to Face interview with Jeremy Isaacs, the men in his fiction were the real target: “they’re in much worse nick, really”. Masculinity was always the subject towards which he was gravitationally drawn; merciless in his scorn for men’s violence, sexual insecurity and gormless indifference to the crash barriers of decency. It was always the guys who got it in the neck.
Above all, he was a champion of irony, which he recognised as an imperilled foundation stone of civilisation. He raged against “the forces of stupidity, literalism, ignorance, humourlessness.”
All those forces are on the rise today. One of his collections of non-fiction was entitled The Moronic Inferno (1986), a phrase he borrowed from Bellow (who had taken it from Wyndham Lewis). Alas, the inferno is blazing ever more fiercely in 2023.
Where does that leave his legacy? “As you get older,” he once reflected, “you realise that all these things — prizes, reviews, advances, readers — it’s all showbiz, and the real action starts with your obituary.” It is impossible to say how kind posterity will be to him; but my strong hunch is that his writing will endure long after the pieties and ill-concealed social agendas that characterise most contemporary literary fiction are long forgotten. Great books have an in-built resilience, the antibodies that get them through the fads, fashions and priggishness of each passing age.
A final irony: Amis’s novels have proved notoriously difficult to turn into successful films (if you think I’m exaggerating, check out Michael Cullen’s rendering of London Fields, starring Amber Heard and Billy Bob Thornton. What were they all thinking?). Yet on Friday, the very day that he died, the cycle was finally broken as Jonathan Glazer’s movie adaptation of his second Auschwitz novel, The Zone of Interest (2014), received its world premiere in Cannes, and was rewarded with a six-minute standing ovation.
The acclaimed author dies even as a decades-old jinx is broken. There is, of course, one writer in particular who could have woven phrases of magic from that last, mischievous cosmic twist: his name was Martin Amis.