The acid wit and magnificent prose of Martin Amis

‘His criticism was as much a pleasure to take in as the fiction’ © Neil Drabble/Camera Press

His heroes across the Atlantic were Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, but the American writer that Martin Amis — who has died aged 73 — most resembled was Norman Mailer.

Both were comic prodigies; both emerged from their tyro years to become journalists of high style, bearing witness to political events and writing books about phenomena of youth culture that might seem sideways to their talents (graffiti for Mailer, video arcades for Amis); both had a weakness for punditry and a fertile capacity for self-absorption; both entered late-middle phases as novelists of Big Historic Subjects to mixed results.

From beginning to end, both faced the challenge of writing books in competition with their own personal celebrity.

What magnificent prose and what a peculiar personality underneath it. Amis wrote a long feature on the pornography industry for Tina Brown’s Talk Magazine in 2001 and only at the end confessed to his horror of seeing pricks on screen. He made a speciality of low-life subject matter but he was always a bookworm, always a literary critic, at heart.

The contrast was the wellspring of his humour. There’s something intrinsically laugh-inducing in his writing, though he rarely resorted to anything so common as a joke. He loathed cliché (and banged on about that loathing a bit much) but relished vulgarity in all its peculiarity.

The early novels were slim rampages of acid wit. These turned out to be mere preparation for the mid-Atlantic trilogy of the 1980s and ’90s: Money, London Fields and The Information. Of these everyone will have their favourite — Courtney Love once told me hers was Money — but mine is London Fields. Keith Talent, aka Keithcliffe: Amis dragged a 19th-century sensibility to the corner pub and taught it to win at darts, somehow imbuing the whole affair with an air of nuclear dread.

His criticism was insightful, cutting, tightly wound, and as much a pleasure to take in as the fiction. His model was the Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye, and his mode was authority, not ambivalence. As with Richard Tull, protagonist of The Information, when he reviewed a book, “it stayed reviewed”. But as he went on he left it mostly behind: “And was that the extent of your hopes for your prose: bookchat, interviews, gossip?” he asked in Experience, a memoir not exactly light on gossip.

In the last three decades, he confined himself mostly to writing on his idols (Bellow and Nabokov, Iris Murdoch, Jane Austen, Philip Larkin) and a few senior peers (Updike, Roth, Ballard, DeLillo). “The novel is comic because life is comic,” Amis concluded in a late essay on Bellow. It remains something of a mystery why he paused from writing novels to write a non-comic book about Stalin — Koba the Dread — and why it had the word “laughter” in the subtitle.

Larkin was an animating spirit and the source of a plot twist (was he somehow Martin’s biological father?) in Inside Story, the final masterpiece few expected from Amis, after a string of books on which there is little critical consensus, to put it gently. Here the wily trickster and arch critic adopted an unexpected mode of generosity as a dispenser of wisdom about the art of the novel to an imagined acolyte. And here the cynical comedian turned warm and elegiac (modes previously tendered only towards his parents) as he told the story of the early days and last days of his friendships with Christopher Hitchens and Bellow. Again, life is comic: the author of The Adventures of Augie March, afflicted with Alzheimer’s in his senescence, spent a good deal of time watching Pirates of the Caribbean over and over. We see Hitchens in his youth engaging serially in “grimly dialectical” love affairs, and decades later sleeping in a bed at a Texas oncology ward where his best friend pats his head, kisses him, and leaves him “a skeleton staff of cigarettes”.

It’s tempting to say, “we won’t see their likes again,” but that’s a cliché and altogether too obvious. It’s also easy to find flaws in the oeuvres of Amis and Hitchens, some of them the size of entire books, but life is comic and one way to be comic is to get things wrong. Whatever anxieties he had starting out about his famous father Kingsley, Amis made the most of his patrimony and pursued his love of literature relentlessly to the end. He and Hitchens also made the most of being famous, and when it came to their prose styles it was a fame they deserved. Sometimes the worst thing about a sentence is the full stop.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer and literary critic based in New York

2023-05-22 13:00:10