Father and son reunion

This is the story of the two finest novelists of their generations, both with chequered careers and controversial affairs. Separated by death, their lives are about to cross once more with the publication of the father's letters and the son's autobiography. John Walsh braces himself for a long hot summer of Martin and Kingsley Amis
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The Independent Culture

"I enjoy talking to you more than to anybody else," Kingsley Amis wrote to Philip Larkin in June 1946, "because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful feelings that I don't want anybody else to know about; but most of all because I am always on the verge of violent laughter when talking to you..."

Shameful truth and violent laughter are the stand-out features of Amis country. And a remarkable storm of ripe confession and savage humour, Amis-style, is soon to burst over the heads of the literary world. The Selected Letters of the irascible knight, edited by Zachary Leader, are published by Harper Collins on 15 May; then, ten days later, the long-awaited autobiography of Martin Amis comes out from Jonathan Cape. To have Kingsley's chronic hatred of phonies, philistines, "marshmallow-lefties", tight-fisted drinking companions, bullying officials, mouthy women, sod-the-public architects, pompous barmen, pretentious artists and people who say "tim peaches" when they mean "tinned peaches" - to have all his opinions raw, unconstrained by any shreds of tact, and his pungent stories about his peers unmediated by the filter of fiction, is a treat. To have the inside story on Martin Amis, the writer who has influenced more prose styles than any other in the last two decades, runs it a close second. Thousands of literary fans will experience a peculiar summer, with the twin voices of the dynastic satirists, pÿre et fils, reverberating around their heads.

Martin Amis has always suffered from his apparent lack of suffering - Lucky Mart the golden boy, born into the heart of metropolitan literary life. When the New Statesman ran a competition asking for unlikely book titles, one winning entry was My Struggle by Martin Amis. But the shilling life is a little ambiguous. You can see his career as a upward curve of easy brilliance, copiously rewarded; or as a constant grappling with self-loathing, physical disintegration and the hostility of the Fourth Estate.

He had a restless childhood, attending a dozen schools and crammers when young, as the family moved from Swansea to London to Princeton, USA, to Majorca. With his siblings Philip and Sally, he would sit on the stairs listening as his parents had noisy rows about the father's numerous infidelities. Martin was 16 when they divorced, and Kingsley went to live with Elizabeth Jane Howard. At Oxford, he courted Gully Wells and Tina Brown, worked hard, sailed through Finals in a blur of achievement and got a congratulatory First. His English tutor at Exeter College, the wolfish, pooh-poohing Jonathan Wordsworth (who appears, thinly disguised, in The Rachel Papers) struck a deal with Amis - he could take a year off after his finals and try to write a novel. If it failed, he could still come back and do a postgraduate thesis on Shakespeare. A year later, the novel was completed and Amis Jnr's career was launched.

His second novel, Dead Babies, about an apocalyptic weekend of sex, drugs and destruction set in the near-future, was ravishingly written and denounced as "Dead Vomit" by Private Eye. Success followed success. Amis's handsome physiognomy and mid-Atlantic drawl began to turn up on television. He dabbled in movies and wrote the screenplay for Saturn Five, a steaming SF disaster starring Kirk Douglas. He drifted into literary journalism - at the TLS, at Anthony Howard's New Statesman and Ian Hamilton's New Review - without apparent strain, knocked off a guide to Space Invader machines and accreted around him a British bratpack of writer pals: Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie.

He used to say he couldn't recognise the glamorous figure portrayed in the media; all he knew was the short, vulnerable, nervy figure that stared from his mirror. But this dual identity is at the heart of his fiction. The novels routinely feature a golden-boy over-achiever, impossibly handsome, well-connected, well-hung and listlessly brilliant, who is matched by - and sometimes shades into - a dwarfish inadequate, a pathetic dweller in Loser's Lane, carious, envious and hopeless with women. Both are lurking in Amis's psyche: they were at it again in his last major novel, The Information.

The two personae became public property during his annus horribilis of 1995 when he left his wife Antonia for Isabel Fonseca, left his agent Pat Kavanagh for the American Andrew Wylie, left his long-term publisher for a more lucrative contract at Harper Collins, and had a flaming, terminal row with his best friend, Julian Barnes. The press loved it, especially one detail: that Amis had, through Wylie, pursued an advance of a cool million mainly to pay for treatment to his teeth. Suddenly, the country's favourite literary son was a money-chasing, adulterous, Yankophile swine with symbolically rotting incisors. You could hear the words "Serves him bloody well right" reverberate across the land.

The autobiography is not, however, an apologia pro vita sua. It's prompted by something far more immediate. "It seemed like a natural break when my father died and I always knew I would have to write about him simply because of the oddity of the situation," he says now. "All writers' children seem to be writing now, but there hasn't been an example of two writers who are contemporaries in quite the same way that I was with my father. There's a pro bono duty to describe that."

The Kingsley-Martin relationship appeared, to the observer's eye, a strong and affectionate bond, sealed by shared dislikes and vicious humour, and wholly uncompromised by the two authors' different approaches to their art. "My father only read three of my books," recalls Amis today. "I'm more of a hypocrite about such things than he was. I would give a sugared opinion to maintain good relations. He was incapable of doing that."

Indeed he was. Kingsley wrote to a friend that he'd only read "about half" of Other People: A Mystery Story, because it was "too boring. Little sod said on TV you had to read it twice. Well then HE'S FAILED hasn't he?" His dislike of Martin's postmodernist excesses and ludic jeux d'esprit (such as putting a character called Martin Amis into London Fields) was made worse by the son's gradual politicisation. In 1986 the father wrote to Robert Conquest that Martin had "gone all lefty and of the crappiest neutralist kind, challenging me to guess how many times over the world can destroy itself... He's bright, you see, but a fucking fool, and the worse, far worse, for having come to it late in life, aetat nearly 37 not 17."

These jeremiads are not to be taken too seriously; Martin evidently enjoyed winding his father up. There's a lovely story in the introduction to Einstein's Monsters about Martin trying to explain to his father the iniquities of the whaling trade - how the, you know, gentle monsters of the deep, right, are being killed and dismembered, and their blubber converted into soap, rubber and cosmetics. "I don't know," mused Kingsley in reply. "Seems rather a good way of using up whales..."

The knight, as he got older, rather embraced the image of him fostered by the press - of the curmudgeonly crypto-fascist, the harrumphing, misogynistic reactionary, endlessly complaining about every manifestation of the new, the trendy, the politically correct. It wasn't a true picture, as anyone who encountered Amis for five minutes could tell you - just part of his huge arsenal of special effects (including grimaces, impressions, funny voices, verbal grotesqueries) with which he would entertain his humblest interlocutor.

But in the letters that have survived from the early days, Amis's furious eye for the damning detail is in deadly earnest. In 1946, the first time he meets the family of Hilly Bardwell, his first wife and the love of his life, he reports to Larkin that one of her brothers wore "sandals and saffron trousers and NO SOCKS and a green shirt, and plays the recorder (yes) and likes Tudor music". The tone is unmistakable: the voice of the phoney-hating Jim Dixon was born at that moment. Hilly's father, a lover of folk dancing, christened "Daddy B" in the letters, was transposed into Lucky Jim as the madrigal-loving Professor Welch. Putting him in a novel was a matter of necessity, Amis told Larkin: "I don't see how I can avoid doing him in fiction if I am to refrain from stabbing him under the fifth rib."

The Kingsley letters give us back the rancid, vivid, heartless, suspicious, subversive soul of the great man before everything hardened into a pose and he retired into a limbo bounded by the Garrick and The Bill. Amis's autobiography comes at an interesting time for him. Now 50, he lives in Primrose Hill (which he describes as being "like an antique Victorian pram") with his wife and daughter Fernanda. Several of his novels are in that suspended state "between option and principal photography. They made a film of Dead Babies which I've seen. Very faithful to the novel. Wonderfully acted, horribly comic." He finds the political climate "incredibly soft" and longs for a bit of vitriol in public debate, as the figure of Margaret Thatcher once inspired him to write Money. "It's very difficult to think of Tony Blair contributing to the atmosphere of a novel. We're all heading towards a flabbier and flabbier democracy, where every individual has the privacy of their own feelings and there's a democracy of respect and all the rest of it."

For a second, Amis sounds just like his Dad. But when he nominates, perhaps ironically, his life's project ("Ultimately the ambition is to become an American novelist") you know the chances of his turning into Kingsley are few. And while the father spent his maturity identifying all the things that hacked him off about the world, the son is more keen to accentuate the positive. As he admits, "There are all sorts of positive feelings in me that don't translate very directly into my novels. It's very plainly there in my memoirs. I've always had respect for the complexity and richness of human life. It's a tragic richness, of course, because of our mortality; but you can't fault it for interest."

Additional reporting by Johann Hari and Anna Powell-Smith

'The Letters of Kingsley Amis' are published by HarperCollins on 15 May. Martin Amis's autobiography is published by Jonathan Cape on 25 May