Constable & Robinson, £20, £418pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Martin Amis: The Biography, By Richard Bradford


It was Private Eye's anonymous critic, reviewing a Yann Martel novel, who warned of the dangers of writing about animals and allegory. He (or she) could usefully have gone on to advertise some of the perils of writing a biography of a living person. First, there is the problem of getting the subject on your side and keeping him there, never mind the threat to your objectivity that this relationship may nurture. Then there is the task of cajoling people who know him (who may regard the enterprise as a vanity project) to talk. Finally, there is the thought that most of your conclusions will necessarily be provisional, as the person may have two or three decades of vigorous existence still to live.

It takes an exceptionally brave biographer to weave around these obstacles, and Martin Amis: The Biography is a pattern demonstration of some of the obstructions that lie in wait. Mart himself turns out to have granted five long interviews; there is talk, in the introduction, of input from his second wife, Isabel Fonseca. Amis junior's regard for his anatomist's ability is made plain by a puff for Bradford's excellent life of Amis senior ("Nearly all critical biographies relate the work to the life – insidiously, tendentiously, helplessly. Richard Bradford is different. He does it convincingly"). On the other hand, a glance at the list of those consulted reveals only a succession of bit-parters. With two or three prominent exceptions, no one close to Amis seems to have thought the endeavour worth supporting.

Our man was born in 1949, the second son of a prodigiously talented and relentlessly philandering university lecturer, who five years later was to strike gold with Lucky Jim, arguably the most influential English novel of the early post-war period.

In interviews, Mart represents his childhood as a Bohemian idyll in which the hint of parental fecklessness is invariably submerged. Reading between the lines of Bradford's account of infant days in Swansea and, briefly, Cambridge to which the Amises removed before Kingsley's abandonment of his first wife for the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, I wasn't so sure. There is a moment in which Mart re-encounters one of his father's former Cambridge pupils, Sir Richard Eyre. "You were so unhappy," Eyre tells him.

Mart's education was a complete shambles until his stepmother took him in hand. Studiously hard-working at Oxford, two novels under his belt by his mid-twenties, the most saturnine babe-magnet who ever sashayed into a posh girls' Kensington flatshare, our hero had an early career to envy, which may explain some of the extraordinarily large volume of hostile criticism directed at him over the past 30 years, symbolised by that famous New Statesman competition for implausibly titled books, won by "Martin Amis: My Struggle".

Herein lies another problem faced by the modern literary biographer: no writer these days does very much except write books. As in his lives of Philip Larkin and Alan Sillitoe, Bradford is very good on some of the crises of Amis's life – divorce, father's death – and how they found themselves projected into the work.

What weakens the attempts to show what makes Mart tick, alternatively, is the discovery that most of the supplementary witnesses ("I hardly knew him, but...") are not up to the job, and a very definite sense of authorial punches being pulled. My own hunch is that Mart's lawyers crawled over the manuscript for months – the book was originally scheduled for publication in February – and a certain amount of emasculation took place.

Three things redeem the book, to the point where it becomes very good indeed. The first is the rambunctious presence of Christopher Hitchens, who dishes the dirt on everything from the sexual shenanigans to the early 1980s research trip to a New York "hand-job parlour" while researching Money.

The second is Bradford's skill at re-animating the cultural circles in which Mart flourished during his early London period, in particular the Anthony Howard-era New Statesman.

The third is his provocative readings of many of the novels. Meanwhile, a full account of the circumstances in which this biography was written would be fascinating to read. I hope that Richard Bradford can be persuaded to write it.

DJ Taylor's latest novel is 'Derby Day' (Chatto & Windus)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing