Constable £20

Martin Amis: The Biography, By Richard Bradford

Amis Jr was raised amid a hellish, endless cocktail party that helps explain the contradictions of his character and his work

Martin Amis excites many emotions ; anger, laughter, irritation, envy and idolatry being only a few – but the most unexpected one that emerges from this biography is compassion.

Novelists tend to be forged by the experience of anguish, but the "endless cocktail party" in which the three Amis children were brought up would, in a lesser writer, fill a misery memoir. His father, the near-alcoholic Kingsley Amis had, as Richard Bradford puts it, a "limitless taste for adultery" and if his naive young wife Hilly provided their children with love, then the chaos evinced by these pages explains much about his son's fiction. Certainly by the end of this first biography, the old joke about "Mein Kampf by Martin Amis" being the least likely combination of author and title looks a bitter one.

Where Martin's elder brother, Philip, struggling out of an adolescence marked by drugs, truancy and failure, was sneered at by Kingsley for becoming a painter, and his younger sister, Sally, died an alcoholic, Martin survived and triumphed. Bradford, the author of a well received biography of Kingsley, covers this ground confidently. Martin's peripatetic, patchy education, drugs, promiscuity and his father's remarriage to Elizabeth Jane Howard were overcome by natural intelligence and formidable hard work. Within four years of failing his English O-level, he had won a Congratulatory First from Oxford and was writing for the TLS. He published his first novel, The Rachel Papers, at 23, and became a celebrity.

He had also become a notable success with rich, beautiful, well-connected women, conducting affairs with, among others, Tina Brown, Gully Wells, Tamasin Day-Lewis, Emma Soames, Julie Kavanagh, Lorna Sage, Victoria Rothschild, Mary Furness and Angela Gorgas. How did a man who, as a short, fat, neglected teenager, was noted by Richard Eyre as "so unhappy", manage to transform himself into the so-called Mick Jagger of literature to whom women flocked? Amis's life is full of contradictions. Less selfish than Kingsley, cleverer and more sensitive, he is less successful. One of his most interesting early novels, Success, is narrated by two brothers, one short, ugly and totally lacking in confidence, the other handsome, confident and arrogant. It's a duality which is repeated in many other books, most notably The Information, Dead Babies and The Pregnant Widow, and it's one which lies at the heart of his flawed brilliance as a writer of fiction – and his media image.

The affairs became press fodder, but just as crucial are the alliances formed during Amis's time at the TLS and New Statesman, entertainingly described. The Amis-Barnes-McEwan triumvirate was forged in this era, though as important is Amis's friendship with the polemical journalist Christopher Hitchens (much quoted here). Maybe it was this boozy male braggadocio that made Amis think it clever to review soft porn, and research Money by getting a hand job (alongside "Hitch") in a New York brothel. Apparently this helped woo his first wife, Antonia Philips, but readers who wish, in Nabokov's phrase, to "dot every 'I' with the author's head" have had Amis's served to them on a plate. The illegitimate daughter, the fall-out with Julian Barnes, the adultery, the ludicrous provocations over subjects ranging from Islam to children's books have all damaged his reputation – almost as much as the increasingly disappointing novels. Now 62, he is guaranteed column inches, but his first novel remains the only one for which he has ever won a prize. Teenagers still adore it.

Bradford is at his strongest when giving detailed readings of the novels, and allowed to criticise them. "In the novels one encounters a magnificent performance ... but once the performance is over we are left with little but a feeling of admiration for someone who can use language so brilliantly." Amis's journalism and his autobiography Experience, on the other hand, are outstanding because they are not chiefly concerned with this performing aspect. They reveal a humane, thoughtful, observant writer: just as funny but discordant with Amis's fiction.

While McEwan and Barnes have deservedly won the Booker prize, Amis has not. There is a reason why so many admirers of his early novels, especially Money, have given up on him, and it has everything to do with the "virtuoso intolerance" fostered by his father, his education, and, one fears, the protective adulation of his friends and fans. Bradford's assertion in the final chapter that Amis is "the most important British novelist of his generation", puts his biographer firmly into the last camp. Yet Amis could yet become that dazzling blend of Dickens and Nabokov he once promised to be. The struggle is not yet over – though this patchy and compromised biography may well have added to it.

Amanda Craig's novels include A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds, published by Abacus

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone