Martin Amis: The man who fell to earth

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"I feel as though I've done these things before, and am glazedly compelled to do them again." So the homicidal narrator of Martin Amis's fourth novel, Other People, winds up that uncanny parable about the damage that telling stories can do and about the urge to repeat them, obsessively, until they turn out right. The burden of repetition, and the hope that a new story, a revised version, will wipe out all the error and misery of the past, runs like a secret thread through the work of Amis junior.

Martin Amis has grown ubiquitous over the past 20 years: the brooding public face of British baby-boomer fiction, and a symbol, too, of the life changes that strike its consumers. So there's plenty of "glazed compulsion" in media treatments of his life and work. I've certainly done these things before. My first time came a decade ago, when I interviewed Amis about London Fields - another novel narrated by an inventive psychopath.

He then worked, a mile from his home, in a flat at the funkier, shabbier end of W11. In one small room stood the dartboard and table-football kit: mind-clearing pastimes, but also misleading props that gave rise to all manner of rubbishy speculation about the author as a patron of New Lads. The darts, however, did come in handy for the arrows-obsessed thug Keith Talent in London Fields - his finest, and most purely Dickensian, tragi-comic creation.

Next door, where the old manual typewriter clattered and the fag butts accumulated, the bookshelves gave his real game away. Sets of Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov announced the true Amis inspirations. A copy of Robert Jay Lifton's book The Nazi Doctors sat on the table. Lifton's ground-breaking study of science in hell paved the way for his next novel, Time's Arrow. This bold Holocaust fiction - the only Amis novel to reach the Booker shortlist - adopts a stray idea from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It runs the reel of Nazi history backwards; this reverse-gear storytelling makes the dead awaken. So a re-telling of past woes, in this most extreme of cases, does eradicate the pain of history.

You might say that Martin Amis was born to the principle of redemption via repetition. On 27 August 1949, his father Kingsley - then an Oxford research student, but soon to gain a post as an English lecturer in Swansea - wrote to Philip Larkin with a sigh of relief that the two-day-old baby had emerged "less horrifying in appearance" than his older brother, Philip. A week later, however, Kingsley added that the newcomer had "one of the most protesting faces I ever saw".

Now, with the publication next week of his memoir Experience, the correction of accounts has moved from a motif of the fiction to a linchpin of the life. "Experience is the only thing we share equally," claims the book, prompted in large part by the need to make a public peace with Kingsley (who died in 1995). Distorted records will be straightened out, monstrous fibs put to the sword - and all in prose of a clarity and modesty that contrasts violently with the trademark Amis pyrotechnics.

From the extracts so far printed, it would seem that Amis has one huge false tale, above all, in his sights - one big lie that subsumes all the gossip about marriages and money, rivalry and dentistry. That is the belief that the young writer was spared - and must be cursed for being spared - the usual anguish of the human race when, by following in a famous parent's footsteps, he "took over the family pub".

Amis used that analogy in an interview this week, trying to explain why some parts of the British media detest him so much - sheer envy at the pampered guv'nor's kid, he thinks. Yet it first occurs (although he didn't say so) in the mouth of the fictional character called "Martin Amis" in his 1984 novel, Money. Thanks to the brilliant verbals of its ruthless, hapless narrator, John Self, the book made a huge, lingering, splash. Yet it also ushered in a transition that brought his creator as much grief as glory. Martin Amis, the well-connected young novelist and newspaper feature writer, became "Martin Amis", the icon of his literary age, as open to desecration as icons always are.

Experience, it seems clear, represents a heartfelt attempt to dump those quotation marks. Some 20 years ago, would-be wits labelled him "Martian" Amis, when he hung out with such cold-eyed poets as Craig Raine. Evidently, he now wants to fall to earth. A New Statesman competition from the same era asked for examples of improbably-titled books. The winner was "My Struggle, by Martin Amis". In the light of experience - in the light of Experience - he urges us to take the title at face value.

To do so means, not startling revelation, but patient re-interpretation. So the memoir will give an authorised version of some of the stories that have knocked around the press like urban myths. There is, inevitably, the low-down on his costly but far from cosmetic teeth-job; the divorce from Antonia Phillips and remarriage to Isabel Fonseca; the double shock of discovering, in the mid-Nineties, both that he had an unknown teenage daughter called Delilah, and that his long-lost cousin, Lucy Partington, had fallen victim not to some obscure killer, but to Fred West himself.

Through this examined life we can re-read the books - especially their prescient concern with young girls lost and found, redeemed or damned, and with the yarn-spinning creatures who try to reel them in to death. The effect feels electric, as the lightning conceits of a tricksy novelist suddenly hit solid, and tragic, ground.

Solid ground was always lacking in the writer's early years. His childhood coincided with the explosion of his father's reputation, and the gradual collapse of Kingsley's marriage to Hilly Bardwell. Upheavals, professional and emotional, meant that young Martin went to a dozen schools, in Swansea, Princeton, Cambridge, Majorca and London. His first taste of celebrity - as a teenage actor in the 1965 film of A High Wind in Jamaica - meant skiving off for a spell from his Battersea grammar school; it then expelled him. Teenage forays down the King's Road in the mid-Sixties, in a morose, endless quest for girls and drugs, gave no promise of high achievement in the offing.

Once Kingsley had married the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, the younger son began at last to rise. "Mart is still lazy but we're working on him," wrote Kingsley to Hilly in 1966; the memoir acknowledges that Howard "salvaged my schooling". Intensive study at "crammers" in London and Brighton (later plundered mockingly in his debut novel, The Rachel Papers) led to a place at Exeter College, Oxford. "I don't mean the University Fucking College of the South West of England. I mean EXETER COLLEGE, OXFORD," he told his father. The boy, with manifest relief, had belatedly grabbed his place in the British cultural elevator. And he knew that revision paid off.

He rose fast. At Oxford, his first-class English degree was the third highest of its year. Short post-graduation jobs in an art gallery and ad agency led to a stint on the TLS; working there, he wrote The Rachel Papers in the evenings. It won the Somerset Maugham Award - as his father's debut, Lucky Jim, had in 1955.

Five years at the New Statesman followed, as assistant literary editor and literary editor, and the consolidation of enduring friendships with the writers Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton. Amis also worked with the novelist Julian Barnes - a partnership that came to a famously sticky end 20 years on, when Amis swapped agents, signing up with Andrew "Jackal" Wylie, and dumping Barnes's wife, Pat Kavanagh. He did so for a half-million pound deal that would take half a decade to earn.

In 1975, the rutting young nihilists of Dead Babies scandalised respectable opinion. Amis's third novel, Success, yoked a grotesque comedy of upward mobility with the recurrent Amis theme of male rivalry. That motif culminated with The Information in 1995; critics detected hints of Barnes in that book's bland and ingratiating bestselling writer, Gwyn Barry.

Meanwhile, Amis had unwittingly fathered a daughter; he would not know it for another 19 years. Through the Seventies, he also had a series of relationships with women who would themselves grab media success; among them, Tina Brown, Julie Kavanagh and Emma Soames.

Then Martin Amis (or "Martin Amis") somehow acquired several extra gears. Other People, in 1981, deepened into a mood of mystery and gravity that none of his raucous apprentice works had shown. He married the philosopher Antonia Phillips in 1984; Louis was born in 1984, and Jacob in 1986. Finally, Money gave a blisteringly funny voice to its time.

So began a roller-coaster of celebration and execration - not the Warholian 15 minutes, but a punishing 15 years of fame. Money launched a fleet of wannabe boy-scribblers who picked up the knack for scuzzy, streetwise detail; the jagged pathos of character and place; and the sour-sweet rhythms of his prose.

These acolytes never did much of the hard thinking that lay behind these tics. But their attention bred a giant curiosity about the man. "People are very interested in writers... More interested in the writers than the writing," says a high-powered agent in The Information to a failed novelist. "For some reason. You and I both know they mainly sit at home all day."

If the idea of repetition - the dogged struggle to get it right - fires much of Amis's work, then another key motif must be entropy. Entropy, the "measure of disorder" within a system, implies that energy means change; that change means disorder; and that disorder will lead to final breakdown. Now, fiction isn't physics. The "entropy" of a novelist like Amis can often amount to little more than a vague, gnawing anxiety about death and decay - of the environment, the universe, art, love (perhaps of teeth?).

Biographically, it means the author's much-discussed "panic about death". Amis described that as being behind him in 1996, although it filled his elephantine jests of The Information. Indeed, mortality is "the information": the news that nobody wants, but everybody gets. Philosophically, the notion of a planet running down to darkness - with or without human help - drives the nuclear fables of Einstein's Monsters in 1997; just at the moment when Kingsley lamented that his boy had gone "all lefty and of the crappiest neutralist kind". It also stands behind the ecological doom-saying of London Fields. Typically, Amis got his millennial retaliation in a decade early.

Experience gestures, movingly, towards the childhood roots of this worry about the cooling suns of life - or love. A child of divorce, with all the "caution about love" that entailed, Amis vowed never to repeat the pattern. Yet the sun of marriage dwindled for him as well. And emotional entropy brought repetition, in the hope of setting things to rights. "In leaving home, I did what I did for love," he writes of his marital break-up. But the partner who does that "is also the enemy of love and - for your children - its despoiler".

Amis left two sons. Now, with Isabel Fonseca, he has two daughters: Fernanda and Clio, who was born last year. The strangely symmetrical doublings and reflections that crowd the fiction also invade the life. Most remarkably, for those of a Freudian bent, Martin chose to live in a house in the same road, near Primrose Hill in north London, where Kingsley spent his last decade (in a curious but stable ménage à trois with Hilly and her second husband).

In fiction, the Amis gift for sublime mimicry still thrives - in the hard-boiled policewoman of Night Train, or the interplantery motormouth of his recent story "The Janitor on Mars". Yet Experience, so far as we can tell, sounds like someone else again - someone who needs, and seeks, far fewer quotation marks. Yes, he's living in the same street, but at the other end entirely. There's repetition here, but much progress too.

Comments