The voice of a generation: Martin Amis, 1949-2023
It is striking how personal many of the tributes to Martin Amis have been. Of course, this is true of the tributes from friends: Ian McEwan on the Today programme, Salman Rushdie in The New Yorker, Kazuo Ishiguro on the BBC. But perhaps the best explanation for this came from Geoff Dyer in The Observer. “I suspect it’s difficult for anyone under the age of … what? 30? 40? To comprehend the thrall Martin Amis exerted on writers now in their 50s or above. One might have to insert a qualifying ‘male’ here.”
Not just writers in their 50s or above. Readers too. More than any of that extraordinary group of writers who exploded on the scene in the Eighties, Amis wrote for his generation. He mixed high and low culture, uncultured yobs like Keith Talent and John Self, but also Bellow and Nabokov. The fascination of his generation with America, perhaps especially its writers and popular culture, but also that American post-war sense of sheer abundance and plenitude. The materialism of Thatcher’s London. The media, of course. He started his career working at The TLS and The New Statesman and wrote endlessly for The Guardian and The Observer. What one obituary called “his obvious intelligence and wit, delivered in an improbable baritone drawl” was made for TV and during the 1980s and 90s often appeared on The South Bank Show, Channel 4 programmes and The Late Show. And then in the 1990s that growing sense of historical evil, what Amis called “the modern infamies, the twentieth-century sins”: in particular, the Holocaust and Stalinism, and then 9/11 and all that followed.
Like so many others I first encountered Amis in that issue of Granta, the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983, which opened with the first pages of his masterpiece: Money: A Suicide Note (1984). Then followed, among others, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. It felt so new. Not just a new generation of writers, all born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but a new kind of writer. Rushdie born in what was then Bombay, Ishiguro born in Nagasaki, Buchi Emecheta born in Nigeria, Shiva Naipaul from Port of Spain and Clive Sinclair, whose father changed his name from Smolinsky (his son gave the name Smolinsky to a private detective who appears in several of his early stories).
But, above all, it was that voice — the voice of Martin Amis. The Granta extract begins in New York, “off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds”. “[A] low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane, sliding off to the right across our bows.” Say what you like about Iris Murdoch, PH Newby and Penelope Fitzgerald (all born before 1920) but they didn’t write much about “low-slung Tomahawks full of black guys”. There was a new kind of British writing in town.
Money was the first of Amis’s great “London Trilogy”. No one since Dickens and Conrad has written better about London – or Londoners. Uncultured yobs and geezers like John Self and Keith Talent, the East End, “with its gravid primary-schoolers and toothless hoodies, its wheezing twenty-year-olds, arthritic thirty-year-olds”.
But it wasn’t just London, of course. And certainly not Britain. It was Thatcher’s London, the epicentre of 1980s Britain, home to Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney, John Self’s loudmouth sibling. And Amis caught the squalor and materialism of London then, a very different place from Blair’s London. Who knows what would have become of Amis if he’d come of age at the time of “Cool Britannia”?
In 1990, just before Margaret Thatcher resigned, Amis told The New York Times,
“The 19th-century British novel was, if you like, a superpower novel. It was 800 pages long, about the whole of society. With [British] decline, the novel has shrunk in confidence, in scope. In its current form, the typical English novel is 225 sanitised pages about the middle classes. You know, “well-made” with the nice colour scheme and decor, and matching imagery. I almost try and avoid form. What I’m interested in is trying to get more truthful about what it’s like to be alive now.” As Jason Cowley points out in one of the best essays on Amis, “‘Where were the new rhythms?’ he asks in The Information.”
When Amis says, “what it’s like to be in London now”, he doesn’t mean what it’s like for Blacks or Asians. Or for women. This offered an easy target for his critics. As another fine critic, Sameer Rahim, pointed out, “Amis would never win a racial sensitivity award… until Lionel Asbo, Black characters in his novels are peripheral figures of fear or fun.” One of Amis’s best novels, London Fields (1989) was famously left off the Booker shortlist because, according to the Booker’s director, two female judges “felt that Amis treated women appallingly in the book”. But that was a sign of the times. Look again at that Granta list from 1983: one Black writer out of twenty, only six women.
It wasn’t until Night Train (1997) that he wrote his first novel with a female central character. And then in his memoir, Experience (2000), he addresses the brutal murder of his cousin Lucy Partington, one of the victims of Fred West, and his reunion with his daughter Delilah Seale. By then he was the father of two young daughters (born in 1997 and 1999) from his second marriage.
There was another more significant turning-point for Amis and for his generation. In the 1980s and especially the 1990s, British culture began its belated encounter with the Holocaust and after the Fall of the Wall with the horrors of Soviet Communism. Most British writers, however, were late to the party. Amis was a huge exception. When critics like Terry Eagleton sneer at Amis’s ‘squalid sense of morality’, one may ask who else in Britain was writing novels like Time’s Arrow (1991) and The Zone of Interest (2014), both set in Auschwitz, or House of Meetings (2006), about Stalinism? If anything, critics might say these novels were too earnest or even too lightweight, but you cannot fault the moral seriousness that drives them and Amis’s urgent sense of the evil of the mid-20th century and then of Islamic terrorism. “His life went deep into the century,” Amis writes about Bujak, a story in Einstein’s Monsters (1987). This was around the time when Amis’s writing started going “deep into the century” too.
What is perhaps most distinctive about Amis’s voice was not that he was a superb comic writer or that he managed in much of his best writing to address evil and create a sense of dark menace, but that the two so often coexist.
There was a third crucial ingredient: that American crackle in his prose. It’s not hard to see where that came from. Take the beginning of Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow: “He was a wonderful talker, a hectic nonstop monologuist and improvisator, a champion detractor. To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine.” Or think of Philip Roth’s great tribute to Bellow: “In his characteristically American way he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon.” With Amis it was the gap between Larkin and porn, but his writing was at home with home.
Bellow, of course, was Amis’s real literary father. “On the day my father died [in 1995],” Amis writes in Inside Story (2020), “I rang Saul in Boston and told him the news. And we talked. And he told me what I badly needed to hear… He was never my ‘literary father’ (I already had one)… But I did say to him, a year or two later, ‘As long as you’re alive I’ll never feel completely fatherless.”’ He returns to this conversation fourteen pages later. “On the night the clocks went back in 1995 I called Saul Bellow in Boston and after brief preliminaries I said, ‘My father died at noon today… So I’m afraid you’ll have to take over now.”’
Bellow was the Jewish literary father Amis never had. His father knew it. It is no coincidence that in Stanley and the Women, a character tries to tear up a copy of Herzog.
Throughout Inside Story you can feel the darkening of the tone. It’s a book of mourning, a tribute to Bellow, to his best friend, Christopher Hitchens, and to Philip Larkin, his father’s best friend. His later years saw him increasingly preoccupied with losses, partings and deaths. In Experience, years before, Amis is in hospital, at his father’s deathbed. “My father has turned away, on his side. He is showing me how you do it. You turn away, on your side, and do the dying.” What he doesn’t say is that this is how Ivan Ilych dies, in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych: by turning on his side. Amis didn’t just write about Space Invaders, porn and yobs. He knew his Tolstoy, his Nabokov and his Bellow. And when he was on his death-bed he was reading Edith Wharton. Too few of the tributes have pointed out how extraordinarily well-read Amis was.
When Saul Bellow died, Cynthia Ozick, another great Jewish-American author, wrote, “There are no part-Bellows or next-generation Bellows, there are no literary descendants.” The same is true of Martin Amis. My generation will never hear another voice like his.
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