Sam Leith

Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

Sam Leith is disappointed that our most famous living novelist remains an enigma

Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford
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Martin Amis: The Biography

Richard Bradford

Constable & Robinson, pp. 418, £

Where’s Invasion of the Space Invaders? That’s what I want to know. Only by consulting Richard Bradford’s bibliography would you know that in 1982 Martin Amis published a book — subtitled ‘An Addict’s Guide’ — on how to win at Space Invaders, and that he (presumably) hasn’t let it come back into print.

An entire book! That seems to me worthy at least of a paragraph in the body of a 400-odd-page writer’s biography. It tells you something, doesn’t it? I mean, apart from the fact that Martin Amis once liked Space Invaders, which is amusing if not crucial. Anything a writer disowns is of interest: particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously.

That absence — whether it’s down to a misfired attempt at high-mindedness, or was (less likely) a condition of Amis’s agreement to be interviewed — shakes one’s confidence in this work. Amis thrives on modernity, and Richard Bradford reports on it like a particularly stuffy and bewildered cousin of Craig Raine’s Martian:

Martin and friends would divert themselves with the so-called quiz machine, a cross between pinball — given that the subject of the question would be randomly selected —and the multiple choice formula of University Challenge.

That said, among the virtues of Bradford’s treatment is a by and large steady focus on the work (albeit with too much original-spotting for my taste), and a sympathetic attention to Amis the man. He gives us the Martin Amis that common sense tells us must be there, the Amis that, conditioned by years of yellow-press raillery, many were surprised to find in Experience: conscientious, thoughtful, pained, decent. Bradford writes suggestively about the relationship, both literary and personal, between Martin and his father, and quotes well from Amis himself, and also from Amis’s best friend, Christopher Hitchens.

The outline of the story will be familiar to most of us. Brilliance, bumptiousness, slumming, velvet pants, good press, feuds, teeth, advances, roll-up cigarettes, bad press, age, disputation. There’s an eyebrow-raising catalogue of the young Amis’s sexual adventures (as well as those of his father), and the friendly assertion that the former wasn’t callously predatory: the women made the running.

Bradford admits that ‘the social life of 1970s London leaves one gaping with incredulity and envy’. Amis-envy comes through in Bradford’s own prose. Of his second wife, Isabel Fonseca, he gushes:

To call her glamorous and cosmopolitan surpasses understatement [...] olive skinned, fine boned, with piercingly dark eyes and hair soulfully black — and came with a spellbindingly cosmopolitan heritage.

Bradford’s short on scoops. The best of it comes from Hitchens, who describes, though he can’t quote from, the vicious letter with which Julian Barnes ended his friendship with Amis. This is intriguing — if, like Bradford, we’re playing the life ‘n’ art game — in light of Barnes just having won the Man Booker Prize for a novella that hinges on an immoderately wounding letter written to a friend in a fit of (in the fictional case, sexual) jealous anger.

The real trouble is, Bradford seems to be defeated by Amis’s writing. He struggles to explain it, and the opacities of his style (his usages of words such as ‘hypothesis’, ‘amanuensis’, ‘vortex’, ‘reproachful’, ‘impresario’, ‘synoptic’ and ‘momentously’ are at best eccentric) — mean that even when he seems to know what he’s saying the reader doesn’t. He makes what seems to be a spirited case for the much-reviled Yellow Dog being a misunderstood ‘work of genius’, for instance, but it’s hard to follow exactly what that case is.

He circles round the big question of how you reconcile Amis’s two modes: the seemingly affectless cleverness dominant in the early work — what Bradford calls its ‘unaffiliated tenor’ — and the big themes, usually apocalyptic (entropy, nuclear annihilation, ideological mass murder, Islamist terror) with which it jostles in every novel from London Fields on. A common view — stated most articulately and generously here by Will Self — is that Amis at some level mistakes the nature of his own gift. Bradford rejects that: he sees Amis as abundantly in control of his gifts, and abundantly misunderstood.

He ends up concluding that Amis is an experimental writer who manages also to be popular and produce an ‘addictive read’. He coins in his closing pages the unsatisfactory term ‘conservative postmodernism’ for it, and shores it up with some scattershot assertions about how Amis surpasses Joyce and Nabokov.

Bradford is very sniffy about both academics (‘lazy and misleading’) and news-paper book reviewers (not to mention diary columnists, who are unfailingly ‘gossip-hungry’ or ‘scandal-hungry’ or ‘parasites’). ‘Rather than attempting to explain what Martin might have been up to,’ he writes of Other People,

most of the reviewers sought shelter behind such makeshift adjectival substitutes for evaluation as ‘powerful’, ‘obsessive’, ‘dazzling’, ‘scintillating’, ‘enthralling’ and ‘disturbing’.

Bradford scatters such adjectives liberally himself, mind you. Time’s Arrow is ‘compelling’, ‘fascinating’ and, yes, ‘enthralling’ in the space of two pages.

At another point, apropos James Buchan’s piece about that book in these pages, he writes: ‘It is extremely unlikely that a contributor to The Spectator had knowledge of, let alone respect for, the opinions of the Marxist academic Theodor Adorno.’ That’s just daft. I daresay most Spectator contributors ‘have knowledge’ of Adorno, and if they know one thing about him (and most people know one thing about him) it’s the one thing Bradford knows, which is what he said about poetry after the Holocaust.

The book further suffers from being badly under-edited. I don’t mean in terms of typos, though there are those — ‘pray upon leftovers’; ‘aliments’ for ‘ailments’ and (Amis would like this one) ‘a farce for change’. Nor in solecisms and sloppinesses, though there are those too — we meet a ‘Lord Jamie Neidpath’; Zachary Leader is ‘Zach’ for the first half of the book and ‘Zachary’ for the second; Saul Bellow randomly turns into ‘Heller’ for half a page. And when he claims Amis has been discussed in a scholarly journal called Literary Onanistic Studies, is this a joke on us or a joke on Bradford? This sort of thing makes a book feel unloved.

Of more trouble to the reader, though, are the topics that are introduced or alluded to as if you already know about them, the jumping back and forth to a subject, and the paragraphs that clumsily repeat the same idea in similar words a dozen or so pages apart. In his peroration, Bradford manages four consecutive sentences that frame the same thought — in, unfortunately, a passage bookended by two sentences telling us that Amis deplores ‘stylistic laziness’.

Experimental writing, by its nature, always needed an established cultural behemoth against which to pit itself and this obsession with reaction and reinvention has enabled modernists to obfuscate embarrassing inconveniences such as the essential quality of a prose passage. If the emphasis is upon the dynamic remaking of literary models then the notion of good or bad writing can be dismissed as contingent and relative. Pure modernism is among other things an escape route for the stylistically untalented or aesthetically apathetic. If you are concerned exclusively with eschewing conventional writing then the pure demonstration of radicalism sidelines any attendance upon questions of whether a sentence or paragraph is elegantly crafted.

Well, quite. I wanted to learn from this book and admire it. I wish I had, and am perplexed that a literary biographer of Bradford’s reputation should have produced something so awkward, rushed and opaque as this — a sign, I guess, of his having really struggled to get a proper handle on Amis. As it is, Martin Amis: The Biography is very far indeed from earning the definite article in its subtitle.