Sam Leith Sam Leith

Not a decent book

Sam Leith on a joint critical study of Kingsley and Martin Amis

What is the point of this book? This isn’t a rhetorical question — and it isn’t meant to be a sneer. It’s one that needs answering. We have an extremely full biography of Kingsley Amis. We have an accomplished memoir by Martin Amis. Do we need either a joint critical study of these two unalike writers, or another biography?

Neil Powell sets out his stall rather winningly. He concedes that it’s not quite a biography and not quite an academic work. He apologises for the sketchier biographical information about Martin, saying: ‘I believe it’s impertinent for the biographer or critic to poke his nose into those aspects of a living author’s privacy where his nose is least welcome.’ He says he hopes that ‘this is a decently interesting book about Kingsley and Martin Amis’.

The thing is, this is only very glancingly a book about the relationship between father and son, either as writers or as human beings. The peculiar way Powell has chosen to arrange his manuscript — his first two thirds take Kingsley from cradle to grave; the final third takes Martin from cradle to 1995, when his father died — more or less precludes it being so.

Martin is almost entirely absent from the Kingsley section; and things that might belong there — his first wife’s suicide attempt, for example — are hoarded for the second part. There are awkward foreshadowings and repetitions, and other facts — Martin’s sister’s alcoholism, for instance — are alluded to in the apparent assumption that readers already know all about them from other books.

Powell quotes, as if to endorse it, Martin Amis’s sarcastic line that choosing his profession was ‘like taking over the family pub’. Yet for his book to cohere, he requires that to be true. And, unfortunately, there’s not that much they have in common as writers.

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