Philip Hensher

The confrontational genius of Martin Amis

(Credit: Getty images)

Martin Amis had impeccable timing, as anyone who looks at his sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books ought to admit. He died 50 years exactly after the publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers, and the beginning of this wayward, unflinching, confrontational genius’s hold on us, and on fiction expressed in English prose.

Not many novelists, even the very greatest, have a career that lasts 50 years. Dickens’s lasted a little over 30; Henry James the same; Waugh not much more than that, and sometimes it’s very much shorter. Jane Austen’s was over in six years. A novelist who continues to claim our attention as long as Amis can reasonably expect to fall out of fashion, and this certainly happened to him. His last major novel, The Pregnant Widow, a beautiful, evocative, tender piece of work, was greeted with contemptuous reviews on its publication in 2010. The total lack of respect and critical consideration that had long emerged from some professional quarters seemed to have, at last, had the impact on his readership and popular opinion that his detractors had hoped for.

As I write, I have on my desk a proof copy of what pretends to be a history of the novel in English since 1970, by a reviewer for a Sunday newspaper. It finds space for the novels of Harry Sidebottom, Sarah Moss, Barry Unsworth, Edwina Currie, David Cook, CJ Sansom and many other unobjectionable triflers. It doesn’t, however, think it worth mentioning Martin Amis’s Money, the book that transfixed a generation of writers and readers, and one which, sentence by sentence, remains one of the most electrifying novels in English since Lolita. Amis’s reputation is at a low point, as Trollope’s, Wilkie Collins’s or Amis’s father Kingsley’s were at their death. I don’t think there’s much serious doubt that these superb books will return.

Money is a masterpiece

He said much later that vulgar curiosity would have persuaded any London editor to have accepted his first novel, The Rachel Papers.

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