Richard Bradford had just begun researching the life and work of Martin Amis when he experienced something “eerie” and “faintly bizarre”. It was 2006 or 2007, he says, on the phone from his office at the University of Ulster. For a conference on literary biography, he’d invited a recent subject, novelist Alan Sillitoe, and also arranged an interview with his new still-secret subject, Amis.
On stage, Amis “very pointedly” said it was highly likely any literary biographer would eventually grow to “loathe the subject”. It was as though, Bradford reflects, “this exchange was taking place between the two of us, even though there were 40 or 50 people in the room. It was quite disturbing.” Bradford didn’t quiz Amis on this point afterwards, or consider dumping the project. He’d started writing biographies, he says, to escape the drudgery of “largely pointless and impenetrable” academic books, and couldn’t abandon work on such a high-profile subject.
Amis had agreed to sit for a series of interviews. Bradford’s publisher, “in consultation” with Amis and his New York agent, Andrew Wylie, had agreed to have the final manuscript “scrutinised” and Bradford “agreed to do whatever was asked”. But despite all this, the result isn’t “The Authorised Biography”. Why?
During the process of writing, “we grew apart somewhat. There was nothing cataclysmic. But he came to dislike the idea more than he’d anticipated.” And as they spent more time in each other’s company, “we began to realise we didn’t have very much in common”. By the time the biography was published, “it was a book I didn’t want to write, either”.
The genesis of the biography lies, suitably enough, in a misunderstanding. In 2001, after a joint appearance talking about Lucky Him, Bradford’s biography of Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis asked Bradford what he planned to work on next. “I didn’t know,” says Bradford. “So I said, ‘What about you?’ Meaning what are you going to do next?” But Amis misunderstood, thinking Bradford was making an offer to write his biography.
“I thought, ‘Well, he is a bit young, but it’s not entirely impossible,’” remembers Bradford. Amis then was in his early 50s – indeed, a surprisingly young age to agree to a biography. “It is curious,” says Bradford. “I can’t think of another literary writer who has a biography written when he’s not in his 80s or dead.”
The only point of comparison Bradford could imagine was the celebrity biography, written to capitalise on the celebrity’s current, and possibly fleeting, fame. And like a celebrity biography, this project ended up directed, possibly too closely, by its star subject.
Amis is, after all, one of the few “notable writer-celebrities”, Bradford contends, drawing newspaper headlines since the 1970s because of his “Lothario” persona, various inflated advances and stipends, literary spats (most famously with Julian Barnes), political spats (most famously with Terry Eagleton) and jet-setting lifestyle. His life, Bradford suggests, has been “rather like a novel in its own right”, even though it’s a particularly “charmed” life – for example, he won a place at Oxford despite a disastrous series of failures at school; and essentially snagged his first publisher after a dinner at his father’s house.
Work on the biography didn’t begin until 2006, when Amis returned to London after a temporary move to Uruguay with his second wife, Isabel Fonseca, and their two daughters. As well as giving five long interviews, he agreed to permit his friends to speak to Bradford. But his immediate family (including his mother, brother, ex-wife and sons) were off-limits. One Amis, apparently, would speak for all.
“That does seem slightly contradictory,” Bradford admits. “Taking a sympathetic view, he didn’t want his immediate family bothered by someone they didn’t know. I think he felt anxious about what I might ask.” And, implicitly, what they might say. Confined to Amis’s often enigmatic testimony, grasping for correspondence – the “gold dust” of biography, says Bradford – that was scanty at best, refused access to close family and turned down by some of Amis’s writer friends “protecting material for their own use later”, Bradford soon realised he had little original source material.
Luckily, as the biography reveals, he had two useful resources. The first is the ongoing commitment of Amis and his friends to building the Myth of Martin. Martin as a child joy-riding on the roof of a car driven by his beyond-eccentric mother; Martin as a louche young man in velvet trousers, unable to perform any domestic duty beyond boiling the kettle; Martin the rebel dropping out of school and then triumphing at Oxford; Martin the insider slumming it in a “drab” little place in Belgravia or sponging for a summer in a Tuscan castle; Martin the lover seducing glamorous Tina Brown and brainy Claire Tomalin; Martin the literary prodigy permitted to take two fully paid months off from his job at the Times Literary Supplement to live in Spain and work on his second novel. Even his dilettante soccer-playing is touched with greatness – and cool. “He preferred the ball delivered to him,” recalls one friend, “so he could make a brief, brilliantly nuanced pass … with a roll-up hanging from his mouth.”
Bradford’s second deadly weapon is the late Christopher Hitchens, who provided six hours of “pretty candid” interviews that supply the narrative with a much-needed lively stream of anecdote and opinion. It’s a necessary antidote to Amis’s own guarded testimony. (Unlike his brother and sister, he had a happy childhood; whatever his stepmother Elizabeth Jane Howard alleged, his father was not an alcoholic; his first marriage and its breakdown don’t merit reflection.) I complain that the first-marriage section of the book is frustratingly vague. “It might not have been if I’d made use of the late Mr Hitchens’s tapes!” Bradford declares. “But I would have run into difficulties later. To put it bluntly, with books like this, a publisher has to get a libel lawyer.”
The libel lawyer wasn’t Bradford’s only adversary. That tricky agreement with Amis and his agent led to “a scissor-and-paste job”. This was largely “factual correction”, Bradford says, rather than “a wholesale act of censorship”, although there were also “things connected with opinions, intuition, interpretation”.
But this alone does not explain a certain breathless, dashed-off quality to much of the biography. Interviewees are quoted at length with little introduction. The nuances of the Oxbridge and London literary worlds, with all their clubby hangouts and lingo, are assumed to be common knowledge. There’s a little too much hyperbole – to call Fonseca “glamorous and cosmopolitan surpasses understatement” – and not enough time spent on establishing context and character for the biography’s bustling cast.
Bradford says he has no regrets about referring to Amis as “Martin” throughout the book, although it might make them “seem like close friends, which we never were”. He wanted no confusion between Kingsley and Martin, and balked at referring to a near-contemporary in a way that might make the book read “like a medical report or case for the prosecution”.
In fact, the book more often reads like a case for the defence. For all the personal difficulties of writing the biography, Bradford is still an ardent fan. The final chapter – “Significance: Is He a Great Writer?” – calls Amis “the most important British novelist of his generation … [who] has changed the direction and culture of British fiction”, and proceeds to dismiss Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie.
“He’s created a sort of hybrid of the orthodox postwar realist novel,” Bradford says, “and the more avant-garde successor to modernism. I don’t think he’d been given true recognition for what he’s done. He’s had an enormous influence.”
I have to dispute the influence claim, in part because Amis novels have not been must-read items since the 1990s, and because for many women writers he’s never been high on the list of literary role models. “He is an unapologetically sexist writer,” Bradford concedes. “But influence is like politics. I’m not saying that Margaret Thatcher had an influence on every politician thereafter, but she changed the atmosphere or culture in a discernible way. What Amis began in the 70s has had an incremental effect on literary culture.”
In the book, Bradford divides Amis’s readers into two camps – fans and begrudgers – and suggests his detractors are “motivated by a blend of prudishness and envy”. But surely with any author you may rate some books and not others, or like none at all, depending on your personal taste. Isn’t Amis himself the polarising figure, rather than his work?
“Perhaps,” Bradford admits. In the biography, he cites an interview Amis gave in 2010 to the Sunday Times, in which he complained about the spectre of “a population of demented old people” and advocated euthanasia. The reaction: public outrage. “It’s almost as though he’s licensed himself to say these outrageous and absurd things,” says Bradford. (In one of the book’s interviews, Amis declares: “Divorce is as bad as dying.”) “The press is waiting for it, and the books slide into the background.”
Bradford’s next biography is on veteran Irish novelist Jennifer Johnston, reassuringly elderly – she met WB Yeats when she was a child – and hopefully less likely to sue. His final verdict on the Amis project? “I’m glad it’s over.”
MARTIN AMIS: THE BIOGRAPHY, by Richard Bradford (Constable & Robinson, $39.99).