I passed Martin Amis on the street in Brooklyn in 2011 or 2012, which was like seeing Caravaggio on line at Madison Square Garden: startling, wonderful, and totally out of context. I was not then aware that Amis had recently moved to New York, and my unexamined fantasy placed him in a pub in Camden Town, drinking a Tennent’s Lager with Ian McEwen. On Court Street, he was wearing a V-neck sweater and an old London Fog and, remarkably, he was not smoking. (His most famous fictional creation, John Self of Money: A Suicide Note , informed readers that unless he specifically stated otherwise, he should be assumed to be smoking.) I forgave Amis his tense and distracted air and his stooped posture. After all, he was carrying the whole of the English language on his back.
Amis died last week at 73 of esophageal cancer, ending his life, somewhat improbably for a celebrated bard of London and New York, in balmy Lake Worth, Florida, where he and his wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, owned a weekend home. Long before he took up residence in Brooklyn, Amis, who rejected British chattering-class anti-Americanism, took America as a frequent journalistic subject. Even before that, he had soldered a prose style that seemed especially attuned to livid American reality. “The thing I like about Americans,” he once told his audience at a packed bookstore reading, “is that you turn up for things. In London, if your long lost brother who also happened to be a celebrated writer was giving a talk, it wouldn’t occur to you even to pop your head ‘round the door.” Like Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, Amis was a late-period expat whose Englishness stood out even more against a foreign ground. His riotous comedy was the essential thing about his writing, and that comedy, of course, was English—satirical, joyously rude, delighting in its own not-niceness.
Unusually, Amis was the son of another famous novelist, Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim; The Old Devils). Amis admired his father, but it’s hard to locate his career precisely in relation to Kingsley’s. The father cultivated indifference to his son’s work, sometimes grading into hostility. In prose style, Kingsley was for Saxon plainness, Martin for Latinate extravagance. Future scholars may find more consonances between the two of them. They certainly shared a corrosive, domineering wit and a sense of writerly vocation.
Amis achieved early fame with The Rachel Papers (1974), but his London Trilogy of novels (Money (1984), London Fields (1989), and The Information (1995)) was Amis at his scabrous, irresponsible peak. In this period, he seemed to be hurling himself against the form of the novel like a man trying to batter down a door.
People? People are chaotic quiddities living in one cave each. They pass the hours in amorous grudge and playback and thought experiment. At the campfire they put the usual fraction on exhibit, and listen to their own silent gibber about how they’re feeling and how they’re going down . . . Death helps. Death gives us something to do. Because it’s a fulltime job looking the other way.
Beneath his furious prose, though, was always a reserve of tenderness. Here is the depressive novelist, Richard Tull, in The Information:
Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that. . . . Women—and they can be wives, lovers, gaunt muses, fat nurses, obsessions, devourers, exes, nemeses—will wake and turn to these men and ask, with female need-to-know, “What is it?” And the men will say, “Nothing. No it isn’t anything really. Just sad dreams.”
Amis’s memoir Experience (2000) began an autumnal phase, more personally reflective and, after 9/11, more seriously engaged with politics and history. His novel House of Meetings (2006) dramatized the moral economy of the Soviet gulag. Several of Amis’s subsequent novels were met with hostility. Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012), about a lout who wins the U.K. National Lottery, was a return to the declinist comedy of Money but lacked its antic conviction.
Amis will be well remembered for his critical work, especially the essays in his early collection on American subjects, The Moronic Inferno (1986). As a novelist-critic, he was motivated to create the conditions under which his own work would be best appreciated. He championed his “literary father,” Saul Bellow, partly to repay a debt and partly to establish a line of succession in which he was heir to the throne. Amis wrote generously about his late friend, Christopher Hitchens (“a rare friendship”), but it was Hitchens who learned from Amis’s example, evolving from a bludgeoning polemicist into an elegant essayist-reviewer in his own right. In a later collection, The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 (2001), Amis recited his critical creed: “When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.”
Amis satirized American hedonism, but he was all in favor of genuine pleasure, both on the page and off, as a dedicated drinker, smoker, and tennis and snooker player. He thought pleasure was the sine qua non of good writing. “I’m very committed to the pleasure principle,” he said. “You read literature to have a good time. Or why else would people go on doing it?” He almost always gave good value in this way. He made the world and its inhabitants seem just as absurd as you feared but also more tolerable. The thing was to maintain the correct mock-despairing, irrepressible attitude, to be a gourmand at the buffet of life. For Amis, the deeply funny and the deeply serious were conjoined twins; the more you laughed, the more reality you could tolerate.
I feel envious of readers for whom the pleasures of Money and Night Train and House of Meetings still await. When I first read the headline, “Novelist Martin Amis Dead At 73,” the rejoinder that came to mind was, “That’s what you think.”
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