The death of Martin Amis may not have come as a surprise but that does not take away from the shock. At 73, he could have been around for a decade or more. Perhaps. But it was the same malady that had claimed his dear friend Christopher Hitchens in 2011 that got Amis in the end—oesophageal cancer. Fate, if not time, hasn’t been kind to Amis and his friends—Hitchens died prematurely, Salman Rushdie had a near-death experience only too recently, which leaves only Ian McEwan.
Of this era-defining group of writers, three of them novelists who, along with the likes of James Fenton and Julian Barnes, came to define a decade and more from the 1980s onwards, Amis was the exception that proved the rule. As the son of Kinsley Amis, Amis Jr was born into the British literary aristocracy and, in the early days, questions were raised about his merit notwithstanding the demonstration of his talent in The Rachel Papers (1973), his debut novel that won the Somerset Maugham Award exactly as his father’s debut novel Lucky Jim (1954) had done in 1955. With Money (1984), the non-literary critics shut up. Arguably Amis’ best novel, ostensibly about an ad director bent on making his first feature film, came close to becoming the Great 1980s Novel, with its transatlantic setting. And Amis became bigger than his books, more than a mere literary celebrity. He was everywhere, the ubiquitous Mick Jagger of the written word or the literary world as he came to be called.
His literary reputation suffered after London Fields (1989), a work as important in his oeuvre as Money, and Amis would later move to the US, considering the UK a backwater while the action was elsewhere. Amis and England had a love-hate relationship that never kept itself out his work, exploding again in the rather quaint Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012). The themes of nuclear Armageddon and the Holocaust were twin obsessions too, and long before The Zone of Interest (2014), on which Jonathan Glazer’s Cannes-acclaimed film is loosely based, Amis had written Time’s Arrow (1991), a novel that uses reverse chronology to make a Holocaust doctor unborn and in the larger scheme of things, undoing the Holocaust and creating a new race out of Auschwitz.
The doppelgänger was the organising or structural theme also of Success (1978), in fact, it was the novel that introduced it as another Amis preoccupation. Stories within stories bounce off each other in two-way mirrors, and nobody, least of all the narrator or narrators, can be trusted. Anthony Thwaite had called the book “a moral homily from which all traces of morality have been removed”. That could stand in for the final judgment on Amis’ fiction.
If The Pregnant Widow (2010) began what could be called an Amis ‘late style’, as Rushdie had famously said of Philip Roth, then he left us with a treasure in his last and semi-autobiographical novel Inside Story (2020) where Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin return from the dead to be reimagined for the reader and then returned to the grave with the foreshadowing of Amis’ own death. He did say goodbye to the reader.
What is not done justice in obituaries of novelists is their critical output, and Amis was perhaps the best British critic of his generation on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Collections like The War Against Cliché (2001) or Visiting Mrs Nabokov (1993) ought to be essential reading as should his memoir Experience (2000) written to come to terms with the death of his father in 1995. For all his biting satire, the inventiveness of his prose, the wit and deliberate provocations, or the cynicism of his characters, Amis was a soft and sincere idealist. Because he was a product of a time when writers still thought words could engage with the world and there was no harm in having a little fun. Without Money or London Fields, could the other side of Thatcherism be preserved twenty years from now? And what would any of it be without the blackly comic? Here’s a warning from Amis himself (from a 1984 Observer piece called ‘No Laughing Matter’ collected in The War Against Cliché): “The trouble is that the challenge wins, every time, hands down. The humourless have no idea what is going on and can’t make sense of anything at all.”