Martin Amis (AY-mihs) became a distinguished contributor to British letters immediately upon his 1971 graduation from Oxford, when he began reviewing books for the Observer. His prize-winning first novel, The Rachel Papers, appeared in 1973, the beginning of a prolific career rivaling that of his father, novelist Kingsley Amis. In contrast to those of his father, however, Amis’s novels are in a style often called postmodern. Heavily influenced by such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, Amis experimented with techniques including the unreliable narrator, direct address to the audience, and a self-consciously playful use of language. By the 1990’s Amis had become one of the premier living British writers, nominated for many prizes and discussed frequently in the literary press, often in a manner that crossed over into gossip. Public interest in Amis’s life, as well as his works, probably derived from some combination of curiosity about his father, admiration of his achievement as a writer, and envy of his intelligence and self-confidence.
Amis was born August 25, 1949, in Oxford, England, to Kingsley Amis and the former Hilary Bardwell. An older brother, Philip, was born in 1947 and a younger sister, Sally, in 1954. The family lived for a time in Wales and later in Princeton, New Jersey, for one year, an experience that gave Amis a feeling of connection with the United States. His parents separated in 1963, and his mother, Hilary, moved with the children to Majorca for four months. From that point on, Kingsley Amis lived with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard until their divorce in 1980. During this period Martin divided his allegiance between two households. His rapport with his father’s second wife, whom he called Jane, was warm. He credits her for taking charge of his schooling during a tumultuous adolescence. In 1981 Hilary, now married to Alastair Kilmarnock, returned with her husband to care for Kingsley in his declining years. Kingsley Amis died in 1995.
After three years at Exeter College, Oxford, Amis became a literary journalist and started work on his first novel, The Rachel Papers. During this time, his seven-year affiliation with the New Statesman had begun. There he worked alongside two men who became his close friends: James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens. The three of them were leading lights of literary London, establishing reputations that remained undiminished for the next several decades. After leaving the New Statesman in 1980, Amis continued to publish reviews and nonfiction in that periodical and many others in England and the United States. He was loosely associated with a group of fellow Oxford graduates including novelists Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, critic and biographer Ian Hamilton, and journalist Tina Brown. Most of these people remained friends and associates, despite the painful rift in Amis’s friendship with Barnes that occurred in 1994 when Amis severed his professional relationship with Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanaugh, who had been one of his literary agents.
In 1984, Amis married Antonia Phillips, with whom he had two sons, Jacob (born 1984) and Louis (1985). They were divorced in 1994, and Amis married Isabel Fonseca; they would have two daughters, Fernanda (1997) and Clio (1999). In 1995, Amis discovered that he also had an older daughter. Her name was Delilah Seale; her mother had died when she was two years old, and she had been raised in the belief that another man was her biological father. The reunion of father and daughter proved a happy one, discussed in Amis’s memoir Experience.
Experience provides fascinating but profoundly incomplete glimpses into Amis’s life. Certain episodes are recounted in great detail, including the stories of Delilah Seale and Julian Barnes, as well as an account of the prolonged and painful reconstruction of his teeth. Other situations, such as the events leading up to his divorce from Phillips and marriage to Fonseca, are not described in specific terms. Some of the most compelling sections of the book address his youth and adolescence, with a particular focus on the period of his father’s second marriage, when Martin was at school and writing frequently to his father and stepmother.
One section of the book has proved controversial: Amis chose to include a long account of the life and death of his cousin, Lucy Partington, who disappeared in 1973 but was discovered in 1994 to been murdered by a serial killer. Having overcome the objections of his aunt, Lucy’s mother, to his writing about the subject, Amis still had to face the criticisms of reviewers who felt he was exploiting a sensational subject. However, the death of a young girl, his relative and friend, had special poignancy for Amis at a point in his life when he felt his connection to his sons compromised by divorce and his life at the same time enriched by the discovery of his nearly adult daughter, Delilah. After the publication of Experience, Amis suffered another personal shock when his sister Sally died after a short illness in 2000. He memorializes her in a portion of his book about Stalinism, Koba the Dread.
As a novelist, Amis has worked with a focused intensity, producing ten novels between 1973 and 1997, as well as collections of short writings and literary criticism. His debut novel, The Rachel Papers, won the Somerset Maugham award for first novels; his father had won the same prize in 1954 for Lucky Jim. Several of Martin Amis’s subsequent novels have been nominated for, without receiving, important awards, including the Booker Prize for the best work of fiction published in a Commonwealth country in a given year. Amis’s fiction falls into the category of postmodernism, which is to say that his work revises or disregards the expectations of the genre of realistic fiction written by preceding generations, including his father, Kingsley. Postmodernism, as practiced by Amis, is characterized by a heightened consciousness of the precarious nature of existence, particularly burdened by the possibility of nuclear extinction. The events and consequences of World War II, especially the actions of the Nazi regime in Germany, add to the grim coloration in the world of Amis’s novels. Contributing to the dark tone are Amis’s obsession with the soul-ravaging effects of increased capitalism and consumerism and his painful portraits of misogynistic and sexually predatory men.
The dark subject matter of Amis’s fiction is made palatable by his frequently comic tone (the term “black comedy” applies) and by his often-discussed obsession with verbal style. One of his principal literary heroes is Vladimir Nabokov, and like the Russian-born author of Lolita (1955), Amis does not privilege subject matter over style. The verbal surface of the work is of paramount importance, however problematic and disturbing the subject matter might be.
In addition to Nabokov, certain other well-known writers have had an enduring effect on Amis’s life, though not necessarily as direct an influence on his fiction. One of these is the poet Philip Larkin, who was a very close friend of Kingsley Amis and a frequent guest in his home during Martin’s childhood, particularly when the family lived in Wales. Another is the American novelist Saul Bellow, whom Amis met in 1983 and to whom he formed a son-like attachment, extensively documented in Experience.