Martin Amis R. I. P. (1949-2023)

Novelist and critic Martin Amis has died at the age of 73. Dwight Garner, a book critic of the New York Times, opens that paper’s obituary with this:

Martin Amis, whose caustic, erudite and bleakly comic novels redefined British fiction in the 1980s and ’90s with their sharp appraisal of tabloid culture and consumer excess, and whose private life made him tabloid fodder himself, died on Friday at his home in Lake Worth, Fla. He was 73.

His wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, said the cause was esophageal cancer — the same disease that killed his close friend and fellow writer Christopher Hitchens in 2011.

Mr. Amis published 15 novels, a well-regarded memoir (“Experience,” in 2000), works of nonfiction, and collections of essays and short stories. In his later work he investigated Stalin’s atrocities, the war on terror and the legacy of the Holocaust.

He is best known for his so-called London trilogy of novels — “Money: A Suicide Note” (1985), “London Fields” (1990) and “The Information” (1995) — which remain, along with his memoir, his most representative and admired work.

The tone of these novels was bright, bristling and profane. “What I’ve tried to do is to create a high style to describe low things: the whole world of fast food, sex shows, nude mags,” Mr. Amis told The New York Times Book Review in a 1985 interview. “I’m often accused of concentrating on the pungent, rebarbative side of life in my books, but I feel I’m rather sentimental about it. Anyone who reads the tabloid papers will rub up against much greater horrors than I describe.”

Mr. Amis’s literary heroes — he called them his “Twin Peaks” — were Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, and critics located in his work both Nabokov’s gift for wordplay and gamesmanship and Bellow’s exuberance and brio…

He moved to the US in 2011 settling in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn with his wife and children:

In America, he was happy to escape what he called “the cruising hostility” of the English press. He became an almost avuncular figure in Brooklyn, regularly seen walking his daughters to school. No longer the upstart, Mr. Amis himself inspired a younger generation of writers, including Zadie Smith and Will Self…

The obituary concludes:

…Mortality was long a theme in Mr. Amis’s work. In “The Information,” he wrote: “Every morning we leave more in the bed: certainty, vigor, past loves. And hair, and skin: dead cells. This ancient detritus was nonetheless one move ahead of you, making its humorless own arrangements to rejoin the cosmos.

He might have been speaking of himself in that novel when he wrote of one of its dueling writers: “He didn’t want to please his readers. He wanted to stretch them until they twanged.”

This comment was also posted by the NYTimes following the obituary. It was submitted by Susan Fitzwater:

It must be dreadful, being the son of a celebrated father. A man who writes books. When you dream of writing them yourself. My acquaintance with the Amis’s is confined to–“Lucky Jim.” Which came out–when? Early ’50’s, I think–around seventy years ago. (The notorious Senator McCarthy is alluded to briefly. He bothered the Brits as much as he bothered us.) Compare that book with those of Evelyn Waugh. A man no less sensitive to the buffooneries of British life! the louts–the lovers–the ne’er-do-wells! The difference is– –Waugh looks down upon all this from an aristocratic standpoint. A bit cold, detached– –and we’re a million miles from the world of “Lucky Jim.” An excruciatingly funny book! And I gather this comic genius– –was passed on to his son. In spades.

Another obituary posted at London-based news website Unherd.com was written by Rob Lownie and opens with this:

“If the voice doesn’t work, Martin Amis told the Paris Review in 1998, “you’re screwed.” It’s just as well for the novelist, who has died at the age of 73, that his literary voice did work, so much so that plot, characterisation and moral instruction were all subsumed by the irony and wordplay which guided the reader through his novels.

The obituaries so far have focused on his status as the flagbearer of a dying breed of literary personalities. He was an enfant terrible; he was a literary rock star; he was the book world’s answer to Mick Jagger. And so on. Yet the disproportionate fascination with Amis’s love life and famous friendships obscures his satirical gift: he was the Evelyn Waugh of his own consumerist age, and his brand of literary cynicism is at risk of dying with him.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quoted in several papers, including the Guardian and The Herald (Glasgow), as having posted this message on his Twitter account

Shocked and sad at the death of Martin Amis – the greatest, darkest, funniest satirist since Evelyn Waugh. If you want cheering up, re-read the tennis match in Money. RIP.

So far as I am aware, Martin Amis never wrote a major piece of criticism or biographical essay devoted to Waugh or his works. In 1981 he wrote a review of a “busty new paperback of Brideshead Revisited.” This would have been a Penguin reissue in connection with the Granada TV series based on that book that was released about then. Amis is not impressed with the book but then, as he notes, ultimately neither was Waugh who initially deemed it his magnum opus then disowned it when he saw how popular it was in America. Martin makes some interesting points on Waugh’s attitude toward middle-class characters such as Rex Mottram and Hooper as well as the unconvincing position of Julia in the final segments. He also sees inconsistencies in the characters of Sebastian and Lord Marchmain. The review concluded

…Waugh wrote Brideshead with great speed, unfamiliar excitement, and a deep conviction of its excellence. Lasting schlock, the really good bad book, cannot be written otherwise. ‘The languor of Youth…How quickly, how irrevocably lost!’ The novel had its origins in this regret, the more keenly and confusedly felt by someone ‘beginning to be old.’ But then all this somehow had to be turned into art, that is where the real trouble started.

The article entitled “The Art of Snobbery” appeared in the Observer (25 October 1981) and was included in Amis’s 2001 collection entitled The War Against Cliché.

UPDATE (22 May 2023): The complete quote of Boris Johnson’s statement was posted and other corrections were made .

 

 

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