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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lisa Allardice

‘Damn, that fool can write’: how Martin Amis made everyone up their game

‘Poised somewhere between provocation and seduction’ … Martin Amis.
‘Poised somewhere between provocation and seduction’ … Martin Amis. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

‘You’ll be reading me every now and then at least until about 2080, weather permitting. And when you go, maybe my afterlife, too, will come to an end, my afterlife of words.” So wrote Martin Amis in his heavily autobiographical final novel Inside Story in 2020. With a body of work spanning 50 years, he leaves 15 novels, two short-story collections, one memoir and seven book-length works of journalism and history. Did posterity matter to him? Hell, yes. “There is only one value judgment in literature: time,” he insisted.

Back in 2009, I called Amis – as editors all over the world would have been calling or emailing leading writers on Saturday night – to ask if he might write a tribute to the American novelist John Updike, who had just died. Time was tight and we were aiming high, but as with every major (and not so major) event at that time, Amis was the writer everyone was after. And on Updike, the last postwar American literary giant? It had to be him. Happily, he felt a duty to contribute to what Gore Vidal called “book chat”.

“Call me back in 10 minutes,” he said in his unmistakable transatlantic drawl (he hadn’t yet made America his permanent home). Had he said he would do it? Would he file in time for tomorrow’s front page? I wasn’t sure, but duly called him back 10 minutes later, hiding in a cupboard in the bowels of the Guardian, where we went to make private calls.

“Ready?” he said. And – I may have imagined this bit – lighting a cigarette, he proceeded to dictate a whole piece, replete with semi-colons, quotation and his hallmark neologisms (not for Amis the correspondent’s punctuation-less cablese). He spoke and I typed. “There aren’t supposed to be extremes of uniqueness – either you are or you’re not – but he was exceptionally sui generis,” he drawled.

A daring take on the Holocaust … Martin Amis at the Booker ceremony in 1991, holding a copy of Time’s Arrow – the only one of his books nominated for that award.
A daring take on the Holocaust … Martin Amis at the Booker ceremony in 1991, holding a copy of Time’s Arrow – the only one of his books nominated for that award. Photograph: Rebecca Naden/PA

We repeated the exercise barely three months later when another of his great heroes and friends, JG Ballard, died. This time we made it to over 1,000 words. “Very few Ballardians (who are almost all male) were foolish enough to emulate him. He was sui generis,” Amis enunciated with verbal italics. “What was influential, though, was the marvellous creaminess of his prose, and the weird and sudden expansions of his imagery,” he continued. “Marvellous creaminess”, “weird and sudden expansions” – how did he do that?

OK, so he had written at length about both Updike and Ballard before. And he was routinely invoked as a successor to both. But still. Of all the writers I’d worked with during many years as a literary editor, Amis was the only one I knew who could pull that off. The sheer smarts and chutzpah of composing a piece off the cuff, without even going to the bother of turning on the computer, was quintessential Amis.

He will for ever be remembered as part of the “Class of 83”, the inaugural Granta Best of Young British novelists list that also included Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. “He has had a baleful influence on a whole generation,” bemoaned AS Byatt of Amis in 1993, as one of the Granta judges tasked with finding successors a decade later. Not because he was a bad writer but because so many had been foolish enough to try to emulate him (to echo Amis on Ballard).

If, as is often said, this generation of writers were the closest the books world gets to having rock stars, then Amis was Mick Jagger. Those 70s photographs (The Rachel Papers years) of him pouting extravagantly at the camera, cigarette dangling – you can almost smell the smoke and ambition – announced a changing of the guard. His pose, like his prose, poised somewhere between provocation and seduction. Where the literary world had been grey and tweedy, presided over by ageing grandees (Amis Sr, William Golding, Anthony Burgess, Iris Murdoch), now it was young and outrageously brash, and Amis was the frontman.

Amis and Salman Rushdie in 1995.
Old devils … Amis and Salman Rushdie in 1995. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

At an event in 2020 with Salman Rushdie, Rushdie asked him if, back in those heady days, he felt part of a gang. “That’s the way ‘movements’ start,” Amis replied. “Ambitious young drunks, late at night, saying, ‘We’re not going to do that any more. We’re going to do this instead.’” And with this “gang” – which also included his great friend, the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, and Ian McEwan – the young drunks went on to became “the old devils”, to borrow a Kingsley Amis title, that pretty much comprised the literary establishment for years.

“There was a feeling,” he said of this time, “that there were places to go that the English novel didn’t go, and was being too fastidious about.” And he spent the next few decades making sure he was the first to go there. Who but Amis could have had such a firm grasp on the collar of what John Self, the narrator of Money, called “the panting present” to have written a novel of that title at the beginning of the 80s, that decade of Thatcherite greed? And then envisage ecological collapse in London Fields at the end of it? Which writer would have dared to take on the Holocaust (Time’s Arrow in 1991, and The Zone of Interest in 2014) and Stalin’s Great Terror (Koba the Dread in 2002), with, as Tim Adams put it in the Observer, “his full ironist’s swagger”? Or to have imagined the last 24 hours of 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta in The Second Plane in 2008?

In his crusade for fine writing and his declaration of war on cliche, Amis made everyone up their game. Over the years, critics have fallen over themselves trying to outsmart Mart: lobbing hyperbole and volleying adverbs (Amis was a huge tennis fan). “So just how good is Martin Amis?” “Why do we love to hate Amis?” they would come out, strutting, pistols cocked. But Amis was already in the bar.

For a time, he seemed happy to fill the role of novelist as public intellectual. He riffed elegantly on everything from the porn industry to the Royal family. “He is always putting it up to you somehow, making the reader feel brilliant too. Or a bit stupid,” wrote Anne Enright of his collection of criticism The Rub of Time in 2017. “This is the best fun going when everyone is drunk, as they seemed to be in the 1980s, and literary London was like one long dinner party in which everyone knew where you went to school.”

‘Anyone who’s any good is going to be funny’ … Amis at home in 1981.
‘Anyone who’s any good is going to be funny’ … Amis at home in 1981. Photograph: Martin Lawrence/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

Inevitably, the poster-boy turned into a target, and at one point Amis the dazzling young stylist looked in danger of being overshadowed by Amis the grumpy old controversialist, with ill-judged comments on Islamism and euthanasia. But after what he called an “eisteddfod of hostility” from the British press and his move to New York, he largely reserved his opinions for his writing.

He was planning a collection of short stories on the subject of slavery in the US – “boy will I cop it,” he said in a recent Guardian interview – as well as returning to the Third Reich for a third time with a “modest novella”. And yet, despite many years as Britain’s foremost literary celebrity and contrarian, Amis somehow managed never to win the Booker (he was only shortlisted for Time’s Arrow) nor to be cancelled.

Of his instinct to shock, he observed: “Every novel worth reading is funny and serious. Anyone who’s any good is going to be funny. It’s the nature of life. Life is funny.” And it is clear from the irrepressible punchiness of his prose that he had a blast writing. “It seems to me a hilariously enjoyable way of spending one’s time,” he said. And so, at his daring comic best, he was great fun to read.

The insolence, the silliness, the seriousness, the grotesqueness, the erudition and audacity were all swept up in those inimitable sentences and corralled into order by his cleverness with form. As Enright summed up in her review: “Damn, that fool can write.” And, like an imposing building slightly worn with time, Amis changed the landscape of literature so dramatically that it is hard to remember what it looked like before. And for all the macho-ness of his writing, his influence can be seen in writers of the generation that followed, for instance his friend Zadie Smith.

“He was a talismanic figure for my generation of novelists, and an inspiration to me personally,” says another friend, Kazuo Ishiguro. “He was famous, notorious even, for his biting satire and swaggering prose, but there was always a surprising tenderness not far beneath that surface. His characters were always yearning for love and connection. I believe ultimately his work will age well, growing over the years.” We will be reading him for decades, weather permitting.

But to go back to 2009 and Amis’s closing words on Updike: “His style was one of compulsive and unstoppable vividness and musicality. Several times a day you turn to him, as you will now to his ghost, and say to yourself, ‘How would Updike have done it?’ This is a very cold day for literature.”

And so it is today. Younger writers will ask: “How would Amis have done it?” He was exceptionally sui generis.

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