Martin Amis, author of his own anguish

As prize writer he never shies away from a scrap, but this prodigious talent denies he is controversial on purpose.
Kagan Mcleod for The National
Kagan Mcleod for The National

No other living British writer is subject to the intense scrutiny - whether envious, hostile or admiring - that falls on Martin Amis. Since the success of his debut novel at 24, the son of Kingsley Amis has been stalked by controversy and victim to all manner of barbed observations. He recently complained in the British newspaper The Guardian about the way he is portrayed in the press - as a curmudgeonly controversialist, ever more closely resembling his splenetic late father. "Getting taken up (and recklessly distorted) in the newspapers is not something I do," he declared. "It's something the newspapers do." Unfortunately, the effect of this piece - to the glee of the very newspapers he was rebuking - was to detonate another public spat. Anna Ford, a respected British newsreader, who has known Amis for three decades, published an open letter suggesting that "narcissism and [an] inability to empathise may be at the root of your anger with the press and your need to court attention". She accused him of callous and inconsiderate behaviour at the deathbed of her late husband, Amis's friend Mark Boxer; and of failing even "to cough up the statutory five bob" she regarded as his minimal duty as godparent to her daughter Claire. Amis wrote back conceding the second charge with some grace, but angrily rebutting the first as an "unworthy farrago". It kicked off a letters page tit-for-tat - with Amis's friends, old colleagues and former pupils joining the fray. The spat with Ford is only the latest - albeit among the ugliest, because so personal - of Amis's public skirmishes with friends and peers. The writer, who appears at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month in Dubai. has a back catalogue of feuds and fallings-out is threatening to eclipse his back catalogue of novels and short stories. It is hard not to wonder how he manages it - if he manages it. Amis dismisses with contempt the charge that he is controversial on purpose. That, he says, is a symptom of the way "the writer, or this writer, gets blamed for all the slanders he incites in the press". It would be no more than fair to draw a distinction between attacks by Martin Amis, and attacks on him. There has been no shortage of either - J M Coetzee, the author and Nobel laureate, will have been dismayed to read the recent interview in which Amis says "he's got no talent" - but if you were to compile a list of the zingers from Amis's various "feuds", most would be quotes about Amis rather than quotes from him. He has called among other things a racist and a misogynist: Chris Morris, the alternative comedy writer described him as "culturally dim"; Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times critic, said he was a "spoiled upper-middle-class littérateur"; and Terry Eagleton, the literary theorist, said his writings on Islam resembled "the ramblings of a BNP thug". The continuing public fascination with Amis's person means that, as his old friend the journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens says, "apparently where Martin is concerned it is now felt that anything goes". Why is that? Being the son of Kingsley Amis, there is his status as "the only hereditary novelist in the Anglophone canon" - and one, therefore, more than usually engaged in a public struggle with what Harold Bloom, the American literary critic, calls "the anxiety of influence". There is that extraordinarily showy prose; what his father called "breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself". There is, too, his prodigiously early success - he was 24 when his first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published, winning the Somerset Maugham Award. There's his position at the centre of a high-profile coterie centred around his literary editorship of The New Statesman in the late 1970s - Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes, Craig Raine, James Fenton and co. Then there's the money, which was involved in his celebrated dispute with Julian Barnes. For years, Amis's literary agent had been Barnes's wife, Pat Kavanagh, and the two men had played snooker together regularly. Amis abruptly sacked Kavanagh in favour of Andrew Wylie, an American agent nicknamed "The Jackal". Wylie delivered - securing Amis a reported £500,000 advance, a sizeable proportion of which was spent on getting his teeth fixed. It kicked off a wave of hostility towards Amis, however, and cost him his friendship with Barnes. According to Amis's 2000 memoir Experience, Barnes's last letter to him ended with a two-word salutation, the second word of which was "off". His relationships with women, both in and out of print, have also been a point of contention. Old girlfriends such as Tina Brown, Emma Soames and Tamasin Day-Lewis have been the subject of gossip - particularly in light of the avowedly autobiographical character of The Pregnant Widow. Amis has said repeatedly that as old age approaches - he is now 60 - "how it went with the women" is what matters to you. Much of the public controversy that has attached to Amis is entwined with the evolution of his writing career. Amis regards Saul Bellow as a literary father-figure, but in terms of his profile as a public intellectual, he more obviously resembles Norman Mailer: aggressive, increasingly political, and with a somewhat Maileresque blurring between his journalism and fiction. In his first novels Amis seemed concerned simply to entertain - The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies were scabrous comic performances. In his mid-career and later work - from Money onwards, perhaps - he seemed to be doing something more: he wanted to inform. He became a writer concerned to tell you important things about the world - a writer in search of a zeitgeist; or, preferably, an apocalypse. The most painful criticism Tibor Fischer made in his much-quoted 2003 article attacking Yellow Dog as "not-knowing-where-to-look bad" was this: "One of Amis's weaknesses is that he isn't content to be a good writer, he wants to be profound; the drawback to profundity is that it's like being funny, either you are or you aren't, straining doesn't help." Amis acquired a manifest urge to attach his prose to the biggest subjects. First it was nuclear annihilation in Einstein's Monsters. Then it was cosmology - London Fields being preoccupied with entropy, black holes and the heat death of the universe. Then it was the Holocaust in Time's Arrow. Then Stalin's purges in Koba the Dread and House of Meetings. Then Islamism in The Second Plane. In his latest book, The Pregnant Widow, he addresses himself to the issue of women and relationships. And it is not too much of a stretch to see the urge as extending to attach Amis himself to the biggest subjects. Notoriously, in Koba the Dread, he made a gauche - or at best awkwardly comic - comparison between the crying of his baby daughter and the screams of Stalin's torture victims. He was criticised, too, for the way he wrote about his cousin Lucy Partington's murder by the serial killer Fred West. "In the tragedy of Lucy Partington's death and Amis's clumsy attempt to co-opt it as part of a Writer's Own Story, we see the great flaw that runs through all of his work," Julie Burchill wrote in her review. Here is a big ego, taking on big subjects, in big prose. And it has been his positions on these big subjects that have brought the fights. His response to September 11 proved the most inflammatory of all. His article on the collapse of the Twin Towers was criticised for a flashiness that seemed to use the catastrophe as the occasion for an exercise in style. Later, his "them and us" remarks about Islam - in an interview he talked of "a definite urge ... to say that the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order" - were subject to fierce criticism. The writer Ronan Bennett wrote that his was "as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time". Amis doesn't laugh this stuff off. When Bennett approached him at the 2009 Hay Festival in Cartagena, making an overture of reconciliation, Amis blanked him. Among the most memorable recent images of Martin Amis was conjured in an open letter to him from the 82-year-old actor Trader Faulkner - who played alongside Amis when he was a child actor in the 1964 film A High Wind In Jamaica. The director, Faulkner recalled, had asked him to devise a flamenco dance involving the children and the film's star, Anthony Quinn. "Quinn and the kids all joined in but you stood apart with a mug of tea and absolutely refused to be any part of it," he wrote. "I still have a snap of you defiantly holding that mug of tea." As the child, so the man. In photographs, in person and in print, Martin Amis remains our archetype of the literary refusenik: scowling, sullen, digging in his heels. * The National

Published: February 27, 2010 04:00 AM


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