Book review - Martin Amis: The Biography

YOU can’t tell a book from its cover? This time you can.

This hopeless hagiography features a picture of Martin Amis in which careful cropping, plus the artful use of deep shadow and inky clothes, makes this notorious midget look not just a giant, practically an Arnie, but such a towering figure he cannot possibly be contained on the page. And that’s a pretty fair picture of the grovelling contents.

Richard Bradford, a professor of English in Ulster, has previously published lives of Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and Alan Sillitoe. He thanks Martin Amis for “co-operating helpfully”, giving him five lengthy interviews, but this is not fully an authorised biography and it appears that Amis at some point stopped co-operating. That’s not surprising. What’s surprising is that he ever started. The problem isn’t that Bradford is hostile. He’s not, he’s servile. The problem is that as a biographer he is so inept. His book is unreadably poor.

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His prose is larded with throat-clearings: “it is not entirely surprising that …”, “One cannot help but note …”, “it is not too absurd to contend …” He cannot spell: “seigniorial”, “Afro-Carribean”, “pray” for “prey”, “Perpignon” for “Perpignan”, etc.

He is sometimes bizarrely inaccurate. Introducing a quote from a letter by Saul Bellow about an awkward evening with Amis and Christopher Hitchens, he suddenly starts attributing the letter instead to “Heller”, presumably thinking, for whatever reason, of Joseph Heller: “It is worth quoting at length not least because of Heller’s shrewd and coolly detached reading of the events”, he tells us, as if he knew what he was talking about.

When he characterises his subjects, the results are embarrassing: fawning but not skilfully so. Of Amis: “Do not misunderstand me: he is not a colourless, dull man. Quite the contrary, he is excellent company, by parts sagacious, funny and bewildering. He is kind, affably short-tempered and as a family man incomparably caring.” He says of Amis’s wife Isabel Fonseca, “to call her glamorous and cosmopolitan surpasses understatement”, whatever that means.

He doesn’t have any substantive new facts to add to what will be known to every reader of Amis’s own memoir, Experience. He has no worthwhile judgment either, daftly telling us that “Martin and Mary [Furness] and later Angela [Gorgas] were the Becks and Posh of their day” and “Money is as important a literary landmark as Ulysses”.

The only worthwhile element in the book are quotes from Bradford’s interviews with other people. Some are surprisingly critical, even from Amis’s friends. For example, Will Self says loftily: “Martin has a tendency to project personal paranoia into abstract universals, an ugly miscegenation of instincts with a need for profundity … Really, it is the little guy in a big, nasty, frightening world looking for meaning and purpose.”

Another of Amis’s pals, Andy Hislop, knowingly observes that Amis felt ashamed of the lack of a “big idea” in his work until his children came along. “He seemed to feel having children meant that he was not only responsible for them but entrusted with the destiny of the rest of humanity.”

Martin Amis: The Biography, by Richard Bradford. Constable, 448pp, £20