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Why I (still) love Martin Amis

12th May 2011 - Rachel Darling

Image of Martin Amis from the Random House websiteMartin Amis. The man is famous for far more than his novels. For starters he's the son of the successful novelist Kingsley Amis, something that has dogged him throughout his life and career. Then there was his reputation in the 1970s, as the 'Mick Jagger of literature', owing to his string of girlfriends (and perhaps one or two interesting haircuts). His literary sparring partners (or perhaps more accurately punch-bags), have included Julian Barnes, Terry Eagleton, Salman Rushdie (now resolved) and Katie Price.

Words that come up all too often with those hostile to Amis are 'rude', 'sexist' and 'snob'; even 'racist'. His controversial remarks rack up many more column inches than reviews of his novels. And let's not forget his teeth, apparently the worst teeth in contemporary British literature that he reputedly spent over £12,000 on having 'done'.

An impending move to the US and a novel-in-progress entitled State of England alongside recent comments on the state of Britain and it's 'moral decrepitude', have, inevitably, caused a backlash, but really one feels that no matter what he says nowadays he will come under fire.

Take these two recent articles:

Martin Amis bemoans England's 'moral decrepitude - The Guardian

Get out your hankies, everyone! Martin Amis is leaving England for good - Daily Telegraph

What these articles, and, perhaps more significantly the comments sections of them, show he is effectively vilified for his every utterance. A few months ago there came the comment that he would only consider writing a children's book if he were suffering from brain damage. True, his phrasing here was clumsily offensive, but his meaning - that he himself couldn't write a children's book because he didn't feel able to write 'down' to children - is, after all, just an expression of his opinion. Why did it upset people so much?

It seems fairly obvious that, by this stage in his career, he courts this kind of controversy on purpose, playing on public reaction which always seems to take him too seriously - something of which he himself is often accused. It's partly for this reason that I can't help but remain a devotee: because of, and not in spite of, the apparently terrible things he says, which, if said by someone like Charlie Brooker would probably be rapturously praised. Public and critical reaction to him has become laughable: he knows this and exploits it.

People are all too quick to denounce him as someone with a privileged upbringing, who only became a success because his father was a famous writer, but even a quick glimpse at the plots of his novels displays his flair and ingenuity as a writer.

Amongst his best works, in no particular order:

Time's Arrow (1991), a story about a Holocaust doctor, is told backwards, and, after reading it I struggled to readjust to 'real', linear time. It is an amazing, unsettling accomplishment. It remains his only book to have appeared on the Booker Prize shortlist.

The Rachel Papers (1973) is his first novel, the plot is fairly typically for a first novel from an upper-middle class Oxford graduate - a precocious young man, Charles Highway, charts his relationship with Rachel - but it surprised the critics by actually being brilliantly written, the prose crackles vibrantly. It won the Somerset Maugham Prize and Amis was only 24 when he wrote it.

Jacket Image of London FieldsLondon Fields (1989) is a murder mystery novel, where the victim, 'murderee' Nicola Six, already knows how she is going to die, she even knows the motive, she just doesn't know who will do it.

The War Against Cliché (2001) is his most successful non-fiction for me (apart from his autobiography, Experience), collected essays between 1971 and 2000. He's at his fiercest and funniest.

Money (1984), the undoubted star of Amis's oeuvre (and the book that I recommend to customers more than any other title, and the answer I give when asked that most dreaded of questions, 'What's your favourite book?'), is a heady lurch through London and New York; the character 'Martin Amis' appears to protagonist John Self (they later watch the 1981 Royal Wedding together), an incident that reportedly led Kingsley to throw his copy out of the window. It's also a splendid evocation of '80s culture, or lack of it.

The media-storm that often surrounds him makes light of the fact that he is undoubtedly one of the most talented living British writers. His influences - Nabokov, Joyce, Saul Bellow (whom he refers to as his literary father) as well as his own father Kingsley - are apparent in his prose, which is totally distinctive. The Guardian once wrote that 'the Amis-ness of Amis will be recognisable in any piece before he reaches his first full stop'.

An Amis trademark are his character names which are humorous, punchy and representative, names like Keith Talent, John Self, Fielding Goodney, Spunk Davis, Nicola Six, Guy Clinch, Lionel Asbo, Charles Highway, Selina Street, Terry Service and Clint Smoker. He also invents terms and brand-names: his flat is his 'sock', a 'rug-rethink' is a haircut, there's a car named 'fiasco' and fast food comes in the form of 'blastfurters'.

Jacket for ExperienceErudite, gritty and sharp he can hilariously funny, or else terribly poignant - his autobiography, Experience is a testament to this. Especially moving is the famously tumultuous relationship with his father, this time expounded from Amis junior's view. His friendships with writers like Christopher Hitchens and Saul Bellow are delightfully rendered. And his teeth, of course. His descriptions of his dental failings will make you forgive him the mighty sum spent on them.

Amis is perhaps one of the more extreme personalities of the British literary scene. But should his personality, or indeed that of any author, be a factor in the reading and enjoying of his novels?

In 1968 the French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote an essay entitled Death of the Author, which, often misinterpreted, is no more than a plea for a different way of reading and interpreting texts. In Barthes' essay the author is seen as a restriction to the meaning of the text and his suggested removal will empower the reader, allowing him/her to interpret it in any way they like. This method of reading would discount the public image of an author, allowing the work to speak for itself.

Arguably in our modern, celebrity-culture driven society such a removal is near impossible as we are constantly inundated with articles, interviews, biographies and autobiographies of writers, making it harder to divorce the life from the work.

The controversial aspects of Amis's personality and opinions have, no doubt, alienated him from potential readers his comments have outraged many and yet he still maintains a loyal following of devotees, myself included. I came to him as an admirer of his work, finding him perhaps the most scintillating contemporary British novelist. Refusing to let the personal life of a writer influence your understanding and appreciation, as Barthes advocates, is admittedly a hard task, but so is preventing the works illuminating the life.

To say I understand Amis because I've read his novels is an overstatement, but they have gone some way to elucidating, for me, the things he says in the public arena. Which is why I, and many others I'm sure, revel joyously in his latest outpouring of bile.


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