Review: Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

4 comments

Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford book cover
Martin Amis: The Biography (2011) is the first biography of one of Britain's pre-eminent novelists of the late-twentieth century. Famous as much for his lifestyle as for his literary achievements, Martin Amis is a hugely provocative and controversial writer, and bridges the gap between popular culture and literary writing in a way that few, if any, authors have done in the past. Following on from his well received biography of Kingsley Amis, Richard Bradford was tasked with tackling the fascinating life of Amis Jnr. Indeed, if anything, Bradford's intimate knowledge of Amis snr. is a hindrance, seeping, redundantly, into the work too often. Overall though, Bradford aims to deliver a biography firmly based on an exploration of Martin’s fiction, carefully correlating Amis’s experience with the characters and tone of his novels.

Having written his own autobiography, Experience, in 2000 there is very little new information about Martin's personal life in Bradford's biography; its true strength lying in the interviews the biographer conducts with Amis himself, and select members of his circle, perhaps most notably Christopher Hitchens. However, there are parts of Amis's life which are not given proper space; the death of his alcoholic sister at the age of 40, his friendship with the rough-and-ready Rob Henderson, a relationship that, arguably, was as influential to Amis's fiction as the one with Hitchens, which is given far more space. Beyond eulogising about Amis's writing, Bradford presents Martin as a man of almost flawless character; a superb father, sensitive, handsome, gregarious, and magnificently witty. There is more than a hint of doe-eyed hero-worship here and one finds it impossible to accept, given what one already knows of his life, that Amis is as straight-forward and all round pleasant a character as that. In keeping with his patronizing polemic, Bradford, as an interviewer, shies away from the difficult questions; he never gets to the bottom of Amis's relationship with women – was he a sophisticated seducer, or did he just fall into a string of relationships?, he doesn't push for a fuller answer about Martin's molestation as a child, or his father's supposed alcoholism – events which must have had a significant impact on Amis’s development. On top of this, in his evaluation of Amis’s literary credentials, Bradford chooses to ignore Amis’s biggest critics, providing a frightfully one-sided view of the man. Tellingly, every book listed in the bibliography is penned by one 'Amis, Martin'.

The writing is unforgivably sloppy with contradictions aplenty, frequent grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and sentences whose meanings are unintentionally ambiguous. Too often Bradford sprays literary superlatives around without offering deeper evaluation and criticism of the work in question, and one soon becomes immune to the incessant hyperbole. Indeed, each novel is introduced with such grand acclamations from Bradford that it is difficult to gauge exactly where each sits in Amis's canon, or how each was received by the wider circle of critics on publication. When relaying biographical events, Bradford commits the cardinal sin of slipping into the realm of invention; supplementing factual accounts with unrecorded dialogue to emphasise a point.

Some of Bradford's critical assertions seem a little off the mark and are rarely supported by evidence, or clear arguments, and one gets the impression that once he catches hold of an idea the biographer pushes forward with it obstinately regardless of the facts. However, Bradford draws neat parallels between Martin's characters and the people he spent time with, perhaps placing a little too much emphasis on this as an explanation for the development of his prose, but still providing interesting observations. He also manages to recreate the atmosphere of Martin's social circle, which he flourished under during the 1970s and 80s, very well. It is rumoured that Bradford and Amis fell out during the writing of the book, certainly this is not a fully-authorised biography, and it is suspected that the delay in publication was due to legal wrangling on Amis's side. Sadly, whether through authorial reticence, or legal pressure, the result is a biography without a cutting edge, which in no way illuminates Amis's life or work beyond currently available information. Amis is a complex character, and it will take a tenacious biographer to truly unravel the mythology that surrounds him, Bradford is not that man, and one suspects that the necessary degree of freedom and detachment to undertake such a proceeding may not be afforded a prospective chronicler of Amis's work while Martin is still writing.

I was really looking forward to reading this, and have to say I was pretty disappointed. For someone who knows very little about Martin Amis, it may work as a neat introduction, but it was far from perceptive enough, or comprehensive enough to satisfy someone who has spent any time reading about Martin. Some of the interview content is interesting and, for me, this would be the main reason to recommend the book. But really, if you want an insight into Amis, read Experience or some academic criticism of his work.


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4 comments:

colesk said...

"Some of Bradford's critical assertions seem a little off the mark and are rarely supported by evidence, or clear arguments, and one gets the impression that once he catches hold of an idea the biographer pushes forward with it obstinately regardless of the facts. However, Bradford draws neat parallels between Martin's characters and the people he spent time with, perhaps placing a little too much emphasis on this as an explanation for the development of his prose, but still providing interesting observations. "

I think this is the danger with biography and literature - there is always the opinion that if you dig deep enough you can find the roots of characters etc, but ultimately it's the assumption of the biographer that comes to light - often to the detriment of the biography. I don't think you can answer all the questions in this way.

Still, it is a shame that this was such a disappointment! You will have to go back to Amis' own writing.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

There is certainly an awful lot of Bradford in this biography. Critics / reporters seem particularly keen to link Amis's characters to people in his life - I suppose this is as a consequence of his media profile - I've read a few newspaper articles doing exactly that, oddly they tend to focus on the women in his fiction, I wonder why? Hmm.

I don't particularly have a problem with the practice, but the biography didn't really delve into literary inspirations, and I would have liked to see more of that sort of thing.

But you're right - back to Amis's fiction. I've had Time's Arrow on reserve for about six months. Am beginning to see what some of the students are banging on about :s

Man of la Book said...

For me, what makes biographies worth reading are the little anecdotes which make one know the person. What I dislike are biographies which are, basically, a compilation of newspaper articles.

http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

There are definitely some decent anecdotes; the episode where Amis drags Hitchens to a hand job parlour, in the name of research, is particularly amusing.

It's certainly not a biography based on newspaper articles, but more on interviews and critical assessment.