Martin Amis in his Notting Hill flat, London, UK, circa 1986 (Homer Sykes/Alamy Stock Photo)

On an equatorial summer day eleven years ago, I spent a few hours with Martin Amis in his home on Strong Place in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. Assigned to interview him about his latest novel, Lionel Asbo: State of England, I began at once by asking him about all his other novels instead. What did it feel like to write Money? Is it true that Marmaduke in London Fields was based on Christopher Hitchens’s firstborn? On page 234 of The Information… and so on. Amis was very patient. He spoke movingly of Hitchens, who’d passed away just six months earlier, performed a memorable impression of a manic Robert Lowell, and recalled once running into his friend Clive James at a bus stop in London. “He was reading Tacitus… in Latin.” When the interview was over, Amis and I smoked a cigarette in his backyard.

It would gratify me to say that, as I was ferried back out the front door, Amis and I tearfully embraced and promised we would see each other again soon. (“Bye, Mart!” “Bye, Mort!”) That was certainly how things had gone down in my head the night before. (When he profiled Saul Bellow, in 1983, Amis described the interviewer’s shaming desire for “the birth of a flattering friendship.”) In reality, of course, I was merely another wild-eyed admirer, with my voice recorder and my shaking hands, asking Amis if he would mind signing a few books before I left. Anyway, my deplorably Danish sense of decorum precluded doing or saying anything that would embarrass us both. I thanked him for his time and shook his hand. I never met him again.

And yet Martin Amis’s death this spring felt like the passing of a friend. His voice has been the soundtrack—the voiceover—to most of my adult life. I discovered his work when I was eighteen and have read at least two or three of his books once a year ever since. (In my tattered copy of Money, somehow still intact, I can see, like a secular Torah, eighteen years of marginalia and underlinings.) The obsessive devotion he inspired in his admirers was unique, I think. Never broadly popular in the manner of contemporaries like Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, or Kazuo Ishiguro, Amis was in some ways a writer’s writer, a journalist’s journalist, a critic’s critic. How many drink-fogged nights have I spent in the company of fellow scribes, quoting his works from memory, all of us trying to out-Amis each other? How many copies of Money or London Fields or The Moronic Inferno have I pressed on friends, girlfriends, acquaintances, even strangers? How often, looking for the spark or flash of some better phrase, have I turned to The War Against Cliché or Visiting Mrs. Nabokov?

Surely one reason for this devotion is that Amis stirred a creative delight in his readers, an admiration for the startling inventiveness of his language. (Martianism, a brief and flashily metaphorical fashion in British poetry in the 1970s, is an anagram of Martin Amis.) He made you want to sound like him, which you couldn’t, because no one wrote like him. Here, as an example, is a description of a New York cab driver, from the opening page of Money:

My cabbie was fortyish, lean, balding. Such hair as remained scurried long and damp down his neck and shoulders. To the passenger, that’s all city cabbies are—mad necks, mad rugs. This mad neck was explosively pocked and mottled, with a flicker of adolescent virulence in the crimson underhang of the ears. He lounged there in his corner, the long hands limp on the wheel.

He made you want to sound like him, which you couldn’t, because no one wrote like him.

Amis’s best novels plume with language like this—slangy, stylish, dazzling in its fierce originality (crimson underhang!). At a Manhattan newsstand, a character takes his place at “the wailing wall of the pornography section.” Later he drinks champagne and lets it soak into “the parched coral” of his tongue. Elsewhere we see a skyscraper “whose glassy lines climbed like a strip of film into the open blue”; a “burgundy dusk…slowly decanting itself through the high windows”; a hangover like “the terminal mutiny of [the] whole bodybag.” 

In his memoir Experience, Amis describes his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, as “the hub of all humor and high spirits, like an engine of comedy,” and recalls sitting in the room beneath the study where, one morning, Amis senior was writing his novel Ending Up: “So I could hear him that morning when, after an hour at his desk, he started laughing: the sound of a man succumbing, after a certain amount of resistance, to unshirkable amusement.”

I think of that line whenever I’m curled up with Money or London Fields or The Information, his three finest, and funniest, novels. They are variously and vigorously comic. There is the cartoonish hyperbole: a car buried beneath “an igloo of parking tickets and birdcrap”; a drunk’s nose “like a hemorrhaged strawberry.” There is the nimble gift for paradox, as in this passage from The Information:

[Richard Tull] no longer wanted to give up smoking: what he wanted to do was take up smoking. Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn’t be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette. The need was and wasn’t being met.

And then there are the endless digressions, the delightful inversions, the dashing one-liners (“When it came to kissing and telling, Keith was a one-man oral tradition.”)

But perhaps the central reason for the devotion of Amis’s admirers was his dedication to language and attendant critical vigilance. Shortly after making his literary debut with The Rachel Papers in 1973, Amis was hired by the New Statesman, where he became deputy to Claire Tomalin, whom he eventually succeeded as literary editor. As well as editing its back pages, Amis wrote the kind of insolent and caustic negative reviews every young critic aspires to. “The most consistently provocative thing about Iris Murdoch’s new novel is its title,” he began his review of The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. A novel by J.M.G. Le Clézio is “such a torment to read that one yearns for the kind of nouveau-roman pranking whereby (say) the final 150 pages are left blank in order to symbolize the void of late capitalism.” Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer is a “seething and sanguinary thriller written very fast by Mr. Mailer for a well-known reason. When, oh when, will all the kids grow up, all the wives remarry?”

Combined with the slick savagery of his early fiction, Amis’s criticism saddled him with a reputation for being a “literary bad boy”—an epithet that kept following him around, despite not being very accurate. It suggested he was a poseur when in fact he was serious and studious. “My private life,” he wrote in the introduction to The War Against Cliché, “was middle-bohemian—hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube: I always had about me my Edmund Wilson—or my William Empson.” With time, Amis’s personal canon grew ever narrower (to the point where it seemed to include only Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov), but his early criticism is still exhilarating to read. It is a tonic for our flabby age of mutual admiration.


To all the gaudy excess of American culture, he brought a wry, skeptical eye.

As Amis’s novels expanded in style and scope throughout the 1980s and ’90s, so did his nonfiction. “Take me to America,” pleads a character in the early novel Success. Martin Amis obliged. Many of his best articles and essays were about American subjects: Republican Party conventions, the making of RoboCop 2, the rise of “gonzo” pornography. To all the gaudy excess of American culture, he brought a wry, skeptical eye. His account of a visit to the Playboy mansion, collected in The Moronic Inferno, is a model of the form, the biting criticism folded in rich layers of verbal irony. Here is Amis on Hugh Hefner:

Hef took the stage. For a man who never goes out, who rises at mid-afternoon, who wanders his draped mansion in slippers and robe (whose lifestyle, on paper, resembles nothing so much as a study in terminal depression), Hef looks good—surprisingly, even scandalously so.

That parenthetical is perfectly timed, perfectly weighted, and absolutely crushing.

In the novels and stories of this period—Money, London Fields, Einstein’s Monsters, The Information, Heavy Water—Amis found he had a great deal to say about the late twentieth century. (“I am addicted to the twentieth century,” says John Self, the narrator of Money, who is addicted to “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs.”) But in these fictions he said it sweepingly, grandiosely. His nonfiction, hemmed in by journalistic imperatives, often said it better. Writing about violence in movies or murders in Atlanta, the future of darts or poker in Vegas, Amis’s pronouncements on the thrills and threats of modernity gained a moral weight they sometimes lacked in his fiction.

In the past two decades, following a few misadventures in political punditry, Amis wrote at length about the twentieth century’s central horrors: the gulags (Koba the Dread, House of Meetings) and the Holocaust (The Zone of Interest). I confess I’ve never been able to resign myself to these books. Nervously appendaged with defensive acknowledgments or explanatory essays, they seem to me interesting but undeniable failures. Worst of all, they are failures of imagination. Consider this passage, from Koba the Dread:

Accounts of the childhoods of the great historical monsters are always bathetic. Instead of saying something like, “X was raised by crocodiles in a septic tank in Kuala Lumpur,” they tell you about a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a house, a home.

This is quite funny, and would have been funnier if one of Amis’s fictional characters had said it, but it reveals an inability, or perhaps an unwillingness, to properly imagine the different constellations of factors that might produce a mass-murdering dictator. Similarly, Amis’s Holocaust novel, The Zone of Interest, which is set in Auschwitz, quickly disintegrates into a familiar routine of gags and riffs. At one point, a lorry of corpses spilling onto the train tracks is likened to “a crew of ghosts being sick over a ship’s side”—a cartoonish, Scooby Doo–like image.

I don’t mean to suggest that Amis couldn’t write seriously about politics or history. On the contrary, his essays on nuclear weapons are still deeply affecting in their outrage and alarm. The awful absurdity of the entire nuclear enterprise proved, in this case, an ideal subject. In “Nuclear City: The Megadeath Intellectuals,” Amis interviews the relevant experts and nabobs in the Pentagon, where smoking is gloweringly frowned upon and disapproved of: “It seems discrepant that these connoisseurs of thermal pulse and superstellar temperatures, these fireball merchants and inferno artists should all go green at the sight of a Marlboro. But you are going to get discrepancies—comic, tragic, pathetic—when your subject is nuclear weapons.” (For contrast, read Amis’s account of his meeting with a diplomat at the Russian embassy: “We drank a lot of coffee and smoked up a storm.”)

The most fruitful subject of his later years, however, turned out to be his own life, movingly recounted in Experience (2000) and Inside Story (2020). “Why should I tell the story of my life?” he asks in Experience. Because, as the son of a famous writer, he was always going to invite extra-literary interest (though the intensity of it must have surprised even him) and because so much of it was public already. “I want to set the record straight,” he wrote, though doing so meant writing a novelistic autobiography and an autobiographical novel.

But the subject of these books is not really Martin Amis; it is other people: Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens, and Lucy Partington, Amis’s murdered cousin. The style, too, is different. The visionary explosiveness of the middle years settled down into a gentler artistry. The comic genius of his earlier novels is still there, but it is tempered by a contemplative beauty. (In a wonderful footnote in Experience, Amis describes running into his brother Philip at the supermarket: “I was impressed by the sureness with which my peripheral vision identified him, by his shape and volume, as if there was a template of him in my mind which he alone could occupy.”) In these books, Amis is, like the narrator of Saul Bellow’s The Bellarosa Connection, a “walking memory file,” the tender remembrances jostling against deeper revelations.

It is weirdly fitting that Inside Story turned out to be his last published book. He hinted at shorter fiction still to come, but in truth he’d already said his literary goodbyes (“Goodbye, my reader, I said. Goodbye, my dear, my close, my gentle.”) In the novel’s final pages, he wrote: “This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love. All evocations of people, places, animals, objects, feelings, concepts, landscapes, seascapes, and cloudscapes: all such evocations are in spirit amorous and celebratory.”

I’m not sure this is true of all writers, but it was true of Martin Amis. Only someone who loved life could have written about it with such comic force, in such electric prose.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents

Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (Yale University Press).

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.