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Martin Amis

Martin Louis Amis (born 25 August 1949) is an English novelist, essayist and short story writer, the son of writer Kingsley Amis. His works include such novels as London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995). Amis's raw material is what he sees as the absurdity of the postmodern condition with its grotesque caricatures. He has thus sometimes been portrayed as the undisputed master of what the New York Times has called "the new unpleasantness." The Guardian writes that "all his critics have noted what Kingsley Amis complained of as a 'terrible compulsive vividness in his style ... that constant demonstrating of his command of English'; and it's true that the Amis-ness of Amis will be recognisable in any piece before he reaches his first full stop."

Early life

Amis's paternal grandfather was a mustard clerk from Clapham, and his maternal grandfather a shoe millionaire. His parents, Hilary Bardwell and Kingsley Amis, divorced when he was twelve. Much later, Martin lived in a house with Kingsley, Hilly, and Hilly's third husband, Alistair Boyd, Lord Kilmarnock. Amis has described it as "[s]omething out of early Updike, 'Couples' flirtations and a fair amount of drinking," he told The New York Times. "They were all 'at it'."

Born in Oxford, England, Martin was the middle of three children, with an older brother, Philip, and a younger sister, Sally. He attended a number of different schools in the 1950s and 1960s including Swansea Grammar School. The acclaim that followed Kingsley's first novel Lucky Jim sent the Amises to Princeton, New Jersey, where Kingsley lectured. This was Amis's introduction to the United States.

Martin Amis read comic books until his stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, introduced him to Jane Austen, a writer he often names as his earliest influence. After teenage years spent in flowery shirts and a short spell at Westminster School while living in Hampstead, he graduated from Exeter College, Oxford with a "Formal" First in English — "the sort where you are called in for a viva and the examiners tell you how much they enjoyed reading your papers."

After Oxford, he found an entry-level job at The Times Literary Supplement, and at age 27 became literary editor of The New Statesman, where he met Christopher Hitchens, then a feature writer for The Observer, who remains a close friend.

Early writing

According to Martin, Kingsley Amis famously showed no interest in his son's work. "I can point out the exact place where he stopped and sent Money twirling through the air; that's where the character named Martin Amis comes in." "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself," Kingsley complained

His first novel The Rachel Papers (1973) won the Somerset Maugham Award. The most traditional of his novels, made into an unsuccessful cult film, it tells the story of a bright, egotistical teenager (which Amis acknowledges as autobiographical) and his relationship with the eponymous girlfriend in the year before going to university.

He also wrote the screenplay for the film Saturn 3, an experience which he was to draw on for his fifth novel Money.

Dead Babies (1975), more flippant in tone, has a typically "sixties" plot, with a house full of characters who use various substances. A number of Amis's characteristics show up here for the first time: mordant black humour, obsession with the zeitgeist, authorial intervention, a character subjected to sadistically humorous misfortunes and humiliations, and a defiant casualness ("my attitude has been, I don't know much about science, but I know what I like"). A film adaptation was made in 2000 which was also unsuccessful.

Success (1977) told the story of two foster-brothers, Gregory Riding and Terry Service, and their rising and falling fortunes. This was the first example of Amis's fondness for symbolically 'pairing' characters in his novels, which has been a recurrent feature in his fiction since (Martin Amis and Martina Twain in Money, Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry in The Information, and Jennifer Rockwell and Mike Hoolihan in Night Train).

Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), about a young woman coming out of a coma, was a transitional novel in that it was the first of Amis's to show authorial intervention in the narrative voice, and highly artificed language in the heroine's descriptions of everyday objects, which was said to be influenced by his contemporary Craig Raine's 'Martian' school of poetry.

Later career

His best-known novels, and the ones most respected by critics, are Money, London Fields, Time's Arrow, and The Information.

Money (1984, subtitled A Suicide Note) is a first-person narrative by John Self, advertising man and would-be film director, who is "addicted to the twentieth century." The book follows him as he flies back and forth across the Atlantic in pursuit of personal and professional success, and describes a series of comic episodes with darker undertones. The vivid and stylised use of language and black humour was a critical success and the book remains Amis's most highly regarded work.

London Fields (1989), Amis's longest work, describes the encounters between three main characters in London in 1999, as a climate disaster approaches. The characters had typically Amisian names and broad caricatured qualities: Keith Talent, the lower-class crook with a passion for darts; Nicola Six, a femme fatale who is determined to be murdered; and upper-middle-class Guy Clinch, 'the fool, the foil, the poor foal' who is destined to come between the other two. The book was reportedly omitted from the Booker Prize shortlist in its year of publication, 1989, because of panel members protesting against its alleged misogyny.

Time's Arrow (1991), the autobiography of a doctor who helped torture Jews during the Holocaust, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, drew notice both for its unusual technique — time runs backwards during the entire novel, down to the dialogue initially being spoken backwards — as well as for its topic.

The size of the advance (an alleged £500,000) demanded and obtained by Amis for The Information (1995) attracted what Amis described as "an Eisteddfod of hostility" from writers and critics after he left his agent of many years, Pat Kavanagh, in order to be represented by the Harvard-educated Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie. Kavanagh is married to Julian Barnes, with whom Amis had been friends for many years, but the incident caused a rift that, according to Amis in his autobiography Experience (1999), has not yet healed.

Night Train (1997) is a short novel in the stylised form of a US police procedural, narrated by the female, but mannish, Detective Mike Hoolihan, who has been called upon to investigate the suicide of her boss's daughter. Amis's American vernacular in the narrative was criticised by, among others, John Updike, although the novel found defenders elsewhere, notably in Janis Bellow, wife of Amis's sometime mentor Saul Bellow.

The memoir Experience is largely about his relationship with his father, Kingsley Amis, though he also writes of being reunited with long-lost daughter, Delilah Seale, the product of an affair in the 1970s, whom he did not see until she was 19, and the story of how one of his cousins, Lucy Partington, became a victim of Fred West when she was 21. The book was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography.

In 2002, Amis published Koba the Dread, a book about the crimes of Stalinism. The book provoked a literary controversy for its approach to the material, and for its attack on his longtime friend Christopher Hitchens, who rebuked his charges in a stinging review in The Atlantic. Asked recently if they were still friends, Amis responded "We never needed to make up. We had an adult exchange of views, mostly in print, and that was that (or, more exactly, that goes on being that). My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May.

In 2003, Yellow Dog, Amis's first novel in six years, was denounced by Tibor Fischer, whose comments were widely reported in the media: "Yellow Dog isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It's not-knowing-where-to-look bad. I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder . . . It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating". Elsewhere, the book received mixed reviews, with some critics proclaiming the novel a return to form, but most considered the book to be a great disappointment. Amis was unrepentant about the novel and its reaction, calling Yellow Dog "among my best three". He gave his own explanation for the novel's critical failure, "No one wants to read a difficult literary novel or deal with a prose style which reminds them how thick they are. There's a push towards egalitarianism, making writing more chummy and interactive, instead of a higher voice, and that's what I go to literature for.

In September 2006, Amis published House of Meetings, a short novel about two half-brothers who loved the same woman and who were incarcerated together in a Soviet gulag. In 2008, Amis will publish The Pregnant Widow which marks the beginning of a new four-book deal.

Amis has also released two collections of short stories (Einstein's Monsters and Heavy Water), three volumes of collected journalism and criticism (The Moronic Inferno, Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and The War Against Cliché), and a guide to 1980s space-themed arcade video-game machines (Invasion of the Space Invaders).

Current life

Amis returned to Britain in September 2006 after living in Uruguay for two and a half years with his second wife, the writer Isabel Fonseca, and their two young daughters.

He said, "Some strange things have happened, it seems to me, in my absence. I didn't feel like I was getting more rightwing when I was in Uruguay, but when I got back I felt that I had moved quite a distance to the right while staying in the same place." He reports that he is disquieted by what he sees as increasingly undisguised hostility towards Israel and the United States.

Political opinions

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Amis was a strong critic of nuclear proliferation. His collection of five stories on this theme, Einstein's Monsters, began with a long essay entitled 'Unthinkability' in which he set out his views on the issue, writing: "nuclear weapons repel all thought, perhaps because they end all thought."

He wrote in "Nuclear City" in Esquire of 1987 (re-published in Visiting Mrs Nabokov) that: "when nuclear weapons become real to you, when they stop buzzing around your ears and actually move into your head, hardly an hour passes without some throb or flash, some heavy pulse of imagined supercatastrophe."

Amis expressed his opinions on terrorism in an extended essay published in The Observer on the eve of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 in which he criticized the economic development of all Arab countries because their "aggregate GDP... was less than the GDP of Spain", and they "lag[ged] behind the West, and the Far East, in every index of industrial and manufacturing output, job creation, technology, literacy, life-expectancy, human development, and intellectual vitality."

On Muslims living in the West, in an interview conducted by Ginny Dougary in The Times Magazine, Amis said, "There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.. The critic Terry Eagleton in the 2007 introduction to his work Ideology attacked Amis for acknowledging this impulse. Eagleton observes that this view is "[n]ot the ramblings of a British National Party thug, [...] but the reflections of Martin Amis, leading luminary of the English metropolitan literary world".

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote an op-ed piece on the subject condemning Amis and he responded with an open letter to The Independent which the newspaper printed in full. In it, he stated his views had been misrepresented by both Alibhai-Brown and Eagleton.

In response to these criticisms, Amis told the Guardian newspaper:

And now I feel that this was the only serious deprivation of my childhood - the awful human colourlessness of South Wales, the dully flickering whites and grays, like a Pathe newsreel, like an ethnic Great Depression. In common with all novelists, I live for and am addicted to physical variety; and my one quarrel with the rainbow is that its spectrum isn't wide enough. I would like London to be full of upstanding Martians and Neptunians, of reputable citizens who came, originally, from Krypton and Tralfamadore.

On terrorism, Martin Amis wrote that he suspected "there exists on our planet a kind of human being who will become a Muslim in order to pursue suicide-mass murder," and added: "I will never forget the look on the gatekeeper's face, at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, when I suggested, perhaps rather airily, that he skip some calendric prohibition and let me in anyway. His expression, previously cordial and cold, became a mask; and the mask was saying that killing me, my wife, and my children was something for which he now had warrant."

In comments on the BBC in October 2006 Amis expressed his view that North Korea was the most dangerous of the two remaining members of the Axis Of Evil, but that Iran was our "natural enemy", suggesting that we should not feel bad about having "helped Iraq scrape a draw with Iran" in the Iran–Iraq War, because a "revolutionary and rampant Iran would have been a much more destabilising presence.

His views on Islamism earned him the sobriquet Blitcon from the New Statesman (his former employer), argued to be wrongly applied.

His opinions have been viewed in some quarters as hostile and racist, as written in The Guardian. He has, however, received support from other writers. In The Spectator, Philip Hensher noted,

"The controversy raised by Amis’s views on religion as specifically embodied by Islamists is an empty one. He will tell you that his loathing is limited to Islamists, not even to Islam and certainly not to the ethnic groups concerned. The point, I think, is demonstrated, and the openness with which he has been willing to think out loud could usefully be emulated by political figures, addicted as they are to weasel words and double talk. I have to say that from non-practising Muslims I’ve heard language and opinions on Islamists which are far less temperate than anything Amis uses. In comparison to the private expressions of voices of modernity within Muslim societies, Amis is almost exaggeratedly respectful."

His new collection of pieces about Islam, The Second Plane, has received mixed reviews. Writing in the Sunday Times, William Dalrymple described the book as "a book that is not just wilfully ignorant, a triumph of style over knowledge, but that, for all its panache and gloss, is at its heart disturbingly bigoted." In The Independent, Cal McCrystal described the collection as "trenchant, deeply informed and informative". Despite mixed reviews, the book is already on its third print-run.

Current employment

In February 2007, Martin Amis was appointed as a Professor of Creative Writing at The Manchester Centre for New Writing in the University of Manchester, and started in September 2007. He runs postgraduate seminars, and is expected to participate in four public events each year, including a two week summer school for MA students.

Of his position, he said: "I may be acerbic in how I write but... I would find it very difficult to say cruel things to [students] in such a vulnerable position. I imagine I'll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them." He predicts that the experience might inspire him to write a new book, while adding sardonically: "A campus novel written by an elderly novelist, that's what the world wants.". It has been revealed that the salary paid to Amis by the university is £80,000 a year. The Manchester Evening News broke the story claiming that according to his contract this meant he was paid £3000 an hour for 28 hours a year teaching. The claim was echoed in headlines in several national papers. However like any other member of academic staff his teaching contact hours constitute a minority of his commitments, a point confirmed in the original article by a reply from the University.

Bibliography

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Further reading

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Sample works and articles by Amis

  • Authors in the front line: Martin Amis, The Sunday Times Magazine, 6 February 2005 – On the streets of Colombia, young boys cripple or murder each other just for showing disrespect or for winning at a game of cards. Is the taste for violence opening up a wound that can never heal? Report: Martin Amis – In The Sunday Times Magazine's continuing series of articles, renowned writers bring a fresh perspective to the world's trouble spots. The international medical-aid organisation MSF has helped our correspondents reach some of these inhospitable areas.
  • CareerMove - A complete short story by Amis.

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Note: for reviews of individual works, please see its article.

Amis and "Islamism"

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