Amis and Son: Two Literary Generations

This is a belated review of Neil Powell’s literary biography of Kingsley and Martin Amis, and from the start it’s easy to see which author Powell prefers. Kingsley dominates the book, with two-thirds of it given over to his life and work, and his share also has more detail and insights into his routines and relationships. (This isn’t entirely Powell’s bias – Martin gave only token co-operation to this book.) Even the title, Amis and Son (rather than, say, Kingsley and Martin) elevates Kingsley to the true representative of the Amis name: Martin is depicted on and inside the cover as the child who never grew up. More charitably, the title could also be a gentle allusion to the ‘family business’ of Kingsley and Martin’s novels.

Bias is no bad thing in a literary critic. It makes this book interesting, and it’s worth remembering that Powell is exploring how the twentieth century impacts on a writer’s life: Kingsley dominates the book because he was publishing from the 1950s to the 1990s whereas Martin has only been around for the last three decades.

My bias is the opposite. My family are massive Martin Amis fans, with several autographs between us and at least one signed first edition. In our house, when you said Amis, you meant Martin. Of Kingsley’s stuff, Lucky Jim was considered a classic but we never bothered to explore the other novels. Powell makes me wish I had.

His long section on Kingsley is worth the admission fee alone. There’s little better for the reader than to be able to follow the process of one of your favourite novels as it’s hammered into shape. Powell gives us an in-depth look into the creation of Lucky Jim, written more or less in collaboration with Kingsley’s correspondent and soul-twin Philip Larkin. Powell quotes a great letter where Kingsley discusses the lecture that ends Jim’s academic career: ‘I could have a shot at it, anyway, and you could decide whether it should go in; it’s an optional scene as regards the plot, story, etc. He’d have to be drunk, I think.’ With that last offhand sentence, one of the greatest set-pieces in comic literature was born.

In Experience, Martin paints Kingsley as an unpleasant and insecure old curmudgeon while leaving us in no doubt about his affection and love for his dad. Powell goes one better: he actually makes Kingsley seem likeable. A man completely antisocial yet who hated being alone, Kingsley is brought to life in all his phobic, philandering, grotesque glory. When Powell tells us that Kingsley ‘always hated being trapped socially and preferred pubs to dinner parties’ I found myself nodding: why do people have to turn food into an awkward communal experience?

In this first half Powell achieves the book’s goal: he makes a good case for Kingsley as a writer of good, entertaining social comedies that occasionally hit on subversive truths of the human condition. Kingsley is clearly an A novelist, who (according to Martin) ‘writes in what we commonly regard as the mainstream: he is interested in character, motive and moral argument, and in how these reveal themselves through action.’

Martin, by contrast, is a B novelist: ‘at least as interested in other things too: namely the autonomous play of wit, ideas and language’. We’ve reached the pallid second half of Powell’s book that deals with Martin’s fiction. There are many good criticisms of his novels: one is a failure of realism. Would Guy Clinch, an educated liberal, really miss the significance of the name ‘Enola Gay’? Would the contracts signed by John Self be legally binding? As both these details are central to the plots of their respective novels, Powell has raised good points here.

Powell also highlights the vulgarity in many of Martin’s novels, particularly Yellow Dog, probably the worst of the later Martin Amis. But he fails to recognise that this is a weakness inherited from the old man. Calling a cocktail a ‘Blowjob’ is really Kingsley and Larkin’s lifelong undergraduate humour adapted for the twenty-first century. For Powell, Kingsley’s immaturity is subversive whereas Martin’s is just immature. (Another family flaw is a self-satisfied literalism: compare Lucky Jim’s ‘Nice things are better than nasty things’ with Success’s ‘You can’t have the one without the other and you can’t have the other without the one.’)

Powell finds Martin’s books ‘unreadable’ and indeed you get a sense that he has barely skimmed them. Martin’s most complex and engaging novel, Time’s Arrow, is dismissed in a page and a half. Amis’s themes of the doubling of selves are ignored: instead Powell complains that having scenes run backwards gets boring. ‘A novel actually written backwards,’ he writes with finger-wagging sententiousness, ‘would be not only unintelligible but pointless, since the reader’s only recourse would be to start on the last page.’ Well, yes: which is why the novel is narrated by the disassociated, forward-thinking soul of a man living a backwards life. 

There’s a good section on Success, the best of the early Martin. I love this novel because I suspect that it tells us something about Martin’s personal life: as a young man his exterior was the glittering indolence of Gregory Riding but inside he was a shaking and paranoid Terry Service. This is compounded by the fact that Gregory’s success turns out to be an illusion and that this is revealed when (like both Amis men) he begins having panic attacks.

Yet Powell seems to miss the point of this book as well. Discussing the final scene – in which Terry makes a success of his life in the city, while Gregory wanders around the ruins of his childhood home – Powell says that Gregory’s fate is ‘infinitely both more reassuring and more real than the numbingly amoral, intolerably vacuous urban world in which Terry has sought and found success.’ He adds ominously: ‘Martin’s fiction would from now on inhabit Terry’s world, not Gregory’s.’

Powell suspects himself of ‘wilful misreading’. He is right to. Gregory has failed because he cannot move on from his childhood fantasies (‘I live mostly in the past now’); he fails because of the same protracted immaturity of which Powell is constantly accusing Martin. The wider implication is also wrong: that fiction inhabiting ‘Terry’s world’ (the city) is inferior to fiction inhabiting ‘Gregory’s world’ (the provinces). Who says?

From that point Powell’s criticism of Martin descends from realism to shameless pedantry. Like Powell, I’ve never been to a football match and have no interest in the game, but I find Martin’s sport motifs accessible and interesting. Perhaps Powell’s complaint regarding Martin’s ‘startling range of sporting enthusiasms’ is that they are not the right enthusiasms: ‘Of cricket, despite a passing reference or two, Martin says nothing at all.’

Lest you think this is a kneejerk defence of a literary hero, I’d direct you to Adam Mars-Jones’s Venus Envy, a brilliant adversarial reading of Martin Amis: large parts are excerpted in Nicholas Tredell’s The Fiction of Martin Amis, an anthology of critiques. As for Powell, he has given us a warm, well-researched biography of Kingsley: it’s a shame he had to round it off with such a poorly considered hatchet job on his son.

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