Martin Amis, whose caustic, erudite and bleakly comic novels redefined British fiction in the 1980s and ’90s with their sharp appraisal of tabloid culture and consumer excess, and whose private life made him tabloid fodder himself, died Friday at his home in Lake Worth, Florida. He was 73.
His wife, writer Isabel Fonseca, said the cause was esophageal cancer — the same disease that killed his close friend and fellow writer Christopher Hitchens in 2011.
Amis published 15 novels, a well-regarded memoir (“Experience,” in 2000), works of nonfiction, and collections of essays and short stories. In his later work, he investigated Josef Stalin’s atrocities, the war on terror and the legacy of the Holocaust.
He is best known for his so-called London trilogy of novels — “Money: A Suicide Note” (1985), “London Fields” (1990) and “The Information” (1995) — which remain, along with his memoir, his most representative and admired work.
The tone of these novels was bright, bristling and profane. “What I’ve tried to do is to create a high style to describe low things: the whole world of fast food, sex shows, nude mags,” Amis told The New York Times Book Review in a 1985 interview. “I’m often accused of concentrating on the pungent, rebarbative side of life in my books, but I feel I’m rather sentimental about it. Anyone who reads the tabloid papers will rub up against much greater horrors than I describe.”
Amis’ literary heroes — he called them his “Twin Peaks” — were Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, and critics located in his work both Nabokov’s gift for wordplay and gamesmanship and Bellow’s exuberance and brio.
Like the narrator of Bellow’s novel “The Actual,” Amis was “a first-class noticer.”
“I think all writers are Martians,” he said in a Paris Review interview. “They come and say, ‘You haven’t been seeing this place right.’”
Father and Son
Amis’ misanthropic wit made his voice at times reminiscent of that of his father, Kingsley. The elder Amis, who died in 1995, was one of the British working- and middle-class novelists of the 1950s known as the Angry Young Men and became famous with the success of his comic masterpiece “Lucky Jim” (1954).
Father and son were close, but they disagreed about much. Kingsley drifted to the right with the rise of Margaret Thatcher; he once publicly referred to his son’s left-leaning political opinions as “howling nonsense.”
Their supposed rivalry was of great interest in Britain. When the National Portrait Gallery invited father and son to pose together, Kingsley’s thin-skinned refusal made the front page of The Sunday Telegraph. He later regretted the fuss, the younger Amis said.
Being the child of a well-known writer was, for Amis, a blessing and a curse. It helped put him on the map earlier than he might otherwise have gotten there. It made him familiar at an early age with London’s hothouse publishing world. It also helped make him a figure of fascination, resentment and envy.
“I’d be in a very different position now if my father had been a schoolteacher,” Amis told The Sunday Times of London in 2014. He added: “I’ve been delegitimized by heredity. In the 1970s, people were sympathetic to me being the son of a novelist. They’re not at all sympathetic now, because it looks like cronyism.”
Amis’ talent was undeniable: He was the most dazzling stylist in postwar British fiction. His swagger and Byronic good looks were also undeniable. He had well-chronicled involvements with some of the most watched young women of his era. He wore, according to media reports, velvet jackets, Cuban-heel boots and bespoke shirts. He stared balefully into paparazzi lenses.
His raucous lunches with friends and fellow writers such as Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Clive James, James Fenton and Hitchens were written up in the press and made other writers feel that they were on the outside looking in. He seemed to be having more fun than other people. His detractors considered him less a bad boy than a spoiled brat.
Amis’ fame built to a crescendo in the mid-1990s. One “scandal,” as chronicled in English tabloids such as The Daily Mail, followed the next.
In 1994, he dropped his longtime agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of his friend Barnes, for rival agent Andrew Wylie, whom the British press nicknamed “the Jackal,” and a larger advance on a novel. The amount Amis wanted, a reported $794,500 (about $1.6 million today), was deemed unseemly. The episode ended his friendship with Barnes, although a decade later, Amis said they had reconciled.
Also in 1994, Amis left his first wife, Antonia Phillips, for Fonseca, a younger woman who Hitchens said in an interview was being pursued by Rushdie, among others. The press ate up the details, especially those about expensive dental work that Amis had, although he saw it as an acute medical necessity.
Amis drew attention in later decades for the interviews he gave around the publication of his novels. These tended to be wide-ranging and opinionated; he shot from the hip. Often, they got him into trouble.
In a 2006 interview, after the thwarting of an attempt to bomb trans-Atlantic flights from Heathrow Airport by British-born Muslims, Amis suggested that the Muslim community in England might “have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” He proposed that this might involve the curtailing of freedoms.
The comments drew condemnation from many, including English literary critic Terry Eagleton, who called them “stomach-churning” and said they resembled those of “a British National Party thug.” Amis apologized, calling the remarks “categorically wrong” and “stupid.”
Amis’ work grew more political and historical, and more serious in tone, in the 2000s and 2010s. Critics often found his later books wanting, and reviews could be scathing.
He was sanguine about these attacks. He told an interviewer, “There’s a one-word narrative for every writer. For Hitchens, it was ‘contrarian.’ For me, it’s ‘decline.’”
A Well-Traveled Youth
Martin Louis Amis was born on Aug. 25, 1949, in Oxford, England. He had an older brother, Philip, and a younger sister, Sally, who died in 2000. His mother was Hilary Bardwell, daughter of a civil servant in the agriculture ministry.
Martin attended more than a dozen schools in the 1950s and ’60s as a result of his father’s travels on the academic circuit after the success of “Lucky Jim.” The constant need to make new friends, he said, helped make him funny. The Amis family spent a year in Princeton, New Jersey, a sojourn that introduced Martin to America, with which he maintained a lifelong fascination.
The Amis household was permissive. Amis compared it, in a 1990 interview with The New York Times Magazine, to “something out of early Updike, ‘Couples’ flirtations and a fair amount of drinking.” It would have gone unremarked, he wrote in his memoir, if he had lit a cigarette under the Christmas tree at 5.
He was devastated, at 12, by his parents’ divorce. He read mostly comic books and was “pretty illiterate,” he said, until he was 17. That’s when his stepmother, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, urged him to read Jane Austen. He crammed to get into Exeter College at Oxford, where in 1971 he graduated with honors in English.
After leaving Oxford, Amis held a string of journalistic and literary jobs in London. He became an editorial assistant at The Times Literary Supplement in 1972 and, two years later, became its fiction and poetry editor. In 1975, he joined the editorial staff of The New Statesman magazine, and within about a year, he was its literary editor, at age 27. It was there that he began his long friendship with Hitchens.
In Hitchens’ 2010 memoir, “Hitch-22,” he recalled Amis in the early years of their acquaintance, noting how the Rolling Stones had come to mind when Clive James referred to Amis as resembling “a stubby Jagger.”
“He was more blond than Jagger and indeed rather shorter,” Hitchens wrote, “but his sensuous lower lip was a crucial feature,” and “you would always know when he had come into the room.”
Amis wrote his first novel, “The Rachel Papers,” published in England in 1973, on nights and weekends. He gave himself a year to complete it. If it hadn’t panned out, he said, he might have considered academia.
“The Rachel Papers” is autobiographical and among his most traditional in terms of its form. It is about a bright, sardonic, sexually obsessed young man (“Erections, as we all know, come to the teenager on a plate”) and his girlfriend, Rachel, while he studies for his college exams.
The novel’s electric prose established Amis as an important young English writer and won the Somerset Maugham Award for writers under 30. It did less well in America. “The Rachel Papers” was panned in The New York Times Book Review by Grace Glueck, who called it “a crotch-and-armpit saga of late adolescence,” and in the daily Times by Anatole Broyard, who wrote, “Considering the advantages he has had, Martin has not covered himself in glory.”
Amis followed “The Rachel Papers” with “Dead Babies” (1976), a blackly humorous novel about drug-taking and sex among a group of young people in a rural house over a single weekend, and “Success,” published in England in 1978, a Swiftian satire about sibling rivalry and foster brothers of different social backgrounds.
Amis’ novels found an immediate readership in Britain. In the United States, he was slower to catch on. “Success” did not find an American publisher until 1987.
Many Americans first heard Amis’ name because of a plagiarism scandal. In 1980, he accused Jacob Epstein — son of Barbara Epstein, a founder of The New York Review of Books — of lifting multiple passages from “The Rachel Papers” and placing them in his own first novel, “Wild Oats.” Amis wrote that “Epstein wasn’t influenced by ‘The Rachel Papers,’ he had it flattened out beside his typewriter.” Epstein later admitted copying passages, and he apologized.
For nearly three decades after, Amis’ books were not reviewed in the The New York Review of Books, one of the chief intellectual organs in the English language.
‘Money’ and More Success
Amis married Phillips, a widowed Boston philosophy teacher, in 1984. They had two sons, Louis and Jacob. That year, Amis published “Money,” a novel that Time magazine would include on a list of the “100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.”
“Money” is narrated by John Self, a director of commercials who becomes tangled in a film project. Self is a drunk and a hedonist, and an acid observer of life. In a metafictional twist, Amis wrote himself into “Money” as one of Self’s confidants. Moments such as these in his novels, he said, made the more traditionally-minded Kingsley Amis want to fling his son’s books across the room.
More than a decade of successful and critically admired novels followed. “London Fields” is set amid fears of approaching climate-related apocalypse. The events in “Time’s Arrow” (1991) occur in reverse: An American doctor grows younger and finds himself working in the medical section of Auschwitz. “The Information” (1995) is about two friends, both writers, who become antagonists after one becomes famous and wealthy.
Reviewing “The Information” in the Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that “all the themes and stylistic experiments in Amis’ earlier fiction come together in a symphonic whole.” In The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley called Amis “a force unto himself among those of his generation now writing fiction in English,” adding, “there is, quite simply, no one else like him.”
After he and Phillips divorced, Amis married Fonseca in 1998. A Uruguayan American writer, Fonseca is the author of “Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey” (1995). The couple had two daughters, Fernanda and Clio.
What one might call the back half of Amis’ career began roughly in 2000. He still published the occasional slashing novel about loutish men and declining standards; these included “Yellow Dog” (2003), his most poorly reviewed book, and “Lionel Asbo: State of England” (2012).
He also demonstrated, in the reviews and essays collected in “The War Against Cliché” (2001), that he was among the fiercest and most intelligent literary critics of his time. His reviews were an important part of his reputation.
But, on the whole, he turned to larger and deeper historical subjects and themes — to mixed reviews.
In 2002, Amis published “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million,” a study of the Stalin regime’s atrocities in the Soviet Union. The title alludes to Stalin’s nickname, Koba. The word “laughter” in the subtitle refers to Amis’ morally perplexed realization that, although Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust are off limits, many consider it appropriate to joke about Stalin and the Soviet Union.
He revisited some of that book’s themes and research in “House of Meetings” (2006), a novel about two brothers who live in a Soviet gulag during the final decade of Stalin’s rule and love the same woman.
In 2008, Amis published “The Second Plane,” a collection of 12 pieces of nonfiction and two short stories about the Western world and terror. “Are you an Islamophobe?” he was asked by the British newspaper The Independent while he was writing the book.
“Of course not,” he replied. “What I am is an Islamismophobe. Or better say an anti-Islamist, because a ‘phobia’ is an irrational fear, and there is nothing irrational about fearing people who say they want to kill you.” He added: “Anti-Islamism is not like antisemitism. There is a reason for it.”
Mortality Was Long a Theme
Amis and Fonseca moved with their daughters to the New York City borough Brooklyn in 2011, purchasing a five-story brownstone in the fashionable Cobble Hill neighborhood. They moved to be closer to Fonseca’s parents, he said, and also to Hitchens, who died in December that year. Amis gave a moving oration at Hitchens’ memorial. They also had the Florida home where Amis died.
In addition to Fonseca, Amis is survived by three daughters, Delilah Jeary, Fernanda Amis and Clio Amis; two sons, Louis and Jacob Amis; four grandchildren; and a brother, James Boyd.
Jeary was his daughter from a brief affair Amis had with artist Lamorna Seale in the 1970s. She did not discover that he was her father until she was 19.
In 2008, Delilah Seale had a son, making Amis a grandfather. At the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts in Wales in the summer of 2010, Amis dryly commented that “being a grandfather is like getting a telegram from the mortuary.”
In America, he was happy to escape what he called “the cruising hostility” of the English press. He became an almost avuncular figure in Brooklyn, regularly seen walking his daughters to school. No longer the upstart, Amis inspired a younger generation of writers, including Zadie Smith and Will Self.
As Amis aged, he stopped playing tennis, a sport he once played daily and wrote about often. He mostly stopped writing criticism, too. “Insulting people in print is a vice of youth,” he said in an interview with The Independent. “Insulting people in your middle age is undignified, and looks more and more demented as you head toward the twilight.”
He never won England’s best-known literary award, the Booker Prize, although many of the novelists with whom he was associated — including McEwan, Rushdie and Barnes — did. Amis was shortlisted for the award in 1991 for “Time’s Arrow” and longlisted in 2003 for “Yellow Dog.”
His final novel, “Inside Story,” published in 2020, was a “novelized autobiography” that considered his friendship with Hitchens and his relationship with his father.
In his writing about Hitchens, Amis “accesses a depth of feeling and plainness of language entirely new to his work,” Times critic Parul Sehgal wrote in praising “Inside Story.” She added, “I write under the sign of Amis.”
Mortality was long a theme in Amis’ work. In “The Information,” he wrote: “Every morning we leave more in the bed: certainty, vigor, past loves. And hair, and skin: dead cells. This ancient detritus was nonetheless one move ahead of you, making its humorless own arrangements to rejoin the cosmos.”
He might have been speaking of himself in that novel when he wrote of one of its dueling writers: “He didn’t want to please his readers. He wanted to stretch them until they twanged.”
New York Times News Service