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Martin Amis — the nearest thing to a Nabokov for punk generation

The Information

Martin Amis - every male writer under 45 would secretly like to be him
Martin Amis - every male writer under 45 would secretly like to be him

Author: Martin Amis, born 1949, Oxford, England, middle child of Sir Kingsley and Hilly Amis, godson of poet Philip Larkin. Martin was five when Sir Kingsley’s Lucky Jim became a transatlantic bestseller. His parents divorced when Martin was 12. His father remarried and then divorced. His mother married twice again. Sir Kingsley, now in his 70s and fearful if left alone, lives as a boarder with Hilly and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock.

Martin was educated at Oxford and later became literary editor of the New Statesman. The 5'6 " Martin quelled shyness to become a masterful skirt-chaser who loved and left them. Long before Tina Brown ascended to editorship of first Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker, she was Martin’s girlfriend, as were a series of pretty, fledgling English novelists. In 1984 Amis put womanizing behind him and married wealthy young American widow Antonia Phillips, described as one of the great beauties of her generation. The couple settled in London and had two sons, now eight and ten years old.

At 24 Amis won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, The Rachel Papers. He has published seven novels since, plus three books of journalism (one of which, The Moronic Inferno, collects pieces written during visits to the United States) and one of short stories. Each has been well received, although England’s classiest laurel, the Booker Prize, continues to bypass Amis. Bookered or not, “every male writer under 45,” said English novelist Will Self, “would secretly like to be Martin Amis.”

The English press follows Amis (and other English writers) as closely as our press sniffs after TV lowlifes like Roseanne. Londoners who will never read one word of Amis, father or son, have scanned several hundred-thousand words about the Amises. They know that Martin’s brother endures stunning depression, that his sister is a drunk, that Sir Kingsley can’t be left alone a minute without spiraling into vertiginous panic. They know about Amis’s long rivalrous friendship with novelist Julian Barnes, know that the two men battled at tennis, snooker, and chess. They know that Barnes’s wife, Patricia Kavanaugh, for many years was Martin’s agent, that Martin dumped her for an American agent nicknamed “The Jackal,” and that Barnes then cut the friendship with a chilly letter.

In 1993 when Amis left Antonia Phillips for the younger American heiress Isabel Fonseca, London headlines offered: “MARTIN AMIS WRITES OFF HIS MARRIAGE” and “BRAINY, DARK AND STUNNING: THE WOMAN MARTIN AMIS HAS FALLEN FOR.” Tabloids sent photographers to stake out girlfriend and wife, the latter characterized as “angry, devastated and utterly betrayed.”

When Amis flew to Manhattan for periodontal surgery, London newspapers interviewed dentists: “THE PEARLY KING OF LITERATURE. WHAT DID MARTIN AMIS HAVE DONE TO HIS TEETH?” One columnist wrote, “Amis has swapped his Ford poplar gnashers for a gleaming Cadillac grille” and minted a word for Martin’s dental upgrade: “dentrification.”

But can this fellow with new teeth, new mistress, abandoned wife, drunken sister, write? Yes. “The nearest thing to a Nabokov,” one critic said about Amis, “that the punk generation has to show.”

The Information; Harmony Books; 1995; 384 pages; $24

Type: Fiction

Setting: London, United States

Time: 1960s to present

“Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say nothing.” So opens the tale of failed, though gifted, novelist Richard Tull (for whom do and don’t read Martin Amis). On the eve of his 40th birthday, Tull finds himself impotent, bleeding from the gums, frequently drunk, unable to quit smoking (even though his cigarette smoke makes his asthmatic son wheeze and choke). Tull’s wife, Gina, supports him and their twins. Tull adds to their income by reviewing biographies with titles like The Soul’s Dark Cottage and The Proverbial Husbandman, and serves as a vanity press editor. His first novel, Aforethought, found minor success (“nobody understood it, or even finished it, but, equally, nobody was sure it was shit”). Aforethought and Richard’s second, Dreams Don’t Mean Anything, “still existed somewhere, on the windowsills of seaside boarding houses, on the shelves of hospital libraries, at the bottom of tea chests in storage, going for ten pee [pence] in cardboard boxes at provincial book fairs.” A decade has passed since his novels found publishers. His newest, titled Untitled, with its “octuple time scheme and its rotating crew of 16 unreliable narrators,” gives fierce headaches to editors to whom it’s submitted.

His oldest friend, also turning 40, is the untalented, not-too-bright Gwyn Barry whose new-age bagatelle about a multicultural rural commune, Amelior (as in “ameliorate,” “to make or become better, improve”), has become a worldwide bestseller. Barry has married the lushly bosomed blond Lady Demeter (“related to the Queen...was addicted to cocaine and heroin.... In the Queen’s extended family, being a junkie, like keeping a pony, is standard stuff: the landscaped grounds of the high-priced detox clinics are like lawn parties at Sandringham”).

Richard seeks revenge. He hires toughs to beat Barry, tries to cuckold him, schemes to keep him from winning the Profundity Requital, an award that offers lifetime support. Richard’s plots all backfire in Tom and Jerry-like scenes.

Now, some pure Amis. A magazine hires Richard to accompany Barry on Barry’s triumphal U.S. tour. Richard, addicted to tobacco, readies for his journey. “His mouth was plugged with a gum called Nicoteen. And he wore circular nicotine patches, from the same product stable, on his left forearm and right biceps. Richard’s blood brownly brewed, like something left overnight in the teapot. He was a cigarette; and he felt like one. What he was doing was practising nonsmoking. He knew how Americans treated smokers, people of smoke, people of fire and ash, with their handfuls of dust. He knew he would be asked to do an awful lot of it: nonsmoking.”

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Martin Amis - every male writer under 45 would secretly like to be him
Martin Amis - every male writer under 45 would secretly like to be him

Author: Martin Amis, born 1949, Oxford, England, middle child of Sir Kingsley and Hilly Amis, godson of poet Philip Larkin. Martin was five when Sir Kingsley’s Lucky Jim became a transatlantic bestseller. His parents divorced when Martin was 12. His father remarried and then divorced. His mother married twice again. Sir Kingsley, now in his 70s and fearful if left alone, lives as a boarder with Hilly and her third husband, Lord Kilmarnock.

Martin was educated at Oxford and later became literary editor of the New Statesman. The 5'6 " Martin quelled shyness to become a masterful skirt-chaser who loved and left them. Long before Tina Brown ascended to editorship of first Vanity Fair and then the New Yorker, she was Martin’s girlfriend, as were a series of pretty, fledgling English novelists. In 1984 Amis put womanizing behind him and married wealthy young American widow Antonia Phillips, described as one of the great beauties of her generation. The couple settled in London and had two sons, now eight and ten years old.

At 24 Amis won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, The Rachel Papers. He has published seven novels since, plus three books of journalism (one of which, The Moronic Inferno, collects pieces written during visits to the United States) and one of short stories. Each has been well received, although England’s classiest laurel, the Booker Prize, continues to bypass Amis. Bookered or not, “every male writer under 45,” said English novelist Will Self, “would secretly like to be Martin Amis.”

The English press follows Amis (and other English writers) as closely as our press sniffs after TV lowlifes like Roseanne. Londoners who will never read one word of Amis, father or son, have scanned several hundred-thousand words about the Amises. They know that Martin’s brother endures stunning depression, that his sister is a drunk, that Sir Kingsley can’t be left alone a minute without spiraling into vertiginous panic. They know about Amis’s long rivalrous friendship with novelist Julian Barnes, know that the two men battled at tennis, snooker, and chess. They know that Barnes’s wife, Patricia Kavanaugh, for many years was Martin’s agent, that Martin dumped her for an American agent nicknamed “The Jackal,” and that Barnes then cut the friendship with a chilly letter.

In 1993 when Amis left Antonia Phillips for the younger American heiress Isabel Fonseca, London headlines offered: “MARTIN AMIS WRITES OFF HIS MARRIAGE” and “BRAINY, DARK AND STUNNING: THE WOMAN MARTIN AMIS HAS FALLEN FOR.” Tabloids sent photographers to stake out girlfriend and wife, the latter characterized as “angry, devastated and utterly betrayed.”

When Amis flew to Manhattan for periodontal surgery, London newspapers interviewed dentists: “THE PEARLY KING OF LITERATURE. WHAT DID MARTIN AMIS HAVE DONE TO HIS TEETH?” One columnist wrote, “Amis has swapped his Ford poplar gnashers for a gleaming Cadillac grille” and minted a word for Martin’s dental upgrade: “dentrification.”

But can this fellow with new teeth, new mistress, abandoned wife, drunken sister, write? Yes. “The nearest thing to a Nabokov,” one critic said about Amis, “that the punk generation has to show.”

The Information; Harmony Books; 1995; 384 pages; $24

Type: Fiction

Setting: London, United States

Time: 1960s to present

“Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say nothing.” So opens the tale of failed, though gifted, novelist Richard Tull (for whom do and don’t read Martin Amis). On the eve of his 40th birthday, Tull finds himself impotent, bleeding from the gums, frequently drunk, unable to quit smoking (even though his cigarette smoke makes his asthmatic son wheeze and choke). Tull’s wife, Gina, supports him and their twins. Tull adds to their income by reviewing biographies with titles like The Soul’s Dark Cottage and The Proverbial Husbandman, and serves as a vanity press editor. His first novel, Aforethought, found minor success (“nobody understood it, or even finished it, but, equally, nobody was sure it was shit”). Aforethought and Richard’s second, Dreams Don’t Mean Anything, “still existed somewhere, on the windowsills of seaside boarding houses, on the shelves of hospital libraries, at the bottom of tea chests in storage, going for ten pee [pence] in cardboard boxes at provincial book fairs.” A decade has passed since his novels found publishers. His newest, titled Untitled, with its “octuple time scheme and its rotating crew of 16 unreliable narrators,” gives fierce headaches to editors to whom it’s submitted.

His oldest friend, also turning 40, is the untalented, not-too-bright Gwyn Barry whose new-age bagatelle about a multicultural rural commune, Amelior (as in “ameliorate,” “to make or become better, improve”), has become a worldwide bestseller. Barry has married the lushly bosomed blond Lady Demeter (“related to the Queen...was addicted to cocaine and heroin.... In the Queen’s extended family, being a junkie, like keeping a pony, is standard stuff: the landscaped grounds of the high-priced detox clinics are like lawn parties at Sandringham”).

Richard seeks revenge. He hires toughs to beat Barry, tries to cuckold him, schemes to keep him from winning the Profundity Requital, an award that offers lifetime support. Richard’s plots all backfire in Tom and Jerry-like scenes.

Now, some pure Amis. A magazine hires Richard to accompany Barry on Barry’s triumphal U.S. tour. Richard, addicted to tobacco, readies for his journey. “His mouth was plugged with a gum called Nicoteen. And he wore circular nicotine patches, from the same product stable, on his left forearm and right biceps. Richard’s blood brownly brewed, like something left overnight in the teapot. He was a cigarette; and he felt like one. What he was doing was practising nonsmoking. He knew how Americans treated smokers, people of smoke, people of fire and ash, with their handfuls of dust. He knew he would be asked to do an awful lot of it: nonsmoking.”

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