The British author I reckon writes the best, sentence-for-sentence, over the last 40 years has to be Martin Amis. As a prose stylist, he’s superb.
Amis found fame with his first book, a comic novel called The Rachel Papers in 1973 when he was just 24. Somewhat uniquely, he won the Somerset Maugham award for a first novel exactly as his father, Kingsley Amis, had with his own first novel Lucky Jim in 1954, published when he was 32.
But while father and son were both comic novelists who satirised society in their day, they were stylistically worlds apart. Martin was post-modernist from the outset, his narrators invariably conscious of the fact they’re telling a story. The cleverness of his books seemed to annoy his father, as did his – in Kingsley’s words – ‘terrible compulsive vividness… a constant demonstrating of his command of English’.
The Rachel Papers was published while Martin was an editorial assistant at The Times Literary Supplement. Amis has confessed the egotistic narrator was largely autobiographical, and the story about how he meticulously plans, and succeeds in, winning a young woman from her boyfriend is full of hilarious set pieces.
Unusually, his second novel was stronger. In Dead Babies (1975) a group of young hedonists convene on a country house owned by a sex and dentistry-obsessed dwarf for a weekend of drug-fuelled orgies. It’s a great satire on 70s excess.
By the 80s he was the hard-drinking, chain-smoking enfant terrible of British fiction. Private Eye magazine took to calling him Smarty Anus for his flights of purple prose.
His fifth novel, Money (1984) is widely thought to be his best yet. It’s a satire on the greed of Thatcherism and Reaganism. The narrator is film maker John Self, who has a huge appetite for alcohol and porn and worships money. There’s a cameo from novelist Martin Amis, and the narrator is subject to humiliation at the hands of the author.
The book seemed to be something of a turning point for Amis. In his later, excellent memoir Experience (2000), he wrote: ‘It is about tiring of being single; it is about the fear that childlessness will condemn you to childishness.’
He married on the day Money was published, and his first son was born four months later.
The controversial London Fields (1989) was to my mind his other great work of note to date: distinguished by millennial unease and fear of the planet dying, it tells the story of a femme fatale who foresees the date and manner of her own death in a dream, and as murderee effectively manipulates candidates for her murder.
It was – to my mind – criminally omitted from the Booker shortlist when two female judges argued it was misogynistic. Chairman of the judges that year, David Lodge said it was ‘an outcome I still regret’.
I’ve personally found Amis’s output since London Fields less impressive, with occasional hits. I enjoyed the short novels Time’s Arrow (1991) and Night Train (1997), but was underwhelmed by The Information (1995), around the publication of which he ditched his agent Pat Kavanagh, received a friendship-ending letter from her partner Julian Barnes with the pay off line ‘Fuck off’, was reviled for demanding a reported £500,000 advance and ridiculed for supposedly spending a good deal of this on cosmetic dentistry.
I was so disappointed by Yellow Dog (2003) that ever since I’ve given up on his novels, although I’ll always devour the occasional pieces of journalism he produces in his never less than high style, such as his piece on gangs in Columbia for Port magazine in 2011.
Experience, though, bucks that trend and is a truly revealing and intimate portrait of family life, a million miles away from the thin caricatures and cartoonish antics of, for example, Yellow Dog. It details the relationship he had with his father.
‘My father never encouraged me to write… he praised me less often than he publicly dispraised me; but it worked,’ wrote the younger Amis in that memoir.
Perhaps there was an edge of competition involved – Kingsley was on the waning curve of his career when his son’s star was in the ascendancy. When Kingsley made his own return to form in 1986 with the Booker Prize-winning novel The Old Devils, there must have been huge satisfaction.
And when later that year he featured on Desert Island discs with Michael Parkinson, he talked about his affection for Philip Larkin at great length, but his son Martin didn’t merit a mention.
But in Experience there was so much warmth there that the memoir removes any hint they were father and son out of kilter. The anecdotes, the intellectual jousting, the candid honesty and the sheer fun they had together casts those pronouncements and seeming sleights in a very different light.
I hope his singular talent isn’t in terminal decline, as some critics delight in saying: I really do hope Martin Amis has more great novels in him. But if not, there’s work that will live on, there’s The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Success, Money, London Fields, Time’s Arrow and Experience to point to, and when he scaled the heights he was unmatchable.