(from the Introduction to Understanding Martin Amis, by James Diedrick (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995); click on the title or cover image above to buy the book from amazon.com)
In the twenty-four years leading up to the publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis lived the kind of life that would be the envy of any aspiring writer. He was born (on August 25, 1949) to the novelist Kingsley Amis and Hilly Bardwell just five years before Lucky Jim brought transatlantic fame to its author and transatlantic travel to his family. During the almost ten years Martin Amis lived in South Wales his father's friend, the poet Philip Larkin, made frequent visits to the Amis household. He spent his tenth year in America (Princeton, New Jersey), part of his thirteenth in Spain, and several months of his eighteenth filming A High Wind in Jamaica in the West Indies. By the time he was nineteen he had attended a series of fourteen schools and a series of "crammers" in London and Brighton (designed to prepare a student for university entrance).
From 1969 to 1971 he attended Exeter College at Oxford University, where his tutors was Jonathan Wordsworth, a direct descendant of the poet William Wordsworth, and the poet Craig Raine. Graduating with a formal first in literature, he was hired to write book reviews for the distinguished weekly the Observer. He was twenty one. In short succession, he also joined two other prestigious British periodicals: the Times Literary Supplement, where he was hired as an editorial assistant in 1972, and the leftist weekly the New Statesman, which he began reviewing for in 1973. In 1974 he was named fiction and poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement --a post he held for three years. In 1977 he became literary editor of the New Statesman.
Amis remained with the New Statesman for seven years. He was named assistant literary editor in 1975 and literary editor in 1977. His association with the paper was the most significant of his journalistic career. It secured his reputation as a member of London's literary intelligentsia; it also deepened his left- liberal political allegiances. Amis's friendships on the paper bear out this latter point: in 1976 he and two of the New Statesman's most committed socialists, James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens, formed what they called the "26 Club" (all three were twenty-six at the time). Amis now looks back on that time with a mixture of nostalgia and humility. "We did think we were a hot trio," he says. "The 26 Club! Now we almost weep with embarrassment."
In 1980, having published three novels and sold one screenplay, Amis resigned from his editorial position at the New Statesman to write full time, although he has continued to publish non-fiction in England and America, including reviews in the Observer, The London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review and essays in The Atlantic, Esquire, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Amis was now a major literary figure in London, and fast becoming something of a celebrity. He and fellow novelists Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, critic Ian Hamilton, journalist Tina Brown, and poets Craig Raine and James Fenton were often referred to collectively as "the New Oxford Wits," signifying their influence on literary culture as well as their common university backgrounds. His rapid rise to prominence made him the target of attacks in the popular press (the satirical journal Private Eye took to calling him "Smarty Anus," and some attributed his early success to nepotism) even while many lesser writers strove to imitate his style.
"His mixture of precocity, great intelligence, and wide sexual success is bound to provoke envy," his friend and fellow writer Julian Barnes has said. "People try to write like Martin. There's something very infectious and competitive about it." Between 1981 and the present, Amis has published five more novels, four volumes of non-fiction, and a collection of short stories on the theme of nuclear terror. His work also appears regularly in the New Yorker.
Left out of this brief account is the complex relationship between Amis's career and that of his father, who died in 1995. The parallels suggest one source of all the "doubles" that haunt the younger Amis's fiction. Both attained formal "firsts" at Oxford; both won the prestigious Somerset Maugham prize for their first novels; both write comic fictions that satirize prevailing social conditions; both have been alternately labeled voices of their generations and pornographers. Even the significant aesthetic and political differences between the two should not obscure two larger ideological affinities: to differing degrees, bourgeois and patriarchal assumptions inform all their writing.
It is the very tensions and conflicts masked by such a summary that have been most influential in shaping Martin Amis's outlook and career. Indeed, the complex question of Amis's "anxiety of influence" in relation to his father, and his father's generation, is central to an understanding of his fiction and to his particular brand of "postmodernism." The phrase "anxiety of influence" derives from the writing of literary theorist Harold Bloom, who places the Oedipal struggle between literary "fathers" and "sons" at the symbolic center of all relations between writers, texts, and their predecessors. In Bloom's view (which is unrepentantly phallocentric), a writer unconsciously perceives his most significant precursors as potentially castrating father figures, and thus employs strategies intended to disarm them. These characteristically involve taking up the literary forms of the precursors and revising, recasting, displacing them.
In Martin Amis's case, of course, this symbolic conflict assumes a literal dimension. It even comes complete with primal scenes of rivalry in which texts substitute for other extensions of the male self, their concealment and display all part of the filial competition. Kingsley Amis reports that when his son was still living at home, "whenever I walked into a room where he was writing, he immediately put his hand over the paper in the typewriter." This account implies a father's interest turned back by a son's suspicion, but the son's way of representing the situation shifts the emphasis radically: "My father, I think, aided by a natural indolence, didn't really take much notice of my early efforts to write until I plonked the proof of my first novel on his desk."
The sounds of psychic warfare can be heard in these descriptions, and the skirmishes have continued. Kingsley Amis has fired most of the public shots. Complaining of a "terrible compulsive vividness in his style," he has said he can't finish his son's novels. "It goes back to one of Martin's heroes-- Nabokov. I lay it all at his door--that constant demonstrating of his command of English." Julian Barnes has called Kingsley Amis's public attacks "scandalous," adding "it's a hurt that will never go away."
One result of this disapproval has been a search for substitute literary "fathers." Beyond their considerable intrinsic merit, the pieces Martin Amis has written on such writers as J. G. Ballard, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, V.S. Pritchett, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Angus Wilson reveal a writer obsessed with (male) precursors. With a very few exceptions (Jane Austen, Iris Murdoch, Joan Didion) Amis's considerable body of literary criticism concerns male writers. In terms of Bloom's theory, the proximity and intensity of his father's influence have led him to seek a series of father substitutes whose influence he can acknowledge without filial conflict.
The aesthetic allegiances of most of these writers are clearly opposed to those of Kingsley Amis, whose fiction conforms to the mode of "classic" (as opposed to modernist) realism as David Lodge defines it. "Classic realism, with its concern for coherence and causality in narrative structure, for the autonomy of the individual self in the presentation of character, for a readable homogeneity and urbanity of style, is equated with liberal humanism, common sense and the presentation of bourgeois culture as a kind of norm." Among other things, classic realism strives for verisimilitude, the artfully constructed illusion of reality, achieved in part by a balanced, unified combination of authorial speech and represented speech. The author seeks to fade into the background as the reader is immersed in narrative detail.
By contrast, postmodern texts typically call attention to their status as fictions, as verbal artifices. The language of such texts calls attention to itself, and the author or an author surrogate is often present as a character in the narrative (well- known examples include Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles). Consider the opening of Martin Amis's Money (1984):
"As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows. We banked, and hit a deep welt or grapple-ridge in the road: to the sound of a rifle shot the cab roof ducked down and smacked me on the core of my head. I really didn't need that, I tell you, with my head and face and back and heart hurting a lot all the time anyway, and still drunk and crazed and ghosted from the plane."
Amis's language becomes a kind of character here (and in his other novels)--self-conscious, virtuosic, vying for attention with the plot and the other characters. Amis transforms nouns into verbs ("sharking," "ghosted"), invents a new model of car ("Tomahawk"), and describes its encounter with a cab in a way that evokes America's violent past and present ("across our bows," "Tomahawk," "rifle shot"). The inanimate world itself comes vividly to life in Amis's reifying prose: the very roof of the cab is called into action during America's assault on the narrator (who has just arrived in New York from London). Amis's use of a clearly unreliable first-person narrator in Money (and his preference for it elsewhere) is also characteristic of much postmodernist fiction.
In Money, Martin Amis actually enters the narrative as a character, and plays a game of chess with the main character that influences the story's outcome. The novel thus literalizes a tendency present in all of Amis's novels. Even his omniscient narrators are self-conscious, individualized characters aware of their roles as fiction-makers. Like his first-person narrators, they speak directly to the reader, implicate the reader in the imaginative process.
"I'm all for this intense relationship with the reader," Amis has said. "I really want the reader in there. . . . My narrators have always been shadowy figures. I've always been a kind of shadowy figure hanging around my novels."
Partisans of "classic" realism may object that this self- reflexiveness threatens verisimilitude; Amis disagrees. "I learned very early on that no matter how much you do to forestall it, the reader will believe in the characters and feel concern for them." Moreover, Amis rejects the notion that the reader should identify with the characters. "What the reader should do is identify with the writer. You try and see what the writer is up to, what the writer is arranging and what the writer's point is. Identify with the art, not the people."
These formal and stylistic differences between father and son reflect significant ideological oppositions as well. Explaining why Kingsley Amis, once a member of the Communist party, became so outspokenly conservative in the seventies and eighties, Martin Amis positions himself far to his father's left:
Amis reminds the reader here that history has played a part along with Oedipus in determining the differences between his outlook and his father's. Seeking a source for the fury that fuels much of Amis's cruelest comedy, for the large number of orphans and absent, absentminded, or downright abusive fathers that populate his fiction, the reader might consider the unresolved anger he feels toward a father who has never extended full approval to his son's work. And this would reveal part of the truth. But historical developments have also influenced his outlook.
Here is Martin Amis on one of the most profound of these: "I was born on August 25, 1949: four days later, the Russians successfully tested their first atom bomb, and deterrence was in place. So I had those four carefree days, which is more than my juniors ever had." Thus begins "Thinkability," the polemical "Introduction" to Einstein's Monsters. While some of the anger (and anxiety) here is traceable to his father and his generation, world-historical events have also played a part.
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