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lip lit: Martin Amis: The Biography

Martin Amis is the Mick Jagger of the literary world. His leathery skin and faint monobrow would normally be viewed as unattractive qualities if taken individually but when paired with a defiant gaze and a freshly rolled cigarette Amis exudes charisma. It’s hard not to stare. It’s hard not to want to be him. It’s hard not to be faintly attracted to the man.

On the cover of Richard Bradford’s biography Amis is decked out in a slick black suit. The photograph is conveniently cut off just before the hairline so we don’t get a peek at his thinning, grey hair. It is a forgiving and flattering photograph. Indeed the forgiving and flattering nature of the front cover extends to the biography itself. Bradford is clearly in awe of Amis. He is understanding, sympathetic and generous to the man who, let’s face it, was a serial philanderer and a ‘little shit’ to quote Kingsley Amis.

I’m aware that a first time reviewer tends to be excessively negative so I will try my hardest not to make that mistake here. But it must be said that Bradford is frustratingly sycophantic in his treatment of Amis.

When addressing Amis’s love rat reputation Bradford is careful to include statements from past girlfriends (the ones that forgive that is). Amis’s friends in their accounts emphasise the fact that women threw themselves at him. He didn’t seek out sex, sex came to him and what was he supposed to do? Say no? This point is hammered home by Bradford. Guilt and responsibility are gradually washed off Amis until he transforms from shameless womaniser to misunderstood victim. Poor guy must have had a really tough time with all the women and the sex.

The same goes for Amis’s writing. Bradford heaps praise on Amis’s innovative style and revolutionary voice. The great novels are glorified while the flops are swept under the rug. In Bradford’s eyes Amis can do no wrong. He even takes a swipe at other writers such as Phillip Roth and John Updike when championing Amis’s writing. ‘It is almost as though Roth and Updike have spent so long inside their own novels that they have forgotten that fiction should be informed by something that resembles a thematic direction or interest.’ Ouch!

While Amis gets off scot-free throughout this biography, Bradford does not. He has about as much finesse with the genre of biography as a fish has with walking. There are sections of the book which are regurgitated, embarrassing typos, and clumsy paragraphs where Bradford attempts to analyse Amis’s body of work. Awkward and feeble, the biography is only saved by the revealing interviews given by Amis’s friends. I admit that I only bought the book because of Christopher Hitchens’s wonderfully indiscreet accounts of particular events in Amis’s life.

Amis is undoubtedly a fascinating subject and it is a shame that the first biography is such a patchy, unsatisfying affair. Of course if you’re only looking for some salacious gossip about the hedonistic lifestyles of the literary glitterati then this is your book. But if you want a well-written account of Amis’s life then stick with Amis himself and read Experience: A Memoir.

Martin Amis: The Biography is published by Constable.

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