The Amis Papers
Richard Bradford interviewed by Max Liu.
Martin Amis provokes strong reactions from admirers and detractors alike. Some consider him the greatest English prose stylist of the last half-century while others accuse him of inflammatory views and claim that he hasn’t produced a decent novel since the 1980s. Last year, around publication of The Pregnant Window, it was difficult to open a newspaper without finding gossipy condemnation of Amis. So is now the ideal time for the first biography of the ex-enfant terrible of English letters? Richard Bradford, who has written books about Amis’ father Kingsley, Philip Larkin and Alan Sillitoe, believes so. I sent him my questions in the hope that we might gain some insights into the biographer’s process, debunk the myth of Martin and clear the way for the rigorous discourse that his work warrants. Here’s how it went…
3:AM: When I interviewed Martin Amis he said he wrote Experience following a “concatenation of events.” What prompted you to write the biography?
Richard Bradford: Martin was very helpful when I was researching my biography of Kingsley (2001), doing a couple of interviews and allowing me access to the letters before they were published. He came to Northern Ireland to share a public lecture with me. I was driving him to the airport and he asked, ‘Who’s next?’. I answered, a bit flippantly, ‘What about you?’ Surprisingly, he said yes – and caused me to almost crash the car – but we agreed that it would not be practical to begin until he returned from Uruguay 4 to 5 years later. In the interim I did biographies of Philip Larkin and Alan Sillitoe. Alan and I became good friends. The biography of Martin took about two years, to first draft stage. If there was a particular reason for doing it I suppose the fact that he polarised opinion – as an individual and a writer – was decisive.
3:AM: Is it an authorised biography?
RB: Not ‘authorised’. He was cooperative but there were conventions – mutually agreed to – from the beginning. Primarily, I would not contact members of his close family, though he would be willing to talk with me about them. I fully appreciate his insistence on that. I could approach anyone else for an interview, with his approval. Whether they spoke to me was up to them. Some who said no did so simply to protect their privacy; some others, I suspect, were saving their recollections for their own memoirs. Pure coincidence I suppose, but three of his ex-girlfriends who wouldn’t speak to me sold their stories to the Mail on Sunday during the six months after I contacted them.
3:AM: I was intrigued to read that Martin was surprised when Pat Kavanagh and Tom Maschler asked when his novel would be complete. You say he hadn’t told them he was writing, so did Kingsley Amis?
RB: Yes, Kingsley would have told them. But only in passing. He was not trying to pull strings. Both of them – Maschler and Kavanagh – were hard-nosed professionals and would not have published a bad novel, irrespective of its author’s connections.
3:AM: You write, “Like most major writers he rarely admits to anything as compromising as influence… ” I’ve always thought Amis was open about his influences – Nabakov, Bellow, Joyce, Austen – so what do you mean?
RB: It depends what you mean by ‘influence’. He admires greatly, and enjoys, the authors you mention. They and others played a part in the formation of his literary ideals – his personal cannon if you like – but I think his writing is his own.
3:AM: Do his experiences with Eric Jacobs, over the first biography of his father, make him suspicious of biographers? He praised your book about Kingsley, but did you have to earn his trust and co-operation?
RB: We fell out a few times. Not so much on the nature of the book as on things such as nuclear disarmament and climate change. Let’s put it this way, on these and many other matters I probably have more in common with Kingsley than Martin. Back to your original question, I think his dealings with Eric Jacobs caused him to become wary of biographers.
3:AM: I get the impression that you also share Kingsley’s resistance to modernism. You write that Joyce “failed momentously.”
RB: Yes, I’d say my views on modernism are similar to Kingsley’s. Martin and I disagreed on that too. He thinks that Ulysses is one of the greatest novels ever written. In my view, were it not for the elitism of academia – that is, a wish to protect the self-indulgent and inaccessible from the vulgarity of the marketplace – it would have gone out of print many years ago. I argue that Martin is responsible, in part, for making the avant-garde more saleable and reader friendly, without dumbing it down.
3:AM: He must have been pleased with that old photograph on the cover. Is he still smoking?
RB: I haven’t seen him since just before he was arranging the move to the US. He was still smoking then, roll-ups as ever.
3:AM: Why do you think he gets such a hard time from the press? Does he get a fairer hearing in the US?
RB: Regarding your first question, the press – and plenty of others who tell stories and write letters to the press – often begin to foam at the mouth as soon as he says and writes anything. Why? Envy plays a part. But also, he is inclined to say things that many of us think but keep quiet about to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of the p.c. establishment. Perhaps he receives a little less harassment in the US. Probably because over here we tend to reserve a special brand of contempt for those who are successful at what they do. Envy again, I suppose.
3:AM: You say that characters from the short story ‘State of England’ reveal as much about the early 1990s as P.G Wodehouse‘s characters do of the 1920s and 1930s. Later, you call Money, “as important a literary landmark as Ulysses,” despite your reservations about Joyce. Do you really hold Amis in such high regard?
RB: Yes. I confess that there are some of his novels that I don’t like but I could say the same about the plays of Shakespeare. But I admire them. Martin, more than any other novelist, has changed the landscape of contemporary British fiction.
3:AM: “What I value is innocence.” When I read that quote from Amis in your book, I was reminded of an interview where he said that writers are innocents. What do you think?
RB: His first comment is sincere. As an individual he does value innocence. Some might treat it as a weakness, a form of vulnerability, but I think Martin sees it as a quality possessed by children that can be preserved, even improved on, as we mature. Maybe his comment on writers as innocents is a little bit solipsistic. I mean: Mailer, Hemingway, Orwell, Kingsley himself, Larkin…? Innocents? And Ben Johnson stabbed a man to death.
3:AM: You discuss reversals in Yellow Dog, backwards chronology in Times Arrow, characters from The Information who represent opposing sides of Amis’ personality. Do you think the consistent use of reversals and binaries might be linked to his parents’ divorce? After all, a broken home can lead children to see the world in terms of division and opposition.
RB: To be honest, I’d never thought of that. You might have a point. He treats their divorce in a way that seems remarkably indulgent, never laying blame or even allowing that he was unsettled by what happened. But who knows how he really felt, more than 45 years ago? Or whether later he channelled very private feelings into his work?
3:AM: You describe The Information as a “novel of extraordinary complexity and outstanding quality.” I remember Martin saying that he thought that book would be better understood “when I’m gone” and I’ve always suspected that he considers it his best. Any truth in that?
RB: I think perhaps he does think it his best, though not for obvious reasons. It was distilled from experiences and emotions that were, for him, painful. But it was not simply his way of disposing of them. It is a great book in its own right.
3:AM: Which of his works do you rate most highly?
RB: Money. I wouldn’t argue that it is his best – we probably all have different opinions on that – but I enjoy it most. It’s hilarious and sad. I like Dead Babies a great deal too. Comedy does not get much blacker than that.
3:AM: There have been some negative reviews of this book so do you agree with Kingsley that a bad review should ruin breakfast but not lunch?
RB: There were some bad opening ones – at present though they’re running about 60:40 in my favour – and of course you remember the bad ones, so I’d disagree with Kingsley. Though it all depends on how much liquid you take with lunch. A couple of reviewers seemed unable to control their loathing. Personally, I never give a bad review. Dishonest I know, but all books have a few redeeming features and life’s to short to make other people miserable.
3:AM Would you consider writing a book about writing this biography?
RB: Oh yes indeed. It would – will – be very revealing and entertaining.
3:AM: Why was this book delayed? Did Martin’s lawyers and his agent, as some have speculated, “crawl all over the manuscript”?
RB: The phrase you quote is typical hack-speak. We’d agreed from the beginning that he would read the manuscript and make sure everything was factually correct. More than 500 pages of typing takes a while to get through. He is, as you know, a very busy man and it was generous of him to check it. I was not going to pester him with deadlines. But the main cause of the delay was that I had to change publishers. Again this was twisted and exaggerated by the press.
3:AM: Did he only check to make sure everything was factually correct? Or did he object to any of your readings of his work and events?
RB: I was allowed my own opinions on his work and lifestyle. He did comment on a few things he thought I’d misinterpreted – not related to his work; that was up to me – but whether or not I rewrote was my choice. I know the notion of ‘facts’ can be a grey area, particularly when you try to connect events with motive or state of mind, and he did question some of my interpretations of things. When these involved people he knew intimately I generally assumed – though not always – that his judgment was more trustworthy than mine. A point not directly related to your question but which occurred to me after this book: Martin rarely writes letters and his emails are concise to say the least and I’d say that in less than a generation, when electronic communication has virtually extinguished hard copy private correspondence, the literary biography will die, at least if the subjects are near-contemporary authors. Letters are the lifeblood of biography and even if people, alert to their legacies, start keeping decades of emails how will we know if they are authentic? It’s easier to alter or forge an email than to change what appears above a signature.
3:AM: Christopher Hitchens comes across extremely well in your book. I sensed a terrific working rapport between the pair of you so would you consider writing a biography of him?
RB: Christopher was really helpful. But he is for everyone. He’s a fine man. I think he gave special time to this because he holds Martin in such esteem, as a writer and a friend. A biography of Christopher Hitchens? It would be impertinent to ask. And I don’t think he’d be keen. Irrespective of what he thinks of me, he’s recently published his memoirs. But well, it would be great.
RB: I’m reluctant to speculate but there’s something about The Pregnant Widow that suggests a certain mellowing of tone – without any diminution in quality – and if rumours of his next are correct – British society mercilessly satirised – then he seems to be taking new directions. He is not becoming conservative exactly; let’s say unpredictable but without a capricious desire to shock. So yes, I’d say there is some very good stuff to come.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 25th, 2011.