A rake’s progress

The life of Martin Amis, from en­fant ter­ri­ble to grand man of English let­ters, is a bi­og­ra­pher’s dream, writes David Free

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WRIT­ING the bi­og­ra­phy of a liv­ing au­thor can’t be easy. Writ­ers like to have con­trol over things — es­pe­cially over the con­tents of books. When Martin Amis ‘‘ co-op­er­ated’’ with his new bi­og­ra­pher, Richard Brad­ford, he didn’t do so un­con­di­tion­ally. He granted Brad­ford a se­ries of in­ter­views, and gave him the green light to ap­proach cer­tain other ap­proved par­ties. But he stip­u­lated that some peo­ple, in­clud­ing his mother and his ex-wife, would not be in­volved.

Con­sid­er­ing these re­stric­tions, Brad­ford hasn’t done an en­tirely bad job. His book is lop­sided, but it’s meaty. It con­tains a bet­ter class of in­for­ma­tion than it would have if he’d tried to pro­ceed with­out Amis’s ap­proval. It isn’t a first-rate bi­og­ra­phy by any means, but it has one cru­cial thing go­ing for it: Martin Amis has lived a life you don’t want to stop read­ing about.

His per­sonal his­tory seems im­plau­si­bly height­ened, like the plot of one of his nov­els. His fa­ther, Kings­ley, was one of the liveli­est writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. His mother, Hi­lary ‘‘ Hilly’’ Bard­well, was a free spirit who rou­tinely let the kids ride around on the roofrack of her car. He pub­lished his first novel, The Rachel Pa­pers, at 24; be­came a rak­ish celebrity; worked his way through a ros­ter of stun­ning and well-con­nected girl­friends. In his mid-20s he in­ad­ver­tently fa­thered a daugh­ter whom he didn’t meet till he was in his mid-40s. His cousin, Lucy Part­ing­ton, van­ished dur­ing the 1970s; 20 years later it emerged she had been ab­ducted and mur­dered by the se­rial killer Fred­er­ick West.

The story has been told be­fore — most art­fully by Amis him­self in his 2000 mem­oir Ex­pe­ri­ence. Brad­ford hasn’t re­told it par­tic­u­larly el­e­gantly, but he has aug­mented it with gen­er­ous chunks of pre­vi­ously un­avail­able in­for­ma­tion. While his in­ter­views with Amis have yielded noth­ing star­tling, some of the writer’s most ar­tic­u­late friends — in­clud­ing Clive James and the re­cently de­ceased Christopher Hitchens — have dis­closed things they never would have if the project had lacked Amis’s bless­ing.

Brad­ford de­serves credit for get­ting their tes­ti­mony down, but he has no knack for con­vert­ing his source ma­te­rial into a flu­ent nar­ra­tive. He tends to bung down the quotes of his in­ter­vie­wees in ver­ba­tim slabs, some of which go on for nearly a page. At times the project veers close to oral bi­og­ra­phy.

By let­ting his sources speak at such length, Brad­ford keeps re­mind­ing you how few of them there are, and how tightly clus­tered to­gether they are on the Amis sym­pa­thy axis. Hitchens goes on the record, lav­ishly, about the dis­in­te­gra­tion of Amis’s friend­ship with Ju­lian Barnes. He di­vulges the con­tents of a hos­tile pri­vate let­ter that Barnes wrote to Amis. This is juicy stuff, all right. But it is, pal­pa­bly, just one side of the story. Whether Barnes was of­fered the chance to give his side I don’t know. If he wasn’t, he’s got a right to feel an­gry all over again.

It isn’t that one longs to hear Amis get bad-mouthed. It’s that Brad­ford’s in­for­ma­tion comes from too few an­gles to give you a prop­erly rounded ac­count of the man. The pages deal­ing with the break-up of Amis’s first mar­riage, to the philoso­pher An­to­nia Phillips, are es­pe­cially thread­bare. For­get about get­ting both sides of that story: Brad­ford is hard-pressed get­ting just one.

But those were the rules, and Brad­ford can’t be blamed for obey­ing them. What he can be blamed for, quite loudly, is the slapdash way he han­dles his ma­te­rial. Brad­ford has writ­ten three pre­vi­ous bi­ogra­phies, in­clud­ing one of Amis’s fa­ther. But there are times when you’d be will­ing to bet he’d never read a lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy be­fore, let alone writ­ten one. He has a weird way of dis­pens­ing es­sen­tial in­for­ma­tion.

On page 48, for ex­am­ple, Amis makes an un­her­alded ref­er­ence to some­body named Rob. Brad­ford, not very help­fully, ap­pends the word ‘‘ Hen­der­son’’ in square brack­ets. Four pages later we’re told what we should have been told straight away: that Rob Hen­der­son was, for some time, Amis’s best friend. Rob sticks around in the nar­ra­tive for sev­eral years. Then on page 102 Brad­ford ca­su­ally, and with­out elab­o­ra­tion, an­nounces that Rob, these days, is ‘‘ dead’’. He doesn’t feel the need to ex­pand on that un­til page 363, where he dis­closes the cause and time of death: can­cer, 2001.

Brad­ford seems tem­per­a­men­tally averse to say­ing the right things in the right or­der, or in­deed at all. A bi­og­ra­phy of Amis, you might think, would be the right place for a clear ac­count of the fa­mous den­tal pro­ce­dures he un­der­went dur­ing the 90s. But Brad­ford doesn’t seem all that in­ter­ested in clear­ing up the mat­ter. He quotes a news-

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