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
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-