Richard Bradford’s biography of Amis has inspired some brilliantly damning reviews. Leo Robson’s review for The New Statesman was particularly acclaimed, being nominated for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. And I have the feeling that if Robson’s review hadn’t been nominated, someone else’s review of Martin Amis: The Biography would have been. The most obvious candidate would have been Geoff Dyer’s, but then, his piece on Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending had already been nominated. It would seem Martin Amis: The Biography was only good for invigorating the standard of book reviewing. The majority of reviews focused on Bradford’s misinformation (– The Statesman devoted an entire article to correcting his inaccuracies). But, since the book fails on so many levels and in each with such articulacy – it is a polyglot of failure – there remains much unexplored territory.
But there is another way of looking at the book’s apparent failure: it seems the fault is ours. We’ve been reading it wrong. Just because Bradford has written biographies of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin doesn’t mean we should automatically assume that Martin Amis: The Biography is also a straightforward biographical work. Silly us! No, it is a Nabokovian novel in the form of a biography, one in which the subject, known for his forays into the post-modern, is punished for his tricksiness by having his biography written by an incompetent. Because, surely, the worst thing that could happen for Amis won’t be not winning the Booker for Lionel Asbo, or having second-rate authors strain themselves to give him a slamming. No, the biggest hit will be correspondent to his particular hubris: that of aspiring to literary immortality. This was his topic in The Information ( – the protagonist reviewed biographies of mediocre literary figures while nobody appreciated his own books). The worst thing for Amis would be a misanthologisation for future generations. Imagine literature students of the future looking for Amis biographies in university libraries. Even if better ones appear, the author of this one’s name begins with a B, so it would still probably be first in the catalogue.
What a brilliant stroke of cruelty this is on behalf of Richard Bradford the arch-author (as opposed to Richard Bradford the character: that feckless, fusty idiot)! The fates really have all turned out for the event of Amis’s rubbishing. But the joke is clearly on the biographer character, because despite his inadvertent efficiency in making Amis look terrible, his subject still manages to elude him. We laugh when it takes Bradford a whole paragraph of flatus to commend the ‘brilliant and wonderfully economic verbal choreography’ of his subject. Or when in the last few pages he sagaciously informs us (while giving examples of his own bad style) that Amis’s talent as a stylist helps him, as a reviewer, to differentiate between good and bad writing: ‘These are the comments of a ruthless, unsparing critic, a man who feels that stylistic laziness is an insult to the profession.’ Amis wins! And the triumph of subject over biographer alludes to this work’s clear ancestor: Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight – another fictional biography in which the subject and his fictions are too tricksy for the biographer. V, Nabokov’s narrator, poses the question: ‘Would the biographee have found that special “Knightian twist” about it which would have fully compensated the blundering biographer?’
My bogus reading could go on indefinitely: the ironies are all this glaring and Bradford’s unsuitability for the job can’t help but announce itself.
There is something about a modern literary biography that ought to inspire huge anxiety in the biographer. His subject would have spent his whole writing life practicing for this moment – the ultimate test of literary skill: the influencing of their biography through their corpus and their public actions. The job of the subject is to hide himself in his fiction. This is the ‘Knightian twist’ – the possibility that the author is the only one who can solve his puzzles. Imagine the headache the Philip Roth biography will give someone. But you can imagine, also, that a Roth biographer would relish all this; would be hip to Roth’s tricks. You’d expect an Amis biographer, likewise, to be full of guile as a reader.
Luckily for a biographer, Amis has repeated many of his maxims almost word for word in his reviews, fiction, newspaper and television interviews for at least thirty years. There are Amis sound bites. He very much likes saying the same things about himself. But still, you’d expect the Amis biographer to have a complimentary skill set to his subject: a mind that’s receptive to Amis’s attitude, sensibility, style and shortcomings.
Amis’s fiction and non-fiction, if anything, seek to teach us not to be Richard Bradford.
The ‘biography’ begins with an account of Kingsley’s escapades in Swansea and Cambridge, then Martin’s disinterest at school and sudden late epiphany where he ‘became an autodidact and went from nowhere to an Oxford First in little more than three years.’ This is followed by coverage of his time at The New Statesman and another epiphany, this time political, where previously apathetic Amis becomes preoccupied with nuclear disarmament, Stalinist cruelty and Fundamentalist Islam.
Alongside the above developments we have Amis’s fiction and his love life. The latter is what seems to interest Bradford most: he is so impressed by Amis’s success with women that all he can offer is slavering commendation. The admirer then becomes the defender of Amis’s love-ratting in the seventies and eighties, saying things like ‘few males would have behaved otherwise,’ citing the equally weak argument of Anthony Howard as moral authority: ‘any male who claims he would refuse such unsolicited opportunities is a liar.’ Bradford argues with the moral logic of a Coronation Street adulterer. ‘It was on a plate’ would have made his case with fewer words. The weightless appeal to ‘few would’ appears again and again in Bradford’s justification of his subject’s behaviour: ‘few would expect that in business nostalgic fidelity should overrule financial necessity.’ Who, we ask, are these ‘few’ to whom Bradford defers?
(Moral judgement aside, his capability for immoral judgement is also poor. I admit, I was interested in hearing about Amis’s love-life as a young man. But even on the level of trash or gossip, Bradford manages to squeeze any salaciousness from it. His ogling – the way he ogles: with the wheezing admiration of an old impotent living through his nephew’s exploits – gets in the way of our own ogling.)
This irresponsibility of both judgement and rhetoric is applied to the fiction as well. Reading Bradford, one often thinks one has missed a trick; that paragraphs of his argument must have been left out by a slovenly copy-editor. After quoting a number of negative critical responses to Yellow Dog, he shamelessly claims that ‘it is none the less a work of genius,’ without offering much in the way of a defence. On the topic of Amis as formal innovator, Bradford would have us believe that a novel with two narrators was ‘previously inconceivable’ before Success was published in 1978, and that this patented device ‘would later be borrowed by Julian Barnes.’
Not content with butchering Amis, Bradford wades, cleaver in hand, through the rest of the canon. He must specifically have it in for Nabokov, because he can’t stop talking about how Amis constantly surpasses him. Success ‘outranks’ Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. (Yes. He’s allegedly read The Real Life and still doesn’t get the irony.) John Self of Money is ‘more unsettling than Humbert [Humbert],’ while Xan Meo of Yellow Dog makes Humbert ‘virtuous by comparison.’ (Not true: Xan Meo, unlike Humbert, never acts out his pedophilic desires). The really disturbing thing here is that Bradford seems to be attempting to rip off an Amisism as a form of encoded crawling and fawning. In an essay on Lolita, Amis said that in terms of conscious cruelty, ‘all the Lovelaces and Osmonds turn out, on not very much closer inspection, to be mere hooligans and tyrants when compared to Humbert Humbert.’ This happens again when Bradford makes a comment about Amis’s first person techniques being the closest a prose writer has come to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, which alludes to something else Amis said in the same essay about Nabokov ‘[Constructing] a mind in the way that a prose Browning might have gone about it, through rigorous dramatic monologue.’ I get the impression Bradford wants Amis to read these comments and raise an eyebrow in smug mutual congratulation. (This, one would assume, is meant as an offering to appease Amis for taking his name in vain and his other reviews out of context.)
Then there is the problem of the totally uninteresting, as well as inappropriate, personal voice that pervades the biography. If we don’t get a good impression of what Amis is like, we get an accurate portrait of Bradford. He can’t help interrupting to tell us what gets on his nerves ( – usually Modernism and ‘political correctness’). But this would be less irritating if he didn’t insist on demonstrating his ignorance by addressing these subjects as if he’d given them a second thought, rather than having dismissed them offhand as he so clearly has. After disclosing his ‘abiding contempt for all brands of psychoanalysis’ he goes on to give us his two cents on Robert Jay Lifton’s psychological study of Nazi guilt, The Nazi Doctors. According to Bradford, Amis’s research into the female psyche for his novel Other People amounted to questions like ‘why do you choose that kind of make-up, what do you do with your hair and so on?’ And so on? And so on, indeed.
The fundamental error, it seems, is that Bradford’s study shouldn’t be a biography. It should be the novel I was pretending it was earlier, a novel of the school Bradford invents for Amis’s works in the course of his ‘biography’: ‘Conservative Postmodernism’ (– after Bradford’s treatment, even something edgy enough to have a ‘post-’ prefix arrives with a portly gut). The concept would be slightly different from the one I suggested earlier: a biographer is so enamoured with his subject he not only misunderstands him; he not only loses any analytical ability or purchase, but becomes all the things his subject stands against.
In the early 80s Amis reviewed A.N Wilson’s The Life of John Milton. He attacked it for all the same faults Bradford shows in his book. As far as content goes, it ‘is not a scholarly biography; it isn’t popular either, or semiotic or psychohistorical. It is not a critical biography. It is, rather, an uncritical biography.’ As far as style goes, it ‘must set some kind of record as a thesaurus of speculation.’ The real sad thing about all this is that Bradford, as well as reading Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, must have also read this review in The War Against Cliché and not noticed himself. If it were a novel, this would form the axis of our sympathy and pity. But Martin Amis: The Biography is allegedly a work of non-fiction. If it achieves anything at all, it demonstrates how unsuitable Bradford is for the job of explaining his subject’s life and prose.