Martin Louis Amis (AY-mihs) was born on August 25, 1949, in Oxford, England. He is the son of Kingsley Amis, the famous novelist, and Hilary Amis, daughter of a shoe-manufacturing millionaire. These parents would soon plunge young Martin into a kind of nomadic existence as they moved from one place to another, an odyssey that would require him to attend no fewer than fourteen different schools and live in at least three different countries. This heterogeneous background, in fact, may well account for his uncanny ability to appreciate various cultures, classes, and occupations.
Martin Amis, along with his older brother Philip and younger sister Sally, spent his early childhood years in Swansea, southern Wales, where the elder Amis held a teaching position at Swansea University. While in Swansea, Kingsley Amis published his most famous novel, Lucky Jim (1954), and the instant success of that novel initiated a string of new teaching appointments, including a crucially important year (1959) in Princeton, New Jersey. During that year, the ten-year-old Martin began to acquire his lifelong fascination with the exuberance of American slang, as shown much later in his brilliantly comic masterpiece Money: A Suicide Note (1984), which is set in both New York and London.
In 1960, the Amis family settled once more in England, this time in Cambridge, but the family unity was shattered the next year, when Kingsley and Hilary Amis were divorced. Young Martin spent the next year, 1962, on the island of Majorca, Spain, in the company of his mother, sister, and brother. There he attended an international school with a wide variety of students. In 1963, he returned to England and briefly became a professional actor by landing a role in the film production of A High Wind in Jamaica (1965). During the next year, he attended school in London, where the primary focus of his life was social not academic, for he spent the bulk of his time investigating the lowlife of the city, not unlike the feckless ne’er-do-wells of his novel London Fields (1989).
Around 1965, possibly under the influence of his stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, Amis began to read serious literature and prepare himself for a university career by attending a series of “crammers” or preparatory schools. In 1968, he was admitted to Exeter College, Oxford; in 1971, he received a B.A. with first-class honors in English.
Amis began his career as a man of letters in 1971, although at first he was operating strictly behind the scenes as a book reviewer for The Observer and as editorial assistant and fiction and poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Simultaneously, public acclaim attached itself to his name after the appearance of The Rachel Papers (1973), a detailed and largely autobiographical work about the sexual exploits of a student named Charles Highway. Even though The Rachel Papers was Amis’s first novel, it received unusually lavish praise from the demanding British reviewers and won the prestigious Maugham Award in 1974, exactly twenty years after his father had won the same award for Lucky Jim.
In 1975, Amis became the assistant literary editor of the New Statesman, a magazine with which he would remain closely associated after becoming a full-time writer for that publication. In 1975, Amis also wrote his second novel, the controversial Dead Babies (1975), which explores the effects of drugs in a communelike setting that is destroyed by horrifying violence. This gruesome and realistic treatment of drug-induced madness caused the second American publisher to change the title to Dark Secrets (1977).
Success (1978), Amis’s third novel, continued his preoccupation with sexual excess, as well as with autobiographical elements. Certainly it can be no coincidence that the narrative plot of Success revolves around the lives of two brothers, Terry and Gregory Riding, and one...
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