Martin Amis (AY-mihs) became a distinguished contributor to British letters immediately upon his 1971 graduation from Oxford, when he began reviewing books for the Observer. His prize-winning first novel, The Rachel Papers, appeared in 1973, the beginning of a prolific career rivaling that of his father, novelist Kingsley Amis. In contrast to those of his father, however, Amis’s novels are in a style often called postmodern. Heavily influenced by such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, Amis experimented with techniques including the unreliable narrator, direct address to the audience, and a self-consciously playful use of language. By the 1990’s Amis had become one of the premier living British writers, nominated for many prizes and discussed frequently in the literary press, often in a manner that crossed over into gossip. Public interest in Amis’s life, as well as his works, probably derived from some combination of curiosity about his father, admiration of his achievement as a writer, and envy of his intelligence and self-confidence.
Amis was born August 25, 1949, in Oxford, England, to Kingsley Amis and the former Hilary Bardwell. An older brother, Philip, was born in 1947 and a younger sister, Sally, in 1954. The family lived for a time in Wales and later in Princeton, New Jersey, for one year, an experience that gave Amis a feeling of connection with the United States. His parents separated in 1963, and his mother, Hilary, moved with the children to Majorca for four months. From that point on, Kingsley Amis lived with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard until their divorce in 1980. During this period Martin divided his allegiance between two households. His rapport with his father’s second wife, whom he called Jane, was warm. He credits her for taking charge of his schooling during a tumultuous adolescence. In 1981 Hilary, now married to Alastair Kilmarnock, returned with her husband to care for Kingsley in his declining years. Kingsley Amis died in 1995.
After three years at Exeter College, Oxford, Amis became a literary journalist and started work on his first novel, The Rachel Papers. During this time, his seven-year affiliation with the New Statesman had begun. There he worked alongside two men who became his close friends: James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens. The three of them were leading lights of literary London, establishing reputations that remained undiminished for the next several decades. After leaving the New Statesman in 1980, Amis continued to publish reviews and nonfiction in that periodical and many others in England and the United States. He was loosely associated with a group of fellow Oxford graduates including novelists Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, critic and biographer Ian Hamilton, and journalist Tina Brown. Most of these people remained friends and associates, despite the painful rift in Amis’s friendship with Barnes that occurred in 1994 when Amis severed his professional relationship with Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanaugh, who had been one of his literary agents.
In 1984, Amis married Antonia Phillips, with whom he had two sons, Jacob (born 1984) and Louis (1985). They were divorced in 1994, and Amis married Isabel Fonseca; they would have two daughters, Fernanda (1997) and Clio (1999). In 1995, Amis discovered that he also had an older daughter. Her name was Delilah Seale; her mother had died when she was two years old, and she had been raised in the belief that another man was her biological father. The reunion of father and daughter proved a happy one, discussed in Amis’s memoir Experience.
Experience provides fascinating but profoundly incomplete glimpses into Amis’s life. Certain episodes are recounted in great detail, including the stories of Delilah Seale and Julian Barnes, as well as an account of the prolonged and painful reconstruction of his teeth. Other situations, such as the events leading up to his divorce from Phillips and marriage to Fonseca, are not described in specific terms. Some...
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