Martin Amis, era-defining British novelist, dies aged 73
Martin Amis, the influential author of era-defining novels including Money and London Fields, and the memoir Experience, has died at the age of 73 at his home at Lake Worth in Florida . His wife, Isabel Fonseca, said that the cause was cancer of the oesophagus.
Amis was among the celebrated group of novelists including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes, whose works defined the British literary scene in the 1980s.
His 1984 novel Money was named by Robert McCrum in the Guardian as among the 100 best novels written in English. Money, wrote McCrum, was a “zeitgeist book that remains one of the dominant novels of the 1980s”.
He added: “The thrill of Money, which is turbo-charged with savage humour from first to last page, is Amis’s prodigal delight in contemporary Anglo-American vernacular.”
The novelist’s use of style and voice was feted by critics, with Veronica Geng writing in her New York Times review that Money was “like a tale taken down in a trance by a medium in the grip of a spirit control, one of those prankish controls waxing autobiographical from a spectral barstool”.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Amis said that “plots really matter only in thrillers”, and that Money was a “voice novel”. “If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed,” he added.
Amis was born in 1949 in Oxford, and educated at schools in Britain, Spain and the US, before going to Exeter College, Oxford, where he graduated with first-class honours in English.
He credited his stepmother, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, with waking him up to literature when he was a drifting adolescent “averaging an O-level a year”: “She gave me a reading list and after an hour, I went and knocked on her study door and said: ‘I’ve got to know: does Elizabeth marry Darcy?’”
His first novel, The Rachel Papers, was published in 1973 while he was working as an editorial assistant at the Times Literary Supplement. It won the Somerset Maugham award in 1974, and another book, the blackly comic Dead Babies, was published the following year. He worked as the literary editor of the New Statesman between 1977 and 1979, during which time he published his third novel, Success.
Amis was often compared with his father, Kingsley Amis, who won the Booker prize in 1986 for his novel The Old Devils. Though the younger Amis never won the Booker himself, he was shortlisted for his 1991 novel Time’s Arrow, a portrait of a Nazi war criminal told in reverse chronological order, and longlisted in 2003 for his novel Yellow Dog.
Talking to BBC Radio 4, Amis said he wished he had put “greater distance” between himself and his father, with the “Amis franchise” becoming “something of a burden”.
Amis wrote about his father’s death in his memoir Experience, which was published in 2000. The book touches on Amis’s separation from his first wife and mother of his two sons, the American academic Antonia Phillips.
Experience also describes what happened when the author discovered he was the father of a 17-year-old daughter, Delilah Seale, whom he had never met, and reflects on the life of Amis’s cousin Lucy Partington, who was murdered by Fred and Rosemary West.
Amis and his close friend Christopher Hitchens were part of a cohort of novelists and thinkers with a public profile that extended well beyond the page. In 2002, Amis published Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, a nonfiction work about Stalin’s Great Terror. The book sparked a literary controversy, partly because of its attack on Hitchens, whom Amis accused of having sympathy for Stalin and communism.
Hitchens retaliated via an article in the Atlantic, but the friendship was apparently unaffected. “We never needed to make up,” Amis told the Independent in 2007. “We had an adult exchange of views, mostly in print, and that was that (or, more exactly, that goes on being that). My friendship with the Hitch has always been perfectly cloudless.” When Hitchens died, in December 2011, Amis delivered his eulogy.
Amis began a relationship with the American-Uruguayan writer Isabel Fonseca, and the pair married in 1996, going on to have two daughters. Fonseca later turned to fiction herself, publishing her debut novel Attachment in 2009.
Amis was accused of Islamophobia following a 2006 interview with Ginny Dougary in which he said “there’s a definite urge … to say, ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’”. Talking to the Guardian in 2020 he said he “certainly regretted having said what I said; already by mid-afternoon on that day I ceased to believe in what I said”.
He also once called for euthanasia “booths” on street corners to deal with Britain’s ageing population, and controversially parted ways with his publisher Jonathan Cape after they refused to pay a £500,000 advance for his novel The Information, a decision he later said he regretted.
Amis’s most recent book was 2020’s Inside Story, which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics’ Circle award for fiction. It is a “novelised autobiography” two decades in the writing, which features writing tips alongside memories of Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin.
“We are devastated at the death of our author and friend, Martin Amis: novelist, essayist, memoirist, critic, stylist supreme,” it said.
“It has been a profound privilege and pleasure to be his publisher; first as Jonathan Cape in 1973, with his explosive debut, The Rachel Papers; then as part of Penguin Random House and Vintage, up to and including his most recent book, 2020’s Inside Story.
“For 40 years Martin Amis bestrode the world of UK publishing: first by defining what it meant to be a literary wunderkind by releasing his first novel at just 24; influencing a generation of prose stylists; and often summing up entire eras with his books, perhaps most notably with his classic novel, Money.
“He continually engaged with current events and the contemporary world, never afraid to tackle the biggest issues and questions of the day, in books including The Second Plane and his essay collection, The Rub of Time.
“At the same time his work often explored key periods in history, notably the Holocaust, which he wrote about uniquely and powerfully in novels such as Time’s Arrow and The Zone of Interest. Throughout it all, his love of literature shone fiercely: Experience, The War Against Cliché and others all brought a light up to the world he’d inhabited his entire life.
“He was always unfailingly warm, kind and generous to those fortunate enough to work closely with him. His death is an enormous loss to all of us at Penguin Random House and to the UK’s cultural landscape.”
His UK editor, Michal Shavit, said: “It’s hard to imagine a world without Martin Amis in it. He was the king – a stylist extraordinaire, super cool, a brilliantly witty, erudite and fearless writer, and a truly wonderful man.
“He has been so important and formative for so many readers and writers over the last half-century. Every time he published a new book it was an event. He will be remembered as one of the greatest writers of his time and his books will stand the test of time alongside some of his favourite writers: Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Vladimir Nabokov.”
His former UK editor, Dan Franklin, said: “For so many people of my generation, Martin Amis was the one: the coolest, funniest, most quotable, most beautiful writer in the British literary firmament.
“When I first moved to Cape in 1993 it still seemed, 20 years on from The Rachel Papers, that every young writer wanted to be on the list because Martin was on it. The fact that he was so overlooked for literary prizes only added to his allure.
“He was fearless in his opinions (although curiously naive about the furore those opinions would provoke in the British press), he wrote inimitable prose and some of the funniest novels you will ever read. The news that he has died is unbearably sad.”