Martin Amis, acclaimed British novelist and London scenester of '80s and '90s, dies at 73
For the record:
9:37 p.m. May 20, 2023: An earlier version of this story stated that Martin Amis received the biggest book advance of his career for his 2000 memoir, “Experience.” He received it for his 1995 novel, “The Information.”
Martin Amis, the acclaimed British author best known for "Money," "London Fields" and a dozen other novels of flash, style and substance, who was also a fixture of the London literary scene, has died at age 73.
Amis died Friday at his home in Lake Worth, Fla., as confirmed by his longtime U.S. publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf. The cause was esophageal cancer. He is survived by his wife, writer Isabel Fonseca.
Amis came to prominence with what is commonly referred to as his “London trilogy” of novels: “Money: A Suicide Note” (1984), an exploration of Thatcher-era hypercapitalism; “London Fields” (1989), an apocalyptic murder mystery; and “The Information” (1995), which focused on the male midlife crisis. Over the span of his career, Amis published 15 novels as well as works of nonfiction and collections of essays and short stories. He turned his gaze inward with his well-regarded memoir, 2000’s “Experience.”
Earlier this week, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Amis’ 2014 novel, “The Zone of Interest,” had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, which centers on a Nazi officer who lives next to Auschwitz with his family, was well-received by critics in attendance.
Amis’ distinct writing style was often filled with caustic wit and a cynical tone in his examination of modern life, leading him to be regarded by many as an enfant terrible. “A maddening genius,” is how the Sunday Mail described him after the release of “London Fields,” while another critic once called him “the nearest thing to a [Vladimir] Nabokov that the punk generation has to show.”
It’s how he carved an identity as one of England’s hottest literary figures after starting out his career as the son of a famous novelist.
Martin Louis Amis was born Aug. 25, 1949, in Oxford, England, to respected British writer Kingsley Amis and Hilary A. Bardwell, the daughter of a civil servant in the agriculture ministry.
The dynamic between Amis and his father, who died in 1995, was tense at best. Martin began his literary life in the shadow of Kingsley, a British working- and middle-class novelist of the 1950s known for his comic novels of postwar England, including “Lucky Jim” and “I Want It Now.” As Martin rose to literary prominence, his father was hardly his biggest champion.
“My mother rang me up, and said that he got to about Page 80 with ‘Money’ before he flung it across the room,” Amis told The Times in 1990. “That’s when the character named Martin Amis appeared in the book. He’s not keen on that sort of thing.”
Amis’ first novel, “The Rachel Papers,” won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1974. “Dead Babies” in 1975 and “Success” in 1978 helped solidify his reputation as a controversial social commentator. He counted Nabokov and Saul Bellow among his literary heroes, figures whose influence critics have noted within Amis’ work. As his fame reached new heights in the ‘80s and ‘90s, his escapades and outings with friends and literary peers, especially a tight circle including Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens, were often written up in the press.
In the mid-'90's, Amis scored the heftiest book advance of his career for "The Information" — thanks to his new agent, Andrew Wylie, who became known for securing enormous advances for literary authors. Amis' dismissal of his erstwhile agent, Pat Kavanaugh, severely strained his relationship with Barnes, who was Kavanaugh's husband.
Amis' 2000 memoir, "Experience," was polarizing though generally acclaimed. But after the turn of the century, he struggled to maintain his literary fame. By the 2000s, his work took on some weighty historical subjects in more serious tones. In “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million” (2002), he investigates the life and atrocities perpetrated by Josef Stalin and his Soviet regime. “The Second Plane” (2008) was a collection of nonfiction and two short stories about the Western world and terrorism.
His last published work would be 2020’s “Inside Story,” which — though a novel — felt like a memoir bookend of sorts to “Experience." Amis blended fact and fiction in giving an insider’s look at his relationship with three influential writers: Philip Larkin, Bellow and Hitchens, who also died from esophageal cancer, in 2011. At more than 500 pages, it was one of his longest novels.
“I’ve been trying to write this novel for 20 years,” Amis told The Times in 2020. “I abandoned it a couple of times. But it dawned on me very slowly after Christopher died that Saul had already been dead for 15 years and Larkin for much longer. …They’re all dead. Perhaps there was a bit more freedom to write fiction about them. As I keep saying, fiction is freedom and freedom is indivisible.”
Around the time of the release of “Inside Story,” Amis was said to be working on a book about race in America.
In addition to Fonseca, Amis is survived by three daughters, Delilah Jeary, Fernanda Amis and Clio Amis; two sons, Louis and Jacob Amis; four grandchildren; and a brother, James Boyd.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.