A World Without Martin Amis
The small, cold shock of loneliness upon hearing of the great British comic writer’s death
Sometime in the late ’90s I went to see Martin Amis read at a branch of the bookstore chain Waterstones (long gone) in downtown Boston. It was Amis and Will Self—a proper lexically charged white-man road show.
The two authors performed elegantly, with savage aplomb, etc., and when the Q&A came round, after fielding the usual queries about where he got his ideas from and what time he got up in the morning, Amis pointed to a man at the back: “Yes …?” The man was skinny, baseball-hatted, conspicuously alone, a patina of dispossession about him. “Martin,” he said, in a voice that made everybody turn around. “I was looking at your books in the library and I noticed there are a lot of books by Kingsley Amis. I was wondering, is he a relation of yours?”
What?! Who didn’t know that Martin was the runaway son of red-faced old Kingsley? That’s Amis 101. Part of the brand. It would have been easy, so easy, pardonably easy, for Amis to reap some titters from the audience here, at this man’s expense. We were all ready for it. But he didn’t. “Absolutely,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s my dad.” And then he moved into a genial disquisition about writerly DNA and the transmission (or not) of talent. Mere patter for him, really. But not in this context. In this context it seemed a gesture of almost extravagant respect for this estranged figure, the man at the back, the everyman reader.
The first sensation I felt upon hearing of Amis’s death yesterday surprised me: It was a small, cold shock of loneliness. I was made aware in a clinical instant of the extent to which this wired, prodigious, super-sane, democratic, and coruscatingly comic sensibility had been accompanying me and instructing me for the past 35 years. And with its sudden removal I wondered, like a child, what my world was going to be like without Martin Amis to describe it for me.
Of course in the literary sense, in the sense that most mattered (I think) to Amis, there’s been no such removal. We’ve got the novels, and the essays, and the memoirs, and the imperishable lines. You can feel their value altering and deepening, even since yesterday—a global gearshift in appreciation. He was very concerned with posterity, with his legacy, and now, on that level, the real game begins.
But there was something about having him around. His actual jangling organs of perception, his actual participation, sharing the same air, moon, politicians, makes of car, ambient cultural noise, and generally confounding conditions. Writing about tennis. Writing about Tony Blair. Writing about terrorism. Responding, with his own poetically magnified accuracy, to the experience of being alive right now.
So that’s gone, and we’re left with a moment of deprivation. Or are we? Because death diffuses, death disperses, death scatters, and if you’re lucky you can briefly catch some of that energy as it flies. It sharpens your eye; it sharpens your taste buds. That’s what Martin Amis did for readers: He made us lucky.