Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Rake's Progress

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 3-4, 2012

Doing the biography of a living writer can’t be easy. Writers like to have control over things – especially over the contents of books. When Martin Amis “co-operated” with his new biographer, Richard Bradford, he didn’t do so unconditionally. He granted Bradford a series of interviews, and gave him the green light to approach certain other approved parties. But he stipulated that some people – including his mother and his ex-wife – would not be involved.  

Considering these restrictions, Bradford hasn’t done an entirely bad job. His book is lopsided, but it’s meaty. It contains a better class of information than it would have if he’d tried to proceed without Amis’s approval. It isn’t a first-rate biography by any means, but it has one crucial thing going for it. Martin Amis has lived a life you don’t want to stop reading about. 

His personal history seems implausibly heightened, like the plot of one of his novels. His father, Kingsley, was one of the liveliest writers of his generation. His mother was a free spirit who routinely let the kids ride around on the roof-rack of her car. He published his first novel at 24; became a rakish celebrity; worked his way through a roster of stunning and well-connected girlfriends. In his mid-twenties he inadvertently fathered a daughter whom he didn’t meet till he was in his mid-forties. His cousin, Lucy Partington, vanished during the 1970s; twenty years later it emerged that she had been abducted and murdered by the serial killer Frederick West. 

The story has been told before – most artfully by Amis himself, in the memoir Experience (2000). Bradford hasn’t retold it very elegantly, but he has augmented it with generous chunks of previously unavailable information. While his interviews with Amis himself have yielded nothing startling, some of Amis’s most articulate friends – including Clive James and the late Christopher Hitchens – have disclosed things they never would have if the project had lacked Amis’s blessing. 

Bradford deserves credit for getting their testimony down, but he has no knack for digesting his source material and converting it into a fluent narrative. He tends to bung down the quotes of his interviewees in verbatim slabs, some of which go on for nearly a page. At times the project veers close to oral biography.  

By letting his sources speak at such length, Bradford keeps reminding you how few of them there are, and how tightly clustered together they are on the Amis sympathy axis. Hitchens goes on the record, lavishly, about the disintegration of Amis’s friendship with Julian Barnes. He divulges the contents of a hostile private letter that Barnes wrote to Amis. This is juicy stuff, all right. But it is, palpably, just one side of the story. Whether Barnes was offered the chance to give his side I don’t know. If he wasn’t, he’s got a right to feel angry all over again. 

It isn’t that one longs to hear Amis get bad-mouthed. It’s that Bradford’s information comes from too few angles to give you a properly rounded account of the man. The pages dealing with the break-up of Martin’s first marriage, to the philosopher Antonia Phillips, are especially threadbare. Forget about getting both sides of that story: Bradford is hard-pressed getting just one.   

But those were the rules, and Bradford can’t be blamed for obeying them. What he can be blamed for, quite loudly, is the slapdash way he handles his material. Bradford has written three previous biographies, including one of Amis’s father. But there are times when you’d be willing to bet he’d never read a literary biography before, let alone written one. He has a weird way of dispensing essential information. 

On page 48, for example, Amis makes an unheralded reference to somebody named Rob. Bradford, not very helpfully, appends the word “Henderson” in square brackets. Four pages later we’re told what we should have been told straight away: that Rob Henderson was, for some time, Amis’s best friend. Rob sticks around in the narrative for several years. Then on page 102 Bradford casually, and without elaboration, announces that Rob, these days, is “dead.” He doesn’t feel the need to expand on that until page 363, where he discloses the cause of death: cancer, in 2001.     

Bradford seems temperamentally averse to saying the right things in the right order, or indeed at all. A biography of Amis, you might think, would be the right place for a clear account of the famous dental procedures he underwent during the nineties. But Bradford doesn’t seem all that interested in clearing the matter up. He quotes a newspaper report suggesting that Amis spent $20,000 having his molars replaced, but doesn’t say whether or not this is accurate. A while later he takes another brief pass at the question, and leaves you with the impression that Amis’s oral issues amounted to nothing worse than a pair of infected wisdom teeth. But Amis’s own memoir recounted, in excruciating detail, the surgical removal and replacement of nearly every tooth in his head. 

On the subject of Amis’s novels, Bradford can be illuminating. When he analyses portions of The Information (1995) in the light of Martin’s concurrent marriage breakdown, he is performing useful criticism, even if he does misremember a couple of plot details. (The hack novelist Gwyn Barry scores his first raging success with Amelior, not with Summertown.) 

Bradford forgets, though, that a biographical approach to Amis’s work can only get you so far. Amis is principally a satirist. He is interested – fearlessly – in the outside world. No doubt the novels contain wisps of his personal history, but that is not what they are about. A critic who plunges into the books in pursuit of Martin’s shadow risks seeing less in them than the average reader will, not more.    

Bradford, a couple of times, can be observed doing exactly that. Pursuing his notion that The Information is “a story about Martin Amis,” he cites the biographical fact that the father of one of Martin’s aristocratic girlfriends was fascinated by Martin’s velvet trousers. He then quotes a long scene from the novel in which an ageing aristocrat contemplates the trousers of Richard Tull, the book’s luckless anti-hero, and demands that he remove them. 

But the joke, in the novel, is that the trousers aren’t Richard’s; they’ve been lent to him by the old man’s daughter, and the old man has abruptly recognized them as his own. Instead of quoting the parts of the passage that make this clear, Bradford replaces them with ellipses. This is a bit naughty of him. It makes the passage sound more straightforwardly autobiographical than it really is.   

Bradford does some similar textual pruning when psychoanalysing Kingsley’s Girl, 20 (1971). He feels that one of the protagonist’s children resembles Kingsley’s rebellious older son, Philip, who by this time was well into his twenties. The character, says Bradford, “frequently tells members of the family and visitors to ‘fuck off’, refuses to go to school and urinates regularly on the bathroom floor.” So he does, but it’s a trifle misleading of Bradford not to mention that he is six years old. 
First-rate biographers do the simple things well. Zachary Leader’s Life of Kingsley Amis (2006) was a model of the genre: lucid, panoramic, reader-friendly. Leader, admittedly, had the luxury of writing about a figure who was no longer around to help or hinder him. But he also had the right temperament for the job. If he had any personal quirks, he kept them out of his book. Bradford puts his in. His book is okay as an interim biography. But when the job of definitive biographer is being filled, I have a feeling that Bradford will, as the early Amis might have phrased it, get aimed.