Remembering Martin Amis: Master of Style and Substance

Lee Polevoi


Last month, after a stint of reading unsatisfying fiction, I realized a long time had passed since I last read anything by Martin Amis. The thought lodged in the back of my head, surfacing a few weeks ago when I picked up his novel The Zone of Interest at a library book sale.


So on May 13th, I was well into an enthusiastic rereading of the novel, marveling all over again at Amis’s stylistic wizardry—not just with language at which he has no peer, but for the speed of his sentences, one surprising thumbnail sketch after another, followed by a hilarious exchange of dialogue, all built around larger-than-life characters often played for (very effective) laughs.


Many of these qualities are on full display in The Zone of Interest, a sort of Nazi officer love triangle set in Auschwitz in 1941-42, admittedly not a work of fiction that suits everyone’s taste.


And then I heard Martin Amis had died.


Much of his later work (Yellow Dog, Lionel Asbo) was lambasted by critics. My own take—having read nearly everything he wrote since London Fields (1999)—was just the opposite. For sheer verbal pyrotechnics, and a mostly seamless blend of satire and rumination on the human condition, Amis always delivered.



Unlike many other modern-day writers, he was ready and willing to tackle big issues—life and death, of course, but also 9/11 and other major events of our time. And while humor abounded in all his work, in The Zone of Interest (his second novel, after Time’s Arrow, set in a concentration camp)—he dared imagine daily life in a deeply serious manner, from the bureaucratic grind of death-camp maintenance to the lust and follies of the Kommandant and his underlings.


Here, for instance, Kommandant Paul Doll describes in peevish tones what the rest of us would find horrific—the arrival at the camp’s gate of yet more “undesirables” from various occupied countries: 


“Here it came, that wretched, that accursed lorry, the size of a furniture van yet decidedly uncouth—positively thuggish—in aspect, its springs creaking and its exhaust pipe rowdily backfiring, barnacled in rust, the green tarpaulin palpitating, the profiled driver with the stub of a cigarette in his mouth and his tattooed arm dangling from the window of his cab. Violently it braked and skidded, jolting to a halt as it crossed the rails, its wheels whining for purchase. Now it slumped sickeningly to the left, the near sideflap billowed skyward, and there—for 2 or 3 stark seconds—its cargo stood revealed.”


The cargo, of course, are Jews and other men, women, and children, marked for extermination.

Amis had a quicksilver mind and a ruthless dedication to the beauty of the written word. While controversies swirled around key moments in his personal and literary life—marriage and divorce, sky-high book advances, his family’s relocation from London to Brooklyn—all of them proved irrelevant, in the end. What really counted was the exuberance of his language (the lorry “barnacled in rust” and “whining for purchase”).



As I wrote in my review of Lionel Asbo (2012): “The universe of Lionel Asbo bears a passing resemblance to the one we inhabit, but life moves at a faster clip and violence of all kinds … is always possible. Readers turned off by prose that calls attention to itself should choose another book off the shelf. For the rest of us, Martin Amis is an international treasure.”


In his fiction, Amis doesn’t feel obliged to take us step-by-step through each scene. Instead, the prose freely flits about between past and present, among different points of view, and, when necessary, erupts into pratfalls and obscenities. Readers are expected to keep pace and enjoy themselves in the process. And we do.


He had fussy opinions about the sanctity of proper English, a stance that once seemed exemplary but has since fallen out of fashion, replaced by an “anything goes” approach to narrative. For Amis, language has purpose and glory, as demonstrated by the work of his heroes, Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov.


Yes, Martin Amis seemed to lead a colorful life, one cleverly transmuted into what turns out to be his last novel, Inside Story. All the literary uproar of days gone by will fade, leaving behind a hugely impressive body of work by one of the great comic artists of our time.


An irreparable loss to world literature.


Author Bio:

Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic Lee Polevoi is the author of a newly published novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash. You can read an excerpt here.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Javier Arce (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--katalineise (Flickr, Creative Commons)


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