What do you do when the man who taught you what it means to die takes their final breath? This was the thought that raced through my mind on 20 May 2023 when a notification from the BBC flashed across my watch: Celebrated British Novelist Martin Amis dies aged 73.
Whenever I come across a bookstore, regardless of how busy I am, it is my tradition to step inside to ask if they have a copy of ANYTHING written by Martin Amis. I own every novel he published (some even have multiple copies), some of his non-fiction and short stories. However, the crown jewels of my collection are signed copies of his 1995 novel The Information and the 2010 novel The Pregnant Widow, which I found for a near-bargain price each at Chapter One on Grant Avenue. Why is this Jewish youth in South Africa so connected to a British author long past, what many of his critics considered, his prime? This is how I connected with the writing of Martin Amis and discovered not only what it meant to live and die but also the universal Jewish themes that are at the core of his books.
I discovered Martin Amis in a rather obtuse manner. In many regards, such a life-changing discovery may be the joke in one of his novels. A title of a show I enjoyed at the time was a reference to one of his novels—Time’s Arrow.
The novel begins, ‘I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself surrounded by doctors,’ which creates the imagery of birth, but on the contrary, this is simply Dr Tod Friendly dying. While the unreliable narrator says we are moving forward, the story is told entirely in reverse. From the day Doctor Friendly dies, an old man in America to his birth in 1920s Austria. Everything in the novel is backward from its dialogue to its events. Doctors are not healers, but the butchers that hurt you in the first place.
The first page of the novel has a joke about a Jewish mother that insists on calling her son a doctor while he drowns. As if that is the most important piece of information that someone would need. Jews may not be the main characters of this story but they are the core of it. Many have probably realised already that this book is about the Holocaust and Doctor Friendly does not live up to his name’s sake. Times Arrow, when fired backwards, would finally make Germany whole by returning what was taken. In this world, death is only the beginning, an act of creation in one single moment that will end on a fixed date, no matter what you do, on the day you are born. The people cannot be held responsible for their actions as everything that will happen is set in stone to some degree, but what makes the novel profound is how we follow the doctor as he unlearns his hate the younger he gets. He becomes a child, innocent of all crimes he would commit, and only once the doctor is born does the narrator realise that he had watched the arrow going the wrong way.
To this day, what haunts me about this novel is this feeling of loss. Birth is the ultimate inevitability, while death always comes for us.
When I heard of Amis’s passing, I had been reading what many consider his best novel, Money: A Suicide Note. A quote, from Money, that sits with me is:
Do you want to feel good at night or do you want to feel good in the morning? It’s the same with life. Do you want to feel good young, or do you want to feel good old? One or the other, not both.
We are prisoners to our actions; we had the choice to make them and now we will serve the sentence that is associated with this. Unlike the characters in Time’s Arrow, whose fate is set in stone, ours is malleable. It is from this I fell in love with the writing of Amis, and I knew I had to read more of his work.
Being a writer is not a simple job that you can just break into one day. You need a unique voice, as you are constantly being compared to those around you. Trying to find this voice is even harder when you are the son of one of Britain’s most celebrated authors.
Martin Amis was born in 1949, the son of Sir Kingsley Amis, a Booker Prize-winning author and poet. The young Amis would travel with his father across the globe to promote Sir Kingsley’s latest work. In Money, the anti-hero protagonist, John Self, meets a fictionalised version of Amis. Amis likened following in his father’s footsteps to ‘taking over the family pub,’. He won the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, The Rachel Papers.
Amis was a self-proposed Philo-Semite. Influential Jews surrounded his youth. He joked that he was made into one because his first love was a beautiful Jewish girl in the summer of 1967 who was constantly running to donate blood for brave Jews fighting in Israel. However, there are three important Jews that I think play a key role in understanding Amis.
Saul Bellow is perhaps one of the most influential Jewish writers in the American canon. His novels have inspired millions, including a young Martin Amis. Amis loved Bellow not only as an influential writer but as a father figure. For many years, Amis joked that Bellow was his Jewish father. This was no sly adornment, but critically serious. When Sir Kingsley passed away in 1995, Amis called up his literary icon to inform him that he will “have to take over now,” as Amis’s father. He went as far as to say that if Bellow was alive, he would not be fatherless. Bellow plays an important role in Amis’s last novel Inside Story, a semi-autobiographical novel about the important people in his life.
This one may be a cheat, but I cannot discuss his life without discussing his best friend. When Hitchens discovered he was Jewish in 1989, Amis realised that is probably what was so attractive about him. Hitchens was a complex man. Just when you think you understood his political position, something else would change the way you thought of the man. A devout atheist known as one of the four horsemen of the New Atheism movement. Hitchens only discovered his mother’s Judaism later in life. She had hidden it from Hitchens and his father in the hopes of giving Hitchens a better life in Protestant England, in many ways succumbing to internal antisemitism. She wanted the best life possible for her son – what is more Jewish than that? Hitchens resonated a lot with his newfound identity, even without hesitating saying he was a Jew and was proud to have a Jewish wife and daughter.
Hitchens and Amis were prone to arguments in the press, but still loved each other like brothers. They could disagree with each other, notably concerning Israel, and remain close friends. Hitchens was hard on Israel compared to Amis, but they had public discussions on Israel that can be very informative to both sides of the aisle. In one such discussion came an idea that they could agree on: Theodore Herzl is the only person to write a novel about a utopian society that came to pass.
I have spoken about Amis’s surrogate father and his best friend, but who could be more important than his wife? The mother of his two youngest daughters, Fonseca and Clio, married in the late 90s. A time for Amis of continued controversy that saw him take a near-permanent adoption by the British tabloids.
Amis joked about the nickname for his daughters – “the Jews” in his household. A light jab, it seemed to mean a lot to Amis that he had Jewish children and by halachic law, their children would be Jewish too. He felt that this made him ‘closer to history’.
He dedicates his second novel set during the Holocaust, The Zone of Interest, to:
those who survived and to those who did not […] to the countless significant Jews and quarter-Jews and half-Jews in my past and present, particularly my mother-in-law, Elizabeth, my younger daughters, Fernanda and Clio, and my wife Isabel Fonseca.
Israel and British Antisemitism
In a discussion with Haaretz, Amis shared why he believed ‘Israel can’t afford to be a sweetie,’. A Jew born in Israel is a Sabra—a prickly pear. Sabras are sweet, but you must get past the thorn grown to protect themselves, to get to that sweetness. Israelis and Israel as a country perfectly fit this analogy. A country born from war must be strong and ought to put up thorns to avoid getting eaten. Israelis are sweet, but they cannot afford to be sweeties. ‘They had to become a tough guy’. To this day, I have never seen a more accurate image painted of Israel.
In his home isles of Britain, he was critical of rising antisemitism. On the British left’s adoption of Palestine, he found it to exist as a form of ‘secularised anti-Semitism’. He found that someone on the British left was at their most comfortable when they were allowed to attack the Jewish state, as Israelis were the ‘only foreigners you could attack.’ Amis was also a vocal critic of disgraced New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom he described as ‘tainted by anti-Semitism.’
I owe the last few years of my life to Martin Amis. His exuberant wit melts off the page as even the darkest tales can leave you chuckling under your breath. His work bled Jewish themes that he makes feel universal. Death was a theme that constantly poked its head into his work. This forced me to tackle such thoughts head on and in discussing death in such a straightforward way it helped me to realise just how important it is to live! We may never have an author like him again, but I am sure his work will continue to stand the test of time. He, without a doubt, won the war against the cliché.
In Amis’s review of The Actual for the Guardian, he says that writers “come good at 30, they peak at 50 [and] at 70, novelists are kicked upstairs,”. This was about Bellow releasing a book at 82, which astonishes Amis for breaking the cycle. Ironically, this assessment by Amis became accurate to Amis’s own bibliography. Too many, he became good with the release of 1984’s Money when he was 35. To others, his peak was the release of his 2000s memoir Experiences—at 51. And his finishing novel, Inside Story, was published in 2020 when he was 71. It is hard not to see the dramatic irony of his words with hindsight like one of his novels that finally makes sense on the second go around.
King Charles III posthumously knighted Martin Amis in June 2023, 33 years after his father’s knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. On the day Amis passed away, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The film received universal acclaim for its haunting depiction of the Holocaust. The festival awarded the film the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award at the festival. I look forward to watching the film later this year.
Amis is survived by his wife, Isabel Fonseca, and his five children. May his memory be a blessing.
You can find The Times of Israel’s obituary for Amis here.