The Adulatory Biographer: On Richard Bradford’s Martin Amis

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We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.

Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.

Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.

I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.

Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.

While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —

What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.

— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”

He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.

Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.

“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.

Thank God for Uncle Joe: On Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography

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The title of Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography is a bit misleading. Most of these pieces are not really essays, at least not in the rarefied Montaignean or Emersonian sense, but rather book reviews, usually of biographies or collections of letters. Being an occasional reviewer of books myself, I mean not to cast aspersions upon what is frequently thankless, almost always ill-paid work. I do not begrudge anyone the chance to slap old verdicts between hard or softcovers and run a kind of Fleet Street victory lap.

In my experience, collections like these make for great reading. Few books have given me more enjoyment than, say, Evelyn Waugh’s Essays, Articles and Reviews or the six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Essays. Besides, 15 minutes with Middlemarch takes the reader from the Brookes’ table to the Brookes’ library; 15 minutes with Donat Gallagher’s Waugh omnibus takes one from a Santa Claus outside the flagship New York City Macy’s to P.G. Wodehouse’s villa in Le Touquet. Not, as attention spans continue to atrophy, an unworthy consideration.

Essays in Biography, Joseph Epstein’s 23rd book, is no exception to this rule. Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and The Hudson Review, is an old reviewing hand. This king-sized volume is his fourth (and largest) collection of reviews. An abridged table of contents restricted to subjects whose last names begin with S should give an idea of the present collection’s scope: George Santayana, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Susan Sontag, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Epstein almost always manages to offer both a witty capsule biography and a judicious estimate of his subject’s merits qua novelist, historian, memoirist, or center-fielder. He tends, however, to be less insightful about the actual books he is reviewing than about their subjects en tout, which might explain (without actually justifying) the Axios Press’s decisions to call these 38 pieces “essays.”

Bound to elicit peals of outrage is the dust jacket’s assertion that Epstein is “the greatest living essayist.” Whether he has earned this accolade is open to question; he certainly does not deserve it on the basis of this collection alone. But Epstein strikes me as being worthier than most. Throughout the five or so decades during which he has been a professional writer, the quality of his output has not decreased, as an hour or two spent with Middle of My Tether (1983) and In a Cardboard Belt! (2007) should make clear. Still: better, I think, to ignore these marketing fudges and just read the book.

Essays in Biography is divided into four not very well thought out sections: “Americans,” “Englishmen,” “Popular Culture,” “And Others.” Here we have a textbook example of faulty parallelism: two nationalities, one cultural demarcation, and one catch-all. There are other problems, too. “Americans,” at nearly 300 pages, is three times as long as any of the other sections. Surely Bohemia-born Erich Heller, who sits beside Solzhenitsyn and Xenophon in “And Others,” was at least as British as his fellow naturalized citizens T.S. Eliot and Isaiah Berlin, who appear here as “Englishmen.” An Englishman, by the way, is “A man who is English by descent, birth, or naturalization; (typically) a man born in England or of English parents;” while George Eliot, filed under “Englishmen,” was simply not a man. These pieces ought to have been arranged along more interesting (and logical) thematic lines or else simply appeared in the order in which Epstein wrote them.

Any attempt to sum up a book like Essays in Biography is bound to read like a balance sheet: approvals on the right-hand column, disapprovals on the left. Of the figures considered here, I would say that Epstein “approves” of some 26. Epstein’s affinities are elective and occasionally eclectic, but rarely eyebrow-raising. He admires George Washington, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot, and Max Beerbohm; was friends with Irving Kristol, John Gross, and Erich Heller; and does not think highly of Henry Luce, Susan Sontag, or Gore Vidal. Readers who remember that Epstein was voted off the island at The American Scholar for being (in his words) “insufficiently correct politically” will not be surprised to learn that my right-left dichotomy above works politically as well. The “heavy bag” of Irving Howe’s “largely false ideas. . . marred much of his criticism and guaranteed the irrelevance of his politics;” Arthur Schlesinger “turns out to be a man on whom everything was lost;” Sontag “had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her true métier.” The exception to this is his 34-page retrospective on Adlai Stevenson, which originally appeared in Commentary in 1968. Epstein calls the liberal Illinois senator “a fundamentally decent man in a political climate where decency was a rare commodity,” a judgment that this reactionary critic wishes more of his fellows had offered of the late, yeomanly George McGovern.

If Senator Stevenson sees him at his most indulgent, then Saul Bellow, his old racquetball partner, shows Epstein at his most caustic. According to Epstein, Bellow was dishonest, gullible, manipulative, lecherous, and resentful; a betrayer of friends, a holder of grudges, and a chronic changer of his own mind. Moreover:

Despite all the prizes and critical praise, one comes up against the possibility that Saul Bellow wasn’t truly a novelist. He could do extraordinary, even marvelous, things: draw a wondrous cityscape; describe a face at the MRI level of detail; capture the comedy in self-presentations; soar in great lyrical, and even more in intellectual and metaphysical, flights. The problem was that he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane. His endings never quite fit, which is to say, work. He couldn’t do the first, essential thing that novelists with vastly less talent than he know in their bones how to do, which is to construct convincing plots.

Even to a Bellow passionné much of this will ring true. Still, when this piece appeared in the December 2010 issue of The New Criterion, I remember asking myself why Epstein had bothered. After all, in “My Brother Eli,” a short story that had appeared four years earlier in The Hudson Review, he made more or less the same charges against a thinly-disguised Bellow. (He even directed at “Eli” Sandra Hochman’s claim that the author of The Adventures of Augie March “didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap.”) James Atlas’s reasonably sympathetic biography does not leave one with the impression that Bellow was an especially decent human being. But I do not think that Bellow, in whose life Epstein admits he “was never a central figure,” really deserves the animus Epstein directs at him both here and in such far-flung places as his essays on, respectively, the life of Isaac Rosenfield and the correspondence of V.S. Naipul and Paul Theroux, both of which also appear in the present collection.

Enjoyable as they are, some of Epstein’s shorter pieces do not seem like they belong with others in this collection: the scope of the pieces on John Frederick Nims, Susan Sontag, and George Gershwin is simply too restricted for them to appear alongside, say, his near pamphlet on Henry Luce. The titular conceit at the heart of Essays in Biography also prevents the inclusion of some of Epstein’s best recent work, including “Heavy Sentences,” a hilarious and incisive review-essay from the June 2011 New Criterion that helped set in motion a reissue of Style, F.L. Lucas’s long out-of-print guide to prose composition.

Kingsley Amis, in one of those feats of hilarious contrarianism he was always performing, famously savaged Lolita in The Spectator. The most memorable part of his review is a catalogue of Nabokov’s stylistic tics that appears after a longish quote from the novel: “No extract…could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question. French, Latin, anent, perchance, would fain, for the nonce — here is style and no mistake.” For Amis, all self-conscious attempts at “style” amount ultimately to nothing more than “a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction.” Amis’s point is, or should be, well-taken. A style that is not the literary expression of an appealing personality — archness alone does not qualify — is simply annoying.

The most common criticism of Epstein I know is made more or less along these lines. He is, some would argue, a great prose stylist but not a very deep thinker, a septuagenarian poseur who has admittedly mastered euphony but whose prose leaves one feeling a bit cold. I have never found this to be the case. Like his mentor A.J. Liebling, Epstein dispenses real wisdom with what looks like insouciance but is really just old-fashioned agility. The most marked characteristic of his prose is a maddening subtlety that allows him to be breezy without sounding flippant, to appear learned without being pedantic, and, most strikingly, to be moral but never moralistic. His personality escapes the page with such force that, having read at least two horizontal feet of his books, one is almost tempted to think of him as a witty, fair-minded, loquacious uncle.

Thank God for Uncle Joe.