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Martin Amis, British writer who cast caustic eye on society, dies at 73


Martin Amis, whose dark and wry dissections of modern culture and its excesses helped redefine the British literary scene with sharp-edged prose and an image as a truth-telling provocateur, died May 19 at his home in Lake Worth, Fla. He was 73.

The death was confirmed by his agent, Andrew Wylie. Mr. Amis had been treated for esophageal cancer.

Mr. Amis’s heavy doses of cultural criticism and misanthropic bite drew comparisons to the style of his father, Kingsley Amis, who won the Booker prize in 1986 for his novel “The Old Devils.” The younger Mr. Amis found his voice as a savage reviewer of what he saw as modern society’s self-destructive tendencies and bottomless absurdities.

Mr. Amis’s so-called London trilogy — “Money: A Suicide Note” (1984), “London Fields” (1989) and “The Information” (1995) — was a tableau of greed, compromised morals and a society asleep at the wheel. Critics hailed Mr. Amis as part of a new literary wave in Britain that included Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes.

The American writer Mira Stout, in a New York Times profile of Mr. Amis, lauded his “cement-hard observations of a seedy, queasy new Britain, part strip-joint, part Buckingham Palace.”

His style was kinetic and restless, weaving from satirical to comic to professorial. Human flaws such as vanity and selfishness and moral weakness abounded. In some ways, they foreshadowed the cacophony of the digital age and the scramble for a slice of instant celebrity. “Plots really matter only in thrillers,” he told the Paris Review. He sometimes called his work “voice novels.”

“If the voice doesn’t work you’re screwed,” he added.

The London trilogy is something of peep show, he said. “What I’ve tried to do is to create a high style to describe low things: the whole world of fast food, sex shows, nude mags,” Mr. Amis told the New York Times Book Review in 1985.

“I’m often accused of concentrating on the pungent, rebarbative side of life in my books, but I feel I’m rather sentimental about it,” he continued. “Anyone who reads the tabloid papers will rub up against much greater horrors than I describe.”

Mr. Amis’s creative point of reference was often regarded as Britain, but he found rich fodder in his long association with the United States. His 1986 collection of nonfiction essays, “The Moronic Inferno,” a stranger-in-a-strange-land mediation on America as if Alexis de Tocqueville arrived and found a circus.

“Writing comes from silent anxiety, the stuff you don’t know you’re really brooding about and when you start to write you realize you have been brooding about it, but not consciously,” he told the Associated Press in 2012. “It’s terribly mysterious.”

Mr. Amis finished 15 novels over the course of his career. His most recent, “Inside Story” (2020), was described as a “novelized autobiography” that included reminiscences of fellow writers and friends including Christopher Hitchens and Saul Bellow.

In his memoir “Experience” (2000), Mr. Amis turned the lens on himself. He wrote about his father’s death in 1995 and recalled his first wife, American scholar Antonia Phillips, and their two sons. He also examines the life and legacy of his cousin, Lucy Partington, who was abducted and killed in 1974 by serial killers.

Earlier this week, a film adaptation of his 2014 novel “The Zone of Interest” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The plot follows the family of a high-ranking SS officer that lives next door to Auschwitz concentration camp.

As a young literary star, Mr. Amis cultivated a fast-lane image: bigger, brasher, brazenly provocative. In a 1985 interview with The Washington Post, he put it all on full display.

He described the perverse pleasure of watching another writer get slammed by critics. “You know that feeling when one of your peers goes down,” he said. “It’s a real buzz. As Gore Vidal said, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’ ”

He took a drag on a cigarette. “We all pretend that we’re quite modest,” he said, “but you can’t be a puppy as a writer.”

Martin Louis Amis was born Aug. 25, 1949, in Oxford, England, and moved frequently as the marriage of his father and mother, Hilary Bardwell, began to come apart. He spent the academic year of 1959 and 1960 in Princeton, N.J., where his father was lecturing and working after his breakthrough work, the comic masterpiece “Lucky Jim” (1954).

“America excited and frightened me,” Mr. Amis wrote decades later, “and has continued to do so.”

His parents divorced when he was 12. He said it left him devastated, but he also credited his stepmother, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, for encouraging him to follow the literary path of his father.

“I’d be in a very different position now if my father had been a schoolteacher,” Mr. Amis told The Sunday Times of London in 2014. “I’ve been delegitimized by heredity. In the 1970s, people were sympathetic to me being the son of a novelist. They’re not at all sympathetic now, because it looks like cronyism.”

Mr. Amis graduated in 1971 from Exeter College at the University of Oxford. His first novel, “The Rachel Papers,” a coming-of-age tale of clumsy sex amid the temptations and changes in the 1960s, was published in 1973 while he was an editorial assistant at the Times Literary Supplement in London.

He followed with a darkly comic novel, “Dead Babies” (1975), recounting sex, drugs and rock and roll over one raucous weekend, and “Success,” (1978) about rivalries and clashing values in a family.

He was literary editor of the New Statesman between 1977 and 1979 as he built relationships with rising literary talents, including an enduring friendship with the mercurial Hitchens, even as they publicly bickered over politics and state of the world. When Hitchens died in 2011, Mr. Amis delivered his eulogy.

Mr. Amis also could bring self-induced tumult. He was accused of Islamophobia in 2006 after saying that the Muslim community “will have to suffer” until it “gets its house in order.” He later apologized.

Mr. Amis was shortlisted for the Booker prize with his 1991 novel “Time’s Arrow,” the life story of a fictional Nazi war criminal told in reverse chronological order.

Mr. Amis’s marriage to Phillips ended in divorce. He married the writer Isabel Fonseca in 1996. Survivors include Mr. Amis’s two children from his first marriage; two children with Fonseca, and a daughter from another relationship.

He and his wife left Britain in 2012 to be closer to her parents.

As Mr. Amis grew older, he cast aside some of his caustic detachment. It was diluted with some self-appraising candor. No matter how snarky he may have seemed in earlier decades, he confided in “Inside Story,” the stories only worked if they were grounded in compassion and empathy.

“This is literature’s dewy little secret,” Amis wrote. “Its energy is the energy of love.”

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