Martin Amis was the son of three fathers—one actual parent and two literary forebears—Kingsley Amis, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow.
From Kingsley, he inherited comedy. (Often this was low comedy. Kingsley used to tell a joke about encountering a dog whose bark sounded like the words “Fuck off.” In Martin’s novel “Lionel Asbo,” there are two dangerous dogs who bark in exactly that way, only doubled: “Fuckoff! Fuckoff!”)
From Nabokov, he learned a kind of high intellectualism, and would explain, Nabokov-fashion, that it was less important for readers to see themselves in characters than for them to identify with the author as he struggled to create his art.
And from Bellow he gained a reverence for style—beginning with the sentence, which, for Bellow as for Amis, is the level at which literature is born—and also for the riff. Moses Herzog’s tirades are reborn in Martin’s brilliant paragraph-long, sometimes page-long, rants.
The commingling of these elements created a literary voice that was at once unique and instantly recognizable. Only Martin sounded like Martin Amis, and it was unwise to try to imitate him.
He used to say that what he wanted to do was leave behind a shelf of books—to be able to say, “From here to here, it’s me.” His voice is silent now. His friends will miss him terribly. But we have the shelf. ♦
From the New Yorker archive: