Martin Amis obituary: A writer who combined moral seriousness with mordant wit

His loss will be keenly felt at a time when Anglophone literature is mired in a charmless and po-faced moral earnestness

Born: August 25th, 1949

Died: May 19th, 2023

Marin Amis, who has died in Lake Worth Beach, Florida, at the age of 73, was one of the most important English authors of his generation. In a writing career spanning five decades, he published 15 novels, several short story collections and a number of works of non-fiction. His best-loved novels are Money (1984), a comic satire about the movie business that doubled as a pointed commentary on the cynicism and greed of the 1980s, and London Fields (1989), a black comedy about a woman who arranges her own murder. His writing combined moral seriousness with mordant wit and irreverent humour, and he was widely admired for his distinctive prose style, which blended highbrow erudition with the easy rhythms of demotic speech.

Amis was born in Oxford in 1949 into an eminently literary family – his father was the renowned novelist Kingsley Amis; his godfather was the poet Philip Larkin. His mother was Hilly (Hilary), nee Bardwell.


He had a peripatetic childhood, attending schools in Swansea, Cambridge and, when Kingsley relocated the family to the United States, Princeton. After graduating with a degree in English from Exeter College, Oxford, he took a job as an assistant editor at the Times Literary Supplement in 1972. The following year he published his debut novel, The Rachel Papers, a brilliantly funny coming-of-age story, which won the Somerset Maugham Prize. A few years later, aged just 27, he was appointed literary editor of the influential centre-left political magazine the New Statesman. The success of Money catapulted him to celebrity; he forged lifelong friendships with other literary big-hitters including Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes.

Amis’s other novels include a satire of the publishing industry (The Information, 1995), a parodic detective novel (Night Train, 1997) and two Holocaust fictions (Time’s Arrow, 1991, and The Zone of Interest, 2014). In bookish circles he is esteemed as much for his nonfiction as his fiction, in particular his volume of essays on US pop culture, The Moronic Inferno (1986), his memoir, Experience (2000) and his collection of criticism, The War Against Cliche (2001). As a critic he was rigorous and exacting, concerned above all else with style: “if the prose isn’t there,” he wrote, “then you’re reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form”. His own literary heroes were the great prose stylists Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow, and he paid meticulous attention to the technical craft of sentence-making.

Amis married Antonia Phillips, a philosophy scholar, in 1984. They had two children together, Louis and Jacob, and divorced in 1993. He married Isabel Fonseca, anAmerican writer and grape juice heiress, in 1996. They went on to have two daughters, Fernanda and Clio, and moved to New York in 2011. In the mid-1990s it was revealed that he had fathered another daughter with Lamorna Seale, the wife of English journalist and historian Patrick Seale, in 1976. The child in question, Delilah Jeary, only learned the truth about her parentage when she turned 18; her mother had taken her own life in 1978.

If he had his finger on the cultural pulse in the 1980s and 1990s, in his later years Amis sometimes seemed out of touch. In an infamous 2006 interview he suggested the British state should indiscriminately persecute British Muslims in retribution for Islamists terrorist atrocities. It was unpleasant stuff, especially for a self-professed liberal, but he at least had the decency to retract the comments later on. His 2012 novel, Lionel Asbo, ostensibly a satire on British tabloid culture, drew heavily on crude stereotypes about the working class. It wasn’t a good look. In fairness, the passage from youthful iconoclast to vaguely embarrassing oldster is an inevitable part of the natural order of things, and generally he wore it better than most.

Amis’s success bred resentment among those who felt it had come too easily, thanks to the leg-up afforded by his family background. (The New Statesman once ran a competition for unlikely book titles: the winning entry was My Struggle by Martin Amis.) Being Kingsley’s son undoubtedly helped him in those early years, but only the most determined cynic would hold it against him now. Though he never won the Booker Prize – he was shortlisted only once, for Time’s Arrow in 1991 – he more than earned his place at the top table of English letters, and his legacy will outlive many a recent prizewinner.

Amis was rarely dull, either in interviews or on the page, boasting a rare combination of incisive intelligence, swagger and flair. His most important trait was his humour, which ranged from wry and subtle to unapologetically puerile, even boorish at times. He once remarked that “seriousness – and morality, and indeed sanity – cannot exist without humour”, and this pretty much encapsulates his approach to both life and literature. His loss will be keenly felt at a time when Anglophone literature is mired in a charmless and po-faced moral earnestness, and caring deeply about the technical and aesthetic aspects of writing is increasingly seen as elitist. The literary world is considerably worse off without him.

He is survived by a wife, Isabel Fonseca, and five children, Louis, Jacob, Fernanda, Clio and Delilah.