Diana Barsham

Martin Amis: The Afterlife of Peregrine Prykke


It is spring 1974. At the old offices of the TLS in Blackfriars a tousle-headed Adonis has just been cast in the lead role of Clive James’ satiric skit: Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage through the London Literary World. The story of an amiable young man who rises to fame by flattering fellow authors while bedding classy women of ‘wild eroticism’, it was a role Martin Amis would make peculiarly his own.

The early 1970s: my Fiat 500 years. With a PhD and one marriage down, I had finally escaped an Emily Bronte-inspired attachment to Yorkshire and come south to London. Arriving at the TLS to collect a review novel, I found Martin restless and pacing. He was having cold feet over Peregrine Prykke – and gave me A. L. Barker’s A Source of Embarrassment to get started on.

In the autumn, just as I was leaving to go north again for my first academic job, Martin wrote saying people in the office found my reviews a bit obscure: could I make them shorter and simpler, please? Hate to sound a philistine, he added, because I always understand you.

With that, our short acquaintance came to an end. Except it didn’t. How could it? His comment created a telepathic link that stayed with me until retirement. First his novels, then his autobiographies, then his fictional-autobiographies, then his essays and short stories: I taught them all on literary courses in various universities across the country and beyond. Unlike Perry Prykke whose fame died young, Martin Amis became a fixture, part of the literary consciousness I shared with countless thousands of others across the country and around the globe.

And then it was May 2023. Browsing the summer frocks in a Provençal market I found myself unaccountably drawn to one black dress among the colourful cottons. It was a signal I recognised. Death was standing at my side again, pointing at the coat-hanger. It was someone I knew then! Two days later, on the 19th, the news broke.

Death, and forewarnings of death, had always been one of his specialities, graphic, memorable and shocking. Teeth fell out almost from the beginning. The death of Amis delivered that sudden stun of personal bereavement: no more information, no more intimate messages. And he was only 73, the same age as his father, Kingsley; Christ, the same age as me! He was definitively our generation. He had strutted the stuff of our youth, “that time of constant imposture”; had grown grimmer with time, (the fifties really were a rotten decade), then become a tribal elder, a wisdom-figure skilfully defusing his father’s misogyny through the atrocities and banality of contemporary culture: “We are living, you and I, through a kind of Counter Enlightenment.”

What worried him about atrocity was its increasing illiteracy. After Hitler and Stalin, it was picked up by Fred West. In Experience (2000) Amis communicated his traumatised response to the murder of his cousin, Lucy Partington, his family vantage point subsuming our own: “Lucy’s fate [was] public knowledge, no, more than public. Along with those of the other victims, Lucy’s fate was national knowledge: part of something that all citizens felt themselves duty-bound to have in common.  Ours was a hive response. We were all attached to each other by the Lilliputian threads of a common identity of which he had become the curator. We were part – almost – of “Martin Amis and Friends”. The quality of this relationship with his readers echoed the old Everyman motto; he was our guide, philosopher and friend. Or, as he redesigned the trinity in Experience: “A writer is three things: literary being, innocent, everyman.”

What happens to such attachment once it becomes loss? It heads for poetry, what the Second World War poet Alun Lewis called ‘the Single Poetic Theme: Life, Love and what survives of the beloved after death’. But Amis got there before us. Besides being a magnificent lesson in Creative Writing, his Inside Story (2020), is also an elegy on literature, love and the deaths of his closest friends. The loss of Christopher Hitchens generates an extraordinary ‘invasion of happiness’, as if part of Hitch’s crazy love for life had somehow been infused into his companions. Death might be the ultimate loss of virginity, the final surrender of innocence, but Hitch had arrived at the threshold open-minded (even about religion) and – almost – intact.

The death of a major writer like Amis is something different. As time sails us on, we notice looking back the dim outline of a land already receding from us. It is a land of literary knowledge, the ‘Land of Shakespeare’ as it were, in which our lives and his had once been anchored. But the sea change has already started. We are becoming different people now; a new narrative is nervously sniffing its freedom. Its readers will have less time, less patience, less skill.

Amis famously labelled the self-story a “History of Increasing Humiliation”, a concertina of comic vulnerability and endless, exhilarating self-deprecation. Children, he suggested, find their own smallness comic and love to be frightened by the monster who chases them. Certainly there was almost no height from which he could not put himself down! Little Keith, in the Italian Castle (remember that holiday?) waits for a one night stand with the beautiful Scheherazade only to experience a real fair- ground plummet. As Scheherazade switches track, it’s downhill all the way with the other girl, Gloria Beautyman, the Catholic who prays naked, her lawless libido an echo from Peregrine Prykke.

With his anti-heroes, those life-forces of the anarchic id, Keith Talent, Big Mac, John Self etc., Amis was a novelist for those who have always enjoyed a good scream on the waltzers. He had the practised touch of the fairground guy who, fag in mouth, climbs aboard and spins you senseless. But we were the less deceived. We always knew this was not Peter Pan, but a literary giant proof against all the pitfalls of Parnassus. His smallness was reversible; on the other side a massive “authorial ego”, conspiratorially in league with the super ego. This is ‘Martin the Immensely Famous’ who has access to an infinite variety of worlds that we did not: a vast circus of celebrities, politicians, porn stars and women tennis players. Small though they were, his essays packed a mighty punch. Does my arsenal look big in this? could have been their motto.

Literary action man as he was, Amis had the epic scale. He could do the classics as easily as the comics. His writing was always at war with something, full of small epiphanies, like meeting one of those over-active gods on the battlefields of Troy: Hermes perhaps, with his winged heels and his helmet full of messages from the underworld, that “place in the unconscious” where Amis’s novels came from. This descent was his heroic feat, language the shield through which he flirted with the gaze of Medusa. Narcissus was his own chosen myth: his Amis-ability turning us, which ever way he looked, into his own admiring reflection.

Peregrine Prykke had gained recognition by flattering everyone; then, with the money and fame, he turned nasty:

“And here he was the two-faced little sod
Excreting on their stuff like he was God.”

With Amis the opposite was more true. He continued to see the best in everyone. He became our Latin hospes, simultaneously host, guest and stranger, writing himself into our minds by writing us into his. His chosen narrative voice was that of a second self, a heart, a soul, a conscience, “the hidden sharer” of some villainous body.

This is one of Amis’s many repetitions, a penalty of fame essential to the brand. Repetition was also his version of the afterlife, where death, as in his 9/11 short story, The Second Plane, would “probably be very like life”, piloting the death-plane forever. Beneath his jocular secularity, there lies a medieval schema of sin, first as repetition, then as punishment. And now they have knighted him, despite his insistence that he didn’t want one. Knighthoods were a joke. By the time they got round to giving one, he had already sloped off. They had to pre-date it.

“Amis”: dog-eared Latin for the verb to love. It took him a long while to conjugate. In London Fields, Nicola Six who “welcomed and applauded the death of just about anything” confronted her own nemesis: the twentieth century death of love. “The diagnosis was in; love was weak as a kitten.” Its story was over; its reality concluded. Sex was the hotter topic. The sexual revolution: “the right revolution” as he told the Neo-Trotskyite Hitch. Gosh yes! Where do we start?

No doubt the double flame of literary love from Jane Austen to Lady Chatterley was now a candle in the wind. Amis all but blew it out as he charted his – and (let’s face it) our – journey through the promiscuities of the time. Free love and flower power turned into something harder, and more ‘adult’ as sex and feeling went their separate ways. More ‘recreational’ practices stepped up to the plate. Amis feared pornography at first, feared he might like it, feared, like Gore Vidal, it might stop him from ever wanting to read anything else. Perhaps knights were still needed after all. Porn was his Mr. Monster, the battle of his life.

Perhaps it was the death of his famously adulterous father in 1995 or Madonna’s Sex three years earlier that finally did it. In Madonna, he encountered a Gorgon who could outstare him. Deploring her cult, he found himself sounding like Queenie Leavis! After Sex, a gradual conversion got underway. Getting marriage right seemed to work the change. He began – halfway through The Pregnant Widow – “to cultivate his virtues”. And they, it turned out, were legion. He put away the comics and began to write about love: a family affair mainly. The heart began to beat in his prose too, with Philip Larkin his unlikely muse, for inside Amis there had always been a poet who craved a better father. Even in Auschwitz, poetry had become possible.

Larkin was, for Amis, “the inescapable presence”, “his Englishness so desolate and inhospitable that even the English were scandalised by it”. As the butt of Amis’s wit, Larkin proved an Aunt Sally he could not knock down. With every toss of the ball, Larkin’s authority reasserted itself. He was truth itself; a mirror indifferent to its own reflections. Only Larkin could give the coup de grace to that tediously composite ghost of amorous repetition, Phoebe Phelps in Inside Story. His verdict on her styleless sexual displays was magisterial: “You shouldn’t be allowed”. After that, Phoebe begins to lose her hold on the Amis imagination, fading away into her origins, abuse by a Catholic priest, vestigial memories of Colette’s The Last of Cheri.

As fiction itself became something of a busted flush, Amis turned to the shorter more truth-claiming genres: the post-modern essay; the biographical memoir, the higher autobiography. Autobiography is, as he reminds us, the story of a success. This was Amis père, gravitas, a lover of writing beyond all things and scintillatingly intelligent.

Too much of atrocity perhaps. Whatever the genre, Amis always tackled the main events, the most daunting topics: Hitler and the death camps, Stalin’s Russia. He gave us the erotic history of the last seventy years; dispatched old age and death and ironed out the jagged contours of our culture, from the failings of the Fourth Estate to the madness and monstrosity of America. Even God got a look in. If his version of the afterlife is right, it’s a topic he could well take up.


Diana Barsham was, until retirement, a professor of Cultural History at NYU in London. She had worked previously at a number of English Universities before becoming Head of English & Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. A specialist in biography, she has published lives of Victorian Women Occultists (The Trial of Woman, 1992); of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (Arthur Conan Doyle and the Meaning of Masculinity, 2000); of the eighteenth century ‘man of letters’ William Hayley and his circle (William Hayley. Poet, Biographer, and Libertarian, 2013); and most recently a fictional reconstruction of Mary Magdalene’s involvement in the writing of the Fourth Gospel. (The Touch of the Magdalene, 2021). A new chapter of insights into the hidden life of Jane Austen is due to appear later this year.

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