Literary biographers like to make large claims for the importance of their genre. If we are to understand a writer’s work, they tell us (with varying degrees of hysteria), we must first arrive at an understanding of the writer’s life, of what the writer is ‘really like’. Quests such as these are nearly always futile (worse: they are nearly always boring). Knowledge of a writer’s life might, as Martin Amis observed in an essay of 1973, yield the odd insight into his work, ‘but you don’t have to be a structuralist to see the dangers of studying them in tandem’. Well, quite. For no matter how ardent the biographer’s prefatory insistence is that, in his capable and enlightened hands, the writing will not simply be plundered for dumb parallels with the life, dumb parallels with the life are what we tend to get.
And Richard Bradford, on the evidence of this biography, loves the dumb parallels. But before we have to hear about the ways in which the work reflects certain aspects of the life, we move swiftly through Amis’s upbringing and education. Most of this is familiar enough: born to Hilly and