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Negative Capabilities: ISABEL FONSECA (Unabridged)




Bury Me Standing involved five years of participatory journalism, living and breathing her subjects’ lives from Albania to Estonia. Upon publication, Salman Rushdie called it “a revelation: a hidden world”; Edward W. Said praised its “profound sympathy and brilliant insight.” It would go on to become a bestseller in the US.

In the meantime Fonseca was making news in the UK for her affair with author Martin Amis, which began in 1993. She had already picked up the nickname “Funseeker” on the London social circuit, as well as a slew of admirers that purportedly included John Malkovich, Clive James, Bill Buford and, yes, Salman Rushdie.

Men fairly wilted before Fonseca and to this day, at age 46, there is not an article on the Internet, from the Sunday Times to W magazine, that does not still remark upon her beauty. A formidably intelligent brunette, her dark looks reflect the heritage of her Uruguayan father, a highly regarded sculptor, and her Jewish-American mother, a painter and heiress to the Welch grape juice family-company fortune.

Most of this fortune, valued at some $150 million, goes into the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a philanthropic organization named after Fonseca’s grandfather. Fonseca herself is a non-beneficiary trustee, meaning she has a say in where the money is donated but does not spend it for her own purposes. There is, nonetheless, no denying the aristocratic nature of her upbringing — Fonseca’s childhood home in New York once belonged to the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial.

As the affair with Fonseca deepened, Amis left his first wife, Antonia Phillips, and their two young sons, Louis and Jacob; he also got himself a hotshot American agent, Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie, negotiated a seriously big American publishing deal ($500,000 for The Information) and even had his teeth fixed at great expense (the ultimate American vanity). Fonseca was the scarlet woman behind this scandalous Americanization of a British icon: a cliché that ignored Amis’ long-running transatlantic obsessions — and ambitions — not to mention the fact Phillips was an American academic.

With typical flair, Amis described the antagonism toward he and Fonseca as “an Eisteddfod of hostility” in the British literary community. That Fonseca had been a friend of Phillips only added to the feeding frenzy around a high-profile betrayal. But moral quickness in public tends to arrive far more neatly than the real-life complications of the private realm.

Over that same period Martin Amis lost his ailing and alcoholic father, the renowned novelist Kingsley Amis, in 1995. Fonseca was meanwhile attending to her older brother, Bruno, who was slowly dying of AIDS. She wrote about his death in 1998 with devastating candor in “Dear Brother” (her story was extracted from Bruno Fonseca: The Secret Life of Painting and republished in the Guardian). Discussing Bruno’s life and artistic passions on the Charlie Rose show, Fonseca observed, with unsurprising fatalism: “We don’t really choose, do we? Things choose us.”

Fonseca and Amis would go on to marry in 1998 and have two daughters, Fernanda, 11, and Clio, 9. Amis is on good terms with the grown men Fonseca now calls “my stepsons,” Louis, 23, and Jacob, 21. She notes with almost wry parental amusement how “they are finally beginning to take an interest in their father’s work.” A pleasure for Papa Martin Amis given the way his own father, Kingsley, responded so indifferently and even negatively to his books, famously throwing a copy of his son’s first major artistic triumph, Money, across the room in a rage when a character called “Martin Amis” entered the novel.


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