The Age of Horrorism

By Martin Amis
The Observer, September 10, 2006

Copy on the Guardian website:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Edited by Andy Ross

Religion is sensitive ground. Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief — unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses. All religions have their terrorists, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, even Buddhist. But we are not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from Islam.

Until recently it was being said that what we are confronted with, here, is not a clash of civilisations or anything like that, but a civil war within Islam. Well, the civil war appears to be over. And Islamism won it. Islamism is an ideology which, in its most millennial form, conjures up the image of an abattoir within a madhouse. The most extreme Islamists want to kill everyone on earth except the most extreme Islamists.

Sayyid Qutb, in 1949, had just turned 43. His childhood was provincial and devout. As a young man, he went to study in Cairo. He was already finding Cairene women 'dishonourable', and confessed to unhappiness about 'their current level of freedom'. He resolved to stick to virginity. He took a job at the Ministry of Education, and became an activist, before the ministry packed him off to America to do a couple of years of educational research. Soon after his return, he was jailed. He was hanged in August 1966. His most influential book, Milestones, is known as the Mein Kampf of Islamism.

At first, on the Atlantic crossing, Sayyid felt a spiritual expansion. Then came a traumatic incident with a drunken, semi-naked woman. He didn't like New York. Washington was a little better. But here, Sayyid was hospitalised, introducing him to another dire hazard: female nurses. When Sayyid was discharged, he proceeded to Greeley, Colorado.

During his six months at the Colorado State College of Education (and thereafter in California), Sayyid's hungry disapproval found a variety of targets. American conversation, American jazz, and, of course, American women. Qutb joins a club - where an epiphany awaits him. 'The dance is inflamed by the notes of the gramophone,' he wrote; 'the dance-hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs, arms enfold hips, lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust.' The club he joined was run by the church, and what he is describing is a chapel hop in Greeley, Colorado.

Qutb, who would go on to write a 30-volume gloss on it, spent his childhood memorising the Koran. He was 10 by the time he was done. Now, given that, it seems idle to expect much sense from him; and so it proves:

The Surah [the sayings of the Prophet] tells the Muslims that, in the fight to uphold God's universal Truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God, are honourable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.

Qutb is the father of Islamism. Here are the chief tenets he inspired: that America, and its clients, are barbarous and benighted; that America is controlled by Jews; that Americans are infidels, that they are animals, and are unworthy of life; that America promotes pride and promiscuity in the service of human degradation; that America seeks to 'exterminate' Islam - and that it will accomplish this not by conquest, not by colonial annexation, but by example. As Bernard Lewis puts it in The Crisis of Islam:

This is what is meant by the term the Great Satan, applied to the United States by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Satan as depicted in the Qur'an is neither an imperialist nor an exploiter. He is a seducer, 'the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men' (Qur'an, CXIV, 4, 5).

There is almost an entire literary genre given over to sensibilities such as Sayyid Qutb's. It is the genre of the unreliable narrator — or, more exactly, the transparent narrator, with his helpless giveaways. Typically, a patina of haughty fastidiousness strives confidently but in vain to conceal an underworld of incurable murk.

Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. Contemplating intense violence, you very rationally ask yourself, what are the reasons for this? It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.

Suicide-mass murder is more than terrorism: it is horrorism. It is a maximum malevolence. The suicide-mass murderer remains an accurate measure of the Islamists' contortion: they hold that an act of lethal self-bespatterment, in the interests of an unachievable 'cause', brings with it the keys to paradise.

By the summer of 2005, suicide-mass murder had evolved. In Iraq, foreign jihadis, pilgrims of war, were filing across the borders to be strapped up with explosives and nails and nuts and bolts, to be primed like pieces of ordnance and then sent out the same day to slaughter their fellow Muslims. We should weigh the spiritual paltriness of such martyrdoms. 'Martyr' means witness. The suicide-mass murderer dies for vulgar and delusive gain. The rationale for 'martyrdom operations' is a theological sophistry of the blackest cynicism. Its aim is simply the procurement of delivery systems.

Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual. Ayatollah Khomeini, in his copious writings, notes that believers in most religions appear to think that, so long as they observe all the formal pieties, then for the rest of the time they can do more or less as they please. 'Islam', as he frequently reminds us, 'isn't like that.' Islam follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, into the bedroom, into the bathroom, and beyond death into eternity. Islam means 'submission' - the surrender of independence of mind.

By the beginning of the 20th century the entire Muslim world, with partial exceptions, had been subjugated by the European empires. And at that point the doors of perception were opened to foreign influence: that of Germany. When the Nazi experiment ended, in 1945, sympathy for its ideals lingered on for years, but Islam was now forced to look elsewhere. And the flame passed from Germany to the USSR.

So Islam, in the end, proved responsive to European influence: the influence of Hitler and Stalin. And one hardly needs to labour the similarities between Islamism and the totalitarian cults of the last century. Anti-semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational, they too were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled. The main distinction is that the paradise which the Nazis (pagan) and the Bolsheviks (atheist) sought to bring about was an earthly one, raised from the mulch of millions of corpses. For them, death was creative, right enough, but death was still death. For the Islamists, death is a consummation and a sacrament; death is a beginning.

Over the past five years, what we have been witnessing is the death agony of imperial Islam. Islamism is the last wave — the last convulsion. Until 2003, one could take some comfort from the very virulence of the Islamist deformation. Nothing so insanely dionysian, so impossibly poisonous, could expect to hold itself together over time. But there are some sound reasons for thinking that the confrontation with Islamism will be testingly prolonged.

It is by now not too difficult to trace what went wrong, psychologically, with the Iraq War. Let us look at the war through the eyes of history. From that perspective, 11 September was a provocation. The 'slam dunk', the 'cakewalk' into Iraq amounted to a feint, and a trap. We must hope that something can be salvaged from it, and that our ethical standing can be reconsolidated. Iraq was a divagation in what is being ominously called the Long War.

There is no momentum, in Islam, for a reformation. The necessary upheaval is a revolution - the liberation of women. This will not be the work of a decade or even a generation. The connection between manifest failure and the suppression of women is unignorable. The dominion of the male is Koranic - the unfalsifiable word of God, as dictated to the Prophet.

All religions are violent; and all ideologies are violent. This is because any belief system involves a degree of illusion, and therefore cannot be defended by mind alone. When challenged, or affronted, the believer's response is hormonal. Millennial Islamism is an ideology superimposed upon a religion — illusion upon illusion.

Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally. People of independent mind should now start to claim the spiritual high ground, too.
 

AR  I have abridged the text to a small fraction of its full length, mostly by cutting wordy anecdotes and divagations. I have chosen not to change most of the retained sentences so as to preserve Martin's unique and enjoyable style. The abridgement is unauthorized, and I am sure Martin would encourage readers to go on to read his original.
 

Executioner Songs

By John Banville
The New York Review of Books, 54 (3), March 1, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

House of Meetings
By Martin Amis
Knopf, 246 pages

Amis's observing eye is constantly abulge with amazement at the wickedness and folly of his fellow human beings.

When he was born, in 1949, his father Kingsley was among England's most highly regarded novelists, one of the original "angry young men" of the postwar period, whose comic novel Lucky Jim, published in 1953, was an immediate and huge success. Kingsley's second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard took young Martin in hand and set about rectifying his educational shortcomings and generally smartening him up.

Young Amis was a quick learner. He went off to Oxford, where he secured a First in English. Back in London, he became the wunderkind of the literary world. His first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), is one of the most impressive literary debuts since Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. The three novels that followed consolidated his reputation. With Money (1984), Amis found a new fictional voice, a hectic, high-octane, mid-Atlantic babble, the haste and noise of which did not conceal the high artistry by which it was forged.

Amis had long been an admirer of Nabokov, but at the start of the 1980s he became a friend of Saul Bellow. It is Bellow's influence that is most directly discernible in what one thinks of as the trilogy of novels Money, London Fields, and The Information.

How have they held up, these novels of Amis's early middle period? The comic energy never flags, the metaphors dazzle, and whether he is describing a dog defecating or the play of light on a stretch of the Thames he achieves an intensity of poetic specificity on a level with the work of such masters of style as Nabokov and Updike. In the matter of character and plot, however, there is a peculiar haziness.

House of Meetings is short, the prose is controlled, the humor sparse, and the characters strike us as real, or at least possible, people. It is a remarkable achievement, a version of the great Russian novel done in miniature, with echoes throughout of its mighty predecessors.

The book tells the story of two half-brothers, both of whom are in love with the same woman, Zoya, and both of whom spend terrible years together in one of the labor camps of the Gulag. The heart of the book is the relationship between the brothers. The book's portrayal of life in the camp, if life it can be called, is horrifying.

The first-person voice here possesses an authority that is new in Amis's work. It is a bleak vision, assuredly, yet ultimately invigorating.
 

Decline and Fall

By M. John Harrison
The Guardian, September 30, 2006

Edited by Andy Ross

House of Meetings is an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as a monologue.

He's on his last journey, a tourist trip to the site of the labour camp in which he spent 10 years of his life. The story begins in Moscow in 1946. He and his brother Lev, the one a soldier and rapist, the other a worker and poet, fall for the same young Jewess. Within two years, both men have been arrested and dispatched to the slave archipelago. They endure the cold and starvation, live through the shifts of policy consequent on the death of Stalin, and survive the 1953 Norlag rebellion.

House of Meetings is only superficially the history of a love triangle. It is a book about decline.
 

AR  I found House of Meetings good too, surprisingly convincing. It's a neat impression of a Russian novel in miniature, as near to Dostoyevsky as a modern reader can reasonably be expected to take. It is certainly far, far better than Yellow Dog (2003), which was a dog in the worst sense. House of Meetings is bleak, though hardly invigorating. I found many of Martin's usual fingerprints in the text, but I can also confirm that his voice has become more steady, less strident, and in this sense more authoritative.
 

The Islamist

By Martin Amis
The Times, May 5, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left
by Ed Hussain

The Islamist is a tale of gradual radicalisation, wholehearted fanaticism, crisis, disillusion, and gradual disinfection. British by birth and Indo-Pakistani by descent, Ed Husain was an obedient child who, during adolescence, signed up with the Young Muslim Organisation.

An ideology is in the business of aggrandising those who subscribe to it, and Husain was soon assured that he was vastly superior to pretty well everyone, all women ("women are the plague"), all Jews (of course), all kafirs (or koofs), and all "partial Muslims", such as his mother and father (soon to be jettisoned).

Turning to a more radical mosque, he can pray bareheaded. Spurning both promiscuity and arranged marriages, Islamists tend to keep [their] sexual tension stoppered, and work it off with religious rage.

In organisational terms, Islamism is Leninist. The radicals form a vanguard, and seek power in the name ... of the ummah, the supranational community of believers. "The YMO are a bunch of losers," Husain is eventually told. The time has come for him to hear about the Caliphate.

Two events disabused him. One was a killing. The second event had to do with a woman, his future wife: "Of the many faces I encountered on a daily basis there was one belonging to a girl called Faye that did what mine used to do a lot: smile. As an Islamist I had lost my ability to smile." Hereafter, sexual tension is eased, not by religious rage, but by sexual love.

This was in 1996. During his detox and rehab period, Husain reembraced gentle Sufism and spent time in Islamic lands. Husain comes to love Damascus. But he can do nothing with the "loss, mayhem, perversion and hypocrisy" of Riyadh and Jeddah. By now we are used to the idea of sexual tension and religious rage in counterbalance within an individual psyche; in Saudi Arabia tension and rage are the twin predicates of an entire society.

Ed Husain has written a persuasive and stimulating book.
 

AR  (2007) Martin has zoomed in on the psychic dialectic of Islamist radicalism quite convincingly. The challenge now is to confront the Freudian insight that civilization is built on its discontents.
 

Things Fall Apart

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
The Independent. October 1, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

We are appalled by the provocateurs. I speak of British Muslims, who, in spite of the collective guilt we are forced now to carry and the many impediments designed to keep us down and out, still feel this is our place.

There is nowhere else we would rather live and die, bad news for the BNP and their liberal surrogates I guess, but hopefully heartening for Britons who believe we can and do belong in this nation of many voices, prayers, hues and songs. Such civilized, honest engagement feels impossible at present, and there are times when the heart just wants to give up, give in.

We are crouching nervously, sheepishly as packs of wolves try to blow our house down. At the front door are the Muslim fanatics, growling and exacting, these days as likely to be teachers, doctors, scientists, students, salesmen and social workers as one-eyed maddened Imams and fat, hairy crusaders.

Martin Amis has pitched himself against demonic Muslims and is at war with them too. I see him as another kind of threat to the kind of society I stand up for. He is with the beasts pounding the back door, the Muslim-baiters and haters, these days as likely to come from the Groucho and Garrick clubs as the nasty, secret venues used by Neo Fascists. Amis wants to strip search anyone who looks Muslim (me too then Martin? Shall I lift my skirt the next time we meet to reassure you sir? Do bring your torch).
 

Has Martin Amis lost his marbles?

By Nigel Reynolds
Daily Telegraph, October 5, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Professor Terry Eagleton says that novelist Martin Amis has abandoned traditional Western values of liberalism following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre.

Eagleton, a Marxist literary critic for 30 years, attacks the views of "Amis and his ilk" for taking up cudgels against Islam instead of propounding tolerance and understanding.

The attack also extends to Amis's novelist father, the late Kingsley Amis. Eagleton calls Kingsley Amis "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals".

The spark is a controversial essay written by Amis last year, the day before the fifth anniversary of the bombing of New York's Twin Towers, in which he said that "the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order". Amis suggested "strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan", preventing Muslims from travelling, and further down the road, deportation.

Eagleton says sarcastically of Amis' views: "Not the ramblings of a British National Party thug but the reflections of Martin Amis, leading luminary of the English metropolitan literary world." The reason for Amis's change of heart, he believes, was the "so-called war against terror".

Amis, whose next novel, The Pregnant Widow, has an Islamic theme, is likely to run into his new enemy soon in the common room at Manchester University. Eagleton, a former Roman Catholic who embraced Marxism in 1970, taught for many years at Oxford but moved to Manchester to become professor of cultural theory in 2001. By coincidence, Amis has just taken up a post at Manchester, teaching creative writing.

The hard-line Professor Eagleton seems to have lost patience with Britain's intellectuals. "The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the Establishment's reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. ... Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons."
 

Amis responds to accusations of Islamophobia

By Jonathan Brown
The Independent. October 12, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Martin Amis defended himself yesterday against allegations of Islamophobia, insisting it was necessary to "build all the bridges we can" with moderate Muslims.

Outlining his views in a letter to The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Amis denied the accusations, insisting the remarks from which she had drawn her conclusions had been "distorted" in an article written by his colleague Professor Terry Eagleton. "The anti-Muslim measures he says I advocated I merely adumbrated in a long interview with the press."

In the interview, Amis said: "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan ... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

The remarks, originally published in August 2006, resurfaced this month when Eagleton, professor of English literature at Manchester University, where Amis has recently accepted a position teaching creative writing, used the interview as the basis for an article attacking Amis's alleged argument.

Amis's decision yesterday to write to Alibhai-Brown follows her intervention in the bitter academic spat in her weekly column. Alibhai-Brown recalled sharing a drink with the writer at last year's Cheltenham Festival. "He has pitched himself against demonic Muslims and is at war with them too," she wrote. Alibhai-Brown said Amis was "with the beasts" when it came to dealing with Islam.

From the letter ...

Dear Yasmin,

That night you revealed, inter alia, that you were Shia; and, as far as I understand it, the Shia minority speaks for the more dreamy and poetic face of Islam, the more lax and capacious, the more spiritual, as opposed to the Sunnis, whose approach is known to be stricter and more legalistic. Your Shia identity endeared you to me ...

When you write that I am "with the beasts" on Islamic questions, it is because you've been listening, rather dreamily perhaps, to Professor Terry Eagleton. Now Eagleton is an ideological relict, unable to get out of bed in the morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx. More remarkably, he combines a cruising hostility with an almost neurotic indifference to truth.

It is a dull business, correcting Eagleton's distortions, but this is the work he is obliging me to do. The anti-Muslim measures he says I "advocated" I merely adumbrated, not in an essay, but in a long interview with the press. It was a thought experiment, or a mood experiment. My mood, I admit, was bleak — how I longed, Yasmin, for your soothing hand on my brow!

Anyway, the mood, the retaliatory "urge" soon evaporated, and I went back to feeling that we must, of course, build all the bridges we can between ourselves and the Muslim majority, which we know to be moderate. Meanwhile, I don't want to strip-search you, Yasmin, or do anything else that would trouble or even momentarily surprise your dignity, or that of any other eirenic Muslim.

Martin

Amis told racist jokes

The Times, October 15, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

This autumn Professor Eagleton described Kingsley Amis as “a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”. He added: “Amis fils has clearly learnt more from him than how to turn a shapely phrase.”

Eagleton called other writers who leapt to Amis’s defence last week “stomach churning”. On Friday Amis wrote an open letter to a newspaper stating that his antagonist had “submitted to an unworthy combination of venom and sloth. Can I ask him, in a collegial spirit, to shut up about it?”

Yesterday Martin Amis admitted that he had told racist jokes as a young man, but “it was done playfully”. His wife and two daughters are Jewish.
 

'I feel morally superior to Islamists'

Daily Mail, October 18, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

In an interview with Jon Snow on Channel Four News, Amis declared: 'I feel morally superior to Islamists, by some distance. I feel an intellectual distance to Islam. ... There are great problems with Islam. The Koran recommends the beating of women. ... The anti-Semites, the psychotic misogynists and the homophobes are the Islamists.'

Days earlier, Amis shocked festivalgoers in Cheltenham with claims that Muslim states are less 'civilised' than Western society. 'Some societies are just more evolved than others,' he said.
 

The Awful Opinions of Martin Amis

By Kamila Shamsie
Guardian Unlimited, November 19, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

I recall one morning last autumn, reading the Martin Amis interview and thinking, "Where's the punch line which turns it all on its head?" I returned to the quote about Muslims. When it became clear that he was attempting to implicate the wider world with the rhetorical use of "There's a definite urge — don't you have it?" my first thought was to contact a newspaper in the UK and offer to write a heated response.

I was convinced that disgust for Amis's remarks would be widespread enough in the UK that other British, non-Muslims would step forward and say, "No, I don't, and it's reprehensible that you do." It would be a far stronger attack on him, I thought, to have someone other than a Muslim foreigner hold him to account.

But time moved on and there was no response to the interview. When I brought up the matter with various people the response was an exasperated "Oh, Martin! He's just trying to be provocative." The overall attitude was one of, "the way to really annoy him is to ignore what he says." But to the outside world, silence sounds a lot like acquiescence.

I am aware of a certain irony in saying this. For years one of my personal bugbears has been those who say the Muslim community must stand up and express its outrage over suicide bombings. I shouldn't need to stand up and express my outrage over murder. To do so is to enter a world in which Muslims are considered supporters of terrorism until and unless they explicitly state otherwise.

Martin Amis is still recognised as one of Britain's more significant writers. He is given generous space in serious newspapers to air his views. I don't advocate any form of censorship, of course. But the way to respond to odious views which are given space in the press is to respond.
 

The Absurd World of Martin Amis

By Chris Morris
The Observer, November 25, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

I keep being distracted by Martin Amis. Christopher Hitchens, too. They rail against Muslims.

No matter that Amis abandoned his satire on terrorism in which a Muslim unleashes mass rape on America because 'faced with Islamism, even satire withers and dies', not because his idea was obviously rubbish.

Last week Amis was called a racist because he said Muslims were backward, violent, homophobic, paranoid, boring, retarded and stupid. Hitchens said no, he's conducting a 'thought experiment'.

Now Amis should be allowed to wonder aloud about anything. Thought experiments are fine. But if he bundles his thoughts on Islam together and iterates them one after the other as he did when I saw him, he displays not unguarded musing but the forging of an incoherent creed of hate.

So how does Amis manage to move from condemning the horrors of suicide bombings to pouring scorn on anyone who can believe in paradise - effectively all Muslims? He muddles his terms. Even Hitchens concedes Amis wrongly conflates Islamism with Islam. By fudging, Amis adds the weight of his reaction against terrorism to his contempt for Muslims in general.

These distinctions matter because the way out of this mess is to clarify and discriminate rather than hurl abuse.
 

The Armchair Revolutionary

The Observer, December 16, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Terry Eagleton's new book about Jesus asks the question, 'Was Christ a revolutionary?' and answers it mostly in the affirmative. The essay takes Eagleton back to his days at Cambridge in the Sixties, where he made a name for himself as a Marxist Christian.

Eagleton, formerly Warton Professor of English at Oxford, currently John Edward Taylor Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester, has always looked to 'rough up the edges of the mainstream', as he calls it. Having been fashionably Marxist for much of his career, he is now approaching 65.

Eagleton took issue with Amis's now infamous remark that after the failed plot to blow up transatlantic planes in August 2006 he felt 'a definite urge' to argue that British Muslims in general 'must suffer' for the actions of suicide bombers 'until they got their house in order'. These comments, Eagleton wrote, sounded not unlike the 'the ramblings of a British National Party thug'.

Eagleton's attack has subsequently been rehashed by the columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and the novelist Ronan Bennett, interventions which have drawn vehement defence of Amis from his old friend Christopher Hitchens. Amis has called Eagleton a 'disgrace to his profession' and 'a deluded flailer and stirrer', and asked 'in a collegial spirit, that Eagleton would now shut up about it'.

Eagleton is an engaging presence, softly spoken, quick to laugh, and chooses his words with care.
'I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on these matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners. I don't know where their status comes from. When someone like Ian McEwan stands up and says, "I believe in individual freedom," you know, it's like: "Hallelujah, put up your hands all those that don't," but such words do not respect a much larger problem.'

'The implication from Amis and McEwan — and from Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — is that civilisation and atheist rationalism go together, and I think that is a very dangerous argument to make. The debate over God — Muslim or Christian — is for them increasingly becoming code for a debate on civilisation versus barbarism. I think one needs to intervene and show the limitations of that.'

Eagleton was brought up in Salford, Manchester, the middle child of a working-class Irish Catholic family with aspirations. His early years were shaped by fundamentalist religion. He went to a grammar school run by the De La Salle brotherhood, toyed with the idea of becoming a priest but instead won a place at Cambridge, fell under the influence of Raymond Williams and became a Marxist literary critic.

Eagleton has been unwilling to discard his Catholicism, though he has found a revolutionary strain to suit him. His current truculence began with an entertaining dismantling of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion in the London Review of Books that kicked off: 'Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it is to read Richard Dawkins on theology.'

Eagleton believes that growing up steeped in the Church gives him an edge over his metropolitan foes. 'They buy their atheism on the cheap,' he says, of Dawkins and Hitchens, 'because they have never been presented with an interesting version of faith. One of the impulses of my writing — and the new book — has been to try to differentiate a version of Christianity worth having. With people like Dawkins there is a kind of inverted evangelism; I find it extraordinary that not once does he question the terms of his science.'

Eagleton suggests that the question 'do you believe in God?' is akin to asking someone whether they believe in the Loch Ness monster. Dawkins, he says, seems to imagine God 'if not exactly with a white beard then at least as some kind of chap', whereas even in the simplest sense, 'for Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is ... He is the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing.'

Eagleton is not convinced this God exists, but believes that anyone who holds that He does is to be respected, while Dawkins and his acolytes, he argues, 'consider that no religious belief, any time or anywhere is worthy of any respect whatsoever'.

It is from this position that Eagleton derives his attack on the 'liberal arrogance', underpinned by Godlessness, of Amis and his friends. But how does this relate to the current fundamentalism — when a belief in God leads to a belief in jihad, how can you respect that?

'One has to understand fundamentalism as a kind of fear,' Eagleton says. 'A theologian friend of mine maintains that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The image of Jesus in the Gospels is of someone who is fearless. People clutching on to their region or sect are very fearful of what lies beyond, and therefore very dangerous.'

I wonder where he stands on the pointed question that Amis recently put to his impeccably liberal audience at the ICA: 'Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?'

Eagleton lets out a sharp laugh. 'I certainly hope I am morally superior to people who believe in slaughtering innocents. But what I object to is the dangerous fudging of the line between the Muslim world and the Taliban, and the easy moral superiority that leaves us blind to our own crimes, or the crimes done in our names. It is an obvious point, but one still worth making, that it was our own barbarism and colonialism in the Middle East that has helped to create these situations in the first place.'

Eagleton has a practised ability to change the terms of a question. The caricature has always been that of the armchair revolutionary. He liked to romanticise himself in his Oxford days as 'the barbarian in the citadel', spreading sedition to the sons and daughters of privilege. He has stayed stubbornly faithful to his teenage socialism.

His 2005 book Holy Terror attempts to confront the current global conflicts through the prism of history, in particular the problem that 'the left is at home with imperial power and guerrilla warfare but embarrassed on the whole by the thought of death, evil, sacrifice or the sublime'. Eagleton struggles to contain the idea of an Islamist suicide bomber into an ideological vision of political martyrdom. 'I utterly repudiate that idea,' he says. 'That kind of terrorism must be utterly and absolutely condemned.'

When asked about the suicidal insurgents in Baghdad, he apparently favours the line of John Pilger and others that equates the coalition invasion with the Third Reich. But what if those fighting against occupation want not to liberate their state from oppression but to return it to the Middle Ages through terror?

'I think the whole Iraq folly is a good demonstration of the fact that you cannot impose democracy by force. We always like to think that where there is a problem there is a solution. The situation we have created in Iraq may well prove the opposite, that there now is no adequate solution.'

Just before we end our interview, he lets slip the news that Manchester will be terminating his contract early in 2008. 'They are throwing me out on the grounds of age,' he says, bleakly. 'There is some financial crisis going on apparently.' Maybe, I suggest, they need the money to pay Martin Amis to run his creative writing classes.

Diary of a spat: Eagleton versus Amis

2006 September 9
Martin Amis is quoted, in the wake of the failed plot to blow up planes, as saying he feels a 'definite urge' to argue that the British Muslim community should suffer 'until they got their house in order'.

2007 August 1
Terry Eagleton likens Amis's comments to 'the ramblings of a British National Party thug'.

2007 October 8
Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes Amis as being 'with... the Muslim-baiters and haters'.

2007 October 10
Eagleton criticises the press for making personal attacks on him and for largely ignoring Amis's remarks.

2007 October 11
In an open letter to Alibhai-Brown, Amis insists that Eagleton has distorted his comments.

2007 November 19
Novelist Ronan Bennett writes a feature for the Guardian in which he calls Amis's views 'as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time'.

2007 November 21
Christopher Hitchens mounts a defence of Amis in the Guardian, writing that Amis has been pilloried for 'honestly attempting to ventilate the question [of Islamism and reactions to it] and to clarify it'.

2007 December 1
Amis rejects Bennett's accusations of racism, writing in The Guardian that he has never advocated the discriminatory treatment of Muslims. He also criticises Eagleton for starting 'this ragged furore'.
 

AR  All very amusing, but dangerous too. Basically, I agree with Martin.
 

The Second Plane

By Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 214 pages

Reviews edited by Andy Ross

Reviewed by Tim Adams
The Observer, January 13, 2008

In his introduction to this collection of the dozen or so pieces Martin Amis has written in response to the events of 11 September and to the War on Terror, he says: 'Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is. And have we ever seen the male idea in such outrageous garb as the robes, combat fatigues, suits and ties, jeans, tracksuits and medics' smocks of the Islamic radical?'

Amis has a need to lay claim to big subjects in this manner. In the past he has sought to make the holocaust and the gulags part of his 'natural' territory of warped masculinity too. Few writers have put comparable effort into offering neologisms for torture techniques; Amis did so in the belief that language must be fully alive for us to comprehend the banality of industrialised death.

Amis argues that one of the first casualties of 'The Long War' after 11 September was the western literary imagination in general, and his own in particular. 'After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12,' Amis wrote, 'all writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.'

One of the arguments that runs through this book is that barbarism is all but indistinguishable from religion and that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism, but independence of mind. The highest expression of independent minds in western enlightened culture is, to Amis, its literary fiction. His personal struggle against the 'dependent mind' of Islam is thus fought on the level of playful language.

In equating human value to literary value, Amis finds a way not only to place himself on the frontline of the struggle against the forces of darkness, he also comes close to dismissing half the world as morally inferior and psychologically backward without visiting any of it or hearing from any of its citizens. There is an unhesitating 'us' and 'them' in Amis's characterisation of the current situation.

In the best of the pieces here, Amis's eyewitness account of the valediction tour of Tony Blair, he finds the Prime Minister floundering as he addresses the troops in Baghdad. 'He was quite unable,' Amis writes of Blair, 'to find weight of voice, to find decorum, the appropriate words for the appropriate mood.' In placing these pieces side by side, Amis invites against himself the same censure.
 

Reviewed by David Aaronovitch
The Times, January 11, 2008

This collection of writings mostly from newspapers on events since September 11, 2001, reminds readers that Martin Amis always opposed the Iraq War. In March 2003, he gave warning that the "intellectually null" George Bush, "a tax-cutting dry drunk from West Texas" was leading his country into a disastrous trap, ineluctably provoking "an additional generation of terror from militant Islam".

In an interview that gave to this newspaper, Amis examined his own emotional and political reaction to the London bombings and confessed to a punitive urge — "don't you feel it?" — to somehow force the Muslim community to get its house in order. These were the sentiments described by Terry Eagleton as being appropriate to a "British National Party thug".

It was fairly obvious that Amis wasn't advocating discriminatory action against Muslims, and that his views on responsibility were far more nuanced than the "urge" he described. As Eagleton refined his argument, his objection was to "Amis's panic-stricken reaction to 9/11", especially given that Amis was "champion of a civilisation that for centuries has wreaked untold carnage throughout the world".

The comedian Chris Morris described Amis as "the new Abu Hamza", the Northern Ireland novelist Ronan Bennett expressed "shame" at Amis's views, which were "symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam". And the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra inevitably accused Amis of combining a "patchy knowledge of world history" with "a primordial anxiety about cultural otherness".

What Amis had really done was to go on a political journey. This started in the uncomprehending fug of ash, dust and speculation rising from Ground Zero. Amis: "Terrorism is political communication by other means. The message of September 11 ran as follows: America, it is time you learned how implacably you are hated." In other words, however bad the act, it was rational, somehow provoked and subject to the usual rules of politics.

But Amis, unlike many other writers, couldn't leave it at that. He began to look at the people who had carried out the attack, and at the ideology that motivated them — in other words, at what they said and wrote.

What he discovered was not a group of misguided liberators, but of young men in love with the idea of death and violence, given justification by an implacable and totalitarian ideology. Amis went back to the mid-20th-century writings of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, men such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb — as someone might have returned to Mein Kampf in the early 1930s.

Through Qutb and others Amis came to the realisation that Islamism itself was a problem, since what it loathed about the West was not our active seductiveness, but our passive attraction. Amis: "We should understand that Islamists' hatred of America is as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract too; none of the usual things can be expected to appease it." Amis connects this existential envy to the political failure of Islam and attributes this in turn to the suppression of women in many Muslim countries.

Amis's conclusion that an ideological struggle must be waged, in which the proper values of the West are championed, is what brings him into such a collision with the Eagletons. This is a period in which part of the Left has thrown in its lot with the less apocalyptic wing of Islamism in a sort of anti-imperialist alliance. Many of the rest have settled, in Amis's words, for a kind of "dissonant evasion" of the truth.

Extracts from The Second Plane

"If September 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime. That day and what followed from it: this is a narrative of misery and pain, and also of desperate fascination. Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is. And have we ever seen the male idea in such outrageous garb as the robes, combat fatigues, suits and ties, jeans, tracksuits, and medics' smocks of the Islamic radical?" Author's Note, 2007

"Bin Laden's contribution is his image and nothing more: omnicidal nullity under a halo of ascetic beatitude. Nobody traumatised bin Laden ... he was not internally rewired by the whips and electric cables. Almost alone among a shifting crew of mono-eyed mullahs, tin-legged zealots, blind sheikhs, and paralysed clerics, bin Laden did at least have the wit to stay in one piece." September 2006

"Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. A rational response would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven't managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion." September 2006

"The American politician whom Mahmoud Ahmadinejad most closely resembles is Ronald Reagan. General similarities are hard to spot. But what they have in common is this: both men are denizens of that stormlit plain where end-time theology meets nuclear weapons." June 2006

"The champions of militant Islam are misogynists, women-haters; they are also misologists — haters of reason. Their armed doctrine is little more than a chaotic penal code underscored by impotent dreams of genocide. Like all religions, it is a massive agglutination of stock responses, of clichés, of inherited and unexamined formulations." June 2002
 

Beware the nut-rissole artists

By Christopher Tayler
The Guardian, January 26, 2008

Newspaper readers have been starved of reports on the current state of Martin Amis's political consciousness for nearly 10 weeks. But here come his collected writings on September 11, 2001.

Having spent a couple of years in Uruguay reading up on such figures as Sayyid Qutb, he has reached various conclusions about political Islam. "Reluctant to see what it is they confront", left-liberal types, he feels, have got things wrong. "The middle ground," he sensed on returning to the UK, "was not where it used to be."

Since he had also been reading Paul Berman, a liberal hawk who argues that both Islamism and secular Arab tyrannies such as Saddam's can usefully be compared to Nazism and Stalinism, this sounds as though Amis has decided that invading Iraq was a sensible move. But on the evidence gathered here, his quarrel with the average "relativist" turns out to be much more specialised.

It turns out that he's gunning for what he sees as the pro-al-Qaida left. "Given the choice between George Bush and Osama bin Laden, the liberal relativist, it seems, is obliged to plump for the Saudi" - and Amis won't stand for that. "Those vast pluralities all over the west" that wish to see "a Fertile Crescent bridle-deep in gore" in order to enjoy Bush's humiliation - these attract his disdain.

Amis is taking aim at conspiracy theorists and people who think that the Arab world's grievances make support for terrorism a good thing. His cardinal insight into "lethal self-bespatterment", as he calls it, is that suicide bombers are "abnormally interested in violence and death". The London bombers, he maintains, were murderous cultists rather than righteous avengers.

How did Amis end up throwing so much effort into arguing that suicide bombers are interested in death? It's not easy to say, but his sense of himself as a novelist seems to be part of the problem. "All of us are excited by what we most deplore," he once wrote in a review of a book by Joan Didion.

Terrorism isn't a workable subject for Amis's brand of fiction. In his op-eds, on the other hand, he seems more like a novelist than a political writer, inhabiting ideas like characters, trying to bring them to life and dramatise opposing viewpoints. It's less boring to picture your nine-year-old daughter's forced marriage under a global Islamist caliphate than it is to lay out a series of judicious qualifiers.

His arguments draw on various sources, with Berman exerting the strongest influence. Hitchens and Sam Harris beef up the muscular secularism, and Bernard Lewis helps with the Islamic background. But the most depressing piece in the book opens with the following sentence: "Mark Steyn is an oddity: his thoughts and themes are sane and serious - but he writes like a maniac."

Amis's claims about "the Islamists" in the Times interview — "A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they'll be a third" — were presumably inspired by Steyn's work. On the page, he distinguishes more carefully between Muslims and extremists, though unexamined nativist assumptions creep in from time to time. Whoever "we" are, we probably aren't Muslims or immigrants.

At one point he reports on treating Tony Blair to a disquisition on the Shia, whom he compared to "nut-rissole artists". The writings collected here add nothing to his reputation.
 

Martin Amis and the boredom of terror

By Marjorie Perloff
Times Literary Supplement, February 13, 2008

In The War Against Cliché, his 2001 collection of reviews and essays, Martin Amis recalls his early writing days:

"My private life was middle-bohemian-hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time, in the tub, on the tube ... It might have been in such a locale that my friend and colleague Clive James first formulated his view that, while literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilization."

The Second Plane focuses on a single event — the terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001 — and its aftershocks. A short book, it includes fourteen pieces — two short stories and twelve essays and reviews — written between that watershed date and its anniversary in 2007. Amis wants you to know that what he hates is not so much Islam itself as what he takes to be the West's excessive tolerance of Islam.

The title essay, written within a week of the attack, is a bravura performance, graphically describing the horror on the ground in response to the recognition that not just one plane, but a second, had turned itself into a missile and was crashing into the other tower of the World Trade Center. "The moment", for Amis, "was the apotheosis of the postmodern era".

However terrible "the twentieth century — that 'age of ideology'" with "its scores of millions of supernumerary dead" — the incipient "age of religion" is judged to be ten times worse. For — and here we come to Amis's key obsession, both in this essay and throughout the book — "an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful".

The smart rhetoric should not blind us to the flabbiness of Amis's propositions. There is, in fact, no necessary connection between a devotion to literature and an ability to make sound political judgements, and surely no connection between sound political judgement and the rejection of all religion.

The most substantial piece in The Second Plane is "Terror and Boredom: The dependent mind", written in the wake of yet another "day of de-Enlightenment", July 7, 2005, when terrorist bombs exploded in London. Like its crudely contrived fictional counterpart about Muhammad Atta, "Terror and Boredom" displays a failure, not so much of doctrine, as of imagination.

It is always risky to picture one's own "crisis" as unique — more terrible than all those other crises our parents and grandparents lived through. Thus, despite moments of brilliant wordplay, one is hard put to take Amis's elegantly turned sentences seriously. The war against cliché has a curious way of morphing into the cliché against war.
 

Terrorism: Is it about religion or not, or not not?

By Martin Amis
The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

America has already suffered a terrorist deployment of weapons of mass destruction. This attack began on September 18, 2001. The cost in blood was five dead and 17 seriously infected. The cost in treasure was over a billion dollars (the cost to the perpetrator was estimated to be as little as $2,500). A third impact was the cost in fear. Anthrax is not contagious, but fear is. The scale of the attack was minuscule, yet for a while the terror filled the sky.

One aircraft dispensing one ton of anthrax spores on a clear calm night over an area of 300 sqare kilometers could kill up to three million people.

September 18 was very cheap, very terrifying, and hideously elusive. It entrained over 9,000 interrogations and 6,000 grand-jury subpoenas, and the case is not yet closed.

Both President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who are religious, were very quick to say that September 11 was "not about religion." It then subsequently emerged that September 11 was about religion — or, at least, was not not about religion. But in the last year or two, it seems, we have gone back to saying that September 11, and March 11 Madrid (2004), and July 7 London (2005), and all the rest, are not about religion.

The two most stimulating international terrorism-watchers known to me are John Gray and Philip Bobbitt. Bobbitt is a proactive and muscular Atlanticist, whereas Gray is almost Taoist in his skepticism and his luminous passivity. Bobbitt is religious and Gray is reconciled to the inexorability of religious belief. They assert, respectively, that international terrorism is "not about Islam" and has "no close connection to religion."

Al Qaedaism, for them, is an epiphenomenon, a dark child of globalization. It is devolved, decentralized, privatized, outsourced and networked. Globalization created great wealth and also great vulnerability. Thus the epiphenomenon is not about religion but about human opportunism and the will to power.

Then what, you may be wondering, was all that talk about jihad and infidels and crusaders and madrasas and sharia and the umma and the caliphate? There are several reasons for hoping that international terrorism isn't about religion — not least of them the immense onerousness of maintaining a discourse that makes distinctions between groups of human beings. Al Qaedaism may well evolve into not being about religion, about Islam. But one's faculties insist that it is not not about religion yet.

Suicide bombing is a cult. Religion may be merely a means of mobilization. Religion is for the footsoldiers, not the masterminds. At some later date we may see that religion provided the dialectical staircase to indiscriminate death and destruction with the idea, for instance, that democracy inculpates every citizen in its nation's policies, or with the ancient heresy of takfir, whereby the jihadi pre-absolves himself of killing fellow Muslims.

We can further expect international terrorism to become much more diffuse in its motivations, reflecting changes in the contemporary self. Gray has identified a vein of "anomic terrorism" inspired by alienation, as evident in the random and serial stabbings in the cities of Japan, or the campus massacres in the U.S. Bobbitt says that the current conflicts reflect a shift in the polities of the West. As the welfare state evolves into the market state, it abandons many of its responsibilities to its citizenry, and concentrates on the provision of opportunities to the individual.

By some accounts it took the Ayatollah Khomeini several nauseous years of war with Iraq before he came to see the theological viability of nuclear fission (and the groundwork was then begun). Osama bin Laden: "It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorise the enemies of God."

There is another good reason for wanting international terrorism to stop being about religion. One can think of scenarios of extortion and ransom, but only an eschatological dream could justify the clear calm night and the three million dead. On the other hand, the actors would unquestionably make an impression.
 

AR  I have taken the liberty of editing Martin's prose more drastically than he would like because evidently no-one else now dares to. Trimmed and shorn, his argument is emotively powerful but disquietingly silent about suggesting the robust survivalism we need here. However, I like his rhetorical play with the distinction between the respective assertions of X, not X, and not not X. This distinction is crucial to the intuitionist initiative in logic and the foundations of mathematics, and exercised me greatly some decades ago.
 

Martin Amis the Gynocrat

By Christina Patterson
The Independent, April 10, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

If Martin Amis is worried about security, he clearly hasn't told his nine-year-old daughter. This dark-eyed little girl, who welcomed me in, hasn't told either of her parents that I'm here.

Mummy is Isabel Fonseca, the beautiful American heiress, writer, novelist, and second wife. And Daddy is one of the most famous writers alive. He used to be called Amis fils to distinguish him from Amis père. If Kingsley was the colossus, Martin was the hip one, the one who wrote the blistering satires on money and success.

And here, in this gracious Regency house, are the fruits of it: tasteful modern art, ethnic artefacts, artfully arranged antiques. Martin Amis does perfect happy families in massive, beautiful house. Martin Amis does brilliant, world-famous novelist and all this as well. I am having the authentic Martin Amis experience.

The enfant terrible of English literature will be 60 in August. On the new novel: "Nabokov said that the world divides between people who sleep well and people who don't. This novel is partly about this great attack of sleep I had. I've always slept well. Then I had a sort of weird kind of physical breakdown around 2002 or 2003, where the main symptom was needing a fantastic amount of sleep."

His sister, Sally, died of alcoholism in 2000. "I think we live all our lives in shock," he says, "and then some muffler comes off and you get it." Those who sneered at the idea of writing about suffering while flopping by the pool of your house in Uruguay, as Amis did while writing House of Meetings (2006), couldn't sneer at the authenticity of its depiction.

House of Meetings is a chastening and beautiful portrayal of life in a Stalinist slave camp in the Arctic Circle. The reviews were rapturous. Which must have been a relief after some of the critical responses to his work in the past few years. Wasn't it? "Yes," says Amis. "Absolutely. I was so shocked by the reviews of Yellow Dog."

Yellow Dog (2003) was widely regarded as Amis's donkey. Amis stares out at the window. "I think people are too fragile now. ... Think of the range of what you can't joke about now. It's almost everything. ... Our whole kind of paralysis about Islam is to do with that."

After September 11, Amis wrote a number of pieces on the Islamist terror threat and the rise of the suicide bomber. The first, later published in The Second Plane (2008), outlined the horror of "an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system ... unappeasably opposed to the West's existence" and the need for Americans to "absorb the fact that they are hated." Liberals sniffed Islamophobia and blanched.

The fuss started with what Amis has called his "political education". Up until about 2000, he had written mostly fiction and journalism about fiction. In 2002, he published Koba the Dread, an exploration of the indulgence of Western intellectuals towards communism and of the realities of life under Stalin.

"I wrote about nuclear weapons and I wrote about the Holocaust, but that was not political. I don't know. Hitch and James Fenton were very left, and I just felt that I didn't want to belong to anything. And I think it was tremendously important for Christopher as a writer when he ceased to be ideological and he sort of bloomed."

Wasn't the deal that Hitch did the serious stuff and Amis did the funny stuff? "No," says Amis. "There's more that I can talk to him about. He used to complain in the 1970s that 'all Martin and I talk about is sex because he doesn't know anything about politics'."

Perhaps his caricatures of appalling men were merely an accurate depiction of the essence of the male? "I think so!" says Amis cheerily. "I was quoted by, I'm pleased to say, Germaine Greer, as saying that all men should be locked up until they're 28. Boot camp. That would knock some sense into them. We're terrible. We can't help it!"

Amis now describes himself as a "gynocrat" who believes that the world would be better run by women. Eccentric is the word that springs to mind.

AR  I have been intrigued by the Amis approaches toward Islamophobia. His comic novels made me smile and his Russian stuff leaves me cold, but the Islam issue is hot. However, although the empowerment of women worldwide is the key to breaking the grip of Islam, putting all young men in boot camp would be dangerous. I fear the result would merely be to toughen them in the causes for which they felt sympathy, such as Islam or Islamophobia, and hence to prepare the world for more wars and the like. Putting more women in power would be dangerous too. They would probably ban all boy toys and push men to the edge of extinction. Much of our historical progress has been driven by men, via their attempts to win sex in an evolutionary bootstrap. Women would lack that drive and civilization would stagnate.
 

Agony of the Ayatollahs

By Martin Amis
The Guardian, July 17, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Are we witnessing the first spasm of the death agony of the Islamic Republic of Iran? The results of a fraudulent election were presented to the people with indecent haste and laughable incompetence. If, after the usual interval, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had soberly announced a 51% win for President Ahmadinejad, then we might all have bowed our heads and moved on.

In 1997, the regime felt confident enough to sanction the surprise victory of President Muhammad Khatami, who won by the same landslide margin of 69% in a joyous election that no one disputed. Lovingly hailed as "Ayatollah Gorbachev", Khatami was soon talking about the "thoughtful dialog" he hoped to open with America. In June 2001, Khatami was re-elected with a majority of 78%. Seven months later came George W Bush's "axis of evil" speech, and the Tehran Spring was at an end.

The mullahs now know that they are afloat on an ocean of illegitimacy. Of the four foundational narratives of the 1979 revolution, three are myths. The "Islamic Revolution" was not an Islamic revolution. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was not an imposed war. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not a great man. And the fourth narrative, of anti-Americanism, has been severed by Barack Obama.

The 1979 revolution wasn't an Islamic revolution until it was over. It was a mass movement, an avalanche of demonstrations and riots. The June events of 2009 constitute a mere whisper of demurral when set against the deafening crescendo of 1978. The noise was not made for clerical rule. It was made because a decadent monarchy had lost the aura of kingship.

In January 1979, Muhammad Reza Shah flew out of Tehran to exile in Cairo. In February, Ayatollah Khomeini flew into Tehran from exile in Paris. The cultural revolution began. In November, a group of students infiltrated the US embassy and seized 53 hostages. In a referendum on the new constitution, "99.5%" of a turnout of 17 million gave their blessing to Islamic autocracy.

The Iran-Iraq war can only be thought of as an imposed war if we understand that the war was imposed by Khomeini. Khomeini wanted Shia theocracy in every country on earth. In 1979, Saddam Hussein reached out a hand of friendship to the new Iran. Khomeini responded by resuming support for separatist Kurds and the Shia underground. There were murders of at least 20 prominent Iraqi officials in April 1980 alone. Khomeini withdrew his ambassador from Baghdad. In September, Iran shelled the border cities of Khanaqin and Mandali. There were eight Iraqi offers of ceasefires, but the war devolved into a daily enactment of Shia themes of sacrifice, dispossession, and mourning.

In 1981, a film run on government-controlled television showed a mother denouncing her son as a Marxist. The son, sobbing and grabbing for his mother's hand, desperately tries to convince her that he has given up Marxist politics. The mother rejects his pleas saying, "You must repent in front of God and you will be executed." The picture fades to Ayatollah Khomeini telling the people of Iran, "I want to see more mothers turning in their children with such courage without shedding a tear. This is what Islam is."

Iran is one of the most venerable civilizations on earth. And its 2,500-year history is sliced almost exactly in two by the rise of Islam. Accordingly, the Iranian heart is bipolar, divided between Xerxes and Muhammad, between Persepolis and Qom, between the imperially sensuous and the unsmilingly pious.

In 1935, Iranians found themselves living in a different country, not Persia but Iran, the "land of the Arians". This was the work of Reza Shah, a modernist and secularizer. In 1976, Iranians found themselves living in a different millennium, not 1355 (dated from the time of the Prophet) but 2535 (dated from the time of Cyrus the Great). After 1979, Iran was subjected to militant and breakneck re-Islamization. The Zoroastrian era was declared to be jahiliyyah, a benighted slum of ignorance and idolatry, and a dire embarrassment to all good Muslims.

Now we have another four years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The American politician whom Ahmadinejad most closely resembles is Ronald Reagan. Both figures are denizens of that stormlit plain where end-time theology meets nuclear weapons. But Reagan did not spend public money on civic preparations for the Second Coming, and was not the product of a culture saturated in ecstatic fantasies of morbid torment. Jesus Christ, according to both presidents, is due very shortly, but in Ahmadinejad's vision the Nazarene will merely form a part of the entourage of a much grander personage, the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, the Lord of Time.

Ali Rafsanjani, the pragmatist and reformer, worldly and venal, said: "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything," whereas a counterstrike on Iran will merely "harm" the Islamic world. Given the Shia commitment to martyrdom, mutual assured destruction, as one Israeli official put it, "is not a deterrent. It's an incentive." Equipped with nuclear weapons, the supreme leader may delegate first use to Hezbollah, or to the Call of Islam, or to the Legion of the Pure. Or he may himself become the first suicide bomber to be gauged in megatons.
 

AR  Fundamentalist Islam is a world-historical horror we need to exterminate decisively.
 

Amis On Loss

By Bharat Tandon
The Times Literary Supplement, February 3, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis
Cape, 470 pages

In his latest novel, Amis casts his fictional eye back to 1970. He has been candid in interviews about the novel's autobiographical genesis. A more profitable way of reading the novel would be as a long critical dialogue with the works that Amis produced just after the period he represents, most notably The Rachel Papers (1973) and Dead Babies (1975).

At the beginning of the novel, in the summer of 1970, Keith finds himself spending his university vacation in an Italian castle, mugging up on the history of the English novel while finding his affections wandering between his on-off girlfriend Lily and the aristocratic Scheherazade. Amis depicts his characters not only occasionally groping one another, but also groping awkwardly for a stable understanding of what is expected of them.

Keith carries around the burden of what he would like to think of as chivalry, laden as he is with guilt over his inability to save his younger sister Violet from a life of pathological promiscuity. His confusion is exacerbated by everyone's seemingly being unsure how to use the freedom that is now up for grabs, and unsure whether it really amounts to freedom anyway.

Keith and his friends are as much victims as they are participants, the collateral damage of a socio-political shift that is still working itself out. Of all the nineteenth-century novelists Keith co-opts, the most prominent is Jane Austen. In her own way, Austen was not so much a comedian of manners as the comedian of a culture actively debating the very nature and existence of manners themselves.

To depict protagonists who aren't wholly aware of the genre of story they are in has long been a staple of Amis's ironic art. For example, John Self in Money (1984) and Samson Young in London Fields (1989) are united in their inability to "read" their own circumstances. The Pregnant Widow makes its own use of the device. It reads like a palimpsest of autobiographical novel, comedy of sexual misunderstanding, and pubby-clubby sociology.

The Pregnant Widow works best as an archaeology of the ageing body. The novel's multiple time frames give Amis the chance to measure Keith's increasing physical frailty unsparingly against his younger self.

The Pregnant Widow stands alongside novels such as Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach as an elegy to wasted opportunity. Amis is growing into a chronicler of loss and uncomfortable metamorphosis.
 

Summer 1970

By Richard Bradford
The Spectator, February 3, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

Amis is the most expansively gifted prose stylist of his generation. The extent to which he has overindulged his abundant talent will remain a matter for debate.

The Pregnant Widow retains his stylistic signature, yet by turns modulates and remodels it. In the novel, he treats all of his creations with a combination of respect, altruism and kindness. We forget that they are inventions, and wonder about the causes of their variously endearing, troubled, despondent states.

Despite the absence of a plot, it is an addictive read. We live with the characters, follow them in and out of focus, and wonder continually about Keith. The narrative never releases us from his presence — shy, self-conscious, perplexed — and via him we apprehend a summer which will stalk the future lives of all with whom he shared it.

In a Coda, we follow him to age 60 and an accumulation of great sadness and regret. By 2009, he has still not detached himself from the night, ten years previously, when he witnessed his sister's death. In the closing sequences Keith is the most grievous, heartbreaking individual so far created by his author.
 

War Against Death

By Wayne Gooderham
The Guardian, February 19, 2010

If Kingsley Amis was the poet laureate of the hangover, then his son is surely the poet laureate of gerontology. I cannot think of another writer so obsessed with his characters' ages.
 

A Rethink

By Philip Hensher
The Telegraph, May 20, 2010

Martin Amis has been at the centre of English writing since 1973. The Pregnant Widow takes on the history of the past 40 years, and revisits and rethinks old themes.

Sometimes it has been difficult for his readers to see what a terrific novelist he is. Among his works, Money (1984) is obviously a classic. His four early novels, from The Rachel Papers to Other People (1981), are scabrous comedies of low life and disgrace. Amis evolved an unmistakable style in these books.

The Pregnant Widow returns to previous territory. Like The Rachel Papers (1973), it is about a literary education. Like Dead Babies (1975), it is the story of an early Seventies house party of indulgence and lechery. Like Success (1978), it is about the gap between social classes. Unlike them, it deals in humane portraits. It is written with Amis's customary elegance but has a new warmth and sympathy in its comedy.

Not everybody has agreed over the excellence of The Pregnant Widow. Its views are very definitely Amis's own. Surprisingly for a writer of his distinction, he has been passed over many times by prize juries. He divides opinion, as powerful writers often do.
 

More Lad Than Bad

By Edmund White
The New York Review of Books, June 24, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis
Knopf, 370 pages

The Pregnant Widow begins as a beautifully poised, patient comedy of manners, in the tradition of the novels that Martin Amis's college-age hero, Keith Nearing, is reading. In the last third, the narrative skips ahead and thins out and speeds up and starts to destroy itself joyously. I was reminded of Gravity's Rainbow, in which the main theme, entropy, causes the book itself to give up on being a historical novel about World War II and to go to pieces.

Amis has given us an example of imitative form. In the first two thirds of the book there are even many direct references to Shakespeare’s comedies, and young women are accused of being blokes, and the feminist revolution is piggybacked on the earlier sexual revolution. It all recalls Shakespeare's games with androgyny.

After dwelling on a single visit to an Italian castle for a tense, glorious summer in 1970 and working out all the erotic possibilities, the narrator nosedives through the succeeding decades up to the present, losing hopes, loves, friends, and even the lives of the people he loves along the way in a reckless, pell-mell casting aside of almost everyone he had ever cherished. Very lifelike. That's what aging does to you.

By 1970, when The Pregnant Widow begins, the youngsters have added copious four-letter words to their repertoire as well as saucily direct comments, appalling nicknames, and obscene erotic refinements. In spite of all these liberties and acquisitions, the youngsters still seem naive, self-hating, and snobbish.

Amis has used here the plebeian name Keith, as he has in his past fiction. Our Keith wants to be a poet. After a brief flurry of publishing in his early twenties he gives it up. Keith Nearing, we might say, resembles Martin Amis if he hadn't had the drive and talent to become a writer. Keith is addicted to sex, or thoughts of sex, as most men are, with this difference: male writers are also obsessed with dreams of glory and mental games of literary composition.

The Pregnant Widow is a kind of alternative memoir about a person who doesn't have the stamina and imaginative fire to write. Keith Nearing's biological parents are of the servant class.

There's a large cast of young characters and few adults to supervise them. Keith is at the castle with his girlfriend Lily. When he has sex with her he often has to fantasize she's someone else, even with her verbal help and cooperation. At one point she pretends to be Scheherazade, who is so young she has only just grown into her beauty. At one point Scheherazade sets up a secret rendezvous with Keith until he gets drunk and starts ranting against God.

Gloria Beautyman is a triumphant narcissist who looks at herself and declares that she loves herself. There’s something mysterious and odd about her, though. Then there's the Italian aristocrat who's rich and and plays rugby and speaks several languages and is capable of deep emotions — and is four foot ten inches tall. There's the older, wiser gay man who's in love with a very young man.

This is a book that is highly conscious of being a book. Keith is reading all those novels. The action often echoes the plots of the novels he's reading. There are many subtle parallels between books and reality. But for Keith the whole experience is literary.

By contrast, the life he goes on to live is made up as it goes along. This contrast between the rare, well-made, already novelistic experience and the more common, messy, improvised shapelessness of ordinary existence explains the shift from the tidy social comedy of youth to the baffling weirdness of age — and the exploded shape of this book.

Martin Amis is very funny and accurate about aging. But Amis has no theory about age. It's much too interesting an experience. The nasty depredations of age are items Amis ticks off in a comic list of horrors. The rhetorical effects of repetition, the insistence that everything is all right, the parody of cheerfulness in the service of disgust, all dramatize the tragicomedy of one's "late period."

Perhaps Amis's most striking meditations on age and time in this "snuff film" we're all starring in derive from his analysis of age as the one remaining class system. As we lie dying, not many of us will have enjoyed the inestimable privilege of being born with white skin, blue blood, and a male member. Each and every one of us, though, at some point in our story, will have been young. The people who are currently young, Amis predicts, will rebel against caring for the growing percentage of the population that is old.

The tone of these comments is rendered in Amis's hilarious essay style. Sometimes I wonder why writers who are witty and restless and worldly in their essays become dull narrators, inexhaustibly sequential in their novels, grazing every last thing in view.

I mention this notion of fiction not because I want pages and pages of ideas in novels but as a corrective to the American assumption that true novelists are rough-and-tumble brutes getting it all down. Writers shouldn't lose twenty points of IQ when they turn away from essays to fiction. They should remain true to whatever it is that engages them in writing, no matter what the genre.

Amis knows how to present dramatic scenes with dialogue and terse descriptions of action. But he also knows how to analyze action, usually from a comic point of view. In The Pregnant Widow, the wit and the analysis are used to open up the story, to take a single idyllic summer and trace out its consequences in numerous lives and through four decades.

Amis has always dealt with lads or cads. He understands that evil exists in the world and he knows how to portray it. When I teach creative writing I have to give a very exact assignment to get my students to sketch a bad person. Only once they break the good barrier do these young writers begin to understand the possibilities of fiction. Martin Amis learned this liberating lesson early and well.

Keith Nearing is more lad than bad in The Pregnant Widow. By the end of the book he has grown bleak with insight and depressing wisdom. No one can deny the attention to detail and to language lavished on every sentence. Beauty has reentered literature through this strange, sparkling novel.
 

AR  I befriended Martin in the academic year 1969/70 at Exeter College Oxford. He spent the summer of 1970 with his girlfriend Gully Wells in a château on the Côte d’Azur. I worked that summer as a laborer in a steelworks. But no need to complain — I spent the summer of 1971 (Martin's post-finals summer) with my girlfriend Judy in Paris, Chartres, Mont St Michel, and Amsterdam. Judy read Hobbes' Leviathan and Moby Dick, I read Moby Dick and a pair of Dostoyevsky novels (The Idiot and Crime and Punishment).
 

From Rachel to Asbo

By Morten Høi Jensen
Los Angeles Review of Books, April 25, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

Martin Amis seized on the wheezing literary world of 1970s England and shocked it back to life. His mid-career comedies — Money, London Fields, The Information — revitalized English prose with the freewheeling energies of its American cousin. His novels, essays, stories, and journalism make up one of the most electric and original bodies of work in modern literature. It takes serious effort to deny the overwhelming originality of the voice.

Style is a quality of vision, the revelation of an author's private universe. In his memoir Experience, Amis claims that "style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified." Reading Amis, we learn to see the world the way he sees it, as a universe racked with drink, drugs, and porno (Money); environmental disaster and nuclear weapons (London Fields, Einstein's Monsters); sexual revolution and male anxiety (The Pregnant Widow, The Information). It's a private universe shaped by the late twentieth century.

Amis's novels have always dealt, on some level, with the struggle between the literary and the unliterary. This was certainly the moral force behind Money (1984), a boldly experimental novel written in the paradoxically literary voice of the fantastically unliterary John Self, a debauched commercial director pinballing between New York and London, working on his first feature film. By Self's own admission, he is addicted to the late twentieth century. He calls himself "a ticking grid of jet-lag, time-jump and hangover" and is frequently bogged down in combat with a debilitating excess of "fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs."

Masculinity is the big theme of all his work. No other male writer has skewered the delusions of male grandeur the way Amis has. The great male leads of his novels are always seen in moments of great male anxiety, or in galloping strides of great male affirmation. Women are often seen as representatives of culture. The Rachel Papers, Success, Dead Babies: these were grotesque comedies of the human body. In the mid-career work, like The Information, the middle-aged man is just "candidly and averagely semi-fucked up, along the usual male lines." The Pregnant Widow took a broad view not just of the sexual revolution and the English novel, but also of aging.

The 13th novel, Lionel Asbo: The State of England, feels like an expansion of the trajectory Amis first embarked on with Money. Lionel Asbo — a petty thug who wins £140 million in the lottery and becomes a mainstay in the British tabloids — is a comic creation on par with John Self, Keith Talent, and Steve "Scozzy" Cousins. London is evoked with familiar riffs on inner-city decay.

Amis continues to thwart our expectations of what a novel ought to look like. Whatever else you object to about his fiction, his essays, and his journalism, they have found invigorating new rhythms: outraged hilarity, lurching energy, contagious joy. No one has been better suited to write about the aimless decay of modern cities, the yelpings and flailings of male ego, the diminishing returns of literary careerdom. Amis once wrote that great writers "heighten and transfigure the world you see, for ever."
 

Over 60

Martin Amis

Edited by Andy Ross

You can't write about characters that disgust you. All the things I hate in life, I enjoy in fiction: vulgarity, cynicism, all those sorts of displaced and degraded feelings. I'm a great admirer of incorrigibility, too. I admire people who go on making the same mistakes. But the thing I value most is innocence. And the trouble with having that as your main value is that innocence is diminishing all the time.

Every creature is immortal except for man. We know we're going to die. Time is a river that is bearing me away, but I am the river. No animal has to grapple with that thought, because they think they're eternally alive. Have you noticed, religious people look sinisterly young? Because it's consciousness of death that draws all these lines on us. Not just the time moving past you, but where it's headed.

You’ve got to earn it. This concept has come to seem very basic to me. I am Kingsley Amis' son. It's the curse of Prince Charles, the taint of heredity, the idea that somehow you haven't earned it, a bit like taking over the family pub. I wrote my first novel in 1973, when I was 24. I was the novelist as pop star, the Mick Jagger of literature. So why isn't Mick Jagger known as the Martin Amis of the rock world? It's a conundrum.

I think if my father had been a businessman or a schooteacher, I'd be taken more on my own merits. The subliminal feeling that it was no struggle for me at all is not conscious, but it's there. I don't feel it interferes with my readers at all, but it does with officialdom. I haven't been offered an MBE, where all my writer friends and peers are either turning down or accepting knighthoods. The only literary prize I've won for fiction was 40 years ago.

The worst thing about growing old is the fear of declining powers. It's a fact that your vocabulary starts to shrink in your fifties, so you reach for the Thesaurus a bit more than you used to. When I look at my early stuff, I'm amazed by the garrulity; quite impressed, actually, by how I can't shut up. You do learn how to shut up.

Genius is all the god-given stuff, the altitude of perception and articulacy. Talent is craft. And what happens I think is your genius shrinks and your talent expands. You get better at construction and knowing what goes where: pacing, modulation, that kind of thing. I still feel, when I wake up and all I've got to do that day is write, I can't wait to get down there. It's a wonderful way of earning a living.
 

ASBO

Emma Brockes
The Guardian, August 23, 2012

The U.S. reviews for Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis' latest novel, are not pretty:

The Washington Post described the novel as "ham-fisted" and "meandering" and suggested that Amis move back to England.

The Wall Street Journal: "He reads like a university don telling dirty jokes to astonish the groundlings while never letting them forget how well he knows his Milton."

The New York Observer: "The most marked characteristic of Lionel Asbo is its joylessness ... Lionel Asbo is a bad book."

The New York Times dismissed Asbo as "weary" and "pallid" and took swipes at two other Amis novels, Yellow Dog ("dreadful") and the Pregnant Widow ("tedious").

 

Kingsley Amis

By Matthew Walther
The American Conservative, September 19, 2012

Kingsley Amis (1954): Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis (1986): The Old Devils

Kingsley Amis rarely had a kind word to say about his son Martin's work. After encountering a character named Martin Amis in Money, he threw the manuscript across the room and accused Martin of "American cleverness." Martin explained that Kingsley also wrote poetry, so he had no reason to quest after the "terrible compulsive vividness" of Martin's words.

Amis senior himself is probably more famous than any of his books. He hated tolerance, diversity, foreign languages, airplanes, popular music, female novelists, jazz, being alone, art cinema, buying gifts for his wives, the Arts Council of Great Britain, homosexuals, America, communists, gardens, and the dark. He never learned to drive a car and bragged that he couldn't scramble an egg. In his later years he spent thousands of pounds a month on drink. His loyalty to the Crown was absolute. He called Margaret Thatcher "one of the best looking women I had ever met."

Yet this man wrote some of the best fiction of the last century. In Lucky Jim, he writes with unflagging energy, like a literary combine harvester thrashing its way through fields of tedium and mawkishness. His debut novel is a middle finger presented to snobs, puritans, sycophants, and fussbudgets. It was an immediate popular and critical success. Amis was a consummate literary professional who wrote at least 500 words nearly every morning of his adult life, and wrote a series of comic novels, none of which managed to equal the comedic charm of Lucky Jim.

The Old Devils, which Martin has called one of the best half-dozen novels of the 20th century, shows Kingsley older, sentimental, and content. The novel is a kind of love letter to his first wife, Hilary, Martin's mother, a typewritten apology note to a woman whom he seems to have realized he loved despite all else.
 

The Amis Obsession

James Parker
The Atlantic, November 2012

Martin Amis, 63, has led a writer's life, sedentary and doggedly productive. Can it be that he is famous just for writing?

In Amis-prose, the adverb is a moral necessity — it lets you sense the author, feel the steady pressure of his mind, ironic and lunar, half an inch behind the text. Unfresh usage upsets Amis. Be vigilant. Be moral.

His great vice is seriousness. Moving from the comic to the terribly important has a degrading effect on his style. But you don't go to Amis for prophecy or world-historical insight.
 

New York

Martin Amis
The Telegraph, October 13, 2013


I find New York a tremendously exciting and glamorous city. There is such a buzz about it. For sheer excitement, it's the best place to go for a weekend, party for four days, and then get out.
 

The Zone of Interest

Bryan Appleyard
The Sunday Times, August 17, 2014


Martin Amis arrived in Brooklyn in 2011. He is 65 on August 25. His new novel, The Zone of Interest, is about the Holocaust. Saul Bellow described the Holocaust as the terminal point so far in human evil.

The novel takes us inside the minds of the Germans who managed Auschwitz. It is also a love story.

"When I was about seven, I asked my mother what all this stuff about railway tracks and smokestacks was all about, and she said, 'Oh, don't worry about Hitler. You've got blond hair and blue eyes — Hitler would have loved you.' I felt a kind of ignoble relief that Hitler would have been on my side."

"Bellow said we must try to see things with our original eyes. You have to retain your childish vision."

Holocaust

Alex Clark
The Guardian, August 22, 2014


The Zone of Interest focuses on the Nazi officers at Auschwitz and their increasing difficulty in fulfilling the demands from Berlin.

The blustering KZ Kommandant is a terrific comic creation. He is off his head, sexually incontinent, and loathed by his wife. His struggle to process victims is a personal torment and his struggle to keep head office at bay a bureaucratic headache.

Golo: "Would you agree that we couldn't treat them any worse?"
Boris: "Oh, come on. We don't eat them."
Golo: "Yes, but they wouldn't mind being eaten. Unless we ate them alive."
Boris: "No, what we do is make them eat each other. They mind that ... Golo, who in Germany didn't think the Jews needed taking down a peg? But this is fucking ridiculous, this is."

Szmul is forced to become an accessory in the murder of his own people: "I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives that have never been discussed before."

"The ending is so well achieved you want to shake both him and his editor and ask why the whole book is not like this."
James Runcie
 

Nightmare

Theo Tait
The Sunday Times, August 24, 2014


The Zone of Interest is set in Auschwitz, mostly in 1942. The book positively revels in the bureaucratic euphemisms that shrouded the genocide. The story appears to be about managerial frustrations and amorous intrigues among the Germans at the camp.

Amis has taken various liberties with the history. He reinvents hell on earth in his gaudy, insistent, elaborate prose, and uses a lot of German, which often tips over into absurdity. The book is a nightmare filled with riffs and general observations on Nazi Germany.

"I read this once thinking it horrifically brilliant ...
I read it a second time asking, but what is the point?"
Katy Guest
 

Fixation

Mark O'Connell
Slate, October 2014

The Zone of Interest is the best novel Amis has written since The Information. His fixation on the most violent and debased aspects of humanity find a commensurate subject in the darkest abominations of the last century. There are few contemporary novelists who can render violence and stupidity with such forceful style and intelligence.

On Genocide

Holocaust Novels

Adam Kirsch

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis, and J, by Howard Jacobson, return to the Holocaust:

Jacobson believes that the subject demands disorientation, reticence, and confusion. J takes place in a future England, somewhere around the year 2070. As Jacobson sketches in more of his fictional world, it becomes clear that it is afflicted by a continual, habitual violence. Then there are the more pointed and private omens. Jacobson is imagining an English Holocaust, set to take place sometime around the year 2020. He has written a horror story about a Holocaust that changes history and even human nature. The real horror of the real Holocaust is that it did no such thing.

Amis deliberately circumvents the conventions of Holocaust writing. Nearly the whole cast of The Zone of Interest are perpetrators. Amis has written a comedy that happens to be set in Auschwitz. The protagonists are the administrators of the camp. The horror is made to bleed through the edges of the story. Amis writes beautifully and originally about Auschwitz. The book conjures everyday life there. We see not overt savagery but carefully chosen moments of pathos and irony. The crime of Auschwitz was to assign the victims and the perpetrators their roles in an ideological apocalypse.
 

The Rub of Time

Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump and Other Pieces 1996-2016 by Martin Amis

Roger Lewis
The Times, September 30, 2017


At 68, Amis is now four years older than his father Kingsley was in 1986. A significant theme of this first-class collection of essays and reviews is dusk descending, clouds gathering, last orders being called.

Amis reveres Vladimir Nabokov, but he detects, in the later novels and stories, a fatal falling off. Narrative propulsion and stylistic modulation fails and falters: “Genius engorges itself and talent shrivels and dies.”

As Amis leafs through his favourite writers, the fizzling and spluttering at the finish starts to seem commonplace.

Amis insightfully comments that Iris Murdoch and John Bayley had always liked being ill and getting old. They were the sort of fussy English couple who preferred winter to summer.

The deliberate avoidance of robustness and vitality in favour of the dreary is a motif Amis also spots in Philip Larkin, who succeeded in writing transcendent verse about the ageing process and what it means.

Amis is a freelance fellow who loves the invigorating intelligence of books and who has nothing to do with any university department. His wide reading is prompted by pure pleasure.

Amis met John Updike when the old enchanter was already in hospital, surrounded by drips, injections, wheelchairs and other evidence of morbidity: “Updike was intensely alive. The hyperactivity of his sense-impressions was palpable.”

Amis wants to learn from Saul Bellow, whom he worships: “Critics should cleave to the human element, and not just laminate the text with additional obscurities.”

Amis is worthy of the praise he shovels upon Nabokov in his prime: “He went at everything he did with everything he had.”

Apart from the terrible title, The Rub of Time is impressive and important.

 

More on Martin Amis

 

Sitemap