War On Cliché
Martin Amis Talks About Nazis, Novels, and Cute Babies
In a wide-ranging Q&A, novelist Martin Amis discusses his new novel about the Holocaust, about the insistence on story in modern fiction, and his concessions to aging.
“Is that Ron?” Martin Amis asks as he greets me in the invitingly elegant hallway of his Brooklyn brownstone. At 65, Amis at first seems to have something of the baffled air that one might have expected from his father, the great comic novelist Kingsley Amis. Yet the ever gracious Martin, cool and comfortable in Levis and pressed button-down shirt, has lost none of the intellectual fierceness of his youth. Martin Amis is not baffled by the modern world; he observes it with precision.
His latest novel, The Zone of Interest, has just been published to generally glowing reviews both here and in England. This at times comic—yet deeply serious—tale set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, recently landed Amis on the front page of The New York Times when his German and French publishers rejected the novel. It’s the sort of controversy that seems, alas, to follow Amis, at times distracting readers and critics from his work.
“It can’t just be that they’re jealous,” an editor friend once told me as I tried to explain the outsized intensity of the negative reviews of Amis’ 2003 novel Yellow Dog. Okay, maybe the negative press isn’t entirely fueled by jealousy, but that explains a lot of it.
Because there really is plenty to be jealous of: Amis’s fortunate birth into a literary family; the seemingly easy success he scored with his first novel, The Rachel Papers; the great triumph of Money, his scorchingly comic breakthrough novel of ’80s excess in London and New York; and the success of his next novel, London Fields, his take on the Western world’s self-destructive ways.
His recent fiction is often hailed as a kind of return to form. But when did Amis ever lose his way? Certainly not in The Information, the story of an absurdly unsuccessful novelist and his comically successful best friend; not in his universally praised memoir, Experience; not in House of Meetings, a tour de force about the Russian Gulag; and not in The Pregnant Widow, a bittersweet look at the consequences of the sexual revolution.
Perhaps some of the novels have been less good than the others, but surely each offered enough vivid prose and idiosyncratic insights to satisfy any serious reader. How many novelists wouldn’t want to trade careers with Martin Amis? So yeah, a lot of the press about Martin Amis is fueled by jealousy.
But if the writer’s task is to engage in a war against cliché—as the title of Amis’s 2001 collection of essays would have it—then the steadily productive, unapologetic Amis appears to be winning the war.
Following is an edited version of our conversation which began with a question about the risks facing a contemporary novelist taking on the great imaginative challenge of writing about the Holocaust.
The new novel, The Zone of Interest, is set in Auschwitz. Did you consider it a risky undertaking—though, of course, you’d already written about the Holocaust in your novel Time’s Arrow?
Martin Amis: And that was very necessary to have done that, I think. I didn’t know if I would ever write it about it again because I’d written about it in quite a lot in nonfiction. So the process has been going on for 25 years nearly. So it felt quite evolved. But it’s a heavy undertaking. All of writing is about decorum. And literary decorum, to elaborate, is almost the opposite of what decorum means in real life, which means etiquette basically. And sensitive, empathic politeness. But in literature it has nothing to do with politeness. It has to do with fitting the tone to what you are writing about. And to get the right tone for the Holocaust is no small matter. And it brings responsibilities with it. Several people whom I respect and like, George Steiner and Cynthia Ozick, say there’s just a “no entry” sign. But that makes no sense philosophically, does it? At what point does a historical event become so disgusting that a writer can’t go near it? And anyway writing fiction is freedom. I think that is an absolute precious maxim that. I do think the Holocaust is exceptional in all kinds of ways. But why make it an exception where writers can’t go?
I am almost am reluctant to bring it up, but I suppose it’s necessary. How do you explain the responses to the novel by your publishers in Germany and France?
Why do publishers make decisions? Because they didn’t think they were going to do well with the book. That’s the way to look at it really first and foremost. They are publishers. They’re big corporations. But I’ve got another one in France. And we think we’ll get one in Germany, too.
One of the memorable phrases in the novel is the idea that Auschwitz gives you a picture of your soul. And it tells you who you are. And I was wondering what that word soul means to you.
It goes back with me not to childhood so much as to late adolescence. I don’t know if you remember getting these kind of trance-like attacks and kind of a feeling of numinousness where suddenly you are tremendously aware of everything in the street. It’s a very positive feeling. A very affirmative feeling. I used to think those were soul attacks. And moving, too. And that was the soul, very active in adolescence—like everything else. So I always thought it was that where poetry and religion come from.
And you say that Auschwitz, that experience, would tell people who they were. Could you talk about that?
It’s actually a terrifying notion that many survivors say. It’s a real theme of survivor testimony, which is often of astounding quality. Amazing eloquence. But they all said that during peace and civilization you only ever see 5 percent of someone’s character. And you should dread seeing it all, because you find out whether you’re brave, adaptable, determined, immune to despair, and that sort of thing. That’s for the victims. And for the perpetrators, you find the terrible potentialities … But the banality of evil, Robert Jay Lifton said the best thing about that: “Well, they might have been banal when they started out, but they weren’t banal once they started killing people.”
Hitler’s name is never mentioned in the book. Can you talk about that decision?
It’s not a highly significant thing. When I wrote the novel about the Gulag, House of Meetings, the name Stalin only appears in a footnote very early on. He’s called Josif Vissarionovich which sort of depersonalizes him a bit. You don’t have this huge titan on your page. It just feels a bit exorbitant or crass to write “Hitler” in a novel. There’s nothing else to call him except by his titles. There’s no name for him. You can’t call him Adolf. But I just couldn’t bring myself to name him except through various nicknames and titles.
At the end of the book there’s that photograph of Hitler. It’s particularly disgusting to see it after what one has just read.
Isabelle, my wife, said it’s very anomalous to have it there. But it was such a good one of Bormann [in the background], looking exactly as I’d described him with a sort of a juicy smile. And Hitler looking like such a lout, a drunken lout, with that sort of ignorant sneer. This is the man who brought all that about.
You’ve said that a work of fiction has to give pleasure. Is there pleasure to be had in this new difficult novel?
What surprised me about it, I mean about how people have reacted to it, is I didn’t realize it was a sort of a page turner. I no longer like looking at what I’ve already written. But there is a sort of honeymoon period when it’s just come out. When you do like going through it. And I realize it [The Zone of Interest] is more coherent than I thought it was, and the arrow of development is sharper than I thought it was. And that brings a kind of contradiction in a way. That it shouldn’t be a kind of page turner, should it? Because it’s about that. But it should give pleasure. I’m with Nabokov. I’m absolutely behind the pleasure principle. It’s the surest guide to quality, to worth—giving pleasure.
I’ve always believed that nothing that’s well expressed is depressing, really.
No, exactly. That’s an iron rule. If it were not the case, then there would be a Jonestown after every performance of King Lear. But what happens is not depression. It’s catharsis. Pity and terror, and you come out purged. If it’s crap, then it is depressing. But then you stop reading on page five.
I was wondering if immersing yourself in this period shed any light on the current historical moment. Or is it incomparable?
No, I think it’s a basic thing that happens at certain times. The stock phrase—and it’s a very good phrase—is that in certain places at certain times, the value of human life collapses. Rwanda is a good example of that. People start killing, and the killing takes on its own momentum. And in the Nazi case, what happened was not just the collapse but something further … a kind of admiration of death. Prodigious dispersing of death in every direction. … And the collapse is happening in Syria and Iraq at the moment. Santayana’s definition of fanaticism is that you redouble your energy and your radicalism as you forget your aims. The one encouraging thing about ISIS is that they’re so radical now that they are getting to the end of what can be done in the way of radicalism. And then it will just burn out.
I wanted to ask you about how you think the audience for the novel is changing. You’ve spoken about being offended when you heard a reviewer on the radio pan a novel because he “didn’t like the characters”—as if that’s a legitimate piece of literary criticism.
I think that novelists have responded to a general thrust of history in that history has speeded up in the last 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, and novels have speeded up. Not as any kind of bandwagon, but just as a kind of natural evolution. So the obligation for there to be a dynamism has increased, but you can’t worry about whether these characters are likeable or not. It’s sort of philistine. Nabokov said that when you read a novel, if you’re a man, do not identify with Fitzwilliam Darcy. If you’re a girl, don’t identify with Elizabeth Bennet. Identify with Jane Austen.
I know you taught writing by teaching your students to read novels as a novelist would read them.
Which means being very alert to technique and prose and the human quality coming out of it. Because it’s a very intimate business. You really know a writer’s soul by reading their fiction. A poem is slightly different. A novel is exhaustive in the way a poem isn’t. A poem is a sort of a shard. And also the poet is an individual par excellence, and if he’s not that, he’s nothing. In his poem, “The Novelist,” Auden says, “Encased in talent like a uniform, the rank of every poet is well known …. He can amaze us like a thunder storm.” The novelist has a different task [according to Auden]. "He must become the whole of boredom ... Among the just be just, among the filthy, filthy too.” You have to be an everyman and chameleon, so that every bit of you is involved in the end.
But you feel the time for the discursive novel has passed?
Yet you’re working on a discursive novel.
That’s exactly what I’m working on.
That’s my favorite genre.
Yeah, it was nice, wasn’t it? It was when life was less pressing. And it was also during the phase of the higher autobiography. Writers ceased to trust anything they hadn’t lived through for a bit. It was just a phase in the novel but many writers felt it.
Bellow most successfully.
Yes. My father, who despised autobiographical novels, did two very autobiographical misogynist books as his second marriage broke up. Then he sort of stopped doing it. But there it was. But in his case he didn’t produce that sort of meditative novel. All that stuff about angelology in Humbolt’s Gift. If you take away [Bellow’s] Nobel Prize, I don’t think [Humbolt’s Gift] would get more than 5,000 readers today. I mean, the readership is gone.
The critic James Wood said in a recent New Yorker, “As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive.” Do you get the same sense?
That’s really what I mean. The forward momentum has to be so much stronger now. In tune with life. And the novelists feel it, too. It’s true that Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen, teaming with characters and developments, that is probably is the future for now. Zadie Smith said to me, “Our kind of novel, it will last your time. But it probably won’t last my time.” She’s a meditative novelist up to a point, and she wants to slow things down a bit. We all would like to.
There’s a line I love from Yellow Dog: “See the young kissing, and run it by your heart. If your heart rejects it, retreats from it, that’s age. That’s time fucking with you.” And I was wondering how you combat that impulse to reject the young?
It’s been very simple for me because my father was such a grouch as he was getting older. I’d still have a good time with him. If a baby cried in a restaurant he would go, ‘Shut the f… up.” And he had great contempt for babies even in his fiction. And I said, “It’s quite funny your line about children being terrible and selfish and intolerable. What do you think you were 70 years ago?” And Larkin does it, too. And there’s a real bit of venom in Larkin’s view of children …“children with their shallow violent eyes.” Real hatred and fear. But perhaps because of that counter example, I’m absolutely fine. If I see a pram I want to stick my head in it and have a look. And I don’t at all mind seeing young couples, embracing and kissing. I like it.
I know that you’ve spoken in the past about being in London and going into a pub and not leaving before you heard something you could use. I wonder if you miss that living here in Brooklyn?
After some years you’re not going to go out do the research. You’ve just got to imagine it, and stylize it. And probably not try to do the real crest of modernity. And maybe you write about the past more. It was nice to write Lionel Asbo because it was very much in the present. But I think that’s probably my last shot.
I don’t know. You know, a novel comes not from a decision but a frisson, a sort of shiver that goes through you. It’s only a tiny splinter of the novel that is shown to you, but you know from experience that you can get started. And a lot will be there, done by your subconscious. It’s a very mysterious process.
So, have you stopped playing tennis?
Yeah, it’s too depressing. It just made me sad. Took up a huge part of the day. I mean, I used to love it.
But you’ll never stop the smoking?
Well, I have more or less. I’m doing e-cigarettes.