A comedy of interest: Martin Amis in conversation on FT Weekend

Random House, 2014

Martin Amis on the FT Weekend Interview Series,
in conversation with Philippe Sands QC.
1st September, Kings Place, London


Stephen Pringle


Martin Amis’s latest novel, The Zone of Interest, deals with the Holocaust in such a rigorously-researched manner that one is tempted to assign it the “historical fiction” label, but it is so unmistakably Amisian that this feels like it would be counter-productive. It is a novel, concerned with the way that the freedoms of fiction can shed new light on this monstrous chapter of humanity, yet in deep dialogue with the historical and philosophical reflexions the Holocaust has accrued.

This interview, part of the Financial Times‘ Weekend Interview series, provided a fascinating opportunity to explore some of the contexts of the novel, as well as how another Holocaust novel might have a place in contemporary political discourse. In terms of Amis’s own, thirteen-novel long career, the comparison which jumps out is to his 1991 book Time’s Arrow, also set at a Nazi death camp, also concerned with what the novel in particular can say about such atrocities. Amis brusquely rebuffed criticism that he was running out of ideas (making the fair point that one novel hardly exhausts the fictional possibilities of the event) before explaining the rationale behind it.

Time’s Arrow is written in reverse chronology: it opens with the death of a German Holocaust doctor, and he gets younger and younger as the book progresses. The grotesque human experiments he conducts are rendered instead as pioneering methods of healing: as Amis succinctly puts it, the arrows of time and morality are linked: reverse one and you reverse the other. The backwards chronological narrative is not Amis’s invention (the Afterword namechecks Slaughterhouse 5 from 1969), but the committed application of morality to the device (and, if you consider it to be so, the successful fusion of the two) arguably is: Amis uses the resources of the novel to say something about what is often considered unspeakable.

A central concern of the evening is the large “why” which cloaks Holocaust literature: should it be written at all, and if so, for what purpose? Philippe Sands QC, who has written on the Holocaust non-fictionally, posed the well-worn but ever-important question: Why do we need literature to address this kind of issue; does it deepen our understanding? One of my go-to quotations when asked what the point of literature is generally is William Empson’s assertion that it makes us understand that “different people act on different ethical beliefs”. This, along with many other perceptive justifications for literature, strains and warps under the load of Amis’s subject, so it was reassuring to hear him offer a scientific justification for literature as a force for social cohesion.

Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that we live in the most peaceful era of human existence after violence has declined over the millennia, and offers factors to account for this: the nation-state’s monopolization of the use of force, the importance of trade and commerce, increased respect for women, and increased rates of literacy and knowledge: the last two are exemplified in our current thirst for novels. There is definitely something in the thingness, the oneness of the novel which demands we empathize (though Pinker distrusts the word “empathy”) with its characters wholesale, rather than with aspects of their personality, and the gigantic, half-trope half-idiosyncrasy characters of Amis’s novels (sometimes informed by history, sometimes not), seem to back this up.

The Zone of Interest has roused considerable controversy for its tone, or rather, its tone in relation to its subject matter. Amis’s usual German publishers, Munich-based Hanser, rejected the book because, as Amis told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the manuscript wasn’t “sufficiently convincing”. His interviewer Thomas David went one further, though, suggesting that the German literary world considered the novel “too frivolous”. Amis offered a number of insights into the place of comedy in his novel, in the novel, and in life generally: his friend Clive James has said that the humourless don’t know what’s serious, and that laughter isn’t simply the product of high spirits, a point which was made as far back as Lear, and as recently as absurdist theatre. Moreover, a lot of criticism of ‘comedy’ doesn’t really attempt to understand the word, or the vast genre it denotes: The Guardian’s review of the novel carries the subtitle ‘Martin Amis returns with Holocaust comedy’, which seems to conceive of comedy as the kind of thing which has a laughter track; one can only hope the reviewer eventually looks the word up in a dictionary, or looks at the way writers like Dante and Aristophanes used it.

There is a clear dialogue with the history of philosophical thought about the Holocaust: the propositions by Primo Levi that we have a ‘sacred duty not to understand’, and by George Steiner that we should steer well clear, and the relevance of a World War Two novel in the current global climate is also discussed. Amis is very well informed about the intricacies of the conflict in the Middle East, and recalls a conversation with Anthony Burgess, who told him that there wasn’t an A. J. P. Taylorish explanation for the atrocities committed during the Second World War: the free, imprecise nature of prose fiction, on the other hand, might give us something to build on.

Whilst the interview itself primarily focuses on the ethical imperative of literature, it is far from humourless. We hear Amis musing on the sexuality of Hitler, who is not directly present in the novel but hangs over it and is mentioned explicitly in the Afterword, because, and I’m sure writers of fiction will agree– if you are to write about someone, it’s very important to have an idea of their sexual preferences. Amis pointed out the wealth of scholarship on the subject, before offering his own (reasoned) speculation which involved only the slightest flash of Eva Braun’s stockinged knee, but a lot of serviettes. There was a fairly remarkable tale of his, and I quote, “day trip to Iraq” with Tony Blair. Blair apparently strutted around combat zones sans flak jacket: “a true Calvinist”, according Amis.

Just as the interview itself was pitched, I’ve tried not to give too much of the novel away, since it is hot off the press. The format was a really useful way to look at the wider intellectual space the novel occupies, and its place in contemporary discourse. We were given a short announcement at the beginning about how the interviews are a new venture for the FT, not previously renowned as a live events company– this one was very well done, in a great venue, and with considerable time and effort devoted to audience questions: an ideal forum to learn about an important new novel.

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