Martin Amis: ‘How can one claim to be human without looking at what we have done?’

Martin Amis is a deeply moral writer with a Swiftian vigour. In his latest novel, ‘The Zone of Interest’, he returns to the story of the Nazi death camps

Martin Amis: holding a mirror up to the death camps. Photograph: Alan Betson

Martin Amis: holding a mirror up to the death camps. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

In Experience, his unexpectedly tender memoir published in 2000, the English writer Martin Amis went some way towards explaining his life and, more importantly, even further towards explaining existence in general. The prevailing theme of that book is how very weird it all is: fate, chance, the business of being human and, above all, how people change as their daily difficulties increase and multiply.

Amis the younger, who emerged with The Rachel Papers in 1973 as the literary-boy-wonder son of a famous father, and appeared to have it all – the talent, the confidence and the seething audacity, never mind the connections – has also changed. He was always clever, but now he is wise and troubled by the world.

Over a 40-year career he has written outstanding novels and perceptive literary journalism, as well as valid opinion pieces. Saul Bellow admired him almost as much as Amis continues to revere the American, who was his literary mentor of sorts.

Amis is a natural writer, a stylist possessed of at times surreal linguistic virtuosity. When he is funny there is no one funnier. Yet for all the comedy and the brilliant set pieces, the energy and the dazzle of his wordplay, his work is deadly serious.

Eyebrows may be raised, but Martin Amis is a deeply moral writer who demonstrates a Swiftian vigour. As early in his career as Einstein’s Monsters (1987) Amis identified the fear that drives society. He explored this sense of dread in The Information (1995) and has continued to track it. Someone has to.

Preoccupied

Amis is sitting at a small table in a discreet corner, preoccupied with a plate of salad. His new novel, The Zone of Interest, is a daring work that returns to the story of the Nazi death camps he first explored in Time’s Arrow, from 1993, his only novel to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This new book, one of the finest novels published this year, was not even longlisted. Amis nods calmly. “I don’t give much thought to the Booker,” he says. There is no reason to doubt him.

Of his generation of major British writers, which includes Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Graham Swift, only Amis, the most gifted, has yet to win the coveted gong.

Yet it is Amis who has true fatalistic intelligence. There is also his endurance; the simple act of looking at Amis is in itself fairly complex. He is now 65. His fifth novel, Money, the first of his Bellow-scale books, is 30 years old. His private life has been very public, from his relationships to his divorce to his teeth. His advances have been a source of debate.

Far more painfully, he has attempted to protect the memory of his father, a very difficult man. He has dealt with the untimely death of his sister, Sally, the gruesome murder of his cousin Lucy Partington, by Fred West, and the suicide of Lamorna Heath, the mother of his eldest child. It is easy to admire Amis, the most interesting living English writer since JG Ballard, but it is impossible not to sympathise with Amis the man.

In person he is affable, softly spoken and as world weary as his fiction, if in a different register. The polite quick wit is undercut by an aura of slight preoccupation. Always intellectually astute and given to literary quotation in interview, he has, over the years, become far more academic and appears to have read as much history as literary fiction. (He says he avoids reading translations but must have read more than he realises.)

Profound novel

Considering the extravagance of his prose, he is a careful, deliberate speaker. There is nothing glib or showy. His new novel is very good, profound and potentially offensive to those who object to Amis the satirist setting another Holocaust novel – a love story at that – in a concentration camp.

It appears that he has returned to the territory he covered in Time’s Arrow, but the point is that he has never really left it. “That’s right, the Holocaust is the big story, once you become aware of it, and I’ve seen the way the reviewers picked up on the Sebald quote. It is true.” (WG Sebald, the great German writer credited with enabling his countrymen to finally confront their past, said that no serious person could ever think about anything else, so horrific were events in eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945.)

“It is impossible to make sense of how this all could have happened,” he says, particularly considering the civilised cultural legacy of the German people. Amis shrugs in bewilderment. “You try” – he corrects himself – “one tries to explain it . . . Such evil . . . It is unbelievable . . . the entire Hitler thing. There is so much horror.

“And the younger Germans do want to talk about it. I’ve seen that. When I was in Germany, and I said I wanted to talk about this, no one objected. I saw the faces of the young people, trying to, what? Come to terms? Understand? But certainly no one wants to push it away now. They want to discuss it.

“When I mentioned that some of the victims had actually paid their own train fares to Auschwitz, I noticed a young woman quietly wiping a tear away . . . You try to make sense of it and ask, well, where did this madness, this insane invincibility, come from?”

Obsession with Hitler

Amis admits to having long been obsessed with Hitler and Stalin, “and of course Hitler is by far the more evil. Stalin you can just about explain, but Hitler . . . The gulag was bad” – and Amis did write about the gulag in House of Meetings (2006) – “but nothing compared with the cold horror of the death camps”.

He describes speaking in Turin about Primo Levi, and Amis’s expression softens when I mention having interviewed Levi a year to the day before he died.

Although critics have often decided that Amis discovered serious issues, namely the nuclear threat about the time of Einstein’s Monsters, he has always been conscious of Hitler. “Since I was a child it has a kind of inevitability for me. I was born four years after the death of Hitler and four years before the death of Stalin.”

Amis recalls asking his mother about Hitler. “It was as a 10-year-old that I first came across the images: the rail tracks, the smokestacks.”

His mother had, rather shockingly, reassured the young Amis that Hitler would have liked him for his blond hair and blue eyes. “I often think that this exchange, and the unworthy relief it gave me, formed the first pang of a novel I would write 30 years later, a novel about the Holocaust narrated by a man with blond hair and blue eyes. My book was partly set there, but I had never been to Auschwitz.” He has since.

At the heart of The Zone of Interest is the realisation by one of the narrators that the woman he desires had not only loved another man who had rejected her for her lack of idealism but that the former lover had been a brave man.

Goodness consistently attempts to battle evil in the novel. There is a powerful sense of guilt as another of the narrators recalls a folk tale in which a king commissions his favourite wizard to create a magic mirror. “The mirror didn’t show you your reflection. It showed you your soul – it showed you who you really were.” No one could look into the mirror.

The character, Szmul, a Polish Jew handling dead bodies in the camp, remarks, “I find that the KZ [the camp] is that mirror. The KZ is that mirror, but with one difference. You can’t turn away.”

It is easy to say that The Zone of Interest should be on the Man Booker shortlist, but it’s not. For Amis, the streetwise satirist of deceptive profoundity, his quest for answers began a long time ago. In his unsung fourth novel, Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), he began looking at dread and fear, and began to ask unsettling questions: “Only in life is there variety. There will have to be many versions of death, to answer all the versions of life.”

By The Information, the desperate and despairing Richard Tull, a failed novelist and relentless book reviewer, overhears his little boy muttering in his sleep. Tull knows all about dread: “But the information comes at night . . . The information is advertising a symposium of pain. Pains of all faiths and denominations.”

Tull is aware of the unseen threat of living. Discomfort Amis-style is characteristically Shakespearean. “When he sighed you could hear the distant seagulls falling through his lungs.” Amis agrees that this feeling of dread informs not only his writing but the way in which he looks at the business of living.

Has the apparent failure of historians in explaining the Holocaust – what Hannah Arendt dubbed the banality of evil – ensured that novelists will persevere in the attempt? “You have to. How else can one claim to be human without looking at what we humans have done? We have to try and make sense of it. All of it.” The Zone of Interest is published by Jonathan Cape

Serious, satirical, sublime: The best of Martin Amis

The Information (1995). Featuring a literary rivalry, that bitterest of conflicts, this is a fantastically funny if unsettling comedy. Richard Tull, a failed novelist who is doomed to review books for all eternity, launches an old-style revenge on a former friend who dared to succeed.

Money (1984). Still hilarious. John Self, a Londoner at the mercy of his junk-food diet, takes on New York. Amis gives a virtuoso comic performance in the first of the “London trilogy”; it was followed by London Fields (1989), a masterclass in the grotesque, and The Information (1995).

Other People: A Mystery Story (1981).The first indication that Amis was more than merely a gifted comic writer, this fourth novel pulsates with menace.

Heavy Water and Other Stories (1998). A strong collection dominated by the majestically manic State of England, starring Big Mal, a bouncer overseeing his hopeless son’s school sports ordeal.

The Zone of Interest (2014). Conventional yet ambitious layered narrative, reiterating exactly why Amis remains Britain’s best living writer.

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