Atrocity and eroticism
DavidHerman is disappointed in Martin Amis. Madeleine Kingsley loves Amy Bloom
past “the ornamental windmill, the maypole, the three-wheeled gallows.” Gallows? Then “Into the Kat Zet — into Kat Zet 1.” Suddenly, in just a few words, we are a long way from Chekhov.
So, right from the start, the prose moves forward through a series of nods and winks and sudden twists and revelations. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Occasionally, we see a glimpse of sadism but usually the worst things happen off-stage. During a Selektion, we are
THE ZONE OF INTEREST
Jonathan Cape, £18.99
FOR ABOUT a decade, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Martin Amis was the best writer in Britain. Perhaps, apart from Philip Roth, then also at his height, the best writer in English. During these years, he wrote Money, London Fields and The Information. His prose crackled and snapped. He mixed dark and funny. He had his finger on the pulse of contemporary Britain. He wrote terrific non-fiction, too. The Moronic Inferno and Visiting Mrs Nabokov collected many of his best pieces.
Then something happened. The novels continued to pour out but it was as if he had lost his mojo. The fizz had gone. Critics wondered whether he had taken on the wrong subjects: were 9/11, the Holocaust and the gulag too big, too overwhelming? When he recently returned to his home territory with Lionel Asbo, it was like watching a great sportsman who had lost his touch. Had Amis become the Tiger Woods of the modern novel?
The Zone of Interest is being heralded by some as the return to his glory days. You can see why. It is a novel of great ambition. Set in Auschwitz, it moves between three narrators: the camp commandant, Major Doll; Szmul, a Sonderkommando; and the mysterious Angelus Thomsen. Amis has read widely about his subject. And you can often see all the old virtues of Amis’s best writing — the dark sexual comedy, the revelations leading to something disturbing and the hint of menace, what he calls here, “the exploration of darkness”.
Above all, there is that familiar shift of pace or turn. On the first page, Thomsen falls in love with Hannah Doll. We don’t know who or where she is. She is seen, walking “in a crenellated white ankle-length dress”, like a heroine from Chekhov. Then she walks told that an old lady will be “dealt with by Senior Supervisor Ilse Grese in the appropriate manner.” We know that will be horrifying. Moving between the three narrators allows Amis to play, almost comically at times, with these shifts of perspective. There’s a hint of Blackadder about Thomsen. Clever, nasty, funny. He steals the show.
At times, however, the prose doesn’t work. Amis steps on the accelerator and nothing happens. It feels flat. There are clichés. All that research sometimes turns into long dull lists.
Among the clichés, we are given the glimpse of jackboots, the dogs and trains, the inevitable sadistic female guards, with a smack of kinky lesbianism. There is little true originality in the whole book.
The women are more virtuous than the depraved, sadistic Nazi men, all of whom are psychopaths. The only truly decent man we come across is the Sonderkommando Szmul. The women prisoners are saintly. This is kitsch sentimentality.
Then there’s the pornography. Thirty years ago, Susan Sontag and Saul Friedländer warned us about the growing eroticisation of Nazism. And here we have another example of it. Martin Bormann is described groping one of the girls in the office. The camp commandant is a lecher. Thomsen and his SS pal Boris lust after almost every woman in the camp.
Amis’s literary fathers, Nabokov and Bellow, barely wrote about the Holocaust and when they did they showed great restraint. A long way short of his best here, Amis is part pious lecturer, part soft-core pornographer. Whatever the strengths elsewhere in the novel, this is not an edifying mix. David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer
Martin Amis: strengths undermined by cliché and soft-core pornography