Atroc­ity and eroti­cism

DavidHer­man is dis­ap­pointed in Martin Amis. Madeleine Kings­ley loves Amy Bloom

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RE­VIEWED BY DAVID HER­MAN

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


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

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