The Age of Horrorism
By Martin Amis
The Observer, September 10, 2006
Copy on the Guardian website:
Edited by Andy Ross
Religion is sensitive ground. Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is
itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious
belief — unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good
excuses. All religions have their terrorists, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, even
Buddhist. But we are not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from
Until recently it was being said that what we are confronted with, here, is not
a clash of civilisations or anything like that, but a civil war within Islam.
Well, the civil war appears to be over. And Islamism won it. Islamism is an
ideology which, in its most millennial form, conjures up the image of an
abattoir within a madhouse. The most extreme Islamists want to kill everyone on
earth except the most extreme Islamists.
Sayyid Qutb, in 1949, had just turned 43. His childhood was provincial and
devout. As a young man, he went to study in Cairo. He was already finding
Cairene women 'dishonourable', and confessed to unhappiness about 'their current
level of freedom'. He resolved to stick to virginity. He took a job at the
Ministry of Education, and became an activist, before the ministry packed him
off to America to do a couple of years of educational research. Soon after his
return, he was jailed. He was hanged in August 1966. His most influential book,
Milestones, is known as the Mein Kampf of Islamism.
At first, on the Atlantic crossing, Sayyid felt a spiritual expansion. Then came
a traumatic incident with a drunken, semi-naked woman. He didn't like New York.
Washington was a little better. But here, Sayyid was hospitalised, introducing
him to another dire hazard: female nurses. When Sayyid was discharged, he
proceeded to Greeley, Colorado.
During his six months at the Colorado State College of Education (and thereafter
in California), Sayyid's hungry disapproval found a variety of targets. American
conversation, American jazz, and, of course, American women. Qutb joins a club -
where an epiphany awaits him. 'The dance is inflamed by the notes of the
gramophone,' he wrote; 'the dance-hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs, arms
enfold hips, lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust.' The club he
joined was run by the church, and what he is describing is a chapel hop in
Qutb, who would go on to write a 30-volume gloss on it, spent his childhood
memorising the Koran. He was 10 by the time he was done. Now, given that, it
seems idle to expect much sense from him; and so it proves:
The Surah [the sayings of the Prophet] tells the Muslims that, in the fight to
uphold God's universal Truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk
their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives
for the cause of God, are honourable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul.
But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle
must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God
Himself clearly states.
Qutb is the father of Islamism. Here are the chief tenets he inspired: that
America, and its clients, are barbarous and benighted; that America is
controlled by Jews; that Americans are infidels, that they are animals, and are
unworthy of life; that America promotes pride and promiscuity in the service of
human degradation; that America seeks to 'exterminate' Islam - and that it will
accomplish this not by conquest, not by colonial annexation, but by example. As
Bernard Lewis puts it in The Crisis of Islam:
This is what is meant by the term the Great Satan, applied to the United States
by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Satan as depicted in the Qur'an is neither an
imperialist nor an exploiter. He is a seducer, 'the insidious tempter who
whispers in the hearts of men' (Qur'an, CXIV, 4, 5).
There is almost an entire literary genre given over to sensibilities such as
Sayyid Qutb's. It is the genre of the unreliable narrator — or, more exactly,
the transparent narrator, with his helpless giveaways. Typically, a patina of
haughty fastidiousness strives confidently but in vain to conceal an underworld
of incurable murk.
Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western
opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. Contemplating
intense violence, you very rationally ask yourself, what are the reasons for
this? It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not
dealing in reason.
Suicide-mass murder is more than terrorism: it is horrorism. It is a maximum
malevolence. The suicide-mass murderer remains an accurate measure of the
Islamists' contortion: they hold that an act of lethal self-bespatterment, in
the interests of an unachievable 'cause', brings with it the keys to paradise.
By the summer of 2005, suicide-mass murder had evolved. In Iraq, foreign
jihadis, pilgrims of war, were filing across the borders to be strapped up with
explosives and nails and nuts and bolts, to be primed like pieces of ordnance
and then sent out the same day to slaughter their fellow Muslims. We should
weigh the spiritual paltriness of such martyrdoms. 'Martyr' means witness. The
suicide-mass murderer dies for vulgar and delusive gain. The rationale for
'martyrdom operations' is a theological sophistry of the blackest cynicism. Its
aim is simply the procurement of delivery systems.
Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That
is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual. Ayatollah Khomeini, in his
copious writings, notes that believers in most religions appear to think that,
so long as they observe all the formal pieties, then for the rest of the time
they can do more or less as they please. 'Islam', as he frequently reminds us,
'isn't like that.' Islam follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, into the
bedroom, into the bathroom, and beyond death into eternity. Islam means
'submission' - the surrender of independence of mind.
By the beginning of the 20th century the entire Muslim world, with partial
exceptions, had been subjugated by the European empires. And at that point the
doors of perception were opened to foreign influence: that of Germany. When the
Nazi experiment ended, in 1945, sympathy for its ideals lingered on for years,
but Islam was now forced to look elsewhere. And the flame passed from Germany to
So Islam, in the end, proved responsive to European influence: the influence of
Hitler and Stalin. And one hardly needs to labour the similarities between
Islamism and the totalitarian cults of the last century. Anti-semitic,
anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and, most crucially,
anti-rational, they too were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled. The
main distinction is that the paradise which the Nazis (pagan) and the Bolsheviks
(atheist) sought to bring about was an earthly one, raised from the mulch of
millions of corpses. For them, death was creative, right enough, but death was
still death. For the Islamists, death is a consummation and a sacrament; death
is a beginning.
Over the past five years, what we have been witnessing is the death agony of
imperial Islam. Islamism is the last wave — the last convulsion. Until 2003, one
could take some comfort from the very virulence of the Islamist deformation.
Nothing so insanely dionysian, so impossibly poisonous, could expect to hold
itself together over time. But there are some sound reasons for thinking that
the confrontation with Islamism will be testingly prolonged.
It is by now not too difficult to trace what went wrong, psychologically, with
the Iraq War. Let us look at the war through the eyes of history. From that
perspective, 11 September was a provocation. The 'slam dunk', the 'cakewalk'
into Iraq amounted to a feint, and a trap. We must hope that something can be
salvaged from it, and that our ethical standing can be reconsolidated. Iraq was
a divagation in what is being ominously called the Long War.
There is no momentum, in Islam, for a reformation. The necessary upheaval is a
revolution - the liberation of women. This will not be the work of a decade or
even a generation. The connection between manifest failure and the suppression
of women is unignorable. The dominion of the male is Koranic - the unfalsifiable
word of God, as dictated to the Prophet.
All religions are violent; and all ideologies are violent. This is because any
belief system involves a degree of illusion, and therefore cannot be defended by
mind alone. When challenged, or affronted, the believer's response is hormonal.
Millennial Islamism is an ideology superimposed upon a religion — illusion upon
Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and
morally. People of independent mind should now start to claim the spiritual high
AR I have abridged the text
to a small fraction of its full length, mostly by cutting wordy anecdotes and
divagations. I have chosen not to change most of the retained sentences so as to
preserve Martin's unique and enjoyable style. The abridgement is unauthorized,
and I am sure Martin would encourage readers to go on to read his original.
By John Banville
The New York Review of Books, 54 (3), March 1, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
House of Meetings
By Martin Amis
Knopf, 246 pages
Amis's observing eye is constantly abulge with amazement at the wickedness
and folly of his fellow human beings.
When he was born, in 1949, his
father Kingsley was among England's most highly regarded novelists, one of
the original "angry young men" of the postwar period, whose comic novel
Lucky Jim, published in 1953, was an immediate and huge success. Kingsley's
second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard took young Martin in hand
and set about rectifying his educational shortcomings and generally
smartening him up.
Young Amis was a quick learner. He went off to
Oxford, where he secured a First in English. Back in London, he became the
wunderkind of the literary world. His first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973),
is one of the most impressive literary debuts since Evelyn Waugh's Decline
and Fall. The three novels that followed consolidated his reputation. With
Money (1984), Amis found a new fictional voice, a hectic, high-octane,
mid-Atlantic babble, the haste and noise of which did not conceal the high
artistry by which it was forged.
Amis had long been an admirer of
Nabokov, but at the start of the 1980s he became a friend of Saul Bellow. It
is Bellow's influence that is most directly discernible in what one thinks
of as the trilogy of novels Money, London Fields, and The Information.
How have they held up, these novels of Amis's early middle period? The
comic energy never flags, the metaphors dazzle, and whether he is describing
a dog defecating or the play of light on a stretch of the Thames he achieves
an intensity of poetic specificity on a level with the work of such masters
of style as Nabokov and Updike. In the matter of character and plot,
however, there is a peculiar haziness.
House of Meetings is short,
the prose is controlled, the humor sparse, and the characters strike us as
real, or at least possible, people. It is a remarkable achievement, a
version of the great Russian novel done in miniature, with echoes throughout
of its mighty predecessors.
The book tells the story of two
half-brothers, both of whom are in love with the same woman, Zoya, and both
of whom spend terrible years together in one of the labor camps of the
Gulag. The heart of the book is the relationship between the brothers. The
book's portrayal of life in the camp, if life it can be called, is
The first-person voice here possesses an authority that
is new in Amis's work. It is a bleak vision, assuredly, yet ultimately
Decline and Fall
By M. John Harrison
The Guardian, September 30, 2006
Edited by Andy Ross
House of Meetings is an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian
history into 200 pages, delivered as a monologue.
He's on his last
journey, a tourist trip to the site of the labour camp in which he spent 10
years of his life. The story begins in Moscow in 1946. He and his brother
Lev, the one a soldier and rapist, the other a worker and poet, fall for the
same young Jewess. Within two years, both men have been arrested and
dispatched to the slave archipelago. They endure the cold and starvation,
live through the shifts of policy consequent on the death of Stalin, and
survive the 1953 Norlag rebellion.
House of Meetings is only
superficially the history of a love triangle. It is a book about decline.
AR I found House of Meetings good too, surprisingly
convincing. It's a neat impression of a Russian novel in miniature, as near
to Dostoyevsky as a modern reader can reasonably be expected to take. It is
certainly far, far better than Yellow Dog (2003), which was a dog in the
worst sense. House of Meetings is bleak, though hardly invigorating. I found
many of Martin's usual fingerprints in the text, but I can also confirm that
his voice has become more steady, less strident, and in this sense more
By Martin Amis
The Times, May 5, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I
Saw Inside and Why I Left
by Ed Hussain
The Islamist is a tale of gradual radicalisation,
wholehearted fanaticism, crisis, disillusion, and gradual disinfection.
British by birth and Indo-Pakistani by descent, Ed Husain was an obedient
child who, during adolescence, signed up with the Young Muslim Organisation.
An ideology is in the business of aggrandising those who subscribe to
it, and Husain was soon assured that he was vastly superior to pretty well
everyone, all women ("women are the plague"), all Jews (of course), all
kafirs (or koofs), and all "partial Muslims", such as his mother and father
(soon to be jettisoned).
Turning to a more radical mosque, he can
pray bareheaded. Spurning both promiscuity and arranged marriages, Islamists
tend to keep [their] sexual tension stoppered, and work it off with
In organisational terms, Islamism is Leninist. The
radicals form a vanguard, and seek power in the name ... of the ummah, the
supranational community of believers. "The YMO are a bunch of losers,"
Husain is eventually told. The time has come for him to hear about the
Two events disabused him. One was a killing. The second
event had to do with a woman, his future wife: "Of the many faces I
encountered on a daily basis there was one belonging to a girl called Faye
that did what mine used to do a lot: smile. As an Islamist I had lost my
ability to smile." Hereafter, sexual tension is eased, not by religious
rage, but by sexual love.
This was in 1996. During his detox and
rehab period, Husain reembraced gentle Sufism and spent time in Islamic
lands. Husain comes to love Damascus. But he can do nothing with the "loss,
mayhem, perversion and hypocrisy" of Riyadh and Jeddah. By now we are used
to the idea of sexual tension and religious rage in counterbalance within an
individual psyche; in Saudi Arabia tension and rage are the twin predicates
of an entire society.
Ed Husain has written a persuasive and
AR (2007) Martin has zoomed in
on the psychic dialectic of Islamist radicalism quite convincingly. The
challenge now is to confront the Freudian insight that civilization is built
on its discontents.
Things Fall Apart
By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Independent. October 1, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
We are appalled by the
provocateurs. I speak of British Muslims, who, in spite of the collective guilt
we are forced now to carry and the many impediments designed to keep us down and
out, still feel this is our place.
There is nowhere else we would rather
live and die, bad news for the BNP and their liberal surrogates I guess, but
hopefully heartening for Britons who believe we can and do belong in this nation
of many voices, prayers, hues and songs. Such civilized, honest engagement feels
impossible at present, and there are times when the heart just wants to give up,
We are crouching nervously, sheepishly as packs of wolves try to
blow our house down. At the front door are the Muslim fanatics, growling and
exacting, these days as likely to be teachers, doctors, scientists, students,
salesmen and social workers as one-eyed maddened Imams and fat, hairy crusaders.
Martin Amis has pitched himself against demonic Muslims and is at war with
them too. I see him as another kind of threat to the kind of society I stand up
for. He is with the beasts pounding the back door, the Muslim-baiters and
haters, these days as likely to come from the Groucho and Garrick clubs as the
nasty, secret venues used by Neo Fascists. Amis wants to strip search anyone who
looks Muslim (me too then Martin? Shall I lift my skirt the next time we meet to
reassure you sir? Do bring your torch).
Has Martin Amis lost his
By Nigel Reynolds
Daily Telegraph, October 5, 2007
Professor Terry Eagleton says that novelist Martin Amis has
abandoned traditional Western values of liberalism following the 9/11 attack on
the World Trade Centre.
Eagleton, a Marxist literary critic for 30 years,
attacks the views of "Amis and his ilk" for taking up cudgels against Islam
instead of propounding tolerance and understanding.
The attack also
extends to Amis's novelist father, the late Kingsley Amis. Eagleton calls
Kingsley Amis "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler
of women, gays and liberals".
The spark is a controversial essay written
by Amis last year, the day before the fifth anniversary of the bombing of New
York's Twin Towers, in which he said that "the Muslim community will have to
suffer until it gets its house in order". Amis suggested "strip-searching people
who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan", preventing Muslims
from travelling, and further down the road, deportation.
sarcastically of Amis' views: "Not the ramblings of a British National Party
thug but the reflections of Martin Amis, leading luminary of the English
metropolitan literary world." The reason for Amis's change of heart, he
believes, was the "so-called war against terror".
Amis, whose next novel,
The Pregnant Widow, has an Islamic theme, is likely to run into his new enemy
soon in the common room at Manchester University. Eagleton, a former Roman
Catholic who embraced Marxism in 1970, taught for many years at Oxford but moved
to Manchester to become professor of cultural theory in 2001. By coincidence,
Amis has just taken up a post at Manchester, teaching creative writing.
The hard-line Professor Eagleton seems to have lost patience with Britain's
intellectuals. "The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the Establishment's reward
for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on
its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. ... Christopher Hitchens, who
looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered
as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington's neocons."
Amis responds to accusations of Islamophobia
By Jonathan Brown
Independent. October 12, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Martin Amis defended
himself yesterday against allegations of Islamophobia, insisting it was
necessary to "build all the bridges we can" with moderate Muslims.
Outlining his views in a letter to The Independent columnist Yasmin
Alibhai-Brown, Amis denied the accusations, insisting the remarks from which she
had drawn her conclusions had been "distorted" in an article written by his
colleague Professor Terry Eagleton. "The anti-Muslim measures he says I
advocated I merely adumbrated in a long interview with the press."
interview, Amis said: "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets
its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation –
further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look
like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan ... Discriminatory stuff,
until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their
The remarks, originally published in August 2006, resurfaced
this month when Eagleton, professor of English literature at Manchester
University, where Amis has recently accepted a position teaching creative
writing, used the interview as the basis for an article attacking Amis's alleged
Amis's decision yesterday to write to Alibhai-Brown follows her
intervention in the bitter academic spat in her weekly column. Alibhai-Brown
recalled sharing a drink with the writer at last year's Cheltenham Festival. "He
has pitched himself against demonic Muslims and is at war with them too," she
wrote. Alibhai-Brown said Amis was "with the beasts" when it came to dealing
From the letter ...
That night you
revealed, inter alia, that you were Shia; and, as far as I understand it, the
Shia minority speaks for the more dreamy and poetic face of Islam, the more lax
and capacious, the more spiritual, as opposed to the Sunnis, whose approach is
known to be stricter and more legalistic. Your Shia identity endeared you to me
When you write that I am "with the beasts" on Islamic questions, it
is because you've been listening, rather dreamily perhaps, to Professor Terry
Eagleton. Now Eagleton is an ideological relict, unable to get out of bed in the
morning without the dual guidance of God and Karl Marx. More remarkably, he
combines a cruising hostility with an almost neurotic indifference to truth.
It is a dull business, correcting Eagleton's distortions, but this is the
work he is obliging me to do. The anti-Muslim measures he says I "advocated" I
merely adumbrated, not in an essay, but in a long interview with the press. It
was a thought experiment, or a mood experiment. My mood, I admit, was bleak —
how I longed, Yasmin, for your soothing hand on my brow!
mood, the retaliatory "urge" soon evaporated, and I went back to feeling that we
must, of course, build all the bridges we can between ourselves and the Muslim
majority, which we know to be moderate. Meanwhile, I don't want to strip-search
you, Yasmin, or do anything else that would trouble or even momentarily surprise
your dignity, or that of any other eirenic Muslim.
The Times, October 15, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
This autumn Professor
Eagleton described Kingsley Amis as “a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a
drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”. He added: “Amis
fils has clearly learnt more from him than how to turn a shapely phrase.”
Eagleton called other writers who leapt to Amis’s defence last week “stomach
churning”. On Friday Amis wrote an open letter to a newspaper stating that his
antagonist had “submitted to an unworthy combination of venom and sloth. Can I
ask him, in a collegial spirit, to shut up about it?”
Amis admitted that he had told racist jokes as a young man, but “it was done
playfully”. His wife and two daughters are Jewish.
'I feel morally
superior to Islamists'
Daily Mail, October 18, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
In an interview
with Jon Snow on Channel Four News, Amis declared: 'I feel morally superior to
Islamists, by some distance. I feel an intellectual distance to Islam. ... There
are great problems with Islam. The Koran recommends the beating of women. ...
The anti-Semites, the psychotic misogynists and the homophobes are the
Days earlier, Amis shocked festivalgoers in Cheltenham with
claims that Muslim states are less 'civilised' than Western society. 'Some
societies are just more evolved than others,' he said.
Opinions of Martin Amis
By Kamila Shamsie
Guardian Unlimited, November 19,
Edited by Andy Ross
I recall one morning last autumn, reading the
Martin Amis interview and thinking, "Where's the punch line which turns it all
on its head?" I returned to the quote about Muslims. When it became clear that
he was attempting to implicate the wider world with the rhetorical use of
"There's a definite urge — don't you have it?" my first thought was to contact a
newspaper in the UK and offer to write a heated response.
I was convinced
that disgust for Amis's remarks would be widespread enough in the UK that other
British, non-Muslims would step forward and say, "No, I don't, and it's
reprehensible that you do." It would be a far stronger attack on him, I thought,
to have someone other than a Muslim foreigner hold him to account.
time moved on and there was no response to the interview. When I brought up the
matter with various people the response was an exasperated "Oh, Martin! He's
just trying to be provocative." The overall attitude was one of, "the way to
really annoy him is to ignore what he says." But to the outside world, silence
sounds a lot like acquiescence.
I am aware of a certain irony in saying
this. For years one of my personal bugbears has been those who say the Muslim
community must stand up and express its outrage over suicide bombings. I
shouldn't need to stand up and express my outrage over murder. To do so is to
enter a world in which Muslims are considered supporters of terrorism until and
unless they explicitly state otherwise.
Martin Amis is still recognised
as one of Britain's more significant writers. He is given generous space in
serious newspapers to air his views. I don't advocate any form of censorship, of
course. But the way to respond to odious views which are given space in the
press is to respond.
The Absurd World of Martin Amis
The Observer, November 25, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
I keep being
distracted by Martin Amis. Christopher Hitchens, too. They rail against Muslims.
No matter that Amis abandoned his satire on terrorism in which a Muslim
unleashes mass rape on America because 'faced with Islamism, even satire withers
and dies', not because his idea was obviously rubbish.
Last week Amis was
called a racist because he said Muslims were backward, violent, homophobic,
paranoid, boring, retarded and stupid. Hitchens said no, he's conducting a
Now Amis should be allowed to wonder aloud about
anything. Thought experiments are fine. But if he bundles his thoughts on Islam
together and iterates them one after the other as he did when I saw him, he
displays not unguarded musing but the forging of an incoherent creed of hate.
So how does Amis manage to move from condemning the horrors of suicide
bombings to pouring scorn on anyone who can believe in paradise - effectively
all Muslims? He muddles his terms. Even Hitchens concedes Amis wrongly conflates
Islamism with Islam. By fudging, Amis adds the weight of his reaction against
terrorism to his contempt for Muslims in general.
matter because the way out of this mess is to clarify and discriminate rather
than hurl abuse.
The Armchair Revolutionary
The Observer, December
Edited by Andy Ross
Terry Eagleton's new book about Jesus asks the
question, 'Was Christ a revolutionary?' and answers it mostly in the
affirmative. The essay takes Eagleton back to his days at Cambridge in the
Sixties, where he made a name for himself as a Marxist Christian.
Eagleton, formerly Warton Professor of English at Oxford, currently John Edward
Taylor Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester, has always looked to 'rough
up the edges of the mainstream', as he calls it. Having been fashionably Marxist
for much of his career, he is now approaching 65.
Eagleton took issue
with Amis's now infamous remark that after the failed plot to blow up
transatlantic planes in August 2006 he felt 'a definite urge' to argue that
British Muslims in general 'must suffer' for the actions of suicide bombers
'until they got their house in order'. These comments, Eagleton wrote, sounded
not unlike the 'the ramblings of a British National Party thug'.
Eagleton's attack has subsequently been rehashed by the columnist Yasmin
Alibhai-Brown and the novelist Ronan Bennett, interventions which have drawn
vehement defence of Amis from his old friend Christopher Hitchens. Amis has
called Eagleton a 'disgrace to his profession' and 'a deluded flailer and
stirrer', and asked 'in a collegial spirit, that Eagleton would now shut up
Eagleton is an engaging presence, softly spoken, quick to
laugh, and chooses his words with care.
'I have no idea why we should listen
to novelists on these matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners.
I don't know where their status comes from. When someone like Ian McEwan stands
up and says, "I believe in individual freedom," you know, it's like:
"Hallelujah, put up your hands all those that don't," but such words do not
respect a much larger problem.'
'The implication from Amis and McEwan
and from Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — is that civilisation and atheist
rationalism go together, and I think that is a very dangerous argument to make.
The debate over God — Muslim or Christian — is for them increasingly becoming
code for a debate on civilisation versus barbarism. I think one needs to
intervene and show the limitations of that.'
Eagleton was brought up in
Salford, Manchester, the middle child of a working-class Irish Catholic family
with aspirations. His early years were shaped by fundamentalist religion. He
went to a grammar school run by the De La Salle brotherhood, toyed with the idea
of becoming a priest but instead won a place at Cambridge, fell under the
influence of Raymond Williams and became a Marxist literary critic.
Eagleton has been unwilling to discard his Catholicism, though he has found a
revolutionary strain to suit him. His current truculence began with an
entertaining dismantling of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion in the London
Review of Books that kicked off: 'Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose
only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough
idea of what it is to read Richard Dawkins on theology.'
believes that growing up steeped in the Church gives him an edge over his
metropolitan foes. 'They buy their atheism on the cheap,' he says, of Dawkins
and Hitchens, 'because they have never been presented with an interesting
version of faith. One of the impulses of my writing — and the new book — has
been to try to differentiate a version of Christianity worth having. With people
like Dawkins there is a kind of inverted evangelism; I find it extraordinary
that not once does he question the terms of his science.'
suggests that the question 'do you believe in God?' is akin to asking someone
whether they believe in the Loch Ness monster. Dawkins, he says, seems to
imagine God 'if not exactly with a white beard then at least as some kind of
chap', whereas even in the simplest sense, 'for Judeo-Christianity, God is not a
person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is ... He is the condition of
possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to
why there is something rather than nothing.'
Eagleton is not convinced
this God exists, but believes that anyone who holds that He does is to be
respected, while Dawkins and his acolytes, he argues, 'consider that no
religious belief, any time or anywhere is worthy of any respect whatsoever'.
It is from this position that Eagleton derives his attack on the 'liberal
arrogance', underpinned by Godlessness, of Amis and his friends. But how does
this relate to the current fundamentalism — when a belief in God leads to a
belief in jihad, how can you respect that?
'One has to understand
fundamentalism as a kind of fear,' Eagleton says. 'A theologian friend of mine
maintains that the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The image of Jesus
in the Gospels is of someone who is fearless. People clutching on to their
region or sect are very fearful of what lies beyond, and therefore very
I wonder where he stands on the pointed question that Amis
recently put to his impeccably liberal audience at the ICA: 'Do you feel morally
superior to the Taliban?'
Eagleton lets out a sharp laugh. 'I certainly
hope I am morally superior to people who believe in slaughtering innocents. But
what I object to is the dangerous fudging of the line between the Muslim world
and the Taliban, and the easy moral superiority that leaves us blind to our own
crimes, or the crimes done in our names. It is an obvious point, but one still
worth making, that it was our own barbarism and colonialism in the Middle East
that has helped to create these situations in the first place.'
has a practised ability to change the terms of a question. The caricature has
always been that of the armchair revolutionary. He liked to romanticise himself
in his Oxford days as 'the barbarian in the citadel', spreading sedition to the
sons and daughters of privilege. He has stayed stubbornly faithful to his
His 2005 book Holy Terror attempts to confront the
current global conflicts through the prism of history, in particular the problem
that 'the left is at home with imperial power and guerrilla warfare but
embarrassed on the whole by the thought of death, evil, sacrifice or the
sublime'. Eagleton struggles to contain the idea of an Islamist suicide bomber
into an ideological vision of political martyrdom. 'I utterly repudiate that
idea,' he says. 'That kind of terrorism must be utterly and absolutely
When asked about the suicidal insurgents in Baghdad, he
apparently favours the line of John Pilger and others that equates the coalition
invasion with the Third Reich. But what if those fighting against occupation
want not to liberate their state from oppression but to return it to the Middle
Ages through terror?
'I think the whole Iraq folly is a good
demonstration of the fact that you cannot impose democracy by force. We always
like to think that where there is a problem there is a solution. The situation
we have created in Iraq may well prove the opposite, that there now is no
Just before we end our interview, he lets slip the
news that Manchester will be terminating his contract early in 2008. 'They are
throwing me out on the grounds of age,' he says, bleakly. 'There is some
financial crisis going on apparently.' Maybe, I suggest, they need the money to
pay Martin Amis to run his creative writing classes.
Diary of a spat:
Eagleton versus Amis
2006 September 9
Martin Amis is quoted, in the wake
of the failed plot to blow up planes, as saying he feels a 'definite urge' to
argue that the British Muslim community should suffer 'until they got their
house in order'.
2007 August 1
Terry Eagleton likens Amis's comments
to 'the ramblings of a British National Party thug'.
2007 October 8
Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes Amis as being 'with... the
Muslim-baiters and haters'.
2007 October 10
Eagleton criticises the
press for making personal attacks on him and for largely ignoring Amis's
2007 October 11
In an open letter to Alibhai-Brown, Amis
insists that Eagleton has distorted his comments.
2007 November 19
Novelist Ronan Bennett writes a feature for the Guardian in which he calls
Amis's views 'as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has
made in this country for a very long time'.
2007 November 21
Christopher Hitchens mounts a defence of Amis in the Guardian, writing that Amis
has been pilloried for 'honestly attempting to ventilate the question [of
Islamism and reactions to it] and to clarify it'.
2007 December 1
rejects Bennett's accusations of racism, writing in The Guardian that he has
never advocated the discriminatory treatment of Muslims. He also criticises
Eagleton for starting 'this ragged furore'.
AR All very amusing, but dangerous too.
Basically, I agree with Martin.
The Second Plane
By Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 214 pages
Reviews edited by Andy Ross
Reviewed by Tim Adams
The Observer, January 13, 2008
In his introduction to this collection of the dozen or so pieces Martin Amis
has written in response to the events of 11 September and to the War on
Terror, he says: 'Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity
is. And have we ever seen the male idea in such outrageous garb as the
robes, combat fatigues, suits and ties, jeans, tracksuits and medics' smocks
of the Islamic radical?'
Amis has a need to lay claim to big subjects
in this manner. In the past he has sought to make the holocaust and the
gulags part of his 'natural' territory of warped masculinity too. Few
writers have put comparable effort into offering neologisms for torture
techniques; Amis did so in the belief that language must be fully alive for
us to comprehend the banality of industrialised death.
that one of the first casualties of 'The Long War' after 11 September was
the western literary imagination in general, and his own in particular.
'After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12,' Amis wrote, 'all
writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin urged on Maxim
Gorky: a change of occupation.'
One of the arguments that runs
through this book is that barbarism is all but indistinguishable from
religion and that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism, but
independence of mind. The highest expression of independent minds in western
enlightened culture is, to Amis, its literary fiction. His personal struggle
against the 'dependent mind' of Islam is thus fought on the level of playful
In equating human value to literary value, Amis finds a way
not only to place himself on the frontline of the struggle against the
forces of darkness, he also comes close to dismissing half the world as
morally inferior and psychologically backward without visiting any of it or
hearing from any of its citizens. There is an unhesitating 'us' and 'them'
in Amis's characterisation of the current situation.
In the best of
the pieces here, Amis's eyewitness account of the valediction tour of Tony
Blair, he finds the Prime Minister floundering as he addresses the troops in
Baghdad. 'He was quite unable,' Amis writes of Blair, 'to find weight of
voice, to find decorum, the appropriate words for the appropriate mood.' In
placing these pieces side by side, Amis invites against himself the same
Reviewed by David Aaronovitch
The Times, January 11, 2008
This collection of writings mostly from newspapers on events since September
11, 2001, reminds readers that Martin Amis always opposed the Iraq War. In
March 2003, he gave warning that the "intellectually null" George Bush, "a
tax-cutting dry drunk from West Texas" was leading his country into a
disastrous trap, ineluctably provoking "an additional generation of terror
from militant Islam".
In an interview that gave to this newspaper,
Amis examined his own emotional and political reaction to the London
bombings and confessed to a punitive urge — "don't you feel it?" — to
somehow force the Muslim community to get its house in order. These were the
sentiments described by Terry Eagleton as being appropriate to a "British
National Party thug".
It was fairly obvious that Amis wasn't
advocating discriminatory action against Muslims, and that his views on
responsibility were far more nuanced than the "urge" he described. As
Eagleton refined his argument, his objection was to "Amis's panic-stricken
reaction to 9/11", especially given that Amis was "champion of a
civilisation that for centuries has wreaked untold carnage throughout the
The comedian Chris Morris described Amis as "the new Abu
Hamza", the Northern Ireland novelist Ronan Bennett expressed "shame" at
Amis's views, which were "symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility
to Islam". And the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra inevitably accused Amis of
combining a "patchy knowledge of world history" with "a primordial anxiety
about cultural otherness".
What Amis had really done was to go on a
political journey. This started in the uncomprehending fug of ash, dust and
speculation rising from Ground Zero. Amis: "Terrorism is political
communication by other means. The message of September 11 ran as follows:
America, it is time you learned how implacably you are hated." In other
words, however bad the act, it was rational, somehow provoked and subject to
the usual rules of politics.
But Amis, unlike many other writers,
couldn't leave it at that. He began to look at the people who had carried
out the attack, and at the ideology that motivated them — in other words, at
what they said and wrote.
What he discovered was not a group of
misguided liberators, but of young men in love with the idea of death and
violence, given justification by an implacable and totalitarian ideology.
Amis went back to the mid-20th-century writings of the leaders of the Muslim
Brotherhood, men such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb — as someone might have
returned to Mein Kampf in the early 1930s.
Through Qutb and others
Amis came to the realisation that Islamism itself was a problem, since what
it loathed about the West was not our active seductiveness, but our passive
attraction. Amis: "We should understand that Islamists' hatred of America is
as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract too; none of the
usual things can be expected to appease it." Amis connects this existential
envy to the political failure of Islam and attributes this in turn to the
suppression of women in many Muslim countries.
Amis's conclusion that
an ideological struggle must be waged, in which the proper values of the
West are championed, is what brings him into such a collision with the
Eagletons. This is a period in which part of the Left has thrown in its lot
with the less apocalyptic wing of Islamism in a sort of anti-imperialist
alliance. Many of the rest have settled, in Amis's words, for a kind of
"dissonant evasion" of the truth.
Extracts from The Second
"If September 11 had to happen, then I am not at all
sorry that it happened in my lifetime. That day and what followed from it:
this is a narrative of misery and pain, and also of desperate fascination.
Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is. And have we
ever seen the male idea in such outrageous garb as the robes, combat
fatigues, suits and ties, jeans, tracksuits, and medics' smocks of the
Islamic radical?" Author's Note, 2007
"Bin Laden's contribution is
his image and nothing more: omnicidal nullity under a halo of ascetic
beatitude. Nobody traumatised bin Laden ... he was not internally rewired by
the whips and electric cables. Almost alone among a shifting crew of
mono-eyed mullahs, tin-legged zealots, blind sheikhs, and paralysed clerics,
bin Laden did at least have the wit to stay in one piece." September 2006
"Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that
Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. A
rational response would be something like an unvarying factory siren of
unanimous disgust. But we haven't managed that. What we have managed, on the
whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion." September 2006
American politician whom Mahmoud Ahmadinejad most closely resembles is
Ronald Reagan. General similarities are hard to spot. But what they have in
common is this: both men are denizens of that stormlit plain where end-time
theology meets nuclear weapons." June 2006
"The champions of militant
Islam are misogynists, women-haters; they are also misologists — haters of
reason. Their armed doctrine is little more than a chaotic penal code
underscored by impotent dreams of genocide. Like all religions, it is a
massive agglutination of stock responses, of clichés, of inherited and
unexamined formulations." June 2002
Beware the nut-rissole artists
By Christopher Tayler
The Guardian, January 26, 2008
Newspaper readers have been starved of reports on the current state of
Martin Amis's political consciousness for nearly 10 weeks. But here come his
collected writings on September 11, 2001.
Having spent a couple of
years in Uruguay reading up on such figures as Sayyid Qutb, he has reached
various conclusions about political Islam. "Reluctant to see what it is they
confront", left-liberal types, he feels, have got things wrong. "The middle
ground," he sensed on returning to the UK, "was not where it used to be."
Since he had also been reading Paul Berman, a liberal hawk who argues
that both Islamism and secular Arab tyrannies such as Saddam's can usefully
be compared to Nazism and Stalinism, this sounds as though Amis has decided
that invading Iraq was a sensible move. But on the evidence gathered here,
his quarrel with the average "relativist" turns out to be much more
It turns out that he's gunning for what he sees as the
pro-al-Qaida left. "Given the choice between George Bush and Osama bin
Laden, the liberal relativist, it seems, is obliged to plump for the Saudi"
- and Amis won't stand for that. "Those vast pluralities all over the west"
that wish to see "a Fertile Crescent bridle-deep in gore" in order to enjoy
Bush's humiliation - these attract his disdain.
Amis is taking aim at
conspiracy theorists and people who think that the Arab world's grievances
make support for terrorism a good thing. His cardinal insight into "lethal
self-bespatterment", as he calls it, is that suicide bombers are "abnormally
interested in violence and death". The London bombers, he maintains, were
murderous cultists rather than righteous avengers.
How did Amis end
up throwing so much effort into arguing that suicide bombers are interested
in death? It's not easy to say, but his sense of himself as a novelist seems
to be part of the problem. "All of us are excited by what we most deplore,"
he once wrote in a review of a book by Joan Didion.
Terrorism isn't a
workable subject for Amis's brand of fiction. In his op-eds, on the other
hand, he seems more like a novelist than a political writer, inhabiting
ideas like characters, trying to bring them to life and dramatise opposing
viewpoints. It's less boring to picture your nine-year-old daughter's forced
marriage under a global Islamist caliphate than it is to lay out a series of
His arguments draw on various sources, with
Berman exerting the strongest influence. Hitchens and Sam Harris beef up the
muscular secularism, and Bernard Lewis helps with the Islamic background.
But the most depressing piece in the book opens with the following sentence:
"Mark Steyn is an oddity: his thoughts and themes are sane and serious - but
he writes like a maniac."
Amis's claims about "the Islamists" in the
Times interview — "A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they'll be a third"
— were presumably inspired by Steyn's work. On the page, he distinguishes
more carefully between Muslims and extremists, though unexamined nativist
assumptions creep in from time to time. Whoever "we" are, we probably aren't
Muslims or immigrants.
At one point he reports on treating Tony Blair
to a disquisition on the Shia, whom he compared to "nut-rissole artists".
The writings collected here add nothing to his reputation.
Martin Amis and the boredom of terror
By Marjorie Perloff
Times Literary Supplement, February 13, 2008
In The War Against Cliché, his 2001 collection of reviews and essays, Martin
Amis recalls his early writing days:
"My private life was
middle-bohemian-hippyish and hedonistic, if not candidly debauched; but I
was very moral when it came to literary criticism. I read it all the time,
in the tub, on the tube ... It might have been in such a locale that my
friend and colleague Clive James first formulated his view that, while
literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to
The Second Plane focuses on a single event — the
terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001 — and its aftershocks. A
short book, it includes fourteen pieces — two short stories and twelve
essays and reviews — written between that watershed date and its anniversary
in 2007. Amis wants you to know that what he hates is not so much Islam
itself as what he takes to be the West's excessive tolerance of Islam.
The title essay, written within a week of the attack, is a bravura
performance, graphically describing the horror on the ground in response to
the recognition that not just one plane, but a second, had turned itself
into a missile and was crashing into the other tower of the World Trade
Center. "The moment", for Amis, "was the apotheosis of the postmodern era".
However terrible "the twentieth century — that 'age of ideology'" with
"its scores of millions of supernumerary dead" — the incipient "age of
religion" is judged to be ten times worse. For — and here we come to Amis's
key obsession, both in this essay and throughout the book — "an ideology is
a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; religion is a belief
system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason
and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful".
The smart rhetoric should not blind us to the flabbiness of Amis's
propositions. There is, in fact, no necessary connection between a devotion
to literature and an ability to make sound political judgements, and surely
no connection between sound political judgement and the rejection of all
The most substantial piece in The Second Plane is "Terror
and Boredom: The dependent mind", written in the wake of yet another "day of
de-Enlightenment", July 7, 2005, when terrorist bombs exploded in London.
Like its crudely contrived fictional counterpart about Muhammad Atta,
"Terror and Boredom" displays a failure, not so much of doctrine, as of
It is always risky to picture one's own "crisis" as
unique — more terrible than all those other crises our parents and
grandparents lived through. Thus, despite moments of brilliant wordplay, one
is hard put to take Amis's elegantly turned sentences seriously. The war
against cliché has a curious way of morphing into the cliché against war.
Terrorism: Is it about religion or not, or not not?
By Martin Amis
The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
America has already suffered a terrorist deployment of weapons of mass
destruction. This attack began on September 18, 2001. The cost in blood was
five dead and 17 seriously infected. The cost in treasure was over a billion
dollars (the cost to the perpetrator was estimated to be as little as
$2,500). A third impact was the cost in fear. Anthrax is not contagious, but
fear is. The scale of the attack was minuscule, yet for a while the terror
filled the sky.
One aircraft dispensing one ton of anthrax spores on
a clear calm night over an area of 300 sqare kilometers could kill up to
three million people.
September 18 was very cheap, very terrifying,
and hideously elusive. It entrained over 9,000 interrogations and 6,000
grand-jury subpoenas, and the case is not yet closed.
Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who are religious, were
very quick to say that September 11 was "not about religion." It then
subsequently emerged that September 11 was about religion — or, at least,
was not not about religion. But in the last year or two, it seems, we have
gone back to saying that September 11, and March 11 Madrid (2004), and July
7 London (2005), and all the rest, are not about religion.
most stimulating international terrorism-watchers known to me are John Gray
and Philip Bobbitt. Bobbitt is a proactive and muscular Atlanticist, whereas
Gray is almost Taoist in his skepticism and his luminous passivity. Bobbitt
is religious and Gray is reconciled to the inexorability of religious
belief. They assert, respectively, that international terrorism is "not
about Islam" and has "no close connection to religion."
for them, is an epiphenomenon, a dark child of globalization. It is
devolved, decentralized, privatized, outsourced and networked. Globalization
created great wealth and also great vulnerability. Thus the epiphenomenon is
not about religion but about human opportunism and the will to power.
Then what, you may be wondering, was all that talk about jihad and
infidels and crusaders and madrasas and sharia and the umma and the
caliphate? There are several reasons for hoping that international terrorism
isn't about religion — not least of them the immense onerousness of
maintaining a discourse that makes distinctions between groups of human
beings. Al Qaedaism may well evolve into not being about religion, about
Islam. But one's faculties insist that it is not not about religion yet.
Suicide bombing is a cult. Religion may be merely a means of
mobilization. Religion is for the footsoldiers, not the masterminds. At some
later date we may see that religion provided the dialectical staircase to
indiscriminate death and destruction with the idea, for instance, that
democracy inculpates every citizen in its nation's policies, or with the
ancient heresy of takfir, whereby the jihadi pre-absolves himself of killing
We can further expect international terrorism to
become much more diffuse in its motivations, reflecting changes in the
contemporary self. Gray has identified a vein of "anomic terrorism" inspired
by alienation, as evident in the random and serial stabbings in the cities
of Japan, or the campus massacres in the U.S. Bobbitt says that the current
conflicts reflect a shift in the polities of the West. As the welfare state
evolves into the market state, it abandons many of its responsibilities to
its citizenry, and concentrates on the provision of opportunities to the
By some accounts it took the Ayatollah Khomeini several
nauseous years of war with Iraq before he came to see the theological
viability of nuclear fission (and the groundwork was then begun). Osama bin
Laden: "It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to
terrorise the enemies of God."
There is another good reason for
wanting international terrorism to stop being about religion. One can think
of scenarios of extortion and ransom, but only an eschatological dream could
justify the clear calm night and the three million dead. On the other hand,
the actors would unquestionably make an impression.
AR I have taken the liberty of editing Martin's
prose more drastically than he would like because evidently no-one else now
dares to. Trimmed and shorn, his argument is emotively powerful but
disquietingly silent about suggesting the robust survivalism we need here.
However, I like his rhetorical play with the distinction between the
respective assertions of X, not X, and not not X. This distinction is
crucial to the intuitionist initiative in logic and the foundations of
mathematics, and exercised me greatly some decades ago.
Martin Amis the Gynocrat
By Christina Patterson
The Independent, April 10, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
If Martin Amis is worried about security, he clearly hasn't told his
nine-year-old daughter. This dark-eyed little girl, who welcomed me in,
hasn't told either of her parents that I'm here.
Mummy is Isabel
Fonseca, the beautiful American heiress, writer, novelist, and second wife.
And Daddy is one of the most famous writers alive. He used to be called Amis
fils to distinguish him from Amis père. If Kingsley was the colossus, Martin
was the hip one, the one who wrote the blistering satires on money and
And here, in this gracious Regency house, are the fruits of
it: tasteful modern art, ethnic artefacts, artfully arranged antiques.
Martin Amis does perfect happy families in massive, beautiful house. Martin
Amis does brilliant, world-famous novelist and all this as well. I am having
the authentic Martin Amis experience.
The enfant terrible of English
literature will be 60 in August. On the new novel: "Nabokov said that the
world divides between people who sleep well and people who don't. This novel
is partly about this great attack of sleep I had. I've always slept well.
Then I had a sort of weird kind of physical breakdown around 2002 or 2003,
where the main symptom was needing a fantastic amount of sleep."
sister, Sally, died of alcoholism in 2000. "I think we live all our lives in
shock," he says, "and then some muffler comes off and you get it." Those who
sneered at the idea of writing about suffering while flopping by the pool of
your house in Uruguay, as Amis did while writing House of Meetings (2006),
couldn't sneer at the authenticity of its depiction.
Meetings is a chastening and beautiful portrayal of life in a Stalinist
slave camp in the Arctic Circle. The reviews were rapturous. Which must have
been a relief after some of the critical responses to his work in the past
few years. Wasn't it? "Yes," says Amis. "Absolutely. I was so shocked by the
reviews of Yellow Dog."
Yellow Dog (2003) was widely regarded as
Amis's donkey. Amis stares out at the window. "I think people are too
fragile now. ... Think of the range of what you can't joke about now. It's
almost everything. ... Our whole kind of paralysis about Islam is to do with
After September 11, Amis wrote a number of pieces on the
Islamist terror threat and the rise of the suicide bomber. The first, later
published in The Second Plane (2008), outlined the horror of "an
irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ideocratic system ... unappeasably
opposed to the West's existence" and the need for Americans to "absorb the
fact that they are hated." Liberals sniffed Islamophobia and blanched.
The fuss started with what Amis has called his "political education". Up
until about 2000, he had written mostly fiction and journalism about
fiction. In 2002, he published Koba the Dread, an exploration of the
indulgence of Western intellectuals towards communism and of the realities
of life under Stalin.
"I wrote about nuclear weapons and I wrote
about the Holocaust, but that was not political. I don't know. Hitch and
James Fenton were very left, and I just felt that I didn't want to belong to
anything. And I think it was tremendously important for Christopher as a
writer when he ceased to be ideological and he sort of bloomed."
Wasn't the deal that Hitch did the serious stuff and Amis did the funny
stuff? "No," says Amis. "There's more that I can talk to him about. He used
to complain in the 1970s that 'all Martin and I talk about is sex because he
doesn't know anything about politics'."
Perhaps his caricatures of
appalling men were merely an accurate depiction of the essence of the male?
"I think so!" says Amis cheerily. "I was quoted by, I'm pleased to say,
Germaine Greer, as saying that all men should be locked up until they're 28.
Boot camp. That would knock some sense into them. We're terrible. We can't
Amis now describes himself as a "gynocrat" who believes
that the world would be better run by women. Eccentric is the word that
springs to mind.
AR I have been intrigued by the Amis approaches
toward Islamophobia. His comic novels made me smile and his Russian stuff
leaves me cold, but the Islam issue is hot. However, although the
empowerment of women worldwide is the key to breaking the grip of Islam,
putting all young men in boot camp would be dangerous. I fear the result
would merely be to toughen them in the causes for which they felt sympathy,
such as Islam or Islamophobia, and hence to prepare the world for more wars
and the like. Putting more women in power would be dangerous too. They would
probably ban all boy toys and push men to the edge of extinction. Much of
our historical progress has been driven by men, via their attempts to win
sex in an evolutionary bootstrap. Women would lack that drive and
civilization would stagnate.
Agony of the Ayatollahs
By Martin Amis
The Guardian, July 17, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Are we witnessing the first spasm of the death agony of
the Islamic Republic of Iran? The results of a fraudulent election were
presented to the people with indecent haste and laughable incompetence. If,
after the usual interval, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had soberly announced
a 51% win for President Ahmadinejad, then we might all have bowed our heads
and moved on.
In 1997, the regime felt confident enough to sanction
the surprise victory of President Muhammad Khatami, who won by the same
landslide margin of 69% in a joyous election that no one disputed. Lovingly
hailed as "Ayatollah Gorbachev", Khatami was soon talking about the
"thoughtful dialog" he hoped to open with America. In June 2001, Khatami was
re-elected with a majority of 78%. Seven months later came George W Bush's
"axis of evil" speech, and the Tehran Spring was at an end.
mullahs now know that they are afloat on an ocean of illegitimacy. Of the
four foundational narratives of the 1979 revolution, three are myths. The
"Islamic Revolution" was not an Islamic revolution. The Iran-Iraq war of
1980-88 was not an imposed war. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not a great
man. And the fourth narrative, of anti-Americanism, has been severed by
The 1979 revolution wasn't an Islamic revolution until
it was over. It was a mass movement, an avalanche of demonstrations and
riots. The June events of 2009 constitute a mere whisper of demurral when
set against the deafening crescendo of 1978. The noise was not made for
clerical rule. It was made because a decadent monarchy had lost the aura of
In January 1979, Muhammad Reza Shah flew out of Tehran to
exile in Cairo. In February, Ayatollah Khomeini flew into Tehran from exile
in Paris. The cultural revolution began. In November, a group of students
infiltrated the US embassy and seized 53 hostages. In a referendum on the
new constitution, "99.5%" of a turnout of 17 million gave their blessing to
The Iran-Iraq war can only be thought of as an
imposed war if we understand that the war was imposed by Khomeini. Khomeini
wanted Shia theocracy in every country on earth. In 1979, Saddam Hussein
reached out a hand of friendship to the new Iran. Khomeini responded by
resuming support for separatist Kurds and the Shia underground. There were
murders of at least 20 prominent Iraqi officials in April 1980 alone.
Khomeini withdrew his ambassador from Baghdad. In September, Iran shelled
the border cities of Khanaqin and Mandali. There were eight Iraqi offers of
ceasefires, but the war devolved into a daily enactment of Shia themes of
sacrifice, dispossession, and mourning.
In 1981, a film run on
government-controlled television showed a mother denouncing her son as a
Marxist. The son, sobbing and grabbing for his mother's hand, desperately
tries to convince her that he has given up Marxist politics. The mother
rejects his pleas saying, "You must repent in front of God and you will be
executed." The picture fades to Ayatollah Khomeini telling the people of
Iran, "I want to see more mothers turning in their children with such
courage without shedding a tear. This is what Islam is."
Iran is one
of the most venerable civilizations on earth. And its 2,500-year history is
sliced almost exactly in two by the rise of Islam. Accordingly, the Iranian
heart is bipolar, divided between Xerxes and Muhammad, between Persepolis
and Qom, between the imperially sensuous and the unsmilingly pious.
In 1935, Iranians found themselves living in a different country, not Persia
but Iran, the "land of the Arians". This was the work of Reza Shah, a
modernist and secularizer. In 1976, Iranians found themselves living in a
different millennium, not 1355 (dated from the time of the Prophet) but 2535
(dated from the time of Cyrus the Great). After 1979, Iran was subjected to
militant and breakneck re-Islamization. The Zoroastrian era was declared to
be jahiliyyah, a benighted slum of ignorance and idolatry, and a dire
embarrassment to all good Muslims.
Now we have another four years of
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The American politician whom Ahmadinejad most closely
resembles is Ronald Reagan. Both figures are denizens of that stormlit plain
where end-time theology meets nuclear weapons. But Reagan did not spend
public money on civic preparations for the Second Coming, and was not the
product of a culture saturated in ecstatic fantasies of morbid torment.
Jesus Christ, according to both presidents, is due very shortly, but in
Ahmadinejad's vision the Nazarene will merely form a part of the entourage
of a much grander personage, the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, the Lord of Time.
Ali Rafsanjani, the pragmatist and reformer, worldly and venal, said:
"The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything,"
whereas a counterstrike on Iran will merely "harm" the Islamic world. Given
the Shia commitment to martyrdom, mutual assured destruction, as one Israeli
official put it, "is not a deterrent. It's an incentive." Equipped with
nuclear weapons, the supreme leader may delegate first use to Hezbollah, or
to the Call of Islam, or to the Legion of the Pure. Or he may himself become
the first suicide bomber to be gauged in megatons.
AR Fundamentalist Islam is a
world-historical horror we need to exterminate decisively.
Amis On Loss
The Times Literary Supplement, February 3, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis
Cape, 470 pages
In his latest novel, Amis casts his fictional eye back to 1970. He has been
candid in interviews about the novel's autobiographical genesis. A more
profitable way of reading the novel would be as a long critical dialogue
with the works that Amis produced just after the period he represents, most
notably The Rachel Papers (1973) and Dead Babies (1975).
beginning of the novel, in the summer of 1970, Keith finds himself spending
his university vacation in an Italian castle, mugging up on the history of
the English novel while finding his affections wandering between his on-off
girlfriend Lily and the aristocratic Scheherazade. Amis depicts his
characters not only occasionally groping one another, but also groping
awkwardly for a stable understanding of what is expected of them.
Keith carries around the burden of what he would like to think of as
chivalry, laden as he is with guilt over his inability to save his younger
sister Violet from a life of pathological promiscuity. His confusion is
exacerbated by everyone's seemingly being unsure how to use the freedom that
is now up for grabs, and unsure whether it really amounts to freedom anyway.
Keith and his friends are as much victims as they are participants, the
collateral damage of a socio-political shift that is still working itself
out. Of all the nineteenth-century novelists Keith co-opts, the most
prominent is Jane Austen. In her own way, Austen was not so much a comedian
of manners as the comedian of a culture actively debating the very nature
and existence of manners themselves.
To depict protagonists who
aren't wholly aware of the genre of story they are in has long been a staple
of Amis's ironic art. For example, John Self in Money (1984) and Samson
Young in London Fields (1989) are united in their inability to "read" their
own circumstances. The Pregnant Widow makes its own use of the device. It
reads like a palimpsest of autobiographical novel, comedy of sexual
misunderstanding, and pubby-clubby sociology.
The Pregnant Widow
works best as an archaeology of the ageing body. The novel's multiple time
frames give Amis the chance to measure Keith's increasing physical frailty
unsparingly against his younger self.
The Pregnant Widow stands
alongside novels such as Ian McEwan's
On Chesil Beach as an elegy to wasted opportunity. Amis is growing into
a chronicler of loss and uncomfortable metamorphosis.
By Richard Bradford
The Spectator, February 3, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
Amis is the most expansively gifted prose stylist of his generation. The
extent to which he has overindulged his abundant talent will remain a matter
The Pregnant Widow retains his stylistic signature, yet
by turns modulates and remodels it. In the novel, he treats all of his
creations with a combination of respect, altruism and kindness. We forget
that they are inventions, and wonder about the causes of their variously
endearing, troubled, despondent states.
Despite the absence of a
plot, it is an addictive read. We live with the characters, follow them in
and out of focus, and wonder continually about Keith. The narrative never
releases us from his presence — shy, self-conscious, perplexed — and via him
we apprehend a summer which will stalk the future lives of all with whom he
In a Coda, we follow him to age 60 and an accumulation of
great sadness and regret. By 2009, he has still not detached himself from
the night, ten years previously, when he witnessed his sister's death. In
the closing sequences Keith is the most grievous, heartbreaking individual
so far created by his author.
War Against Death
By Wayne Gooderham
The Guardian, February 19, 2010
If Kingsley Amis was the poet laureate of the hangover, then his son is
surely the poet laureate of gerontology. I cannot think of another writer so
obsessed with his characters' ages.
By Philip Hensher
The Telegraph, May 20, 2010
Martin Amis has been at the centre of English writing since 1973.
The Pregnant Widow takes on the history of the past 40 years, and
revisits and rethinks old themes.
Sometimes it has been difficult for
his readers to see what a terrific novelist he is. Among his works,
Money (1984) is obviously a classic. His four early novels, from
The Rachel Papers to Other People (1981),
are scabrous comedies of low life and disgrace. Amis evolved an unmistakable
style in these books.
The Pregnant Widow returns to
previous territory. Like The Rachel Papers (1973), it is
about a literary education. Like Dead Babies (1975), it is
the story of an early Seventies house party of indulgence and lechery. Like
Success (1978), it is about the gap between social classes.
Unlike them, it deals in humane portraits. It is written with Amis's
customary elegance but has a new warmth and sympathy in its comedy.
Not everybody has agreed over the excellence of The Pregnant Widow.
Its views are very definitely Amis's own. Surprisingly for a writer of his
distinction, he has been passed over many times by prize juries. He divides
opinion, as powerful writers often do.
More Lad Than Bad
By Edmund White
The New York Review of Books, June 24, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis
Knopf, 370 pages
The Pregnant Widow begins as a beautifully poised, patient
comedy of manners, in the tradition of the novels that Martin Amis's
college-age hero, Keith Nearing, is reading. In the last third, the
narrative skips ahead and thins out and speeds up and starts to destroy
itself joyously. I was reminded of Gravity's Rainbow, in
which the main theme, entropy, causes the book itself to give up on being a
historical novel about World War II and to go to pieces.
given us an example of imitative form. In the first two thirds of the book
there are even many direct references to Shakespeare’s comedies, and young
women are accused of being blokes, and the feminist revolution is
piggybacked on the earlier sexual revolution. It all recalls Shakespeare's
games with androgyny.
After dwelling on a single visit to an Italian
castle for a tense, glorious summer in 1970 and working out all the erotic
possibilities, the narrator nosedives through the succeeding decades up to
the present, losing hopes, loves, friends, and even the lives of the people
he loves along the way in a reckless, pell-mell casting aside of almost
everyone he had ever cherished. Very lifelike. That's what aging does to
By 1970, when The Pregnant Widow begins, the
youngsters have added copious four-letter words to their repertoire as well
as saucily direct comments, appalling nicknames, and obscene erotic
refinements. In spite of all these liberties and acquisitions, the
youngsters still seem naive, self-hating, and snobbish.
Amis has used
here the plebeian name Keith, as he has in his past fiction. Our Keith wants
to be a poet. After a brief flurry of publishing in his early twenties he
gives it up. Keith Nearing, we might say, resembles Martin Amis if he hadn't
had the drive and talent to become a writer. Keith is addicted to sex, or
thoughts of sex, as most men are, with this difference: male writers are
also obsessed with dreams of glory and mental games of literary composition.
The Pregnant Widow is a kind of alternative memoir
about a person who doesn't have the stamina and imaginative fire to write.
Keith Nearing's biological parents are of the servant class.
a large cast of young characters and few adults to supervise them. Keith is
at the castle with his girlfriend Lily. When he has sex with her he often
has to fantasize she's someone else, even with her verbal help and
cooperation. At one point she pretends to be Scheherazade, who is so young
she has only just grown into her beauty. At one point Scheherazade sets up a
secret rendezvous with Keith until he gets drunk and starts ranting against
Gloria Beautyman is a triumphant narcissist who looks at herself
and declares that she loves herself. There’s something mysterious and odd
about her, though. Then there's the Italian aristocrat who's rich and and
plays rugby and speaks several languages and is capable of deep emotions —
and is four foot ten inches tall. There's the older, wiser gay man who's in
love with a very young man.
This is a book that is highly conscious
of being a book. Keith is reading all those novels. The action often echoes
the plots of the novels he's reading. There are many subtle parallels
between books and reality. But for Keith the whole experience is literary.
By contrast, the life he goes on to live is made up as it goes along.
This contrast between the rare, well-made, already novelistic experience and
the more common, messy, improvised shapelessness of ordinary existence
explains the shift from the tidy social comedy of youth to the baffling
weirdness of age — and the exploded shape of this book.
is very funny and accurate about aging. But Amis has no theory about age.
It's much too interesting an experience. The nasty depredations of age are
items Amis ticks off in a comic list of horrors. The rhetorical effects of
repetition, the insistence that everything is all right, the parody of
cheerfulness in the service of disgust, all dramatize the tragicomedy of
one's "late period."
Perhaps Amis's most striking meditations on age
and time in this "snuff film" we're all starring in derive from his analysis
of age as the one remaining class system. As we lie dying, not many of us
will have enjoyed the inestimable privilege of being born with white skin,
blue blood, and a male member. Each and every one of us, though, at some
point in our story, will have been young. The people who are currently
young, Amis predicts, will rebel against caring for the growing percentage
of the population that is old.
The tone of these comments is rendered
in Amis's hilarious essay style. Sometimes I wonder why writers who are
witty and restless and worldly in their essays become dull narrators,
inexhaustibly sequential in their novels, grazing every last thing in view.
I mention this notion of fiction not because I want pages and pages of
ideas in novels but as a corrective to the American assumption that true
novelists are rough-and-tumble brutes getting it all down. Writers shouldn't
lose twenty points of IQ when they turn away from essays to fiction. They
should remain true to whatever it is that engages them in writing, no matter
what the genre.
Amis knows how to present dramatic scenes with
dialogue and terse descriptions of action. But he also knows how to analyze
action, usually from a comic point of view. In The Pregnant Widow,
the wit and the analysis are used to open up the story, to take a single
idyllic summer and trace out its consequences in numerous lives and through
Amis has always dealt with lads or cads. He
understands that evil exists in the world and he knows how to portray it.
When I teach creative writing I have to give a very exact assignment to get
my students to sketch a bad person. Only once they break the good barrier do
these young writers begin to understand the possibilities of fiction. Martin
Amis learned this liberating lesson early and well.
Keith Nearing is
more lad than bad in The Pregnant Widow. By the end of the
book he has grown bleak with insight and depressing wisdom. No one can deny
the attention to detail and to language lavished on every sentence. Beauty
has reentered literature through this strange, sparkling novel.
AR I befriended Martin in the
academic year 1969/70 at Exeter College Oxford. He spent the summer of 1970 with
his girlfriend Gully Wells in a château on the Côte d’Azur. I worked that summer
as a laborer in a steelworks. But no need to complain — I spent the summer of 1971
(Martin's post-finals summer) with my girlfriend Judy in Paris, Chartres, Mont
St Michel, and
Amsterdam. Judy read Hobbes'
Moby Dick, I
read Moby Dick
and a pair of
Dostoyevsky novels (The Idiot and Crime and Punishment).
From Rachel to Asbo
By Morten Høi Jensen
Los Angeles Review of Books, April 25, 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
Martin Amis seized on the wheezing literary world of 1970s England and
shocked it back to life. His mid-career comedies — Money, London Fields, The
Information — revitalized English prose with the freewheeling energies of
its American cousin. His novels, essays, stories, and journalism make up one
of the most electric and original bodies of work in modern literature. It
takes serious effort to deny the overwhelming originality of the voice.
Style is a quality of vision, the revelation of an author's private
universe. In his memoir Experience, Amis claims that "style is morality:
morality detailed, configured, intensified." Reading Amis, we learn to see
the world the way he sees it, as a universe racked with drink, drugs, and
porno (Money); environmental disaster and nuclear weapons (London Fields,
Einstein's Monsters); sexual revolution and male anxiety (The Pregnant
Widow, The Information). It's a private universe shaped by the late
Amis's novels have always dealt, on some level,
with the struggle between the literary and the unliterary. This was
certainly the moral force behind Money (1984), a boldly experimental novel
written in the paradoxically literary voice of the fantastically unliterary
John Self, a debauched commercial director pinballing between New York and
London, working on his first feature film. By Self's own admission, he is
addicted to the late twentieth century. He calls himself "a ticking grid of
jet-lag, time-jump and hangover" and is frequently bogged down in combat
with a debilitating excess of "fast food, sex shows, space games, slot
machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television,
Masculinity is the big theme of all his work. No other
male writer has skewered the delusions of male grandeur the way Amis has.
The great male leads of his novels are always seen in moments of great male
anxiety, or in galloping strides of great male affirmation. Women are often
seen as representatives of culture. The Rachel Papers, Success, Dead Babies:
these were grotesque comedies of the human body. In the mid-career work,
like The Information, the middle-aged man is just "candidly and averagely
semi-fucked up, along the usual male lines." The Pregnant Widow took a broad
view not just of the sexual revolution and the English novel, but also of
The 13th novel, Lionel Asbo: The State of England, feels like
an expansion of the trajectory Amis first embarked on with Money. Lionel
Asbo — a petty thug who wins £140 million in the lottery and becomes a
mainstay in the British tabloids — is a comic creation on par with John
Self, Keith Talent, and Steve "Scozzy" Cousins. London is evoked with
familiar riffs on inner-city decay.
Amis continues to thwart our
expectations of what a novel ought to look like. Whatever else you object to
about his fiction, his essays, and his journalism, they have found
invigorating new rhythms: outraged hilarity, lurching energy, contagious
joy. No one has been better suited to write about the aimless decay of
modern cities, the yelpings and flailings of male ego, the diminishing
returns of literary careerdom. Amis once wrote that great writers "heighten
and transfigure the world you see, for ever."
Edited by Andy Ross
You can't write about characters that disgust you. All the things I hate in
life, I enjoy in fiction: vulgarity, cynicism, all those sorts of displaced
and degraded feelings. I'm a great admirer of incorrigibility, too. I admire
people who go on making the same mistakes. But the thing I value most is
innocence. And the trouble with having that as your main value is that
innocence is diminishing all the time.
Every creature is immortal
except for man. We know we're going to die. Time is a river that is bearing
me away, but I am the river. No animal has to grapple with that thought,
because they think they're eternally alive. Have you noticed, religious
people look sinisterly young? Because it's consciousness of death that draws
all these lines on us. Not just the time moving past you, but where it's
You’ve got to earn it. This concept has come to seem very
basic to me. I am Kingsley Amis' son. It's the curse of Prince Charles, the
taint of heredity, the idea that somehow you haven't earned it, a bit like
taking over the family pub. I wrote my first novel in 1973, when I was 24. I
was the novelist as pop star, the Mick Jagger of literature. So why isn't
Mick Jagger known as the Martin Amis of the rock world? It's a conundrum.
I think if my father had been a businessman or a schooteacher, I'd be
taken more on my own merits. The subliminal feeling that it was no struggle
for me at all is not conscious, but it's there. I don't feel it interferes
with my readers at all, but it does with officialdom. I haven't been offered
an MBE, where all my writer friends and peers are either turning down or
accepting knighthoods. The only literary prize I've won for fiction was 40
The worst thing about growing old is the fear of declining
powers. It's a fact that your vocabulary starts to shrink in your fifties,
so you reach for the Thesaurus a bit more than you used to. When I look at
my early stuff, I'm amazed by the garrulity; quite impressed, actually, by
how I can't shut up. You do learn how to shut up.
Genius is all the
god-given stuff, the altitude of perception and articulacy. Talent is craft.
And what happens I think is your genius shrinks and your talent expands. You
get better at construction and knowing what goes where: pacing, modulation,
that kind of thing. I still feel, when I wake up and all I've got to do that
day is write, I can't wait to get down there. It's a wonderful way of
earning a living.
The Guardian, August 23, 2012
The U.S. reviews for Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis' latest novel, are not pretty:
The Washington Post described the novel as "ham-fisted" and "meandering"
and suggested that Amis move back to England.
The Wall Street
Journal: "He reads like a university don telling dirty jokes to astonish the
groundlings while never letting them forget how well he knows his Milton."
The New York Observer: "The most marked characteristic of Lionel Asbo is
its joylessness ... Lionel Asbo is a bad book."
The New York Times
dismissed Asbo as "weary" and "pallid" and took swipes at two other Amis
novels, Yellow Dog ("dreadful") and the Pregnant Widow ("tedious").
By Matthew Walther
The American Conservative, September 19, 2012
Kingsley Amis (1954):
Kingsley Amis (1986):
The Old Devils
Kingsley Amis rarely had a kind word to say about his son Martin's work.
After encountering a character named Martin Amis in Money, he threw the
manuscript across the room and accused Martin of "American cleverness."
Martin explained that Kingsley also wrote poetry, so he had no reason to
quest after the "terrible compulsive vividness" of Martin's words.
Amis senior himself is probably more famous than any of his books. He hated
tolerance, diversity, foreign languages, airplanes, popular music, female
novelists, jazz, being alone, art cinema, buying gifts for his wives, the
Arts Council of Great Britain, homosexuals, America, communists, gardens,
and the dark. He never learned to drive a car and bragged that he couldn't
scramble an egg. In his later years he spent thousands of pounds a month on
drink. His loyalty to the Crown was absolute. He called Margaret Thatcher
"one of the best looking women I had ever met."
Yet this man wrote
some of the best fiction of the last century. In Lucky Jim, he writes with
unflagging energy, like a literary combine harvester thrashing its way
through fields of tedium and mawkishness. His debut novel is a middle finger
presented to snobs, puritans, sycophants, and fussbudgets. It was an
immediate popular and critical success. Amis was a consummate literary
professional who wrote at least 500 words nearly every morning of his adult
life, and wrote a series of comic novels, none of which managed to equal the
comedic charm of Lucky Jim.
The Old Devils, which Martin has called
one of the best half-dozen novels of the 20th century, shows Kingsley older,
sentimental, and content. The novel is a kind of love letter to his first
wife, Hilary, Martin's mother, a typewritten apology note to a woman whom he
seems to have realized he loved despite all else.
The Amis Obsession
The Atlantic, November 2012
Martin Amis, 63, has led a writer's life, sedentary and doggedly productive.
Can it be that he is famous just for writing?
In Amis-prose, the
adverb is a moral necessity — it lets you sense the author, feel the steady
pressure of his mind, ironic and lunar, half an inch behind the text.
Unfresh usage upsets Amis. Be vigilant. Be moral.
His great vice is
seriousness. Moving from the comic to the terribly important has a degrading
effect on his style. But you don't go to Amis for prophecy or
The Telegraph, October 13, 2013
I find New York a tremendously exciting and glamorous city. There
is such a buzz about it. For sheer excitement, it's the best
place to go for a weekend, party for four days, and then get
The Zone of Interest
The Sunday Times, August 17, 2014
arrived in Brooklyn in 2011. He is 65 on August 25. His new novel, The Zone
of Interest, is about the Holocaust. Saul Bellow described the Holocaust as
the terminal point so far in human evil.
The novel takes us inside
the minds of the Germans who managed Auschwitz. It is also a love story.
"When I was about seven, I asked my mother what all this stuff about
railway tracks and smokestacks was all about, and she said, 'Oh, don't worry
about Hitler. You've got blond hair and blue eyes — Hitler would have loved
you.' I felt a kind of ignoble relief that Hitler would have been on my
"Bellow said we must try to see things with our original eyes.
You have to retain your childish vision."
The Guardian, August 22, 2014
The Zone of Interest focuses on the
Nazi officers at Auschwitz and their increasing difficulty in fulfilling the
demands from Berlin.
The blustering KZ Kommandant is a terrific comic
creation. He is off his head, sexually incontinent, and loathed by his wife.
His struggle to process victims is a personal torment and his struggle to
keep head office at bay a bureaucratic headache.
Golo: "Would you
agree that we couldn't treat them any worse?"
Boris: "Oh, come on. We
don't eat them."
Golo: "Yes, but they wouldn't mind being eaten. Unless
we ate them alive."
Boris: "No, what we do is make them eat each other.
They mind that ... Golo, who in Germany didn't think the Jews needed taking
down a peg? But this is fucking ridiculous, this is."
Szmul is forced
to become an accessory in the murder of his own people: "I feel we are
dealing with propositions and alternatives that have never been discussed
"The ending is so well achieved you want to shake
both him and his editor and ask why the whole book is not like this."
The Sunday Times, August 24, 2014
Zone of Interest is set in Auschwitz, mostly in 1942. The book
positively revels in the bureaucratic euphemisms that shrouded the genocide.
The story appears to be about managerial frustrations and amorous intrigues
among the Germans at the camp.
Amis has taken various liberties with
the history. He reinvents hell on earth in his gaudy, insistent, elaborate
prose, and uses a lot of German, which often tips over into absurdity. The
book is a nightmare filled with riffs and general observations on Nazi
"I read this once thinking it horrifically brilliant ...
I read it a second time asking, but what is the point?"
Slate, October 2014
Zone of Interest
is the best novel Amis has written since The Information.
His fixation on the most violent and debased aspects of humanity
find a commensurate subject in the darkest abominations of the last
century. There are few contemporary novelists who can render
violence and stupidity with such forceful style and intelligence.
The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis, and J,
by Howard Jacobson, return to the Holocaust:
believes that the subject demands disorientation, reticence, and
confusion. J takes place in a future England, somewhere around the
year 2070. As Jacobson sketches in more of his fictional world, it
becomes clear that it is afflicted by a continual, habitual
violence. Then there are the more pointed and private omens.
Jacobson is imagining an English Holocaust, set to take place
sometime around the year 2020. He has written a horror story about a
Holocaust that changes history and even human nature. The real
horror of the real Holocaust is that it did no such thing.
Amis deliberately circumvents the conventions of Holocaust
writing. Nearly the whole cast of The Zone of Interest are
perpetrators. Amis has written a comedy that happens to be set in
Auschwitz. The protagonists are the administrators of the camp. The
horror is made to bleed through the edges of the story. Amis writes
beautifully and originally about Auschwitz. The book conjures
everyday life there. We see not overt savagery but carefully chosen
moments of pathos and irony. The crime of Auschwitz was to assign
the victims and the perpetrators their roles in an ideological
The Rub of Time
Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump and Other Pieces
1996-2016 by Martin Amis
The Times, September 30, 2017
At 68, Amis is now four
years older than his father Kingsley was in 1986. A significant
theme of this first-class collection of essays and reviews is dusk
descending, clouds gathering, last orders being called.
reveres Vladimir Nabokov, but he detects, in the later novels and
stories, a fatal falling off. Narrative propulsion and stylistic
modulation fails and falters: “Genius engorges itself and talent
shrivels and dies.”
As Amis leafs through his favourite
writers, the fizzling and spluttering at the finish starts to seem
Amis insightfully comments that Iris Murdoch and
John Bayley had always liked being ill and getting old. They were
the sort of fussy English couple who preferred winter to summer.
The deliberate avoidance of robustness and vitality in favour of
the dreary is a motif Amis also spots in Philip Larkin, who
succeeded in writing transcendent verse about the ageing process and
what it means.
Amis is a freelance fellow who loves the
invigorating intelligence of books and who has nothing to do with
any university department. His wide reading is prompted by pure
Amis met John Updike when the old enchanter was
already in hospital, surrounded by drips, injections, wheelchairs
and other evidence of morbidity: “Updike was intensely alive. The
hyperactivity of his sense-impressions was palpable.”
wants to learn from Saul Bellow, whom he worships: “Critics should
cleave to the human element, and not just laminate the text with
Amis is worthy of the praise he
shovels upon Nabokov in his prime: “He went at everything he did
with everything he had.”
Apart from the terrible title, The
Rub of Time is impressive and important.
The Guardian, August 7, 2021
I've never really had an identity crisis. If you're my age, you had the cold war, but nothing that involved oneself personally, as September 11 did involve everyone personally, in the psychological sense, in the emotional sense.
I went to school in America when I was nine with a black boy, Marty, who was my age. I said, do you want to come to tea, and he said, nah, your mother wouldn't like me, because I'm black. I wouldn't venture to say what it feels like for black people in 2021.
I read my friends, but I don't keep an eye out for the sensational new novel by so-and-so, the 25-year-old genius, because it's just an uneconomical way of dividing your reading time. It might go on to be part of the canon; it might completely disappear. I don't want to take that chance.
Style isn't something you apply later. It's embedded in your perception, and writers without that freshness of voice make no appeal to me. Originality is talent.
History is my passion now. I'm reminded every now and then of fiction's pleasures, but I want knowledge more. I feel I'm running out of time for fiction.
More on Martin Amis