Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). Also available in book form.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Death and the Martin

[Islamicism] is a tremendously radical enemy because, for them, defeat is not defeat and death is not death. Turn on your television and you'll see Islamicism is shaping world events. That's all there is on CNN. And it's having a huge wave, thrust of success. And that's because, I think, the casting off of reason, the embrace of death, is very energising ... for a while.
In the week The Lancet reports that deaths in Iraq as a consequence of the Christian invasion have reached an estimated 655,000, these comments from Martin Amis in a recent BBC Radio 3 interview, suggests he's just a chip off the xenophobic old block. But I don't want to leave it there. There's something about the intensity of Amis's current preoccupation with Islam[icism] that reveals something about his novels.

Twenty years ago, just after the success of Money, Amis spoke about the threat of nuclear annihilation and what he saw as its insidious affect on society: "It is the one great underlying uncertainty" he said. The latter part of the 20th Century was "the most dangerous era .. without compare".
We find ourselves at this moment having the fate of the Earth in the hands of .. an old actor and a prison warden. I get a great sense of discrepancy from that.
He went on to say that the discrepancy "declasses" us as human beings and that "it would be extraordinary if we didn't respond to it in violent ways".

I have remembered these lines because at the time it seemed both plausible and ridiculous. Could it be both? One violent response, Amis suggested, was that anger had become a legitimate form of political expression. He cited the riots in English in the early 80s and "certain forms of insurrection" (perhaps alluding to the Miners' Strike) that had just ended. Before then, of course, it had been all sweetness and political light. Anyway, the discrepancy, as he saw it, informed his next two fictions: Einstein's Monsters and London Fields. Yet now, although the nuclear threat remains, with Earth's fate still in the hands of another born-again cretin and any number of prison wardens, it all seems rather dated. Were we ever so affected by the nuclear threat? Maybe it was just transference.

Amis's attention has since returned to the discrepancy presented by death itself, which seems much more plausible, even if, as Bernhard famously observed, everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death. The Information in the novel with that title is precisely the fact of death. In that old interview, Amis said described death as "the dark backing a mirror needs before it can give off a reflection". An uncanny situation with which the writer is familiar: the anonymous realm of negativity bringing life, as it were, to life.

This focus on death might explain one thing about Amis' career that has puzzled me. After making his name with novels about British life, why did he then write novels about the distant past, about Nazi Death Camps and the Soviet Gulag? At first it seems that Amis is being, as Tibor Fischer describes it in his review of The House of Meetings, "an atrocity-chaser ... on the prowl for gravitas-enlargement offers". But really it's Amis looking from the other side of the mirror. "Death was very central to both [Nazism and Stalinism]" he says. "In both it was imagined that a beautiful future would be built on a field of dead bodies". So while the comedy (in the older sense of the word) of the British novels emerged in the return of the repression of death, in the camps death it was normality that was repressed. So what might that return? Maybe another reviewer will enlighten us.

Another puzzling aspect of that choice was also remarked upon in the BBC interview: the obvious discrepancy between the author's personal experience and the subject matter. Amis says he had done a great deal of reading about the Gulag but had not written about it because, due to "a strategic sin of omission", he wanted the facts to sink in so that he could return to it at length, i.e. fictionally.

He claims that the only way he could gain legitimacy for the novel was not through "wringing [my] hands about the suffering of the poor bastards in penal servitude above the arctic circle" but through "the suffering of the study, when things aren't going easily with the work ... all I could do was the writerly suffering." It's an unusual thing to say, very much against the cult of experience still dominant in literary reception. It emphasises his trust in literature, for the negative to reflect the positive, for the necessary absence in literature of the world to reinforce its presence. But that trust isn't total. Amis's famously inventive prose style is a vigorous resistance to that absence, an endless war on the pleonasm of clichéd language. Death must resist death. Defeat must be defeated.

Amis sees Islamic fundamentalism in the tradition of the 20th Century's totalising ideologies: "To throw off reason, everything becomes possible for a while. Then the ground turns swampy beneath your feet. The rejection of reason cannot hold." Yet he could also be speaking of writing. Reason is writerly suffering, the long haul of attention and empathy. A writer might instead let his imagination run wild, bringing an entirely new world into existence and winning the admiration of escapists, but ultimately would be bearing forth only death. In contrast, Amis prose style is the crusader's sword beside his shield of reason.

With this in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise that he spends a good deal of time in the interview expressing contempt, not only for Islam[icism], but also those who see it in the context of what you're unlikely to see on CNN:
It's rationalist naivete to look for reasons when an ideology becomes very virulent, as Islamicism has become. It's much more pleasant to look for reasons and to historical justifications ... 'our unhingeing cruelty in that region has, you know, tipped them over the edge', but one also has to be capable of identifying something that is pathological. The Ken Livingstone response, that this is what people do ... when there is an unfair balance, you know they haven't got F16s ... they use their bodies ... I think that's sentimental rubbish ... and appeasement.
. The slight of hand where reasons of historical fact becomes "historical justifications" is rather perplexing after the implicit injunction against unreason. But it's a strategic omission consistent with his fiction.

In his recent story The Last Days of Muhammad Atta (which seems to have been taken offline), Amis chose to make the suicide pilot an unbeliever.
If you make him an apostate, his thoughts are still independent, and they're worth exploring. There are contradictions and resonances that you don't get in what Atta probably was ... a hachet-faced fanatic. I made him more accessible. He's pretending to be religious. What interests him is the killing. The contribution towards death he'll make.
Since the story was published, Atta has been revealed to be a more accessible figure anyway than the grim passport photograph which inspired Amis's portrait. But the embrace of fiction is very energising ...

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