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Executioner Songs

Here is Joseph de Maistre, jurist, philosopher, and grand reactionary, in exile in St. Petersburg in the first part of the nineteenth century, contemplating the figure of the Executioner, with whom so many of his fellow French aristocrats had suffered an all too intimate encounter a couple of decades previously:

So who is this inexplicable being who, when there are so many pleasant, lucrative, honest, and even honourable professions in which he could exercise his strength or dexterity to choose among, has chosen that of torturing and putting to death his own kind? Are this head and this heart made like our own? Do they contain anything that is peculiar and alien to our nature? For myself, I have no doubt about this. In outward appearance he is made like us; he is born like us. But he is an extraordinary being, and for him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power.1

And here, quoted by Martin Amis in his book Koba the Dread (2002), is the biographer Dmitri Volkogonov writing of a particular executioner:

No other man in the world has ever accomplished so fantastic a success as he: to exterminate millions of his own countrymen and receive in exchange the whole country’s blind adulation.2

It might be said that Martin Amis and Stalin’s Russia were two things that were waiting to happen to each other. What other novelist of his generation would have risked treating the enormities visited upon the twentieth century with such vigor, such moral outrage, such foolhardy daring? In Time’s Arrow (1991) he found a novel means of tackling that most perilous—for the novelist—topic, the Holocaust, by having his protagonist live his life backward, from all-American citizen in the present day to newborn German baby in the young century, with visits in between to the death camps, where, it is discovered, he played a modest but not insignificant role.

Time’s Arrow was a risk, but it succeeded. In interviews at the time, however, Amis insisted that it was one of a kind, and that he was not a political but, essentially, a comic novelist. The book, as he wrote in an afterword, was inspired, if one may speak of inspiration when the subject was so dire, by his friend Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, without which, Amis wrote, “my novel would not and could not have been written.”3 And sure enough, his next novel, The Information (1995), was a return to the form of his great, sprawling comedies Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). Yet the world was too much with him for a full withdrawal from the arena of public history.

Through his journalism especially he could venture at will into that arena, bringing back hair-raising reports of what it was like when the lions were let loose—all that blood, all those screams—but also essaying wonderfully comic turns, such as his non-encounter with Madonna, who refused to be interviewed by him because he was “too famous.” “Madonna (I wanted to tell her), don’t say another word. I completely understand.”4 Amis’s observing eye is constantly abulge with amazement at the wickedness and folly of his fellow human beings. He looks upon the world with incredulous surprise, like a man stumbling befuddled out of a dim restaurant into the acid sunlight and traffic roar of a summer afternoon in a strange city. For Amis, something always seems just to have happened, something not quite identifiable yet very bad. Or if it has not already happened, it is surely about to.

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, and was one of the works—John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger (1956) was another—that contributed to the making of a new kind of culture in Britain. Amis père and his literary confrères, whom Somerset Maugham famously dismissed as “scum,”5 were irreverent, priapic, anti-Establishment, and, above all, funny.

Though the same adjectives might be applied to Martin Amis, he at first displayed scant interest in his father’s world, yet he admired many among his friends, such as the historian Robert Conquest and the poet Philip Larkin. He was, by his own admission, something of a feral youngster. The photograph on the cover of the English edition of his memoir, Experience, of a ten-year-old, tow-headed Martin striking a pugnacious pose with a cigarette in his mouth, was an augury of what was to come. It was Kingsley’s second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard—they were married in 1965 after Kingsley’s painful breakup with Martin’s mother, Hilly—who took young Martin in hand and set about rectifying his educational shortcomings and generally smartening him up, giving him a copy of Pride and Prejudice. “That was when he started to read properly….”

Young Amis was a quick learner, and his stepmother’s lessons were not wasted. He abandoned the louche, flares-and-flower-prints teenage life he had been living, chasing girls and doing drink and drugs, and went off to Oxford, where he secured a First in English. Back in London, he became the wunderkind of the literary world there, first with a job on the Times Literary Supplement and then, aged twenty-seven, as literary editor of the left-wing and at that time highly influential New Statesman, where he met, among others, Christopher Hitchens, who has remained a lifelong friend and political sparring partner. Later, Amis became a feature writer on the London Observer, and a famously well-paid reviewer with the Sunday Times. 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—Dead Babies (1975), Success (1977), and Other People: A Mystery Story (1981) were clever, funny, and baleful, and consolidated his reputation as a novelist in the waspish and calculatedly outrageous tradition of Waugh, Angus Wilson, and, indeed, Kingsley Amis. However, with Money: A Suicide Note, published in 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, and 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. Bellow has spoken of how in his early books he was trying to be an American Flaubert, but that when he came to write The Adventures of Augie March he decided to let rip artistically, and never looked back. The famous declamatory opening of Augie March—“I am an American, Chicago born”—has a counterpart in the jazzy, nerve-jangling first sentence of Money: “As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows.” Readers at the time had to do a double-take: This is an English writer?

Amis’s decision to do his own kind of letting rip was a large one, and must have taken a deal of courage. It won him a new freedom, and a reputation as England’s most ambitious, most exciting, and, at times, most controversial novelist. A number of younger writers saw in him an example of how to escape the crabbed confines of English letters, and sought to write with a similar freedom, irreverence, and energy. Money did for the writers of the 1980s what Lucky Jim had done for their counterparts a generation earlier.

How have they held up, these novels which we may regard as the work 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 overall a peculiar haziness, a lack of or withholding of focus, which can leave the reader feeling baffled and slightly cheated. Even the main figures in the novels, John Self in Money—“I’m called John Self. But then who isn’t?”—Guy Clinch and the talentless Keith Talent in London Fields, and the rival writers Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry in The Information, seem not so much portraits of plausible human beings as marionettes gesticulating wildly in the glare of Amis’s pyrotechnical prose. The women characters in particular can seem thin to the point of two-dimensionality, as in the case of Nicola Six, the dark lady of London Fields, who is striking yet insubstantial, like one of those phantasmal Morgan Le Fays we encounter in dreams. Amis could legitimately claim, in the postmodernist way, that aspects of the novel such as character and plot are far down on his list of priorities, and that his artistic concerns lie elsewhere. And it may be that his disdain for the verisimilitude that is a staple of novels by, say, Kingsley Amis, for example, is an ideological artistic position taken against an outworn convention.

However, in his new novel, House of Meetings, the first since the widely criticized Yellow Dog (2003), Amis has subjected himself to a decided cooling-off. House of Meetings is short, the prose is controlled, the humor sparse, while 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. There is the Dostoevskyan struggle between ill-matched brothers carried on against a vast and unforgiving Tolstoyan landscape; there is a star-crossed Zhivagoan love that endures a lifetime; there are immense journeys, epic sufferings, agonized renunciations, unbearable losses; there is even a revelatory letter, kept for twenty years and only read on the brink of death, as well as a homely sister, called Kitty, whose task it is to fill in this or that necessary detail of the narrative.

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 unnamed narrator, a decorated hero of the war against Hitler, who defected to America in the 1980s and made his fortune through the invention of an item of prosthetic gadgetry, has returned to Russia to revisit the place in the far north of Siberia where he and his brother, Lev, were held as slave workers from the late 1940s until well into the 1950s, after Stalin had died. Neither of them had committed any crime. The narrator was arrested, like many Russian veterans who fought in Germany, on suspicion of having been exposed to fascist and Western influences while outside the USSR. Lev was convicted for having been heard “praising America” in his college cafeteria line (in fact, he had been praising “The America’s,” his code name for Zoya).

  1. 1

    Joseph de Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, translated by Richard A. Lebrun (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), p. 19.

  2. 2

    Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Talk Miramax, 2002), p. 214.

  3. 3

    Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, 1986); cited by Amis in Time’s Arrow, p. 175.

  4. 4

    Martin Amis, Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions (Harmony, 1993), p. 255.

  5. 5

    In a Books of the Year feature in the London Sunday Times on December 25, 1955, Maugham picked Lucky Jim, describing it as “a remarkable novel” of “ominous significance.” He went on to characterize the new class of grant-aided university students, the “white-collar proletariat,” with which the novel is concerned: “Charity, kindness, generosity, are qualities which they hold in contempt. They are scum.” Quoted in Zachary Leader, The Life of Kingsley Amis(London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), pp. 356–357. Ironically, both Kingsley and Martin Amis won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction, twenty years apart.

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