Martin Amis Contemplates Evil

England’s most famous living novelist has moved to America—and tilted the literary world

Martin Amis
Martin Amis, England's most famous living novelist, has just moved from London to the United States. Julian Broad

Here’s Martin Amis, one of the most celebrated and controversial novelists of our time, comfortably ensconced in an elegantly restored vintage Brooklyn brownstone, having just moved with his family from London to the United States, to the neighborhood with the endearingly Dickensian name of Cobble Hill. Many in the U.K., especially those who have read Lionel Asbo, his viciously satiric new novel that is subtitled State of England, have taken his move to America as a bitter farewell to the U.K., a land that has become, if you read the new work, dominated by sinister yobs (U.K. slang for vulgar, often violent bullies) and an ignorant, toxic tabloid- and porno-obsessed culture.

Amis has said the move had more to do with his wife, the novelist Isabel Fonseca, wanting to be near her American family. Still, he’s remarked to one interviewer that Americans should spend three or four hours a day just thanking their good fortune for being here. And indeed at this beautiful springtime twilight moment in bucolic brownstone Brooklyn it would be hard to fault his choice.

And yet, today in North America, the day of my visit, was the day when the U.S. tabloids featured a terrifying fellow who came to be called “the bath salts cannibal”—bath salts being the street name for some toxic designer drug—who had bizarrely and savagely chewed off the face of a homeless man in Florida. (Later reports questioned the nature of the drug involved.) A second cannibal was reported to be on the loose in Maryland, and someone was sending body parts through the mail in Canada.

And just as there are two Americas evident today—civilized, bucolic Brooklyn and the frenzied bath salts wasteland of the tabs—so it might be said there are two Martin Amises. There is Amis the author of vicious, often outrageous comic satiric novels like Lionel Asbo and Money (one of the most exhilarating reading experiences in recent literature, the great American novel that happened to be writ by a Brit; think of it as The Great Gatsby on bath salts), as well as London Fields and The Information (a genius send-up of the literary world that contains perhaps the funniest scenes in any novel I’ve read since Catch-22).

And then there’s the Other Amis, the one who dominates our conversation this evening, the one who writes books that go beyond Bad Behavior to contemplate Evil Itself. These include the Holocaust novel, Time’s Arrow, his two books about Stalinism—the gulag novel House of Meetings and Koba the Dread, his scathing short biographical essay on Stalin and the mass murders committed under his rule—as well as Einstein’s Monsters (if you consider nuclear annihilation evil) and his controversial series of essays about 9/11, The Second Plane.

Shortly after we settle into his living room with a couple of cold Coronas, I ask Amis about an offhand remark he’d made in a U.K. Telegraph interview, saying he was thinking of returning to the subject of the Holocaust in his next novel.

“Yeah,” he replied. “I’m actually 50 pages in.” His return to the subject came from a feeling, he said, “that in the very palpable, foreseeable future the Holocaust is going to absent itself from living memory.” The survivors’ testimonies will endure in print and on video, but their physical disappearance from life will mark a symbolic divide.

I mention that some recent American commenters have called continued consideration of the historical relevance of the Holocaust a sign of being “Holocaust obsessed”—a slur that I believe represents a new form of Holocaust denial.

Amis’ reaction: “I agree with W.G. Sebald [the prominent German novelist], who said, ‘No serious person ever thinks about anything else.’”

He added, “I’m just amazed by the exceptionalism.”

The question of the Holocaust’s exceptionalism is one that I find fascinating, and wrote about in a book called Explaining Hitler: Is Hitler on the continuum of other evildoers in history, on the far end of a spectrum, or does he represent something off the grid, beyond the continuum, an “exceptionalist” phenomenon, in a rarefied realm of radical evil all his own?

“It’s certainly exceptional in my case,” Amis continued, “in that it didn’t matter how much I read about it, I felt I was getting no nearer to understanding it,” the nature of Hitler’s evil.

“That was not the case with the Russian holocaust,” he says, despite body count figures for Stalin’s mass murders that exceed Hitler’s.

He tells me that until recently the problem of understanding Hitler had bedeviled him. And then, “I was reading a passage at the end of the companion volume to If This Is a Man by Primo Levi,” one of the most widely admired writers and thinkers among Holocaust survivors. “It’s where he answers the questions that he’s most often quoted on. And one of the questions is, ‘Do you feel you understand that level of racial hatred?’ and Levi replied, ‘No I don’t understand it and nor should you understand it, but it’s a sacred duty not to understand,’ and that to understand something is to subsume it within yourself and we can’t do that.

“That, that, was an epiphany for me,” Amis says, “reading those lines. And I thought ‘Ah.’ Then as soon as the pressure to understand left me, I felt I could [write]. I could understand two or three things that perhaps hadn’t been very emphasized.”

He mentioned two things: the mercenary aspect, “how incredibly avaricious the whole operation was. The way they made the Jews pay for their tickets in the railway cars to the death camps. Yeah, and the rates for a third-class ticket, one way. And half price for children.”

That last detail is so consonant with the Amis vision of human nature—malice entwined with absurdity.

“Half price for...”

“Those under 12.”

We’re both silent for a moment.

“It was a kind of exploration of evil,” he continued. “Just how bad can we get?”

But he concedes, “I slightly despair of getting that far with him [Hitler], I mean as a novelist.” Hitler is not a character in the new novel, he says. “The highest-ranking person in the novel is Martin Bormann, but we don’t see him. Rudolf Hess is in it, not by name, and others talk of a recent visit to Auschwitz, but they’re sort of middle, lower-middle actors on the whole.”

We get into a further discussion of the contentious issues of Hitler’s mind-set.

I mention the complex theory adopted by the late Hitler historian Alan Bullock, who first felt Hitler was purely an opportunistic actor who didn’t even believe in his anti-Semitism but later came to think that Hitler was “the actor that came to believe his own act.”

Amis responds, “You mean, as someone said, ‘The mask eats the face.’”

Precisely. (It was John Updike, speaking of the degradation of celebrity.)

I sense from talking to Amis that these things matter more to him, that he feels a responsibility as a writer, a thinker, a serious person in Sebald’s formulation, to react to them. That there is something at stake here greater than the various moronic infernos of his comic novels, no matter how brilliantly he spins them out.

“We can agree that [the Holocaust} is the most disgusting crime so far, but what if there’s a greater crime? Is there a boundary beyond which boundaries of heinousness the novelist can’t go past?” How dark is the heart of darkness? Have we only seen its shadows?

Which brings up the question of comparative evil and the Hitler versus Stalin question.

“You said a little while ago that Stalin [his evil] was not equal to Hitler’s.”

“I feel that more and more,” he said of Hitler’s primacy in evil over Stalin. “Where do you stand or how do you feel?”

“I recently read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands,” I told him, an important book that reminds us that in addition to Stalin’s multi-million-dead purges and gulag victim body count, we cannot ignore the deliberate starvation of the entire Ukraine in the early ’30s, an act that killed millions and drove many families to cannibalism, even to eating their own children.

“That was the one crime that is analogous to the Holocaust,” Amis agreed, “because families had to watch each other starve. That takes a long time, to starve, and to watch your children starve....”

“The thing that crossed some boundary for me,” I said, “were the accounts of families eating their own children.”

“I want to show you something,” he replied. “It’s in Koba the Dread, my book about Stalin, and [there’s a picture that shows] these awful sort of rather drunken, crazy-looking parents with the limbs of their children.” He trudges up the stairs and trudges back down—one feels the weight of what he is bearing: a hardcover edition of Koba the Dread—and opens the book to the full-page photograph of family cannibalism from 1920, really Lenin’s famine, but cannibalism is cannibalism. The photo is just as he described it.

One I now wish I’d never seen. One I now will never forget.

“Look at their faces, the parents.” Amis says. “Nightmarish.”

Do Amis’ Bad Behavior books derive from his Evil ones? I somehow don’t think so. But I don’t want to diminish the other Amis, the louche, mocking wit once described as “the Mick Jagger of British literature.” The one who is probably the best comic novelist writing in English—and “comic novelist” can be a serious profession, since some of the most acute observers of human nature have been comic novelists, from Swift and Fielding to Heller and Amis. The comic novelists may not necessarily ignore the Hitlers and the Stalins but concern themselves more with what we encounter in our daily life—bad behavior.

For Amis the focal point of bad behavior has been the “yob,” the sometimes comic, often threatening combination of masculinity and violence. Lionel Asbo, the title character of his new novel, may be the end point of his fascination with yobs, a frightening Frankenstein monster of a yob.

And yet, Amis tells me, “I’m actually quite bleeding heart about it [yobbism] deep down, in that I’ve always thought that people that are designated as yobs actually have quite a lot of native intelligence and wit.”

“Do you have an inner yob?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, I had my yob periods. Nothing violent but certainly loutish. I think it’s frustrated intelligence. Imagine that if you were really intelligent and everyone treated you as though you were stupid and no one tried to teach you anything—the sort of deep subliminal rage that would get going in you. But then once it gets going, you make a strength out of what you know is your weakness, which is that you are undeveloped.”

I asked him for his reflections on masculinity.

“It’s without doubt my main subject. The way masculinity can go wrong. And I’m something of a gynocrat in a utopian kind of way.”

Love the word “gynocrat.” Has more credibility than men who say they’re feminists.

“I can imagine,” he says, “in a century or two that rule by women will be seen as a better bet than rule by men. What’s wrong with men is that they tend to look for the violent solution. Women don’t.”

“I was rereading Money,” I told him, “and there was one passage where John Self [the dissolute main character] says, ‘Everything about my relations with women has to do with the fact I can beat them up.’ The men in your novels are truly mystified by women. What do you think,” I asked him, “is the most mystifying thing about women?”

It was at this point—I’m not making this up—that footsteps are heard in the hall. Amis’ wife, Isabel, has come home; she’s a slender, attractive 50-year-old who looks like a grad student.

Amis greeted his wife and told her, “I’ve just been asked why men don’t understand women.”

“Oh, I’d better leave,” she says good-naturedly.

“I’ve just been reminded by Ron that John Self says [in Money] ‘The basic thing is that he can beat them up.’ So dear, I can beat you up,” he says mock-yobbishly, laughing although the outcome doesn’t seem entirely clear-cut to me.

She laughed too and said wryly, “I’ll meekly go make dinner.”

When she departed, a third Martin Amis emerged, one who had nothing to do with evil or bad behavior. The Amis who relishes the love he feels for his children and the greats of poetry.

“[When I talk] about love,” he said, “the positive value is always innocence.”

At the heart of the new novel, he told me, is an innocent couple in love and a threatened child.

“That’s what I seem to prize, the child or the ingénue, the less worldly characters. You can say that the world may not be getting worse—in a pinch you can say that. But it absolutely incontrovertibly is getting less innocent. You get the feeling that childhood does not last as long as it used to. Innocence gets harder to hold on to as the world gets older, as it accumulates more experience, more mileage and more blood on the tracks.

“Your youth evaporates in your early 40s when you look in the mirror. And then it becomes a full-time job pretending you’re not going to die, and then you accept that you’ll die. Then in your 50s everything is very thin. And then suddenly you’ve got this huge new territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn’t there before. A new source of strength. Then that may not be so gratifying to you as the 60s begin [Amis is 62], but then I find that in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it’s imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance, that it’s not going to be around very long, this world, so it begins to look poignant and fascinating.”

I particularly liked “the huge new territory” of the past and the “slightly magical” feel he evoked. Indeed, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s famous “seven ages of man” speech, with a tinge more optimism, and all the more impressive for having been delivered extemporaneously.

Finally we moved on to Philip Larkin, the great British poet who had been a friend to him, and his father, another celebrated and controversial novelist, Kingsley Amis. Martin had edited a selection of Larkin’s poems. I mentioned an essay I’d written about what I thought was Larkin’s single most affirmative line—in a body of work known for its lyric pessimism—the final line of “An Arundel Tomb”: “What will survive of us is love.”

A line that Larkin himself later questioned as being too romantic.

But Amis tells me that was not Larkin’s only poetic affirmation.

“What about the end of ‘The Trees’?” he asks me and then quotes from it.

“Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

This was the third Amis in full bloom. Listen to leaves thresh freshly, like those on his tree-lined brownstone street, where Amis is starting afresh in America.

But the other two Amises, the darker ones, would not let that rest. “Under the manuscript of that poem,” Amis added, “Larkin wrote, ‘Bloody awful, sentimental crap.’”

Ron Rosenbaum's latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.

Julian Broad

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.