Martin Amis Contemplates Evil

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

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


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