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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

“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.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus