Martin Amis talks about his new ‘Jewish’ novel, his Jewish daughters, his ‘mentor’ Saul Bellow, ‘vile, poisonous’ Islamist violence and the complacent critics of Israel. By Jenni Frazer.
No one can curl a lip quite like Martin Amis. The writer and essayist, a winningly crumpled 57, has reservoirs of contempt for any number of things (bizarre mis-use of language and cliché, the herd mentality, the cravenness of the West when it comes to dealing with terror) but, after just over two years living in Uruguay — in the family home of his wife, Isabel Fonseca — Amis sounds genuinely shocked at the attitude of “certain circles of London opinion” when it comes to discussing Israel.
“You can’t be a friend of Israel in London without noticing the ‘bienpensant’ view… There’s a certain kind of London opinion that is never more gorgeously complacent than when attacking Israel. They’re never half so comfortable as when they’re doing that. I won’t venture to analyse it, but it’s become absolutely the smuggest left position to be completely anti-Israel. I can’t bear the tone; it’s said with such confidence and rectitude. Those middle-class whiteys, walking around with posters saying: ‘We’re all Hizbollah now.’ And all this stuff about respect. We should respect them as far as listening to what they say. [Hizbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah, only a couple of years ago, said, ‘We don’t want anything from you, we want to eliminate you.’ So, we’re all Hizbollah now? Well, enjoy it while you can.”
The hallmark of both novelist Amises — his “mildly antisemitic” father, Kingsley, who died in 1995, and the exceedingly philosemitic Martin — has been an unfashionable enjoyment in giving something a good kicking, often where not strictly necessary. Some of Amis’s earlier novels, from “The Rachel Papers” to “London Fields,” are a seething hiss of bile. In his new novel, “House of Meetings,” he deals with some of the issues which have exercised him more recently.
The book is set in the gulags of Stalin’s post-war Soviet Union. It is a love triangle involving two brothers who both fall for the same Jewish woman, the enticing and endlessly fascinating Zoya. Both brothers end up in the same camp and witness loathsome horrors, gratuitous beatings, pointless confinement, unintelligible decisions by the “pigs” at the top of the authoritarian pyramid. The “house of meetings” is a grisly rendezvous for conjugal visits, as though the wife were not visiting her imprisoned husband in the permafrost of the Arctic Circle. Amis skilfully marries pedestrian concerns about life in the camps with scenes of real vileness such as the fate of the repellent and brutal prisoner, Uglik, who loses his hands to the cold after collapsing drunk in the dark.
In such an environment, Amis seems to suggest, reason disappears, to be replaced by the basest of responses. “It is a great thrill to reject reason,” he notes. After that, “for a man, anything looks possible.”
Essentially almost everything that Amis writes these days circles around the same several subjects: again, the despair over herd mentality, the threat of Islamism and its desire to extinguish the West, and comfortingly — especially since one would hate to to be on the receiving end of Amis’s disapproval — a truly grounded affinity with the Jewish experience.
There are many markers along the road of Amis’s philosemitism. He told one interviewer that he was appalled to be told by his mother, when still a blond and blue-eyed child, that “Hitler would have loved you.” He didn’t want any such thing, he declared; he wanted Hitler to hate him.
This trenchant belief, which he later said had drawn him to write his controversial Holocaust novel, “Time’s Arrow,” may have been something of a reaction to the old man, his father, Kingsley Amis. “He more or less owns up to a kind of very, very mild antisemitism,” Amis told the JC in 1991. “I say, ‘Dad, tell me what it feels like.’ He’s very honest He says, ‘Nothing very much, just when I look at the credits for a TV programme I’ll think, Oh, there’s another one.’” Kingsley, insisted his son, was “horrified” by “real antisemitism,” and, indeed, had tears in his eyes when they talked about it. Again, a comfort.
At 18, Amis’s “first love” was Jewish. “She had a grandma in Golders Green who was a survivor. She was fantastic. Even her Gold Blend coffee was kosher,” he jokes. It was 1967 and when the girlfriend “raced to give blood” for Israel, Amis was thrilled. Jews, he thought, were “different and exotic,” and he liked that.
During his first marriage, to Antonia Phillips, Amis acquired an exotic brother-in-law: Chaim Tannenbaum, a Canadian professor of philosophy who is rather better known as a singer and musician who plays with the McGarrigle sisters and Loudon Wainwright. Tannenbaum, says Amis, is “a Holocaust obsessive.”
When, in 1998, Amis left Phillips to marry the Uruguayan heiress, Isabel Fonseca, herself an accomplished writer, he became the husband of a beautiful Jewish woman and later the father of two much-loved, “fully paid-up Jewish” daughters, Fernanda and Clio, who clearly give him, were he only to use the word, much naches.
Amis says that when Isabel was pregnant with Fernanda, “there was one sort of dodgy bit when I did wonder what I would do if the baby were a boy. I mean, I’m not circumcised, although my brother is, and neither of my sons [from Antonia Phillips] is. But then Christopher Hitchens [who can fairly claim to be Amis’s best friend], who only discovered late in life that he was in fact Jewish, said to me, ‘Oh, you gotta do that.’ I said, ‘you think?’ And he said, ‘Oh yes, you have to do that.’” It wasn’t a boy and so didn’t happen, but it is perhaps the only time when Amis flirted with Jewish doctrine rather than culture.
It is, he says, “not the Jewish religion,” which he really admires, but Jewish identity and, for Amis, that is embodied heart and soul in his deep and close friendship with the Nobel Prizewinning writer Saul Bellow, who died in 2005.
Amis still palpably misses Bellow, his mentor, with whom he shared jokes and poetry. Since Bellow’s death, there has inevitably been talk of Amis assuming his mantle, despite being neither Jewish nor American, but Amis shrugs this suggestion off — “too nice, too fair… Saul,” he says, frequently referring to Bellow in the pre present tense, “does something that no one else has ever done. He writes about real people with such intensity that you get the universal from it. Most of us go about it in completely the opposite way, we try and imbue situations with some sort of universal meaning. It’s a kind of miraculous talent that he has…
“I’ve never tried to be like Saul, but I am writing an autobiographical novel [despite saying that he would never do any such thing] and really, only he could do that. But he’s in it, and that sort of makes it easier.”
Bellow and Amis used to discuss antisemitism. “Norman Cohn, who wrote ‘Warrant for Genocide,’ said that it was a neurosis. But Saul said, ‘No, it’s a psychosis.’ And I wonder which it is.” Amis, who has been sitting hunched, nervously making and smoking rather disgusting-looking roll-up cigarettes, seems suddenly energised when talking about Bellow. “You’ll be pleased to hear that I actually wore a beanie when Saul died,” he offers. For a minute, I haven’t a clue what he means.
“There was a big cardboard box full of beanies on the way in [to the synagogue] and Janice, Saul’s wife, said, ‘Oh, you probably don’t need to get one.’ So I didn’t, and I sat down, and suddenly an old lady began…” Amis mimes a woman pointing at his uncovered head and I realise that beanie is his word for kipah. Bellow, he says, had become more observant towards the end of his life but, distressingly, he reveals that he was also suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“He never really grasped [the significance of] September 11. But you could never really rule Saul out. There’d be days when you’d go round, expecting to be sitting by his sick-bed, and he’d answer the door himself, glass of wine at dinner, book of John Berryman poetry cracked open on the table… He used to say he was determined to beat this thing [Alzheimer’s]. Time and again he did that.”
When Bellow did die, Amis was both touched and charmed by the traditions surrounding the shivah, particularly the provision of food for the mourners. “There’d be a knock on the door and someone would hand in a delicious stew; I mean, fondly prepared food is love.” It is, he agrees, an intelligent tradition. “Well, you don’t want to have dinner with them, but you want to eat…”
We begin to discuss what Amis calls “Islamism,” the creeping extremism of fundamentalist adherents of Islam, but despite his somehow apocalyptic denunciations he is, nonetheless, more sanguine than one might suppose.
“It’s so vile and poisonous, so preposterously disgusting, that it must burn itself out,” Amis insists. “It’s so virulent, so irrational and so exterminatory — such cults don’t last for long. There was the Reich that was supposed to last for 1,000 years — in fact it was 12 years. The apocalyptic version of Stalinism in Cambodia — three-and-a-half years. If you kiss reason goodbye it just waits and gets you later on.
“I have a lot of affection for human nature. I think, individually, people are nearly always very nice. It’s when they get together…
“I remember my own behaviour as an eightyear- old boy, out with my mates, leaping around and tipping people’s hats off, raising hell on the street in a mild way, feeling this incredible power and audacity. But then it occurred to me, I don’t do this when I’m by myself. It’s only because I’m with the herd, trying to impress the peer group.”
Even Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker in the September 11 attacks (about whom Amis has written extensively, both fictionally and nonfictionally), may have had some redeeming qualities when not trying to impress his peers. “He clearly was a religious fanatic; in my story about him, I make him an apostate. They were all falling over each other trying to be more pious, praying all night as well as five times a day… Left to himself I think he would have just remained a rather depressed architect in Cairo.”
That is part of Amis’s great charm, his capacity for dry amusement at some of the most seemingly intractable subjects. Discussing suicide bombers, Amis expresses wry distaste for the Mayor of London’s argument that (here, he adopts a mocking accent) “they only have their bodies…” But then, noting that herd mentality rarely applies wholesale to women — “they’re not death carriers, for obvious reasons —” Amis wonders what might be the attraction in store for female suicide bombers. “I can understand the black widows of Chechnya, can’t you — but what is the Islamic paradise for women?” Advised that their heavenly reward is to be Queen of the Virgins, Amis considers this gravely. “Does this mean you’re chaste? Oh, are you Virgin Number One? And [by detonating yourself] are you made virginal again?” He laughs. “I’m here, baaabyy!”
Amis went to Israel for the first time in 1986, on a writers’ trip organised by the Friends of Israel Educational Trust, and then returned a year later (for a Saul Bellow event, in Haifa). He has not been back since, but now he feels he would like to make another visit. Partly this is because, at a PEN conference in New York this summer, he met the writer David Grossman for the first time, whose work he had long admired. The two gave a workshop together, exchanged email addresses and knew each other, says Amis, as people “with whom you could form a friendship.”
Grossman urged Amis to come to Israel but, only weeks after the PEN conference, Grossman’s beloved son, Uri, was killed when an anti-tank missile hit the tank in which he and his unit were travelling in South Lebanon. Amis looks in pain when he speaks about his friend’s bereavement, not least because Uri was just two weeks away from his 21st birthday, around the age of Amis’s own sons.
He has complicated feelings about Israel. Together with Christopher Hitchens, he is miserable about its geographical location which, he feels, partly accounts for its continued difficulties. “I had a horrible feeling during this last war. I read a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Bernard-Henri Lévy, French philosopher, terrifying piece, in which he said that when the Israelis suffer[ed] the rocket attacks, they were thinking, ‘What are these rockets going to be like in 10 or 15 years’ time?’ It’s pretty clear that they’re going to be dirty-bomb warheads… They may be the kind of weaponry that may spell the end of Israel.
“Even the most fervent of my Jewish friends will concede that it wasn’t a good idea to have Israel where it is. They should have been given a national homeland, but in Bavaria — then you would have got trouble from the BLO, scoutmasters in leather shorts who would have lobbed a Molotov cocktail over once a year or so…” Israel being where it is, hated by 98 or so per cent of its neighbours, makes Amis wonder: “How long is that sustainable? It’s paying a huge price for its geographical location.”
He invites critics of Israel, however, “to consider what’s at stake for the combatants [in the most recent conflict.] For Nasrallah, it’s a Shia power play, to gain personal power for his sect. What’s in it for the Jews? Survival, as always.”
With a bitter smile, he quotes journalist Thomas Friedman’s line that there are elements of Israel which can be summed up simply as “‘Yad Vashem and an air force.’ Consciousness of past horror and modern power combined. It would be remarkable if Israel could behave perfectly at all times. It’s amazing that Israel has kept its social fabric. [If there were] a dozen suicide bombs in London or New York… and the way it’s just been accepted in the West. Pass the sick-bag.”
Again, Amis curls his lip.