“I’m a philosemite”, explains Martin Amis. “I’m attracted to the Jews. My wife is half Jewish, my daughters are a quarter Jewish; the fact that they have one Jewish grandparent would have been enough to doom them in Nazi Germany”.
So begins one of Britain’s most respected living authors, son of the late Kingsley Amis, at a recent and impressive How To Academy, in London. Talking to The Telegraph’s Head Of Books Gaby Wood about his book The Zone Of Interest, Amis offered that perhaps it is not possible to be neutral towards a Jewish person. “I don’t find many neutral responses to Jewish people; there’s antisemitism and there’s philosemitism.” Amis cites the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Prize-winners as a possible cause of these extreme reactions: “when you look at the number of Jewish winners, there’s no doubt that the Jews are a very talented ethnicity.”
Amis has spent 25 years of his life immersed in Holocaust literature. He describes Primo Levi as “the presiding spirit over the Holocaust and the most perceptive of all writers on the subject”; indeed it is Levi that unlocked Amis’s own writing on it. “I read Martin Gilbert’s book on the Holocaust 25 years ago and then reread it, years later, with the same incredulity. Why did the various players do what they did? I still could not understand. And then I came across an obscure Primo Levi interview where he is asked ‘Do you understand the Nazi hatred?’ And he replied that perhaps one must not understand, because to understand is to excuse. The pressure on the question ‘Why?’ for me suddenly lifted. I felt that I could press on with my opening idea without explaining”.
Still, Amis feels compelled to explain addressing the Holocaust in the first place.
“It’s a slogan of mine that fiction is freedom. We novelists are the equivalent of those teams that investigate plane crashes. We do the serious work – the digging – to ensure that, while there will be more plane crashes, there will be no more for the reason that caused this one.”
Amis believes that Jihadism has a lot in common with Nazism: “Jihadism is a calling together of like-minded psychopaths. So was Nazism. They both have miserably thin ideologies covering up what is really a rallying cry for sadists”.
On a more optimistic note, stating that “violence has declined dramatically across the board”, Amis offers that one of the reasons for this has been the rise of the novel. “The emergence of the state, the invention of the printing press, the rise of women… they are all factors, but so is the rise of the novel. Suddenly people were reading about how to be Clarissa, or Tom Jones… they were learning how to step into another character’s skin and have empathy with them. The novel has helped to promote imaginative sympathy.”
Asked about what he is working on at the moment, Amis explains that he is finally embarking on an autobiographical work. “Not exactly about me but about three writers I know: Philip Larkin, a poet; Saul Bellow, a novelist; and the late Christopher Hitchens, an essayist. It’s proving very difficult for me to write – I think there is only one author who succeeded in auto-biographical fiction, and that’s Saul Bellow – but I decided to try this book again, once Christopher Hitchens died. I don’t think I would have done it otherwise”.
When that’s done, there’s also “a novel about the American justice system creeping up on me”, says Amis.
Luckily for his readers, “the tyranny of making things up everyday” is still rewarding for Amis. “I still love doing it”.