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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Amis’

The zone of interest

This is a hell of a book …

Zone of interestWhy the need so often to be defensive about Martin Amis‘s oeuvre?  I don’t get it, the negativity.  (Well, I do, but, you know, get over it.)  Because when he is good, which has been a lot more of the time than he’s been given credit for, none of his British contemporaries gets close (IMNSHO).  An ex-librarian’s conscience – other people have reserved this book – made me zip through The zone of interest (Cape, 2014) at greater speed than writing of this quality, depth and invention deserves; not that it doesn’t function well enough as page turner, anyway.

He puts himself through it, does our Mart.  So having ‘done’ Stalin and the Gulags with the brilliant biographical study Korba the Dread (2002) and the novel The house of meetings (2006), he here turns his hand to the Holocaust with a novel that is far from the conventional survivor’s tale.  In his Acknowledgments & Afterward: That which happened at the end of the book – which includes a concise survey of the available literature on the extraordinary endeavour and inexplicable why of Adolf Hitler (who is never actually named in the novel’s text) and ‘the third Germany‘ – he says he wrote it “to discharge some obligation on the level of the meso and the micro”, the administration and management of the passengers alighting at the Auschwitz terminus of that railway line.

The zone of interest is played out sequentially, with events overlapping, in what read as if the journals of three people:

  • Angelus Thomsen, philandering nephew of Martin Bormann, involved in some way with the Buhn, a factory  development for the production of materials and fuels to make Germany self-sufficient staffed by the slave labour of the fittest off the train, who sees through the National Socialist hysteria;
  • Paul Doll, Kommandant of Kat-Zet (Auschwitz, again not named in the text) who doesn’t, husband of Hannah, who scorns it, and who Thomsen falls in love with.  (With a typical Amis flourish Doll consistently uses figures where you would normally expect numbers to be spelt out, so where he means ‘speaking personally’ becomes “I for 1“.)
  • And the third voice, Szmul, a Jew who, to keep himself alive, plays an important role in the ground level welcoming workforce.

There is no wallowing in the horror; economically, matter of factly, the day by day picture emerges.  The narrative driver churning away in the background is what turns into a love story. The crucial time period is that of the slow realisation of the failure of the disastrous Russian campaign.  We also get glimpses of the failed Communist uprising in Germany in the wake of the First World War, the rise of the Nazi project and the madness of, among other things, the Theory of the Cosmic Ice entertained at the highest level of the regime.

The zone of interest is a powerful tour de force – emotionally, stylistically and structurally.  There is a revealing distance that rises above the known, refreshes the picture, one might say – as said earlier, Hitler is never referred to by name, for example.  Amis’s joy in words is still in evidence, though, not least in the weaving in and out of German vocabulary; words, phrases or job titles (at least one of which stretches well over one line in length) appear in the text, sometimes translated sooner or later, sometimes the meaning just suggested by context (as in particularly the description of body parts in regard to of sexual desire).  We have the neologism of  “in the concentrationary universe, where the pressure of death was everywhere”), astute word selection like “the assiduity of German hatred”, the dazzling juxtaposition of “Something happened at first sight. Lightning, thunder, cloudburst, sunshine, rainbow – the meteorology of first sight” (when Thomsen first sees Hannah), and the adverb that adds when a ruptured drainpipe is “drunkenly and loutishly spewing water“.

In this meso and micro concentrationary universe you get shocking, small nuances that chill and scream out the madness of the National Socialist project.   So a middle manager suggesting, with the stats to hand, that productivity might improve in the Buhn if they treated the slave labour better, gave them just few calories more to eat, worked them a little less harder. so making them last longer, and so reducing the training needed, ends up being cited as treasonous.  And Doll complains:

In the washroom of the Officers’ Club what do I find but a copy of Der Sturmer. Now this publication has for some time been banned in the KL, and on my orders. With its disgusting and hysterical emphasis on the carnal predations of the Jewish male, Der Sturmer, I believe, has done serious anti-Semitism a great deal of harm. The people need to see charts, diagrams, statistics, the scientific evidence – and not a full-page cartoon of Shylock (as it might be) slavering over Rapunzel.

Serious anti-Semitism?

The post-war denouement, a subverted narrative, heralds a disappointment of rare eloquence.

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House of meetingsMy title (or at least its first four words) is borrowed from Martin Amis‘s novel,  House of meetings (Cape, 2006).  He has a nice way of putting words together, does Mart.  It’s a book I’ve struggled and failed with before, but I persisted this time and don’t regret it (though, even so, I doubt his Yellow dog will get another chance unless I’m desperate).  He makes you work hard initially to get the context and what’s going on in House of meetings; little is spelt out to help navigate your way through the rich and sometimes too nuanced multi-layered text – there’s an awful lot going on in 196 pages.

Another narrator and player with no name takes us through it.  At the age of 86 in 2004, as returning Russian émigré tourism opens up, a bad tempered and high tipping “gulag bore” he’s on “the gulag tour“, returning to the scene of his imprisonment as a post-war ‘political’ in a brutal Soviet slave labour camp in Siberia.  In the zona, as they say, one of the locations where a love triangle involving him, a woman called Zoya and his half-brother Zev is played out; nothing is said regarding this one letter difference, so we are left to ponder on this count (or just let our imagination do its stuff regardless).  It’s not a pleasant tale and it ends badly for two of them (that’s not giving much away, there are hints from the start).  There’s a mcguffin of a letter from Zev written in 1982 that has remained unopened up until this time.  The meeting house of the title is where formally applied for conjugal visits from visiting-from-afar wives can take place after Khrushchev’s political thaw; it’s not a happy place.

So there’s the broader picture, of life back then in the camps under Stalin and later – our man is there from 1946, sometime poet Zev a couple of years later – is of unrelenting misery, absurdity and dehumanization.  Its social hierarchies are depressingly detailed and the two brothers’ differing attitudes to their situation – Zev maintains his pacifism – is interesting.  And then there’s the broader context of Russian history, before and beyond the communist experiment as well.   And further, the mysteries of young people in America that the narrator struggles to understand.

Because the book has been written for the sake of Venus, the narrator’s ex-anorexic step-daughter in the US, where he’s made a successful life for himself after having become “a tolerably big cheese in Russia” with the closing of the camps.  It is in this struggle to make sense of what he has encountered in America that the few glimmers of humour – though still seriously with the idea of ‘closure’ – are to be found:

Your peers, your equals, your secret sharers, in the West: the one Russian writer that still speaks to them is Dostoevsky, that old gasbag, jailbird, and genius. You lot all love him because his characters are fucked up on purpose.

For this is a deadly serious book, written on the tails of Amis‘s brilliant book about Stalin – Korba the Dread – and Experience, his memoir of his father Kingsley, a self-confessed (and hard to credit now) “Comintern dogsbody” until 1956.  The narrator’s conclusion?  “Russia is dying. And I am glad.

Which is a conclusion I would not be surprised to hear echoed from writer Andrei Makine, whose latest book is waiting for me at the local library, a prospect I’m practically salivating over even as I type.  As well as being one of the great writers of this or any age, Makine is a bit of a phenomenon, a real Russian émigré who writes in French but had to pretend his first novels were translations from the Russian before French publishers would take him seriously.  The hero of his last book – The life of an unknown man – was an émigré returning to Putin’s ‘new’ Russia and, no communist apologist he, nevertheless despairing at what has been lost, what has been taken from the people.  His subject matter may not have strayed far from the matter of post-war Russia, what Amis’s narrator describes as “the death of the Russian experiment,” but he can still conjure up people who can shine, who sing.  You should try him; they’re not big books except in spirit.  I introduced his A life’s music to my book group –  they’d never heard of him – and they were blown away.

Back with Amis‘s narrator again.  His diagnosis:

You know what I think? I think there must have been a developmental requirement that Russia simply failed to meet … Russia learned how to crawl, and she learned how to run. But she never learned how to walk.

Which given their dubious democracy, Putin, the stance on Syria, the continuing attitudes towards homosexuality, and the heavy-handed persecution of feminist punk band Pussy Riot, makes perfect sense.

Glastonbury (with a slight return to Russia)

There was a moment midway through Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ powerful set on Sunday at Glastonbury that had me unashamedly lachrymose at the computer on Monday morning (thank you, BBC).  From what I’ve watched this was the standout performance of the weekend and yet I don’t think I’ve seen or heard any mention of it on the telly or in the broadsheet reviews.  Never mind Mumford & Sons expressing worry about following the Stones from the previous night, I would have thought following straight after Nick Cave – a committed artist at the height of his powers – on Sunday would have scared them considerably more.  After the carnage of Stagger Lee Nick sat down at the piano and did a solo People just aint no good, a plaintive and beautiful song I wasn’t familiar with, and had enough of the crowd singing along, eyes closed, lost in the sadness of the tale, for them to be heard as a choir.  It was a lovely timeless moment; I’ve still got the tune running in my head.  You can sing along like that to Andrei Makine‘s books about his homeland, a poignancy light years from – impressive though it is –  Martin Amis‘s tuneless House of meetings.

Which is a link so decidedly corny that I feel duty bound to leave it in, given that The Rolling Stones pulling Two thousand light year’s from home from their decidedly patchy psychedelic album Their Satanic Majesties Request was for me by far the most interesting song in their set – more than going through the motions.  The overextended and dated guitar noodling of Mick Taylor left me cold on what used to be the frightening Midnight rambler (though it was a nice touch to see him), while singalonga-Sympathy for the devil made me shudder for all the wrong reasons.  Suzanne Moore had it right in the Guardian: “heritage rock“.  These songs used to have edge.  Nick Cave‘s still do and he knows how to move with dignity (though I guess you have to admire Jagger’s prancing stamina).  “Some people say it’s just rock and roll,” goes a line from Cave’s new song, Keep on pushing the sky away.

Intuition pumpsWithout quite leaving Glastonbury, I’ve started on Daniel C. Dennett‘s Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking (Allen Lane, 2013).  Well over 400 pages and heavy, man, I may well flag and not manage to see it through to the end, though a few more footnotes citing Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory might keep me going for a while yet.  Dennett is fiercely intelligent and writes with deeply serious intent, but ever with a twinkle in his eye.   In his introduction he claims Aesop’s Fables as pumps and this passage about The fox and the grapes in that collection strikes me as fitting in the light of the critical response to Mumford & Sons well-considered closing Glastonbury set on Sunday:

Look how much you can say about what somebody has just said by asking, simply, “Sour grapes?”  It gets her to consider a possibility that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, and this might very effectively inspire her to revise her thinking, or reflect on the issue from a wider perspective – or it might very effectively insult her.

(It’s worth noting Dennett alternates the gender pronouns as a matter of policy.)  Given all the shit they have to take (Guardian – two stars) I can’t see what the Mumford‘s have done to attract such sneering critical opprobrium.  They may not be all that original, the words may not hold up to close scrutiny (hey – rock and roll), but there is an emotional swell and drama to their music that I find hard to resist.  That they are obviously popular – as far as CD sales go, apparently, they are the major winners from Glastonbury – derives at least in part from their building a following up from small venues and scenes just like in the old days rather than just floating on hype.  Marcus has a distinctive voice and they read proper books.  It is not their fault they had a favoured education, they appear to be wearing their success well and as far as the authenticity to play the music they like goes … the Stones were once a (very good) blues tribute band.  For what it’s worth I also enjoyed the Arctic Monkeys set – I doubt Alex Turner will ever need an extended walkway stage – while visually the white suited guitar playing smile-resplendent Niles Rogers and those two vocalists moving together were a delight to behold.

Musically cryptic: Their satanic crossword clues

And seeing as we’re lost in music … just a few clues that hit the note from the Guardian’s compilers.  Answers after the photo:

  • from Rufus: Determined to produce two notes on old instrument (8)
  • from Paul: Stone deep in earth kids played with (5,8)
  • from Gordius: Frank offence at Royal Academy (7)
  • from Philistine: Cockney tried to let one in at a leisurely pace (6)
  • from Everyman: Singer songwriter is merry, and so sad (9)
  • from Paul: Rock guitarist’s assistant always into R&B (6)
  • and from Orlando: Art of jazz – change backing endlessly (5)
Poppy fightback

The poppies fight back: the Northampton side of the Great Ouse near Stony Stratford

Crossword answers

  • from Rufus: Determined to produce two notes on old instrument (8) Re-solute
  • Paul: Stone deep in earth kids played with (5,8) Keith Richards
  • Gordius: Frank offence at Royal Academy (7) Sin-at-ra
  • Philistine: Cockney tried to let one in at a leisurely pace (6) Adagio (‘ad a go+i)
  • Everyman: Singer songwriter is merry, and so sad (9) Morrissey (sad as anagram indicator)
  • Paul: Rock guitarist’s assistant always into R&B (6) R-ever-b
  • Orlando: Art of jazz – change backing endlessly (5) Tatum (Mutate reversed, losing the e for jazz pianist Art Tatum).

And with a drum roll and a cymbal crash Lillabullero is outtahere.

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‘Come on, Des. Suggest something.’
‘Well. There’s reading.’
‘Tried it. You know – bit of history. D-Day. Omaha Beach. Seems all right. Then after a page or two … After a page or two I keep thinking the book’s taking the piss. Oy. You taking the piss?’

Pretty much what a lot of people said when they heard about Martin Amis‘s new novel Lionel Asbo: State of England (Cape 2012) and its eponymous lead character, who is speaking here after he’s tried pretty much everything else to appease his boredom after partaking of his instinctive indulgences following an astronomical lottery win.

As it happened, the next book on the top of my teetering pile of potential reading matter was the sumptuously illustrated Grayson Perry  (Thames & Hudson, 2009).  I could (and library cataloguers would) say, written by Jackie Klein (and she does a good contextualising job with her chapter intros) but there’s probably more words from Grayson himself, talking with charming candour about his pots and things overall, which is no bad thing.  And, “Oy. You taking the piss?” was certainly the response in some quarters Perry’s fascinating pots.  But the point I’m trying to make here is it’s not hard to imagine Lionel Asbo‘s dust jacket illustrations being found on a Grayson Perry ceramic, for there is an overlapping of subject matter, shared social and cultural concerns.  Mind, I think there’s more chance of Martin appearing on a Perry pot than Grayson in an Amis fils novel, because you couldn’t invent a better Grayson Perry.  Which brings us neatly to the next paragraph.

Of course the character Lionel Asbo is over the top.  He’s an East London grotesque – when he’s two year’s old his older siblings are scared of him – but then the real hero of the piece is his nephew Des, his guardianee, who, against all the odds, and with the help of a beautifully ironic running mechanical joke actually manages to break out of the cycle of deprivation and thuggery and raise a family in a modest and decent way.  I won’t dwell on the plot save to say the love story engages, there is real suspense and  some neat twists.  There’s a lot of ground covered, while Lionel’s tale is a great vehicle for Amis’s scorn.

State of England though?  Does the fact that Des’s mum, Cilla, was one of a family of boys named after the Beatles, including Lennon’s mate Stu (the ‘lost Beatle’), say anything about the ’60s blame for where we are now?   While Des’s grandma, Lionel’s ma, she who named them, is also a dab hand at the Telegraph crossword?  (Perhaps Lionel should have been called Pete, for Pete Best, rather than, as stated, for Lionel Blair, but then that wouldn’t have got the laugh).  States of England , maybe, like a Perry ceramic, the book a shelf-ful of them.  Lionel’s status gives Des a breathing space from peer pressure at school while “On the face of it, Des was a prime candidate for persecution. He seldom bunked off, he never slept in class, he didn’t assault the teachers or shoot up in the toilets …”  Nevertheless, Des can only wonder about Lionel, “What was the matter with him? Why did he work at being stupid?”  Not entirely without a certain wisdom, though, as in his dismissal of the idea of a court pleas of diminished responsibility: “Oy! Mental! Would you have done that old lady if a copper’d been watching?

More pointedly the state of tabloid England is nicely rubbished – admittedly an easy target – but it’s done with panache.  Lionel’s world is that of the Daily Lark, beside which the Sun is dangerously intellectual.  The rich and newsworthy Lionel becomes a publicity husband for a Jordan wannabe who calls herself ‘Threnody’ because of the way it sounds (the inverted commas,, she insists, are crucial), while her fictional rival, the Jordan character, trades under the name of – genius, this, I submit – Danube.

And it is in just that sort of attention to detail, the verbal and visual dexterity – the sort of detail you can also see in Grayson Perry’s pots – where Amis stands out against his contemporaries. In the naming and capturing he is a master.  The London Borough of Diston! – how many echoes are in there?  (Well, actually, two but they echo).  And while branding the monster SUV Lionel drives a Venganza (revenge in Spanish) doesn’t quite match the Fiasco, the ever-ailing sports car in his best novel,  Money, surely UVIUrban Vulpine Influenza, popularly known as Fox Flu – more than matches the ecological disaster of the Dead Clouds in The information.  Elsewhere Lionel’s pitbulls have canine Tourette’s (they bark Fuck off), while a traffic light on red is “an unlanced boil” to a taxi driver.  It’s full of ’em.

As are, as I’ve suggested, Grayson Perry‘s artefacts.  ‘Who let the dogs in‘ is a motif running through Lionel Asbo; it could be the title of one of Grayson’s often provocative pots.  And titles are important for him: Sex and drugs and earthenware; This pot will reduce crime by 29%; A pattern of bruises and cigarette burns; Jane Austen in E17; Welcome to those who hate contemporary art; Rumpleforeskin – you get the picture?  Not forgetting, following on from the last one, I saw this vase and thought it beautiful, then I looked at it, which gives fair warning that some of his work is not for the squeamish.  Which he revels in, and explains with great charm in the Thames & Hudson book mentioned above.  Well the Greeks had some interesting fruity friezes on their urns, but think John Cooper Clarke when he was living on Beasley Street rather than John Keats.

There are images from his early sketchbooks, which he describes as

a combination of diary, artwork and artefact.  They’re sexual fantasy meets artistic mischief meets political commentary and confessional diary.

Which is a pretty good description of his oeuvre.  Though he doesn’t appear to have a website of his own (hurrah!) there are plenty of examples of his work on the web – here’s one from Chelmsford Museum (for he is an Essex boy).  This vase, The Chelmsford Sissies, delights among many other things in a neat pun – he’s (in case it had escaped your attention) a transvestite, but its also referencing local history by homophone.  His famous print Map of an Englishman he says, “is the mischievous part of me, the punk starting to align forces with the hobbit.”  Not a bad combination.

I think he’s already a national treasure.  And he’s won the Turner Prize.  It’s a fascinating ‘career’ trajectory, from an Essex childhood to art college in Portsmouth, squatting in Camden to material success and artistic recognition.

It took me until fairly recently to get over what I would call ‘imposter syndrome’: the idea that high culture, museums and being successful in the arts wasn’t something for the likes of me.

I commend this book heartily for its candour, its insights into the man himself, the art world and British society in general.  “I’m a conceptual artist masquerading as a craftsman,” he says, and it was precisely because ceramics was “an area of discomfort” for the art world that he embraced it, “his pots intentionally straddling the line between sculpture and vase, art and craft.” His basic mode of operation has been “the line of most resistance“.  Hence the craft world didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms, but as the work progressed so did his appreciation of its values and his skills, never forgetting:

… a symbolic relationship between making and thinking.  Art isn’t just a calculated thought process but a relationship between you and the material.  I enjoy the visceral dialogue very much.

So while his main chosen medium lends itself to the practise, he has resisted the employment of studio assistants and identification with his contemporaries like Damien Hirst and other YBAs in the practise of what he calls making “art by phone“.

Meaning can be a hang-up for artists.  It has become so important that lots of art is no more than a visual crossword clue.

Which brings us back, entirely by chance and completely artificially to Lionel Asbo’s mum, with her Daily Telegraph crossword and her cryptic death-bed confession.  That she dies doesn’t exactly warrant a spoiler alert.

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Seems unfair to me you often have to defend liking Martin Amis (or at least his writing); ‘Money: a suicide note‘ (1984),  is one of the great English novels – eat your heart out Faulks and McEwan – but come the millennium there was a falling off of his fiction.  ‘Yellow dog’ (2003) was pretty much unreadable (and unread here) – what was he thinking? – to the extent that I ‘d ignored  ‘House of meetings’ (2006) and indeed had forgotten all about it, though I might seek that one out now.  Anyway, he’s got his mojo back.  In the new novel ‘The pregnant widow: inside history‘ (Cape, 2010) he’s strutting again.  Sure, he’s a clever sod and not afraid to show it (he has fun) but this tale of young people on the cusp of a turning point in history – women’s liberation – and its consequences, it teases, taunts and tolls some serious bells.  I zipped through it, leaving for later, when I re-read it at my leisure (there’s a waiting list at the library), the, “Hang on, Martin, what exactly do you mean there?” – deep? certainly obscure – moments, of which there are a fair number.  Not quite sure about the twist he holds out for us right from the start either, but there are others that entice and for me this was an exciting read.  As ever there’s great dialogue and some decent running jokes about sex in the early English novel  (Jane Austen especially), and the way characters’ lives move (he says) from genre to genre, from a Russian novel to an American one, and so on; a nice resonance too, with D.H.Lawrence and Frieda staying in the same castle in Italy where the main action takes place, that lazy summer in 1970.  Did I say it’s funny?  And tragic too.

I had a laugh-aloud good time with Simon Armitage‘s stealth autobiography ‘Gig: the life and times of a rock-star fantasist‘ (2008).  He plays the young professional Yorkshireman well and this linked collection of pieces of his growing up (his dad a particularly adept burster of bubbles), his love of rock music (usually the obscurer the better) and glimpses into the often mundane life of a professional poet make for an entertaining mix.  There’s a bit of a hiatus in the middle, where it morphs into too much of an antipodean travelogue, but even there it has its moments and soon recovers.  Must have a look at his pomes, I guess.  For all its championing of the Comsat Angels, it is hard to resist a book that starts:

“I’ve only been involved with books and writing for the second half of my life, but music has been around from day one.  Growing up in the Armitage family there was barely a minute’s silence.  Mum continued to play the piano even after someone had lifted the lid and vomited into it during a birthday party, and on Friday nights I witnessed a peculiar transformation in my dad as he glued mutton chop facial hair to the side of his face and went off to sing in a hotel in Ashton-under-Lyne with his barber shop group the Victorians.”

Saw Lee Mack‘s ‘Going out’ show at the theatre last night.  Somehow a bit of a surprise when he came out in a really smart light coloured three-piece suit and was taller than I’d expected; I briefly flashed on Arsenal’s Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner (‘carthorse’ says Neil, but I still think he’ll come good), which was odd.  The show itself was a bit of a curate’s egg – watching again I’d need a fast forward button – but I’m still glad we went.  Very funny (of course) for a lot of the time, but too fast, frenetic and just plain shouty loud in parts.  The more I think about it, the more good jokes there were in there, but they needed room to breathe, he needed to stand still awhile for real momentum to take hold.  An older more diverse crowd, too, than I’ve usually been a part of for standup – not even the buzz you get before an opera – which can’t have helped.

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