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Posts tagged ‘Amis’

Spoken Word: Martin Amis at the Edinburgh Festival, 24th August 2014

Martin Amis has just completed his second novel on the Holocaust – the first being Time’s Arrow, published in 1991, which he describes as “highly stylized and abstract”. His latest offering, The Zone of Interest, which he appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival to promote, is neither of these. He was very honest about this subject occupying much of his time between both works, describing himself as “obsessed”, and his references suggest he has read every work of authority on the Holocaust, twice. He described his reasons for writing as a “throb to write a certain sort of novel”, which covers the compulsion without making it sound like a perverse addiction, for once.

The first thing to be underlined is that he was a compelling public speaker: articulate, urbane and very funny. He has the skill whereby he can take a useless question and weave it into something worthwhile for everyone in the room without causing offence. The second thing is that he spoke about the Holocaust in a way I had not encountered before; with a balance between lucid scholarship and biting irony that pronged one’s attention. One of his first remarks about Auschwitz (the setting for his novel, in fact it is the ambiguous backdrop for a love affair between an SS officer and his boss’ wife) was that “It was meant to be an earner.” The camp was unique in terms of its financial structure, as each prisoner was meant to have paid their own way through labour. Amis summoned the image of an immensely satisfied accountant marking balanced figures in the right column, before cutting through it deftly with the reminder that each figure only had a life expectancy of four months, at the most. He described the pervasion of fear in that setting: “With the pressure of death so close and vast in that place, the Kommendant only has to direct it at you.”

There are of course rules in writing this sort of book, more so than usual, arguably. One of his is that using Hitler’s name directly is crass: the Führer will do. I have no argument with this. Another of his rules is that he cannot not have a sex scene: despite having been nominated for the Bad Sex Award on several occasions (notably for Lionel Asbo, which reads like a bad dream), and commenting that men do not write sex as well as women, he clearly has not given up trying to improve. This is commendable on one level, and on another just slightly draining. He predictably makes the SS Commander’s wife sound like a wide barge/ cow hybrid, all soaring rump and beefy triceps.

He ventured into more interesting territory when he drew the contrast between the collective shame of the German nation, which will endure for as long as Jewish history is revisited, and the fanaticism springing within the last few years. He described the ageless Jewish attitude to conflict as being to wait out virulent aggression and then to negotiate, in order to try to seek terms. He feels this is unchanged. With regards to polar camps of belief, or even a zeugmatic way of life, he cited Ulysses for containing the clever use of cliché about the two inherited propositions in Ireland: Roman Catholicism, and anti-Semitism.

The analogy for ideology’s relationship with religion used to be methadone to heroine, however the last thirty plus years have proved that analogy to be flawed, as the former turned out to be fiercer than initially believed. When asked to compare the Second World War to ISIS his response was “nothing is so weird and awful that it can’t happen now.”

On that light note, the hour came to a close. Whatever the above may imply, his approach of fascinated analysis was not glutted with horrors, nor despairing complacency, but that of a man panning for patterns, and continually hunting for an answer to the ultimate baffling absurdity.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part I

mammonMONEY [book], Martin Amis [writer]

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET [film], Martin Scorsese [director]

[Pedant warning: references to Jordan Belfort in this article are to the fictionalised character in The Wolf of Wall Street, not to the real person.]

I finished Money, Martin Amis’ novel of eighties debauchery, a few days after watching Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which has been so popular since its release last month that apparently it’s now impossible to actually go and see it.  It turns out that my timing was quite the artistic alignment of the planets; Scorsese’s film is in many respects a skewed adaptation of Amis’ novel, from the transatlantic flights to near-death experiences, by way of rampant misogyny and orgiastic self-indulgence.

Perhaps it’s easiest to get the differences out of the way first.  The protagonist in Money is an ambitious English ad-exec called John Self; DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street is an ambitious New York trader called Jordan Belfort.  They both consume rapaciously, but the former has a debilitating weakness for junk food and suffers from numerous associated symptoms – Rug & Gut & Gum issues – whereas the steady diet of cocaine and Quaaludes has no appreciable effect on Belfort’s outward appearance beyond mild facial sweats.

On the other hand, they are both addicted to money; of all the drugs on offer this is their favourite:

SELF: Maybe money is the great conspiracy, the great fiction. The addiction too: we’re all addicted and we can’t break the habit now […] You can’t get the money monkey off your back.

BELFORT: Enough of this shit’ll make you invincible, able to conquer the world and eviscerate your enemies. Money is the oxygen of capitalism and I wanna breathe more than any other human being alive.

In a way, this is because money is the great facilitator: without money there can be no addictions to  the more conventional drugs of cocaine, booze and sex.  But it is also because both characters see money as the ultimate goal, the end that justifies all means, and think therefore that making money will save them from having to give any thought to the complexities of life.  To this extent, Belfort’s great moment of discomfort doesn’t come with his final arrest or prison sentence (spoiler alert: we seem him playing tennis in prison at the end) but when he is confronted by his straight-laced pursuer Agent Denham of the FBI on his boat.  Denham gently makes it known that he sees Belfort as a petty criminal – “Good for you little man” – and it is this informal indictment of character that Belfort is unable to cope with: “Alright, get the fuck off my boat. Good luck on that subway ride home to your miserable, ugly wives.”  In other words, he snaps at the mere implication that there might be something to life other than money, and that he might somehow be missing out.

Similarly, John Self is troubled by the thought that there might be something else out there that he is only vaguely aware of.  This ‘something else’ manifests itself most obviously in the form of literature, and specifically the appearance of a fictionalised Martin Amis within the novel itself.  Self initially despises Amis for what he sees as aloofness and snobbery, but they eventually get to know one another, only for Self to turn his back on Amis once again when the latter’s character evaluation cuts too close to the bone.  Perhaps this is the symbolism in the final chess game between the two of them; Self thinks he’s won but stutters to a crushing defeat.  Our final impression of the protagonist is therefore as an unlikely ingénu, outwitted on all fronts by the complexities of life.

One of the things I liked most about both book and film, however, is that neither of them is a morality tale in the conventional sense (in fact, The Wolf has been roundly, and I think unfairly, criticised for glamourising city excess and psychopathic behaviour).  Both protagonists suffer comeuppance of a sort for their lives of lecherous abandonment, but that’s not really the point.  For my money the point is twofold.  Firstly, that living a life of lecherous abandonment is extremely good fun, and the depiction of the high life in both works is nothing short of hilarious, not to mention envy-inspiring on many levels.  Secondly, that the high life is actually quite a narrow life, offering little beyond hedonistic gratification.  However, this does not amount to an “I told you so” criticism because there is only an oblique suggestion that there is actually anything else out there.  The latter point is for the viewer/reader to decide, as it is in real life, and it is not an easy call to make, partly I would suggest because money is very tangible and ‘other stuff’ (art, love, justice, friendship, morality, intellectual fulfilment) tends to be less so.  Which is why in one of the final scenes of The Wolf we see a weary Agent Denham riding the subway home looking distinctly ambiguous about how things  have turned out (very much like the young couple on the bus at the end of The Graduate), and perhaps wondering whether he should have taken that bribe.

As the ever-sage Keith Richards says: “I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.”

The Editors