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When Martin Amis took on the Holocaust

The late English novelist fought his way through 'a forest of taboos' to create his provocative novella, Time's Arrow
Amis in 2014. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Over the weekend, I was sad to hear about the death of British writer Martin Amis. Known for titles such as ‘London Fields’ and ‘Money’, it was reading ‘Time’s Arrow’ as a teenager that had the biggest impact on me. Fourteen years after I first opened its pages, I still find myself thinking about it from time to time.

In 1991, he first published his controversial novella with its subtitle ‘The Nature of the Offence’. Since then, it has never failed to strike up a hullabaloo among readers across the world. Amis, very aware of this, used to describe himself as “the Prince Charles of literature – I’m not very well-liked.” Some readers find the conflict between the serious subject matter and Amis’s comic, colloquial style too much at odds to ever be able to consider ‘Time’s Arrow’ a true work of art.

Amis’s main technique – and some would say gimmick – is to tell the story backwards. ‘Time’s Arrow’ is not the first novel to be written with a reverse chronology, but no other novel has been so conscientious about the detail of a reversed life. The novel begins with Nazi doctor Tod Friendly’s death and his ‘inner conscience’ or ‘soul’ then travels backwards through his life to the moment of his birth, telling his story. The narrator is able to experience everything that Tod does, but does not share his thoughts. All of the familiar everyday activities happen in reverse, for example when Tod eats, “food gets gulped up from my stomach… and after skillful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them onto the plate.”

The colloquial register of the narrative and the humor of events happening in reverse give the early sections of the novel a jokey feel, but at the same time encourage the reader to question whether life is any more meaningful lived forwards. The reverse chronology mocks what the reader understands of life. When Friendly is in New York, he says of taxis: “They’re always there when you need them…they always know where you’re going. No wonder we stand there, for hours on end, waving goodbye, or saluting – saluting this fine service.” So has Amis created a novella in which the ‘gimmick’ of chronology is more important than the subject matter?

The use of a reverse chronology allows the Holocaust to be portrayed as an opposite to the truth – what Amis refers to as “the healing-killing paradox”. It is only when the protagonist reaches Auschwitz that the ‘backwards’ world finally starts to make sense. A whole new race is created, healed, and reunited with their loved ones. The narrator revels in acts of creation, which we know to be the most hideous acts of destruction and genocide. “Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with shit, with fire.”

The reader, who knows the grim reality, is left to shoulder the burden of the horrors of Auschwitz. Therefore Amis’s technique of a reverse chronology can be seen as a way of showing how the Holocaust is not merely an evil act but a complete reversal of humanity and logic. As a reviewer once commented: “What is most striking about the novel is that it shows a mirror-image not only of time but of humanity.”

‘Time’s Arrow’ caused a critical storm when first published which has barely died down more than thirty years later. Many readers have been offended by Amis’s ‘gimmicky’ treatment of the Holocaust and questioned whether it is appropriate for him to write about the subject at all, let alone to apparently glamorize genocide through a supposed piece of art. Some have even accused him of anti-Semitism and banned the novel from being taught in schools. Amis has said that he felt “obliged” to write the novel, but also that he had to earn the right to deal with such controversial subject matter. As an Aryan himself (his mother told him as a child that “Hitler would’ve loved” his blond hair and blue eyes), Amis has said that he felt he had more in common with the perpetrators than the victims of the Holocaust, feeling a sense of “species shame” for their actions.

In an interview before his death, Amis explained that the work is satirical, using “militant irony” to create a polemic that disturbs the reader and encourages them to view the Holocaust in a new light. Amis has said on many occasions that he believes there should be “no ‘No Entry’ signs” in literature and therefore that no subject is off limits to an author, but not everyone agrees. German philosopher Theodor Adorno stated that to create literature after Auschwitz is “barbaric.” Many find the comedy inherent in the backwards narrative at odds with the subject matter of the Holocaust, but Amis has said that just because there is a certain “nervous hilarity” in the text, this does not stop it from being a serious response to the topic. As the narrator himself comments: “Our hilarity contained terror, of course it did, terror of our own fragility.”

Amis’s combination of terror and hilarity in the novel has been received differently by different readers. ‘Time’s Arrow’ was shortlisted for the Booker Prize shortly after its publication demonstrating that it was already recognized as having significance in its own right. In a review written in September 1991, literary critic Frank Kermode wrote: “If one asks whether such an effort of fantasy and contrivance is worth the very considerable trouble involved, for reader as well as author, the answer in the case of ‘Time’s Arrow’, is emphatically yes. For the author it was an extraordinary feat – for readers, it is a genuine test – of imagination.” But other critics were less enthusiastic about Amis’s combination of comic style and what Amis himself has called “the most difficult and sensitive subject ever.” James Buchan, writing in The Spectator, said that he found it “creepy” to see the Holocaust “rearranged for literary fun and profit.” On revisiting the novel in 2010, even Amis himself admitted that his novel is “hairy” in parts and possibly inappropriate to introduce young people to the subject of the Holocaust.

But Amis obviously did think it worth fighting his way through “a forest of taboos” to create this work and it could be argued that the result – a controversial novel that sparks debate from just about everyone – deserves merit for the very fact that it provokes thought and a reassessment of the horrors of the Holocaust. The value of a literary text can ultimately only be judged by the individual. Whether or not you agree that this subject is, to use John Updike’s words, “too hot, too huge to handle,” ‘Time’s Arrow’ is a fascinating literary feat and provides a new and challenging perspective on what Amis has called “the central event of the twentieth century.”

RIP Martin Amis. Thank you for the words.

About the Author
James Spiro is a journalist and editor at CTech by Calcalist, where he reports on Israel's tech sector and moderates conferences across Europe, North America, and Asia. He has a background in journalism and public relations and can often be found Tweeting his thoughts: @JamesSpiro
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