Martin Amis, one of the titans of British prose, is back at the center of controversy. Last Monday, Amis read from his new novel, The Zone of Interest (Knopf), a satire set in a Nazi concentration camp, at Barnes and Noble’s Union Square flagship. This is Amis’ 13th novel. His last book, Lionel Asbo: The State of England, told the story of a British thug who wins the lottery and becomes a suction cup of excess, much like the main character in his New York opus Money, the perfectly named egotist John Self.
Excess, greed, self-delusion and power are quintessential Amis themes that also feature in the new novel. After reading for fifteen minutes, Amis took to an audience Q&A that centered on the book’s rejection by his German and French publishers because of the controversial topic. Or, a classic New York argument about anti-Semitism.
Amis found the charges silly: “All my life I’ve been attracted to Jews. You can’t be neutral. Either you are anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic.” The son of novelist Kingsley Amis, young Martin apparently was taken by Jews at an early age. It is certainly a topic he knew a lot about. For example:
-“Anti-Semitism in America peaked during the war, 1938-1944.”
-These days, “Canada is twice as anti Semitic as America–10 percent versus 20 percent. It’s the whimper of the disappointed.”
-On being banned in Europe: “I was surprised it would be Germany. It seems the Germans had paid their dues. They confront it with passion. I was less surprised in France because the crime hasn’t gone away. It’s still 30 percent anti-Semite there.”
-On researching the Nazis: “Every historian says they don’t understand it. No on would dream about saying this about Stalin or Mao or Bismarck. But no one claims to understand Hitler. He sold the Germans self pity and failure. He was an Austrian tramp who somehow ignited this. That’s why there is no reason to stop reading and writing about it. There is no explanation.”
Amis is now 65. Once the stud of London high-brow rag the New Statesman (he was the ladies’ man of a gang that included the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, Ian McKewan and James Fenton), Amis moved to the US in 2011 and currently resides in Brooklyn.
He supposedly hates the borough’s hipsters for being “conventional poseurs.” I asked Amis if young poseurs were ruining his life. “Brooklyn is fine,” he croaked. “It’s America I have a problem with.”