Sorry, Martin Amis, for being such a schmuck

In a world of irritating philosemites, Martin Amis was a nice one


370799 02: Author Martin Amis poses for a photographer June 12, 2000 at a book signing at the Beverly Hills Library in Beverly Hills, CA. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Online USA)

May 22, 2023 14:23

Here’s my Martin Amis story: I came to Martin Amis late, and sceptically. As a teenager in Britain in the 90s, I — inevitably — had a casual knowledge of his novels, which were as much a part of the climate as Kylie Minogue and Have I Got News For You. But I associated him with the kind of boys who sneered at me for not being amused by the misogyny of Michel Houellebecq, and it took a while for me to become a fan, mainly via the medium of his non-fiction.

Yet even after I read — and loved — The War Against Cliché and Experience, I wrote about him only once when he was alive. It was a snarky piece, and I felt very clever at the time. I felt a lot less clever when he emailed me afterward to say how much it had amused him. For someone I thought of as such an alpha male writer, he was very kind to this silly young woman.

As it happens, my snarky 2014 piece was partly about an interview Amis had given to the JC in which he went on about his philosemitism, which was almost certainly a reaction against his father Kingsley’s antisemitism.

“I’m a philosemite. I’m attracted to Jews,” he further elaborated in another interview. Rather than taking the compliment (date me, Martin! Date me!), I bristled. Because at that point in my life, I still had some complicated feelings about philosemitism.

When my family moved to London from New York when I was a child, my mother later said she accepted that my sister and I would probably not marry Jews. This will probably make JC readers snort, but Jews in London seemed to us far more segregated than they were in New York; in my school in New York, I was one of about seven Jews in a class of 20. In London, I was the only one. Unless you went to a Jewish school, you weren’t in a minority, you were unique.

For the first time in my life, I became self-conscious about being Jewish and, when I went to a posh and stuffy university, I felt like Elaine from Seinfeld who had accidentally wandered into a Richard Curtis movie. And everyone knew that Hugh Grant would never get together with Elaine. My Jewishness, I assumed, was so unusual it would be a turn-off.

But I had overlooked a key detail: whereas being Jewish in New York was prosaic, in certain parts of Britain, it was exotic. And so I encountered British philosemites: boys who gleefully quoted Alvy Singer and Nathan Zuckerman, who relished referring to Tony Curtis as Bernie Schwartz, who ostentatiously carried around copies of Exodus and The Chosen. At first, it was great. I could seduce these boys with tales of my bat mitzvah and my Jewish summer camp — that was a lot easier than trying to figure out how to put on eyeliner without blinding myself.

But then, it became… too easy. Did they actually like me or was I just another Rivkah, or Shoshannah, or Chaia to them? My instinctive insecurity and ingrained self-destruction kicked in, and I decided, as usual, to make life difficult for myself and to go after boys who were a lot less charmed by my knowledge of Hebrew, and were a lot less nice to me.

And that’s why I snarked at Martin Amis, and guess what? He was then super nice to me about it, and I don’t think it was just because I had a bat mitzvah. So thanks, Martin Amis. And sorry for being such a schmuck.

May 22, 2023 14:23

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