Life & Culture

The very Jewish legacy of the non-Jewish Martin Amis

Unlike his father, the novelist had an abiding interest in the Holocaust and the great modern Jewish-American writers


Since Martin Amis’s death this week, many have paid tribute to the quality of his writing, his impact on British fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, his extraordinary comic style and his range from pornography and trash culture to the great evils of the 20th century, what he called, “the modern infamies, the 20th-century sins,” in particular the Holocaust and Stalinism.

As his friend Ian McEwan said, for Amis the Holocaust was “the rock-bottom pit of human nature”, “the bass-line is the Holocaust.”

Martin Amis was one of the best British writers to address the Holocaust: in his story Bujak and the Strong Force in Einstein’s Monsters (1987), in his novel about an SS doctor, Time’s Arrow (1991), his only novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in his later Holocaust novel, The Zone of Interest (2014).

When we are introduced to Bujak we are told, “his life went deep into the century… [H]e fought in Warsaw in 1939. He lost his father and two brothers at Katyn.”

There was another very different reason why Jewishness mattered so much to Amis. He was hugely influenced by Saul Bellow and by Jewish-American writing. His father Kingsley was not very interested in either Jewish or American writers.

There’s a famous scene in his novel, Stanley and the Women, where someone tears up a novel: “There was a tearing sound and I saw that Steve was in fact tearing the cover off a book. I shouted out to him.

"Having got rid of the cover he tried to tear the pages across but they were too tough and he put the remains of the book down on a cushion on the back of a chair. By the time I went over there he had gone. The book was Herzog, by Saul Bellow.”

Martin often wrote about Bellow. The title of one of his books of essays, The Moronic Inferno (1986), is taken from a line by Bellow, he took part in two TV programmes with him and wrote an introduction to Bellow’s greatest novel, The Adventures of Augie March. Amis famously saw Bellow as the Jewish father-figure he never had.

This is a question he turns to in his last book, Inside Story (2020). “On the day my father died (in 1995),” he writes, “I rang Saul in Boston and told him the news. And we talked. And he told me what I badly needed to hear… He was never my ‘literary father’ (I already had one)… But I did say to him, a year or two later, ‘As long as you’re alive I’ll never feel completely fatherless.’”

Later he returns to this conversation: “On the night the clocks went back in 1995 I called Saul Bellow in Boston and after brief preliminaries I said, ‘My father died at noon today… So I’m afraid you’ll have to take over now.’”

In his abiding interest in the Holocaust and the great modern Jewish-American writers, Martin Amis influenced a whole generation of British readers. It is one of his most important legacies.

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