Strange Gods and the Old Devils

They cast their literary spells over a generation, but have Martin Amis and Ian McEwan merit as moralists?

Critique Literature
Tracts for our times: Ian McEwan (left) and Martin Amis (Amis: Tom Clarke, McEwan: Annalena McAfee)

Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are two of the greatest living masters of English prose. They are, besides, distinguished among their contemporaries by their formidable intelligence. Both have novels out this autumn, respectively entitled The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) and The Children Act (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), which depend for their effects on a combination of verisimilitude and ventriloquism. Each has taken a subject and characters based on real and identifiable events and individuals. However, both novels are also tracts for our time. Neither author is content merely to describe or to narrate; their aim is to make us see moral dilemmas through their eagle eyes. Both works are intended to persuade the reader of views about history and religion, guilt and innocence, good and evil — controversial views in our time and place. They hope that we, the readers, will find their narratives so credible and their characters so compelling that we will accept their newly-minted fictions as coin of the realm of letters. We are to forget that what they are describing actually happened within living memory. They require a suspension not only of disbelief, but of knowledge.

In an essay for the Guardian, McEwan explained that The Children Act arose from conversations, initially over dinner, with judges in the family division, which “is rooted in the same ground as fiction, where all of life’s vital interests lie. With the luxury of withholding judgment, a novel could interpose itself here, reinvent the characters and circumstances, and begin to investigate an encounter between love and belief, between the secular spirit of the law and sincerely held faith.” The novel “interposes itself” into this rarefied world of jurisprudence by recounting a thinly-disguised case presided over by McEwan’s judicial friend Sir Alan Ward, in which a hospital wished to administer a blood transfusion to a teenager suffering from leukaemia against the wishes of his parents, both Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is clear enough from the contrast the author draws between “love and belief”, between “the secular spirit of the law” and “sincerely held faith”, that the novel (or at any rate the novelist) does not in fact withhold judgment. On the contrary: as a sequence of cases are recalled in the course of the novel, the balance of Justitia tips remorselessly against Catholics, Muslims, Jews and, of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In his explanatory essay, plus a page of acknowledgements in the book, McEwan chose not to remind the reader of another case that must surely have influenced his judgment: his own. His first marriage, to a spiritual healer, ended in a courtroom drama over custody of their sons. The case briefly made headlines in 1999 after she went on the run with one of the boys in France and ended when McEwan won sole custody. I mention this case here not to criticise McEwan, for whom the memory must be traumatic, but because any novel is bound to be the product of multiple experiences and influences, acknowledged or otherwise. The novel’s title, The Children Act, pays tribute to the principle enshrined in that statute of 1989, that the “welfare of the child” must always be paramount in court — a principle for which McEwan is profoundly grateful.

Not that the novel is wholly uncritical of the law. McEwan’s fictional judge, Fiona Maye, must contend with her own marital breakdown and intimations of mortality even as she battles to save the life of a youth who proves to be more than she bargained for. To add to these tokens of the heroine’s all-too-human weakness, we are reminded that occasional miscarriages of justice are inevitable under even the best legal system. Yet the fallibility of Fiona, and even that of the rule of law itself, are for the author proof that the law is not only more rational than religion but also more humane. The infallibility of popes, of scriptures, of God is inhumane by comparison. The contrast between “My Lady”, as Fiona is addressed in court, and “Our Lady”, as Catholics refer to the Virgin Mary, is implicit and invidious.

Yet McEwan does not acknowledge that the legal history of the West is largely the story of the humanising influence of Judaeo-Christian morality on Roman law — particularly in its treatment of children. Infanticide was not abolished in the name of the secular spirit but of the Holy Spirit. Where the law has been “secularised” in modern times, the child has not always been the beneficiary, particularly the unborn child. The eight million abortions in this country since the Abortion Act 1967 testify to that, as does the tendency of the law to turn a blind eye to euthanasia and eugenics — despite the reluctance of the majority of the medical profession to legalise either. In the celebrated conjoined twins case of 2000 — which McEwan’s fiction attributes to his judge Fiona Maye, but which was actually decided by his friend Sir Alan Ward — the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, submitted a note to the Court of Appeal opposing the operation that saved one of the twins at the cost of killing the other. He did so not for the reason imputed to him by McEwan, that God gave life and only God could take it away, but because it is a sound legal principle that murder is wrong and “the good end would not justify the means”. A secular Kantian philosopher would also have opposed the court’s judgment, for the same reason: namely, because it made one life into a means to the end of preserving another. The court may well have been right to disregard such objections, but it was a decision that left many uneasy. In the novel, Fiona Maye herself is troubled — more proof of her humanity — but she receives threatening letters after her judgment — “the venomous thoughts of the devout”.

What McEwan has done, in other words, is to pick his cases very carefully to put those who do not share his atheism in the worst possible light. Fiona Maye’s scruples are admirable because she is capable of self-criticism — “she was no less irrational than the archbishop” — whereas the scruples of a prelate are not because his are drawn from the “deposit of faith”. The Bible is cited only as an example of the cruelty and irrationality of “iron age therapies”. Yet it is impossible to reach a final judgment on the question of what it is right to render unto Caesar and unto God — or even what is done in the name of religion or secular ideology. The devout may indeed have venomous thoughts, but so too do the high priests of the profane: witness the advice of Professor Richard Dawkins to the pregnant woman whose unborn baby was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” There is something holier than thou about the “secular spirit” of McEwan’s law. And wasn’t the supreme example of a wise judge who put the welfare of the child first that Biblical hero Solomon?

In the case of Amis, the setting is even better documented. It is one of the most notorious and now most visited places on earth: Auschwitz. The author has, in addition, chosen to depict the commandant of the death camp. One of the three narrators, Paul Doll, is a thinly disguised Rudolf Höss; the main female character is his wife, here renamed Hannah. The problem for Amis is that Höss wrote his memoirs before he was hanged by the Poles — one of only two senior Nazis responsible for the Holocaust to do so — and they were published at the time. (Those of Adolf Eichmann, the other, were only published many years after his execution.) We also know a great deal about Höss and his wife from independent sources. The second narrator, Angelus “Golo” Thomsen, is fictional, but he is meant to be a nephew of Martin Bormann, one of the most powerful and best-documented figures in the Third Reich. There are long passages of dialogue in which “Uncle Martin” is depicted holding forth about Hitler’s court, say, or bullying a Hungarian delegation to hand over “their” Jews for extermination. The only Jewish narrator, Szmul, has no such exalted connections. His pompous designation of Sonderkommandoführer belies his real function for the Nazis, which is to do their dirtiest work for them, thereby earning a temporary stay of execution but also the contempt of his fellow prisoners. Szmul — a man without hope but determined to bear witness — is more credible than the Germans. His literary role is to be the reality check. He dies a martyr (in the original sense of the word — a witness), burying his account of what he has seen: “And, by reason of that, not all of me will die.” But sometimes his voice sounds too like the author’s. Nightmares, he thinks, “are pathetic. They are quite incapable of coming up with anything remotely as terrible as what I do all day — and they’ve stopped trying.” This is Amis rather than, say, Primo Levi.

All of this empirical data makes Amis vulnerable on grounds of authenticity. What is the point of pretending that Höss was called Doll, that his wife Hedwig was called Hannah, that they had two children instead of five? More importantly: why reinvent these historical figures, rather than create fictional ones? Is it plausible that Hedwig Höss could have been a free-thinking woman so disgusted by the Final Solution that her husband would try to force a prisoner to kill her; or that a real nephew of Bormann could be similarly disenchanted enough to engage in sabotage? Why does Amis invent a maid for Hannah, a Jehovah’s Witness with the improbable name Humilia who betrays her mistress to Doll, when in reality the Höss family’s maids were all Polish Catholics, whose testimony has been recently published?

A deeper problem lies in the language of the novel. Amis does not read German, but he has read Viktor Klemperer, the greatest diarist of the era, who devoted his philological skills to recording the language of the Third Reich, or Lingua Tertii Imperii. So he wants his German characters to speak with what he calls “the tics and rhythms of German speech” and to that end inserts German terms and phrases — very few of them specifically Nazi ones. This results on occasion in comical passages reminiscent of old-fashioned war films, but it also exposes the author’s shaky command of the language. At a climactic point, he has Szmul say to Hannah: “Eigentlich wollte er dass ich Ihnen das antun.” (Really he wanted me to do this to you.) The author even repeats the sentence for emphasis — but he misspells “wollte” as “wolte”, ruining the effect for a German speaker. Worse, he omits the umlaut throughout the text, thereby making nonsense of many German words.

Perhaps one should not blame the author for such solecisms, but Sir Richard Evans, the former Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, who is thanked in the Afterword “for tidying up several grave errors in the novel’s garnish of German”. Though Evans certainly does speak German, he has let Amis down, not only as a proof-reader but as an authority on the subject. He ought to have warned Amis off anachronisms such as “kreative Vernichtung” (Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”, an economic concept coined in America in 1942) or “Schreibtischtäter” (“desk murderer”, a Nazi war criminal) which gained currency only long after the war. And Evans should also have saved Amis from more profound anachronisms, such as attributing to a wartime German a theory about Hitler (that he turned his hostility towards the Jews against the Germans in the latter stages of the war), which the émigré Sebastian Haffner only published 30 years later.

Does all this mean that The Zone of Interest has nothing to say about the Holocaust? No: it is actually a gripping novel which, for all its unevenness of tone and taste, stands far above most other fictional treatments of the subject. This of course begs the question of whether fiction written long after the event can hope to encompass a world that even survivors struggled to describe, while avoiding the temptation to exploit the insatiable prurience of posterity at the expense of the victims and their tormenters. Though his grim gallery of grotesques cannot be compared to the first-hand insights of a Primo Levi or a Jean Amery, the author has had a better stab at inhabiting the mind of a fiend than, for example, the Franco-American novelist Jonathan Littell in The Kindly Ones. Amis’s Auschwitz is no excuse for erotic adventures and his master race does not even have the glamour of kitsch. “Imagine how disgusting it would be if anything good came out of that place,” Hannah concludes. The Zone of Interest is an honest attempt to answer the question: “Why?” If it ultimately defeats him, that is because Auschwitz remains incomprehensible.

Amis and McEwan have cast their spells over a generation of readers. We, the apprentices to these sorcerers of sensibility, are growing impatient. But they still have moral sentiments to impart that bear repetition. McEwan makes his judge pay a heavy price for offering a boy “protection against his religion”. Her failure to respond to his plea for help, to provide whatever spiritual succour it was that he wanted from her, was a transgression “beyond the reach of any disciplinary panel”. The implication of his reversion to a religion that is bound to be fatal is that even a harsh and unforgiving religion may seem preferable to an eager youth with a precarious hold on life to a disenchanted, god-forsaken world bereft of meaning. McEwan does not have to spell out what this implies for the devotees of the Islamist cult of martyrdom.

Amis, likewise, has a message that deserves to be heard in a Europe where the victims of the Holocaust tend increasingly to be identified with the perpetrators. His decision to write a second Shoah novel nearly a quarter of a century after Time’s Arrow suggests that he understands why it has never been more important to understand how  the Jewish people were all but annihilated on the Continent. Despite the ziggurat of books on the subject, Amis cannot leave it alone. He dedicates this public and private tribute “to those who survived and to those who did not . . . and to the countless significant Jews and quarter-Jews and half-Jews in my past and present”. The novel is one man’s remonstration against the past — and a warning that the world could turn a blind eye to such murder again. For, as Szmul observes, “it is my feeling that the world has known for quite some time. How could it not, given the scale?”

It is not as though the continuities between the architects of the Final Solution and today’s anti-Zionists were unknown. According to Bettina Stangneth’s new book, Eichmann before Jerusalem (Bodley Head, £25), in his postwar Argentine exile Eichmann revelled in role-reversal, depicting the Germans as victims and blaming the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann for the war, while denouncing the new state of Israel for its “crimes” against the Arabs: “Where, where are the gallows now, for these war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity?” There is rich material here for a sequel to The Zone of Interest, if only as an antidote to those who echo Eichmann today.

They are two of the finest living writers in English, but neither Ian McEwan nor Martin Amis is able to escape from the limitations of their generation. Confronted by religion or ideology, both take refuge in a very Anglo-Saxon empiricism: give us the facts and the decent thing to do will be obvious. But whether their sense of decency is up against a rigid faith inimical to modernity or a radical evil that annihilates millions, the moral foundations of this sensibility are precarious, based on not much more than a vague intuition that taking the right side is always self-evident and self-explanatory. Yet in the language of the Third Reich, “decent”, anständig, was just as common a term of approbation as it is in English today. Indeed, Amis depicts the Nazi notion of decency in the character of Golo’s aunt, Gerda Bormann, with her “the stupid beauty”. A sense of decency did not bring the Germans, even the best of them, to their senses until it was too late. Decency has not rendered hundreds of third-generation British Muslims immune to the allure of Islamic State. Decency is not enough.