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Saturday, 6 November 2010

“Well We Love You Very Much”

Martin Amis with his friend, Christopher Hitchens








“Upon Learning that the mother wrote verses

And that the father wrote verses

And that the youngest son was in a publisher’s office

And that a friend of the second daughter was undergoing a novel

The young American pilgrim


‘This is a darned clever bunch!’”

Ezra Pound

Martin Amis (U.K.) and Amos Oz  (Israel), born a decade apart, are considered two of the most outstanding writers of their respective nations and generations. I read both their memoirs recently and discovered that while they could not be more different they have much in common. Both books often read like personal tutorials in superb writing. Both men come from literary backgrounds if not outright ‘dynasties’ and both works are informed as much about the death around them as the lives they have led.

Some years ago I attended  a debate on religion and literature organised by the Manchester Centre for New Writing.  Amis had star billing and when he arrived and mounted the podium, he scouted the audience, appeared to notice me and grinned. Taken aback – thinking my loopy hat was to blame! - I did not respond.  Unsurprisingly I suppose, when at the end of the meeting he passed where I was sitting on an outside aisle and  saw me again - he scowled.

But whatever or not happened then, as the rather discursive reflections were aired that evening, I began to understand the agnostic novelist’s fascination for religion  and the massive influence Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow had upon him. But it was only after reading Experience  that I realised just how - perhaps beguiled – he has ever been by Jews –  Jewish women! - Judaism and Israel.

Martin.Amis.Saul.BellowDuring the discussion he repeated a comment an ageing Bellow had made about death. I cannot quote verbatim  but  have found very similar remarks he made during an interview with US broadcaster, Bill Moyers:

“ … And he (Bellow) did believe in a God equivalent of some kind. And he did say that ‘I just can't stop thinking that I will see my brothers and my sister and my parents when I  die.’ And when he wrote in his last novel Ravelstein, he said, ‘We all believe that. We just talk tough.’

“And I (Amis) was talking about this with my mother, who's 75. And I said, ‘I don't believe that, do you?’ And she said, ‘No, I don't believe that.’

"I think in Europe, we have outgrown it. We've waited it out, and it's gone.” (Hilly Kilmarnock died in June this year, aged 81).

I find this strange: I can’t believe that he does not feel the weight of lost and wasted life upon him. So much has gone and the rest fairly oozes from almost every sentence of his often thrilling, sometimes enraging book:

His parents’ infamously faithless marriage; the loss of self-esteem when he was twice physically abused as a boy; the murder of his cousin, Lucy Partington by serial killer, Frederick West; the end of his own first marriage and too many other relationships; the self-destruction of his sister, Sally by alcoholism and yes, the  death in old age  of his  father, Sir Kingsley Amis, whom he adored despite everything.

Believing one will ‘recapture’ the dead is less about emotional immaturity than atavistic pull. As a writer, and the actual and literary offspring of  two more, surely Amis has the memory of  people rattling around in his head 25 hours a day who, after Mary McCarthy, won’t die so long as he recalls them.

Then,  perhaps as  I should have explained at that meeting, there’s the story of my friend who suffered a severe head injury in a riding accident. At his illness’s crisis he dreamed of his late father who said: “David – go back! We’re not ready for you”. At that, he began to recover. Maybe I should have gone back yet further: During the personally dreadful  January of 1996 I stood for an hour one Saturday in a comforting corner of a bookshop in Oldham, Lancashire reading a Bellow story. When I arrived home, I learned that my father had died during the afternoon and my mother had been trying to contact me. She died herself less than three weeks later. In between I had experienced  further loss in the  passing of the beloved daughter of very close friends. Maybe one can survive these crises only in the mostly vague, occasionally fervent expectation that we all meet again.

Whatever Amis’s own views on religion and the afterlife, his personal passions explain in part why he is an heroically often lone public supporter of Israel in the face of opposition even from his close friends, some of them Jewish. We must be glad that this  marvellous intellect and ultra-honed savage wit works on our behalf else  he would make a terrible foe! After all, in too many other ways he has been wilfully amoral. So why the difference here?

I suggest that first, second – and last there has been love!

His first, and dare I guess, still best love was a classic Jewish beauty who inspired his initial, semi-autobiographical novel, The Rachel Papers, who (all differences considered) would have looked a little like my dear late mother in her hey-day.

Then there was Bellow, who once declared on their parting: “Well I love you very much”. I gasped and my eyes watered on reading that. Bellow had been destined for the rabbinate, not for secular writing. The phrase echoed back to me as though I’d been present  at a priestly benediction, an anointment: While Bellow’s own private history was immensely raffish, his blessing bestowed non-Jewish, unwholesome Amis with his mantle for a generation.

Isabel Fonseca.Martin.AmisFinally there is Amis’s present wife, Isabel Fonseca, who is Jewish and their two Jewish daughters. It appears that Fonseca is his last love and my further guess is there are now precious few ‘angry’ stories left in him – which is why the later books are less popular and are becoming harder for him to pull together. Perhaps it is time for him to concentrate on essays and journalism.

However, what infuriated me about Experience were his reflections on Jewish consanguinity. How dare he? What can he know? He appears to write on with customary authority. But of Jewish ‘blood’ he knows nothing and what he says reveals all.

Scenes depicted from the home of his childhood and teenage years read like those from a medieval painting of abandoned carousing and wenching. Every school boy knows that such behaviour was invariably followed by a fire-and-brimstone sermon from the local priest, topped by a joyful round of Jew-baiting and murder.

Further, Sir Kingsley Amis was well-known as a social antisemite and his son cannot resist reproducing a paragraph suffused with antisemitic jibes in a scene from Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser which he read at his father’s hospital bedside.  If I’m being dull-witted here, I’m sorry. But I can’t understand why he did it, let alone republish the passage in his book.

His discussion with Bellow about the death penalty is no better.

Bellow: “’Well. Look at … Eichmann. What are you supposed to do with a son of a bitch like that?’”

Amis: “’Christ, you’re really Old Testament, aren’t you!’

Amis adds in narration: “And he shrugged and gave a sideways nod.”

As I wrote recently about attitudes towards The Merchant of Venice there are too many people without real of knowledge of Jews and Judaism who do not understand that the biblical “eye for an eye” concept is an amalgamation of several different passages which are not about revenge but compensation. The State of Israel went through an enormous struggle in its debate about whether to execute the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. But when he was hanged in 1962, he became the only person ever to have been executed in Israel on conviction by a civilian court. Indeed the Talmud states variously that a Sanhedrin (rabbinical supreme court) which effects an execution once in seven years – or even 70 years – is branded a ‘destructive tribunal’.

But Amis’s own ‘consanguinity’ relates largely to the Sephardi beauty who inspired his first book. She was gorgeous; he had the joy of ‘deflowering’ her; they found no blood but she donated what she could have given to their common cause instead to Israel on the outbreak of the Six Day War. The girl was a medical student.

“Where did she end up?, muses Amis. “Australia? Canada? Israel, whose army her blood had fuelled?… So I will never be entirely reasonable about Israel. I will always think about  her with the blood. Not my blood. The blood of my first love.”

Despite all, in a sense Amis is not fit to be mentioned in the same paragraph as Amos Oz.


So I’ll begin again here and say so far as I’m aware, Oz has been eternally faithful to his wife Nili just as he has been to the memory of his difficult, pompous father, Yehudah Arie Klausner and Fania Musman, his delightful, desperate mother.Amos.Oz.Family

In Jewish terms, Oz’s lineage is far longer and grander than that of the Amis clan. He was born Amos Klausner in  Jerusalem during 1939 and his great-uncle Joseph Gedaliah Klausner who was the chief editor of The Hebrew Encyclopaedia, knew Theodore Herzl personally.

A Tale of Love and Darkness gives an enthrallingly vivid first-hand account of the end of British Mandate Palestine and the birth of the State of Israel.  This brush with ‘greatness’ is echoed during Oz’s years as a nascent writer when - astoundingly - he was invited to meet Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

But Oz’s almost psalmic book is burdened with Fania’s lingering death.

It is there on almost every page and it would appear that she was ‘dying’, well before Oz was born, from  the “tawdriness” of domestic life; that eventually Yehuda remarried and had more children, speaks the unspeakable.

War and deprivation aside, life for  young Amos was often quietly unbearable. His father, a failed scholar, could not abide silence and his mother attempted to withdraw from life by degrees. Once he returned home to find her sitting saturated in their garden during a rain-storm and for much of the rest she would sit gazing lifelessly through the window. Finally, she overdosed on medication.

ZeldaAmong Oz’s great childhood influences was the poet, Zelda whom he first knew as a wonderful schoolteacher and for whom he developed a childish adulation. But while thAMOS.OZ.NILY.OZe pedantic Yehudah gave Oz the gift of understanding language and its construction, it was Fania who showed him how to understand other people and offered him her mantle as story-teller. It is clear that she killed herself, not only because she found life too painful but because she wanted Amos to be her voice but did not want to be there when he found it.

It is no surprise that this long, leisurely and non-linear memoir became the best-selling work in Israeli literary history. It explains with the utmost beauty and clarity how it was to be a Jew living in the new State of Israel. This is truly “of the blood”.


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