Because the Holocaust doesn't make sense, how to make sense of the Holocaust?
How can you write about it? How can you write a novel about it? Lots of people have, of course. How do you approach it? You can't make sense of it. Can you try?
Martin Amis has taken some flak for writing Time's Arrow. Some of it was how-dare-you-write-about-the-Holocaust-you-weren't-there. I'm not sure I find that point very convincing. Some of it was your-telling-of-the-story-backwards-is-just-a-gimmick. Some of it was you're-the-same-old-Martin-Amis-as-in-your-other-novels-and-I-like-to-bash-you. On the other hand, some reviewers apparently fell all over themselves to praise it when it came out in the early 1990s, what with its heavy, important subject matter, and Amis' important self. (Word order chosen carefully there.)
I came later to the Martin Amis party. I'm pretty sure I'd never heard of him when I was in high school. I had heard of his pops, Kingsley Amis, by the time I finished college, but it was working in a bookstore that really put Martin on my radar. I got around to reading him for the first time in 2007, when I commenced my A-to-Z project, in which I read and blogged about a book by 26 new-to-me authors, one for each letter of the alphabet. I started with him, for 'A'--I read The Information and loved it. A couple years later, after making my way through the alphabet (hey, I was in law school--and besides, I always have lots of other stuff to read; it's never just one project at a time), I decided to select the Top Half and read another thirteen books by each of those authors. Amis made the cut. I then read Money. And, as time has marched on, I've continued by selecting six of those thirteen and reading a third book by each of them. Yes, Amis is in this select group of A-to-Z project semi-finalists, along with Truman Capote, Umberto Eco, E.M. Forster, Salman Rushdie, and William Styron. And this time around, my Amis selection was Time's Arrow.
Interestingly, this summer as I read third books by the likes of Capote and Styron and Amis, I was also preparing for my Habitat trip to Poland (which you can read more about here and here and here on my front page blog). And interestingly, it just so happened that I had months earlier, when I didn't yet know I'd even be going to Poland this year, acquired Time's Arrow for my Amis selection (at our favorite bookstore in Seoul, during our January layover) and decided to finally read Sophie's Choice for my Styron #3 (a decision made whilst we were still living in China). So there I was, in Michigan this summer, reading Sophie's Choice and also preparing to go to Poland. Naturally, I sought out some Polish literature by Polish writers at the library (all hail the GRPL!) and read stuff about the history of the country, too. But I also, in yet another twist of fate, happened to find myself this summer on Franklin Roosevelt in my read-a-bio-of-every-president project. It all came together. And what with Time's Arrow being a light, thin quality paperback, I brought it with me to Poland.
There, I visited Auschwitz.
I haven't yet shared with the world all my Auschwitz-visiting thoughts, of which there are many. It was such a mind-altering experience, being there. Here, let me just say this: I was so glad, when I read Time's Arrow the next week, that I had visited Auschwitz before reading it.
To be honest, I wasn't all that fond of Sophie's Choice. I've seen the movie, years ago, so I knew all about the choice and the things that happen. And it seemed crazy that I didn't like it, because I have been so enthralled with my boy Styron up to this point, reading his earlier (more obscure?) stuff, like Lie Down in Darkness (my favorite book of the original A-to-Z 26) and Set This House on Fire (such a book for self-indulgent expat writers who think they have something to say to the world...) But I thought that, frankly, Sophie's Choice totally failed. Styron's approach (gimmick?) was to narrate as a writer telling the story of Sophie, his friend whom he meets after the war, living in Brooklyn. Then she/the narrator recount her experiences in flashbacks, but they're all over the place, and the sexual overtones of it all are kind of abhorrent, frankly. Sophie desperately needed/needs to be rescued, but instead she continues to be taken advantage of and ravaged, by life and everyone. And everyone is a mess. Sure, these cynical things approach a truth about humanity, too, but they didn't really tell me the Holocaust/Auschwitz story it seemed Styron was trying to tell.
Amis' approach was to get inside the mind of a former Holocaust doctor -- and I do mean, as a separate entity, who has somehow appeared inside the man's mind -- and go backwards from there. I thought Time's Arrow was incredible, and I admire it and Amis because he succeeds at demonstrating something for us. It's easy enough to say that only in a crazy, mixed-up world where time flows backwards could the Holocaust make any sense, but its another thing to write the novel that shows that. As we travel backward through time and through the life of Dr. Tod Friendly (and his several other later/earlier names), we know what's coming, and we read about him and his fellow Nazis "creating" a race of people out of fire and ashes. We all say that the death camp Auschwitz goes against all that humanity is. You certainly feel that during the portion of your tour when you step into the chamber that was once used to gas prisoners in the hopes of exterminating the Jewish people (along with hundreds of thousands of others). You can feel that again when you read Time's Arrow.
When the backwards-running narrative finally arrives at Birkenau, you remember walking along that Birkenau train track, looking up at where it dead ends at the edge of the forest. Shit, you think. This world needs to be grappled with. You think that when reading, and when visiting.
The story is basically too much to tell (not that we shouldn't try), and the "gimmick" of telling it backward turns out to be less gimmick and more way-to-access-this-thing.
I read a biography of Martin Amis this summer, too. It was a light, I-think-just-this-side-of-unauthorized account, but it was interesting. Basically, I am jealous of Martin and his literary friends (Rushdie, Hitchens, Barnes, and the like, all those England Observer-writing literary intellectuals who get to just hang out being readers and discoursers together and writers when they are alone all the time) and I want to inhabit such a world (but hold the incessant womanizing, eh?) I read with interest about the friendships developed with Saul Bellow and the occasional arguments over Israel/Palestine politics. I must say that in a way, Israel/Palestine politics have nothing to do with the Holocaust. To equate critical analysis of Israel policy (or U.S. policy) with anti-Semitism and therefore "forgetting" (as opposed to, you know, never forgetting) is I think as insulting as what it's trying to insult. How can you make a political military issue out of this total affront to humanity?
My incredible tour guide at Auschwitz said that the longer she works there, the less she judges people/countries/leaders, such as the Allies who opted not to bomb the railways leading to Auschwitz, and the more she remains neutral as she learns and is glad she wasn't in the difficult position of making those decisions. This is a woman who routinely communicates with Auschwitz survivors, and she shared some of their thoughts with us. She was steady, somber, and very informative. We walked around on a gray, drizzly day, through the mud and dirt, through the exhibitions, around the remains. Nothing makes sense. She explained it all to us, and the facts and exhibits and piles of eyeglasses and shoes make no human sense. But there they are.
It's not about reserving judgment, or not taking a stand, or not believing in what's right. Backwards, we can approach this event with all the knowledge and all the judgment and all the pain, and see what we can see. We (humanity) obviously didn't see the Nazis when we went in chronological order, so Martin helps us by approaching them the other way.