Spring Books Preview: Martin Amis, Plane Speaking

Flying himself into the world of geopolitics

There are few things the British press enjoys more than giving its least favorite son, Martin Amis, a hard time. In his memoir, Experience, the comic novelist speaks of "all those months of crucifixion" in 1994 when the tabloids took a malign delight in luridly embellishing the details of his divorce, his break with longtime friend Julian Barnes, and his chronic dental problems. The evisceration of his novels by critics has become routine. Tibor Fischer, who happened to have a novel coming out the same week as Amis's Yellow Dog (2003), described the book as "not-knowing-where-to-look bad" and compared the experience of reading it to discovering "your favourite uncle [. . .] in a playground, masturbating."

Last year, however, it seemed, for a while at least, that they had found something a little more substantive to complain about. In an interview in August 2006, given a week after the British government announced it had foiled an Al Qaeda plot to blow up 10 transatlantic airliners, Amis went on record as saying the following: "There's a definite urge—don't you have it?—to say, 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.' What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms."

At the time, these remarks passed largely without comment. A year later, however, Terry Eagleton, the Marxist professor of literature at Manchester University (where Amis now teaches creative writing), wrote an article in which he claimed that Amis had "advocated a deliberate programme of harassing the Muslim community in Britain." A cascade of public indignation soon followed, in which the words "racist," "bigot," and "Islamophobe" were generously doled out. According to a piece by Ronan Bennett in The Guardian, Amis "got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time."

Muslims, 9/11, dashing cigarettes: Amis
Paulo Fridman/Corbis
Muslims, 9/11, dashing cigarettes: Amis

Of course, Amis was not "advocating" anything but merely expressing an "urge"—an ugly and destructive urge, to be sure, yet one that very many people were no doubt feeling at the time. Perhaps, given the ulcerated sensitivity of the issue, he could have gone a little further out of his way to clarify the difference, and it should be made clear that he has since explicitly rejected the idea of systematically harassing British Muslims. As Christopher Hitchens put it, "the harshness Amis was canvassing was not in the least a recommendation, but rather an experiment in the limits of permissible thought."

Such experiments are, of course, what Amis does best. His flare for geopolitical analysis, however, remains to be seen. His new book, The Second Plane, is a collection of essays, reviews, and stories published since the terrorist attacks of 2001. What makes it so engaging is not so much the substance of its comments on the Middle East and global terrorism—many of which often seem as though they belong on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal—as the evolving picture it gives of a practicing novelist trying to justify the continued relevance of imaginative work at a time when the imagination appears to be "fully commandeered, and to no purpose."

"After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001," Amis writes, "all the writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin menacingly urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of profession." Yet the climate of competing fanaticisms in which these pieces were written, and the apparent diminution of creative work that it has brought about, also helps him to clarify the enduring value of his profession: "Literature—the aggregate of written works—has always been the most persistent candidate for cultification, partly because it nonchalantly includes the Bible and all other holy texts. It also has an advantage over conventional faiths in that there is, after all, something tangible to venerate—something boundless, beautiful, and divinely bright."

The Second Plane: September 11, Terror & Boredom by Martin Amis, Knopf, 224pp., $24, April

Spring Books Picks

Blood Kin
by Ceridwen Dovey, March

Divided into a series of monologues spoken by the chef, barber, and portraitist of a recently ousted ruler who are now all being held hostage by the new regime, South African writer Ceridwen Dovey's debut novel is a tense and sparsely written fable on the erosion of our moral principles by the promise of material comfort and security—or, as Upton Sinclair put it, on how difficult it is "to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it." Viking, 183 pp., $23.95

Eternal Enemies: Poems
by Adam Zagajewski, March

Like his forebear Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski has set himself the not inconsiderable task of praising—or attempting to praise—a world vandalized and disfigured by the horrors of contemporary history without sounding mawkish or effete. Accordingly, his verses are full of "yellow rivers swollen with corpses" and "executioners" who "sing joyfully." But Zagajewski is determined, as one of his titles has it, not to let the lucid moments dissolve. Translated from Polish by Clare Cavanagh, FSG, 128 pp., $24

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