This Week in Fiction: Martin Amis on Europe’s Crises
Even the dullest journey resembles a short story: beginning, middle, end, with the traveller displaced and, we hope, alerted. And this particular journey was unusually interesting and unusually disturbing. I briefly considered writing a think piece of some kind, but I wanted the singular freedom offered by fiction. As the story evolved, it seemed to demand that I give some impression of my own life—my life not as a writer but as a son, a husband, and a father.
I’m not sure that two individuals can constitute a “spectrum,” but Bernhardt and Geoffrey certainly represent two opposed human impulses. Bernhardt, an Iranian-German, is naturally inclined toward inclusiveness, whereas Geoffrey, a conservative Yorkshireman, feels the urge to reject and even to punish. Although old Geoff may not be entirely despicable, he is unlikely to respond well to a demographic influx. The refugee crisis, I fear, will expose many “sleeper” reactionary diehards in the West.
Nabokov’s situation was as extreme as that of any present-day Syrian. Uprooted and pauperized, he faced mortal danger three times over, fleeing the Bolsheviks in 1917, fleeing Nazi Berlin in 1937, and fleeing the Wehrmacht in France in 1940. His only resources were his languages (Russian, French, English) and his talent, and he remained pretty well penniless until “Lolita” was published, in the late nineteen-fifties.
Some writers are celebrated for their prescience—J. G. Ballard, Don DeLillo. But I have never felt that futurology could be a serious literary pursuit. Novelists may score a lucky hit now and then and here and there, but history is much more cunning than we are.
It would have to be in the form of essays and, perhaps, oblique short stories. A decade ago, I got quite far with a satirical jihadi novella, and then abandoned it: every sentence seemed to be a hostage to fortune. The time to write about the Age of Terrorism will come when it is over, or at least dwindling. Norman Mailer talked of reducing terrorism to “a tolerable level,” and that may even be the best we can hope for.
Novelists should never deal in duties or obligations. But if they feel a impulse to take on political realities—then by all means. And sometimes it just sneaks up on you. Time and again, Nabokov disclaimed any interest in what he called “bloated topicalities,” and yet he wrote two dystopian satires (“Invitation to a Beheading” and “Bend Sinister”), and there are many tragic pages in the short stories (and in “Pnin”). Totalitarianism made his juices flow; even “Lolita,” perhaps, can be seen as a study in tyranny.