Years ago I was invited to write a review of Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow for a small literary magazine starting up (and just as quickly shutting down) on the North Shore of Massachusetts. I was given an Angela Carter novel, which I dlsiked and decided not to review, and Martin Amis's novel, which I also disliked, but for more complex reasons.
What it turned into was a piece on "voice", and going through some files on my computer today I came across it and thought I'd post it here, as I think much of it is somehow still relevant. It was my first, and possibly my last, shot at writing a book review. So, for better or for worse, here it is:
Speaking in Tongues
A review of Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis ( New York: Harmony Books, 1991)
The English are good at Voice. They use it all the time. They do Voice when they say rather and mean not at all. They do it when, in the course of turning you down for a job or rejecting your latest novel, they say how delighted we are. You hear it when on a BBC interview the wiseguy with the big shoulders is referred to as Mr. Mailer.
Voice is like smoke. It fills the air, comes between people, brings a tear to the eye, hides an embarrassment, makes you laugh at atrocities, covers what shouldn’t be seen. Dickens in his novels was good at more than one Voice (“He do the Police in different voices,” it is said of Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend), and showed us how voice was like a veil, frail and airy, full of holes, never very good at hiding the blemishes that lie on the face of truth. Lots of Americans, especially, are quite taken by Voice. Perhaps because our actors all tend to speak alike, and our politicians rant in a high-volume monotone, we like Winston Churchill’s boozy slur and Laurence Olivier’s cruel gentility and John Gielgud as Prospero speaking of our little lives being rounded with a sleep. If Alastaire Cooke sat in his leather armchair and told his admiring Americans they were all going to hang at dawn they would smile and nod and think How quaint.
Voice becomes your lawyer, your personal manager, your press agent: it marches before you, soothing the wounded, feeding sound bites, chatting up the ladies, placating madmen in low bars. It tells lies, makes up elaborate tales, lends you depth. It can also, in the right hands, express the truth. It can speak of the skull beneath the skin. It can describe ground zero in a fire storm.
But writers of all nationalities love Voice. They strive to achieve it at some point, hopefully an early one, in their careers: a Voice instantly recognizable solely as theirs, that gives unity to a body of work, that becomes an instrument as muscular and versatile as Coltrane’s tenor sax: good at ballads, good at interstellar improvisation, always recognizable as ’Trane. I remember some years ago in London listening to a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of a series entitled “Finding a Voice,” in which writers such as Beryl Bainbridge and William Trevor spoke of the process of moving from the tentative croak of the beginning years to the limber smooth tones of maturity, when your Voice has become instantly recognizable, and no subject lies beyond its grasp. And though Martin Amis is English, he isn’t just good at Voice. He has very self-consciously made whole books out of it.
Consider the narrator of Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis’s latest novel. This is a book with a Voice that we think we’ve heard before, bending our ear in Money and London Fields in a jabbing staccato, with cracking asides, desperate words from a twisted gin-washed mouth. You hear it echoing in Soho alleyways and north London bedsits, in Liverpool Street Station when the last train is half-an-hour late, and the platform sweeper leaning on his broom has yellowed eyes. But Time’s Arrow isn’t a story of greed in Manhattan or lust in the City of London; this time he’s taken a leap into more dangerous territory. For his protagonist he’s chosen a German doctor— “one of grief’s middlemen,” as his more talkative half refers to him—who had worked with Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. It’s a big step for Amis: all of a sudden he’s taken on a Serious Subject, and for this alone we must sit up and pay attention. This time he’s gone beneath the streets for his material: he has taken to the sewers of humanity. Until now his work has been received perhaps a little less seriously than he would have liked: people spoke of the flash and brass of his style, and perhaps, because of the opacity of his descriptions, because of the self-referential nature of his intent and the baroque lines of dialogue, inevitably the characters faded into the background and became mere constructs, things made of words, objects defined only by what they were not. Their silly pretentious names didn’t help, either—John Self, Keith Talent, Nicola Six, pronounced Seeks (Six, Seeks, Sex). Nervy, yes, but not very credible. As if even their creator had little faith in them. Yet we forgive Amis, because there really is no one quite like him writing in the cautious world of Britain today. (You have to move north, to Scotland, to the works of Alasdair Gray or James Kelman, to find someone just as audacious, but with a greater range, whose imagination is like a baroque palace, dungeon, whips, chains, jesters and all.) And it leaves us vaguely uneasy, because one’s style cannot always successfully accommodate a chosen subject matter, can it?
Isn’t there a boundary, a moat of sorts, that defines a writer’s outer limits? Isn’t it where, because you can’t find the words, silence begins ? Isn’t it, in the end, where most writers call it quits and, to the delight of their publishers, decide to play safe? But it’s probably the most interesting region of the writer’s universe: grey in color, cold and forbidding, often unexplored, a landscape dotted with abandoned edifices and ruined towers from earlier civilizations, the bleached white memories of people lost in the shadows of the past; a place where the distant edges of Voice become fragmented, and you’re left only with the hoarse whisper of uncertainty. I suppose this is where real writing should begin—when words begin to break down, when you’re dealing with the indefinable, the, dare I say, unspeakable. (And isn’t it odd that when we walk up to mourners at a funeral we always end up saying I can’t find the words to express my grief?)
Perhaps this is one reason why, for instance, Art Spiegleman chose to confront his parents’ concentration camp experiences through the medium of an extended comic book. The eloquence of the drawings, the simplicity of the approach, the honesty that pervades the entire project of Maus seems audacious to us because we have grown used to the plethora of books and films on the subject. The vocabulary has become overfamiliar to us. Use a word one too many times and it turns to mealy nonsense in the mouth, garbage on the page. It trivializes the subject, becomes mucky cliché, the bland voice of prime time television. Describe death; tell us about orgasm. These subjects seem to force us to say what they are not. Yet that’s the easy way out. A good Voice, a mature Voice, allows us to face the subject head on, find the words, make our audience see things anew.
This doesn’t mean the subject always has to be genocide and torture. The subject could be something as commonplace and yet, to the sufferer, as horrible as the death of a loved one. Or the disappearance of one adored. Or when you’re faced with the knowledge that somewhere Out There something very nasty is taking place. Look at the shuttered cabin at the side of the road, listen to the screams, consider the outrage.
But there’s not just horror lying in wait for us. It can be the astonishing joy of being a parent, the way memory plays upon the present, how the light in a painting recalls to us a lost childhood.
Now put it into words.
Martin Amis’s stylistic range is narrow; but his nerve, his chutzpah, is huge, or rather pretty big, and although I found his previous novels a little safe, I think he’s capable of taking us on a tour of the dreadful margins of his imagination. His characters anyway tend to be those who cling to the dark side of society, who know the streets and their gutters, the names of women who hide in doorways, and the men who make deals in Soho coffee bars and between drags cup their cigarettes in their grimy palms.
As Amis tells us in his Afterword, Time’s Arrow began—“after a typically emotional encounter on the tennis court” with the book’s author—with a reading of Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors. He also writes in the Afterword of books read by way of research, and of his being much taken with the works of the late Primo Levi, certainly one of the most eloquent witnesses to the horrors of Auschwitz. In fact, Amis writes, his alternative title to Time’s Arrow was The Nature of the Offense, and this, it seems to me, more clearly focuses the author’s intent. Yet it’s the way he plays with time in this book that attracts the attention, and this too is a risky venture. There is always the danger that for all the substance we will once again be blinded by the style. It’s all Voice, you see.
In fact, Time’s Arrow begins with that of Tod T. Friendly, German-born physician, who has just died in a hospital in an American suburb… Or he was dead, and is now alive. “I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself surrounded by doctors. American doctors.” We realize quite early that Tod T. Friendly—Tod being German for death—is moving backwards through time, towards birth, accompanied by the narrator, a kind of detached alter ego who speaks quietly to us, narrating this shared life of horror and denial. By moving regressively through time Tod Friendly can no longer take his secrets to the grave. Suddenly the patterns of life can be revealed for what they are. “Time now passed untrackably, for it was given over to struggle, with the bed like a trap or a pit, covered in nets, and the sense of starting out on a terrible journey, toward a terrible secret. What did the secret have to do with? Him, with him: the worst man in the worst place at the worst time.”
As though captured by some colossal cloaca Tod T. Friendly enters history at its exit and is sucked towards his origin, living his life backwards. And because time moves in reverse, memory precedes act, cause follows effect. Thus an act of violence is preceded by its awareness. “A child’s breathless wailing calmed by the firm slap of the father’s hand, a dead ant revived by the careless press of a passing sole, a wounded finger healed and sealed by the knife’s blade.” It’s as though Alice had taken a wrong turn in Wonderland.
Tod Friendly, then, has died, lived in the midwest, been a doctor, dispensed one too many illegal drugs, become John Young, lived in New York City, operated in a big hospital, performed abortions—or rather, because time’s arrow has in this book changed direction, inserted fetuses into women. Before coming to America he was Hamilton de Souza, Odilo Unverdorben (“Unspoiled”). “When he swears, Odilo invokes human ordure, from which, as we now know, all human good eventually emanates.” Of course, we also discover that he worked in Auschwitz with Josef Mengele. Auschwitz, Anus Mundi.
Reading this book is like watching a magic show. Remember JFK? “JFK: flown down from Washington and flung together by the doctors’ knives and the sniper’s bullets and introduced onto the streets of Dallas and a hero’s welcome.”
When we move backwards we begin with the intellectualizing and end with the act. Arbeit Macht Frei, said the sign over the gate to Auschwitz: Work Makes you Free. In truth, of course, all those who entered—all those who entered and survived the first selection, that is—were put to work, then most were gassed and incinerated. Yet in the universe of Time’s Arrow bodies are removed from the ovens, stacked in the gas chambers, only to emerge in a degree of health. They work, they enter cattle cars, they are delivered to freedom. See? Arbeit Macht Frei—Work Makes you Free. Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? The Nazis had it right—but only if you reverse time. So the perversion of morality that was at the heart of their crimes can be shown to be quite the reverse. Literally.
The logic of the reversal of time is also that of those who follow, say, David Duke, who with his skewed logic publicly doubts the Holocaust ever existed. Undoubtedly there are others who, with scientific clarity, speak of the necessary population control exercised by the Nazis. It’s also the warped thinking of Pat Buchanan, who speaks dispassionately of Hitler’s genius as a military leader.
And Godzilla was an expert at urban renewal.
This is the dramatic possibility of what Amis is doing with time. But does it work? Does the Voice hold, do we buy the character, or is it just a gimmick, this arrow of time which moves contrariwise? The real question is whether we can truly read this novel for what it says without being too distracted by the novelty of the treatment. The main focus, of course, is Tod T. Friendly who, we quickly discern, is something of a shattered man, mitotic, reflecting perhaps both Mengele’s obsessions with twins and the psychic indifference exercised by those physicians who, in the name of their pseudoscience of genetic and racial differences, committed such atrocities as dissecting anaesthetized children and sewing together Gypsy twins. We see this detachment throughout the history of the Nazi domination of Europe. There is the story, told in Marcel Ophuls’s film Hotel Terminus, of a woman who, as a child, was interrogated and beaten by Klaus Barbie. Klaus Barbie, who all the while gently stroked a little kitten. She couldn’t understand, she explained to Ophuls, how such a kind-looking man with such a sweet, quiet voice could be so wicked. Then there are the near-clichés of Nazi torturers going home at night only to weep over recordings of Mozart quartets. Those who are cruel at heart find the gentlest ways of protecting themselves from the bloody truth of their lives.
In Time’s Arrow we get to see both sides of this man known as Tod T. Friendly, the two halves of his personality, one of whom is the narrator, another instance of Amis’s creatures of convenience allowing the author an ironic distance. Though no butterflies flit and dance through this landscape, Amis is Nabokovian to his bones, and when he splits his characters into slivers and wedges of identity, when he has them on the run, they remind us more and more of Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty, and Amis loses all in the first round. We believe in Humbert and Clare, not only because they are obsessively engaged in the true passions of conflict, but also because they are set in a landscape so exquisitely delineated that, though we may never have traveled the length and breadth of America, tasting its motel culture, flirting our way through a university town, we buy what Nabokov sells: his display units are gorgeously detailed and wryly laid out, his language, it goes without saying, always under control. Then there’s the chronic Martin Amis problem of names. Tod T. Friendly, Odilo Unverdorben—it’s hard to say whether Amis is trying to create characters or simply attempting to make a point. Yet in this book there’s the saving grace that a novel about a Nazi war criminal must by necessity deal with names, changes of identity, sudden alterations in environment. That aspect in itself could serve as the basis for an entire novel. But Amis keeps his distance; he fears, yet again, the deep end of the pool.
The real problem is that with a split narrator the white’s no longer on the rice. We’ve taken a step away, we’ve increased the distance—in fact, we begin playing with space so much that our main character has become precisely what he was in the first place: a name, moving amongst other names, caught in a stylistic game. The reader, though he has, and rightly, to work as he turns the pages of this deceptively simple and quietly powerful novel, is kept at arm’s length. We are always aware we are watching a performance. What will happen next? we wonder, not really caring about the unfolding of events but instead curious as to what further tricks Amis has up his sleeve. “This business with the yellow cabs, it surely looks like an unimprovable deal. They’re always there when you need one, even in the rain or when the theaters are closing. They pay you up front, no questions asked. They always know where you’re going. They’re great. No wonder we stand there, for hours on end, waving goodbye, or saluting—saluting this fine service. The streets are full of people with their arms raised, drenched and weary, thanking the yellow cabs. Just the one hitch: they’re always taking me places where I don’t want to go.”
The book brings to mind John Osborne’s Archie Rice: desperately holding onto whatever rags life offers him, and yet stepping onto the music-hall stage and giving his all. It’s all greasepaint and innuendo; it’s a line of patter and a few clever steps. It’s as though Amis were fearful of getting too close to the heart of darkness that lies unexplored in his novel, and stylistically he seems to dance around the subject without ever quite catching its eye. In short, the shtick gets in the way.
Yet I like writers being playful in the shadows: not the edenic glare of P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional world of old aunts and golfing tweeds, a world that excludes even a breath of the hot yawn of hell, but the darker comic world of, say, Evelyn Waugh. But in Amis, it’s getting easier and easier, and soon he’ll be like the Dame Edna Everage of human tragedies. Here’s the catch: this reversal of time on which the story sits—does it work, can it be tested? If time were not reversed, and we were reading a simple, direct narrative, would we still be intrigued, carried along, convinced?
The world of Time’s Arrow is not one to which we are welcomed, led to a seat, possibly embraced, even by the wicked arm of a murderer. As with Nabokov, Amis’s world is made up of words and grammar, flicks through the dictionary, odd bits of learning. Consider the case of Georges Perec: even when reading La Disparition, his novel in which the letter E never appears, where in fact this most necessary of vowels has been exterminated, we get the sense that he is writing out of a dark memory and the weight of necessity; a desire to fit himself into a story, to fill the hollow of his lost childhood, to find some meaning in his fiction. The game is deadly serious, the element of play always in the service of a larger theme. And peering through Perec’s linguistic play and love of narrative and puzzle forms is the memory of his father, a soldier, who was killed before the Germans occupied Paris; and that of his mother who vanished into the universe of transit, detention and eventual death in a concentration camp. In fact, in Tod T. Friendly’s Auschwitz.
Art Spiegleman, in his two volumes of Maus, though dealing in what seems an ambiguous genre, though the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Nazis as cats and the Poles pigs, is always serious about his subject and the way he treats it. As with Amis there are deeper implications to his writing; unlike Amis, he has been directly touched by the Holocaust. His older brother was poisoned as a child so as to escape the camps, while his mother committed suicide many years afterwards, leaving his father a widower and ultimately the source of the story of Maus. Amis’s entire point, it seems in comparison, is to show how clever he is in discovering the structure of reversed time.
At one point, through the mouth of his narrator, who has just seen a baby—in the world of this book crawling backwards—crawling forwards, he says: “I keep expecting the world to make sense. It doesn’t. It won’t. Ever.” Because in this novel every reaction is followed by an action, memory becomes senseless. Is he saying that the war criminal wishes only to flee his past, forget the heat of the ovens, the acrid stink of Zyklon-B, the lists and numbers on a daily chart? Is Tod T. Friendly reviewing the events of his life in those few seconds before death? Is this, then, a novel about memory? Yet you need only watch Marcel Ophuls’s Klaus Barbie documentary, Hotel Terminus, to realize that the Butcher of Lyon really didn’t want to forget. He carried his past quite proudly about with him, all the way through the Vatican escape route (aided by priests with devoutly short memories), the friendly American anti-communist network (helped by repentently forgetful spies), until decades later, in South America, he’s still spouting the party line and recognizing Hitler’s birthday with a toast and a drink. It’s as though, having read something of the Holocaust, Amis has decided that there is no way to make sense of it. While Spiegleman, whose life has been directly and painfully touched by this event, has in a startlingly simple way made a curious and ultimately moving kind of sense. History is a weight, he seems to say, and we must be strong and ingenious enough to bear it. Amis doesn’t have the muscle to move us. Maybe you just need to be a little more haunted to do it any kind of justice.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports