I was just trying to think of something to say about Martin Amis, whose first biography is currently being kicked around by the British Press and whose books I’ve been drawn to for half of my life, when I came across this BBC headline: “Stalin’s Daughter Lana Peters Dies in US of Cancer.”
In his book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002), Amis reveals that Peters’ mother “shot herself in the head after a party in the Kremlin to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Revolution.” This is one of the book’s lighter moments. The only thing that got me through it was Amis’ voice: teetering between clear-eyed reportage and scream-out-loud disbelief.
Lucky for us, Amis isn’t nearly as famous here as he is in the UK. No American equivalent comes to mind, no A-list novelist/essayist/pundit. His old friend and occasional foe Christopher Hitchens is much more well known here. That leaves the books themselves, relatively unhyped.
Why read them? He’s the funniest writer I know of. Even his holocaust novel, Time’s Arrow; even his 9/11 story, “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta.” Even Koba the Dread. Here, he cites a common exchange between Stalin and his daughter:
He was in the habit of repeating: “Ech, together with the Germans we would have been invincible.” It is not so much the shocking cynicism (and ideological debauchery) of the sentiment; rather, one thrills to the boundless realpolitik packed into that humble, provincial, mountain-dwelling three-letter expletive, Ech…
Whether he’s taking on tyranny or terror, murder or suicide (cf. the derailed mystery Night Train: “It appears that Jennifer Rockwell shot herself in the head three times.”), Amis is simply trying to get a grip on reality, and howling with involuntary laughter at the almost total impossibility of doing so. That’s why I keep digging through his stuff — at home, in airport bookstores, in vans. Somehow, these portable atrocity exhibitions are comforting.
Stalin’s daughter, who defected to the US (and, briefly, back out of it), had this to say about her roots: "No, I'm neither one. I'm somewhere in between. That 'somewhere in between' they can't understand." It’s a beautiful thought, and one that’s coincidentally echoed at the end of Amis’ 2000 memoir Experience. Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, he thinks of his cousin, kidnapped and murdered by the British serial killer Frederick West in 1973. “And I felt then that atrocity does this; when you are close in … the task is not to accept but simply to believe.”
The scope widens till he’s back at home, in the day-to-day, where we all live most of the time, if we’re lucky.
I have never been told to believe something really unbelievable, just the usual articles of faith for a man of fifty (and they seem unlikely enough): that the parents are going, the children are staying, and I am somewhere in between.
It does me a lot of good to be reminded of the present in all its tenuous, complicated reality. And it doesn’t hurt that these reminders always come with unexpected barks of laughter.
Photo: BBC News