Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Martin Amis and Howard Jacobson Get the Holocaust Backwards, From Different Angles

New novels answer Irving Howe’s question: Can we accept aesthetic pleasure in a book about the Shoah?

Adam Kirsch
October 08, 2014
Erik Mace
Erik Mace
Erik Mace
Erik Mace

In his 1986 essay “Writing and the Holocaust,” Irving Howe observed that the real problem with books about the Holocaust is not that they cannot give us aesthetic pleasure, but that they can. “Can we be sure that we do not gain a sort illicit pleasure from our pained submission to such works?” he wonders; and the idea that pleasure is illicit, beyond the bounds of acceptable response, is itself the mark of the Holocaust’s uniqueness as a subject. “Can we really say that in reading a memoir or novel about the Holocaust … we gain the pleasure, the catharsis, that is customarily associated with the aesthetic question?” Howe asks, and neither possible response seems to be acceptable. If literature about the Holocaust is not cathartic, if it leaves us as horrified and frightened as before, then why do we feel a compulsion to read (and write) it? And if it is cathartic, aren’t we letting ourselves off too cheaply—as though our obligations to the memory of the dead and to their suffering can be discharged merely by reading a book? Howe, like every honest reader before and since, throws up his hands at what seems an insoluble problem: “I do not know how to answer these questions, which threaten many of our usual assumptions about what constitutes an aesthetic experience.”

Despite this bafflement, new novels about the Holocaust are written all the time. Still, it is not every month that two of Britain’s best and most famous writers publish books about the subject—and at a moment when anti-Semitism, its causes and consequences, has darkly returned to the center of political discussion. This summer, during the Israeli campaign in Gaza, Britain witnessed the kind of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks that plagued Jewish communities across Europe. Things weren’t as bad there as in France, where a mob besieged a synagogue, or in Belgium, where a terrorist killed four people in a Jewish museum; but they were bad enough. Particularly ominous was the decision of a London supermarket manager to remove a kosher food display, lest it draw the anger of Muslim demonstrators. This kind of symbolic erasure of Jewishness, this implicit agreement that the mere existence of kosher food presents an intolerable provocation, follows a logic that leads directly to expelling Jews themselves from the public sphere.

At such a moment, the appearance of The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis, and J, by Howard Jacobson, seems like more than a coincidence. These books return to the subject of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, as to problems that are no longer merely historical. In particular, both once again pose Howe’s old question: Is genocide narratable, and if so, what kind of language could be faithful to it? The difference between them—and it’s hard to imagine two novels with less in common, despite their shared subject matter—stems from the different answers they offer to this question. Amis believes that the traditional novel of realism, even of comic realism, is adequate to the Holocaust; The Zone of Interest represents an act of faith in the resources of fiction to address even the worst. Meanwhile, Jacobson believes that the subject demands disorientation, reticence, and confusion, as if to ward off the temptation of easy understanding. The result is a book that reads like a mystery story crossed with a parable, in which the reader’s knowledge is left full of disorienting gaps.

For this reason, J is a greater departure for Jacobson than The Zone of Interest is for Amis. From the beginning of his career, Jacobson has made uproariously, exquisitely uncomfortable comedy out of the psychology of British Jewry. His masterpiece, Kalooki Nights, draws on his Manchester upbringing to paint a wonderful portrait of a cloistered, anxious, yet ambitious and appetitive Jewish community. But Jacobson, who also writes a column about current events for the Independent newspaper, has in recent years become less funny on the subject of Jews, as he seems convinced that their predicament in Britain is no longer so comic. It’s ironic that the novel that won him the Booker Prize in 2010, The Finkler Question, is the one in which comedy began to give way to serious worry and even panic. Starting out as a farce about mistaken identity, that book ends with vandalism of a Jewish museum, attacks on Orthodox schoolboys, and a Jewish character’s reverie about whether it’s time to start keeping a suitcase packed.

In J, Jacobson has followed this train of anxieties to its ultimate, apocalyptic conclusion. J takes place in a future England, somewhere around the year 2070, though the exact date, like so much else in the story, remains vague. The first clue that there is something deeply amiss in this imaginary world comes from the characters’ names: Everyone bears a Celtic-sounding first name and a Jewish last name, making for implausible combinations like “Kevern Cohen” and “Ailinn Solomons.” These are the hero and heroine of the book, and they live in a town known as Port Reuben—another Jewish name—whose exact location is again unspecified. All we learn is that it is a remote seaside village, dependent on tourism yet deeply distrustful of outsiders, who are contemptuously referred to as “aphids.” The placelessness of Port Reuben makes it feel like the village in Kafka’s The Castle, yet it is also legible as Jacobson’s allegory of England—a place dependent on visitors and immigrants, yet sullenly turned in on itself, refusing to welcome those it attracts.

As Jacobson sketches in more of his fictional world, it becomes clear that names aren’t the only things that have gone awry. Society is afflicted by a continual, habitual violence: Fights break out constantly, “snogging” (kissing) is aggressive and frequently draws blood, adultery and rape and even murder are on the rise. Then there are the more pointed and private omens: Why, for instance, did Kevern Cohen’s father always put two fingers over his mouth whenever he spoke a word that started with “J”? Why is there an unofficial ban on any discussion of the past, so that library books have whole sections torn out?

J is a horror story about a Holocaust that changes history and even human nature; but the real horror of the real Holocaust is that it did no such thing.

The answer, we soon learn, has to do with a traumatic event in the novel’s past, which is our near future—something that is referred to only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. The name is a euphemism, and the event itself is only ever referred to in language of emollient vagueness: “If we are honest with ourselves,” one character muses, “no section of society can claim to have acquitted itself well. I make no accusations. Whether it was done ill, or done well, what was done was done. Then was then. No more needs to be said—on this we agree. And just as there is no blame to be apportioned, so there are no amends to be made, were amends appropriate and were there any way of making it.”

This comes on page 18, and it is part of the novel’s terrible message that we already know, without being told, that WHAT HAPPENED must involve the Jews. The taboo on the letter “J” is one clue, the proliferation of Jewish names another—and of course the fact that this is a Howard Jacobson novel already cues our expectations. But by withholding the actual word “Jew,” which is not used even once in the novel, Jacobson compels us to recognize that English and European society has only one historic scapegoat, one traditional victim and enemy, that could plausibly be the target of massive, popular violence. Who else could we be hearing about when one character, a professor of art who is tasked with secretly spying on Kevern Cohen, blames WHAT HAPPENED on “the alien intellectualism that brought such destruction on itself,” or on “our displeasure with their foreign policy (bizarre that they should have had a foreign policy, given that they were foreigners themselves and had what they called a country only by taking someone else’s)”?

What Jacobson is imagining, to put it in so many words, is an English Holocaust, set to take place sometime around the year 2020. About what actually happened to the Jews at this time, we hear next to nothing, except for a few stray hair-raising details—for instance, that it involved luring Jewish children with repurposed ice-cream vans. All we know is that, to protect itself from the guilt of this memory, English society has transformed itself beyond recognition, thanks above all to OPERATION ISHMAEL, which gave everyone in the country a Jewish last name. The purpose of this, evidently, was to make it impossible to tell perpetrators from victims. But at the same time, it also has the opposite effect: The names function as a memorial to the murdered, forcing the murderers to live forever with the badge of their crime.

Nestled at the heart of this dystopian fantasy is the story of Kevern and Ailinn, two misfits who are haunted by inexplicable childhood silences. Kevern was brought up by evasive, morose parents who instilled in him a nameless fear, which expresses itself as obsessive-compulsive disorder: He can’t leave his house without checking over and over again to make sure no one has snuck in. Ailinn was raised in an orphanage, then adopted, but she too has never lost the feeling of vulnerability: “When people describe having the wind at their back it’s a sensation of freedom I don’t recognize. An unthreatening, invigorating space behind me?—no, I don’t ever have the luxury of that. There might be nothing there when I turn around, but it isn’t a beneficent nothing. Nothing good propels me.”

It does not take a great deal of readerly intuition to figure out what family background is responsible for these traumas. We are familiar with Kevern and Ailinn’s symptoms from accounts of the children of Holocaust survivors—for instance, the unforgettable portrait of such a child in David Grossman’s novel See Under, Love. And so the plot of J, which centers on Kevern and Ailinn’s gradual discovery of the truth about their pasts, and about the past itself, is less engaging than the world Jacobson builds—a frequent problem with dystopian novels, such as 1984, which is one of his obvious inspirations.

If the pleasure of J lies in figuring out the history of Jacobson’s imagined future, this is a deeply and deliberately compromised pleasure, especially for Jewish readers. For what Jacobson has really written is a paranoid prophecy, a projection of the deep-seated fear of a second Holocaust, which perhaps no Jew can claim not to recognize. This is not an actual prediction of what is going to happen in Britain, of course; and many aspects of WHAT HAPPENED go unaddressed precisely because the idea of a sudden massacre of British Jews is so unthinkable. We never learn, for instance, about the situation of Jews in America or Israel in the novel’s world, or why the Jews of Britain couldn’t flee to one of those countries.

But there is a deeper problem with Jacobson’s parable. England after WHAT HAPPENED is supposed to be a society so stricken with guilt and horror that it totally remakes itself—banishing the past, changing names, insisting on ambiguity and euphemism. In other ways, too, the marks of the 50-year-old crime are obvious. When Kevern and Ailinn visit London, for instance, they find a city stripped of its vitality and prosperity along with its Jews. Yet we know that, in fact, the perpetration of genocide does not affect a country in such a profound way. Germany after 1945 continued going about its business—not talking too much about the Holocaust, perhaps, but also not taking amnesia to the extent of adopting Jewish names or going about in a dazed stupor, like many of the characters in J. J is a horror story about a Holocaust that changes history and even human nature; but the real horror of the real Holocaust is that it did no such thing.


If the Holocaust didn’t change society and humanity, did it at least change literature? Most scholars of Holocaust literature would say yes. Books like Night, by Elie Wiesel and Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi introduced a new tone, a new approach to autobiography, that the world hadn’t known before. The distinctive qualities of Holocaust writing are its quietness and its specificity: This is a subject that demands a style as close to stylelessness as possible, in recognition of the way it overpowers the resources of language. When evil is as literally unimaginable as it was in Auschwitz—and who can imagine what it was like to be in a gas chamber?—then the writer must honor the failure of imagination by allowing facts to speak for themselves.

In The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis deliberately violates these conventions of Holocaust writing—or, better, circumvents them. For when we talk about Holocaust literature, we are usually referring to writing that documents the experience of victims, of Jews. Nearly the whole cast of The Zone of Interest, however, are perpetrators: the German officers who staff Auschwitz, along with the wives and children who live alongside them. These are the people whom Hannah Arendt long ago taught us to regard as banal evildoers, bureaucrats, and organization men whose business happened to be the extermination of a race. But the proper genre to demonstrate banality and small-mindedness is comedy; and so Amis has written a comedy—an office comedy with romantic subplots—that happens to be set in Auschwitz. (Interestingly, Amis never actually uses this name, just as Jacobson never uses the word Jew; in each case, the silence feels like an attempt to estrange a subject that threatens to become too familiar through overexposure.)

This is not to say that Amis ignores the horror at the core of his setting. On the contrary, it is his real subject, as it must be. But that horror is made to bleed through the edges of the story just as, he suggests, it only crept in at the edges of the consciousness of the Nazis themselves. For this reason, Amis’ protagonists are not guards or soldiers, the people who actually did the shooting and gassing. Rather, they are the administrators of the camp, who could attempt to sustain some façade of normal life, even family life, while surrounded by the stench of burning corpses. Yet this role-playing is continually being falsified, wrong-footed by the reality—as in an early scene where Golo Thomsen, a handsome, womanizing Nazi, begins the seduction of Hannah Doll, wife of the camp’s commandant. The two are sharing a smoke, which is, as Golo reminds us, almost “an act of collusion,” given that Nazism frowned on women smoking. Hannah continues to smoke, however, because “I find it helps a bit with the smell”—the closest thing to a direct allusion she can allow herself. And then this:

That last word was still on her tongue when we heard something, something borne on the wind. … It was a helpless, quavering chord, a fugal harmony of human horror and dismay. We stood quite still with our eyes swelling in our heads. I could feel my body clench itself for more and greater alarums. But then came a shrill silence, like a mosquito whispering in your ear, followed, half a minute later, by the hesitantly swerving upswell of violins.

What they are hearing is the arrival of a new trainload of prisoners, accompanied by the band music that was played in order to give them false reassurance. But what the reader is hearing is also troubling: It is the music of Amis’ prose, which is so distinctive that it can’t stop playing its jaunty tune even when the subject demands a minor key. “A fugal harmony of horror and dismay” is a perfectly self-cancelling phrase: Suffering is mute or cries out harshly, while a fugue is carefully composed, a work of art. Not only is it inaccurate, it seems to plume itself on its own piquancy, the way Amis’ prose always seems to be boasting of its energetic avoidance of cliché.

Amis’ prose seems to plume itself on its own piquancy, boasting of its energetic avoidance of cliché.

The real discomfort inspired by The Zone of Interest, then, has less to do with subject matter than with tone. We might be ready to accept a story of adultery among the crematoria, with Golo pining for Hannah, who despises her alcoholic husband, Paul. (Paul Doll may or may not be based on Rudolf Hoess, the actual commandment of Auschwitz, but the foolish chime of his name alerts us to his Arendtian absurdity, even as he presides over mass murder.) But are we ready for Paul to see his own face, with two black eyes, reflected in a soup tureen and describe it like this: “a diagonal smear of pink with two ripe plums wobbling beneath the brow”? Or is this kind of Nabokovian estrangement inadmissible in a Holocaust story, which, we superstitiously feel, should be chaste, austere? It is Howe’s old question: Can we accept aesthetic pleasure in a book about the Holocaust?

Amis answers yes, and his method is to write beautifully and originally about Auschwitz. Most of the book is divided between three narrators: Golo, who starts out arrogantly Aryan, but ends up so disillusioned that he conspires against the camp regime; Paul, a blustering bureaucrat who is incompetent at every aspect of his job; and Szmul, the only Jew, a Sonderkommando whose job is to clear corpses out of the gas chamber. Amis sets up a few slow-burning plots to drive the story forward, including a kind of red herring about an ex-boyfriend of Hannah’s named Dieter Kruger, who may or may not still be alive in a Nazi prison.

But the main effort of the book is to conjure everyday life in Auschwitz, drawing on the many histories and first-person accounts Amis lists in the novel’s bibliography. We do not see overt savagery, which Amis may feel is too inartistic for his purposes, but carefully chosen “heartbreaking” moments, full of pathos and irony. At one moment, Paul is monitoring the arrival of a new trainload of Jewish prisoners when a 5-year-old girl takes his hand for reassurance. At another, a Nazi officer watches his handpicked slave, a Jewish teenager named Esther, dance in a ballet for the entertainment of the Germans. In between, the Germans chatter to each other about their work:

“I’m thinking, what don’t we do to them? I suppose we don’t rape them.”
“Much. Instead, we do something much nastier than that. You ought to learn some respect for your new colleagues, Golo. Much, much nastier. We get the pretty ones and we do medical experiments on them. On their reproductive organs …”
“Oh, come on. We don’t eat them.”

This doesn’t sound like the way actual Nazis would talk to each other, however. It sounds like the way a novelist, poring over history books for choice horrors, would talk about it, if he was used to comic banter and couldn’t find the right tone for elegy. The Zone of Interest is intended, in part, as a gazetteer to Auschwitz, yet it also seems to count on a reader who already knows a good deal about the subject. Thus, Amis doesn’t refer to the camp by name, or even as a concentration camp; instead, he uses the abbreviation “Kat Zet,” which are the German initials of the word Konzentrationslager. Without explanation, it’s clear enough what “Kat Zet” refers to, but only someone who’s fairly well informed would know exactly what it means.

If The Zone of Interest has a moral or a philosophical point, it is that Auschwitz revealed human beings as they really are. As Szmul, the Jewish prisoner, tell us early on:

Once upon a time there was a king, and the king commissioned his favorite wizard to create a magic mirror. This mirror didn’t show you your reflection. It showed you your soul—it showed you who you really were. … I find that the KZ is that mirror. The KZ is that mirror, but with one difference: You can’t turn away.

This has a surface plausibility: An extreme situation is supposed to test human beings and expose their characters. But think about it for even a moment and the idea collapses. What did the millions of Jews funneled directly from a train car to a gas chamber show about their “souls” in that experience? Is Szmul, reduced to a near-bestial state by his constant exposure to the dead, “really” a beast, who only waited until coming to Auschwitz to expose this fact? Are even the Nazi killers exposing their true selves, when most of them led perfectly law-abiding lives before and after Auschwitz?

Amis seems to have it exactly backwards: The crime of Auschwitz was to force the victims and allow the perpetrators not to be themselves, but to take on their assigned roles in an ideological apocalypse. “Here there is no why,” Primo Levi famously wrote about Auschwitz, and in the absence of free choice, behavior can have no human meaning. That is why a novel like The Zone of Interest, which clings to traditional novelistic motivations, can give us facts about the Holocaust, but not the elusive and incomprehensible truth.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.