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Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis – review

Martin Amis’s latest book shows his changing vision of London.

Lionel Asbo: State of England

Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99

Although he is nowadays associated with American rhythms and American women and American real estate, and has a taste for writers with names such as Saul and Kurt and Don and Elmore, the most ambitious, seductive and, at 62, promising English novelist of his generation started off as a neo-Dickensian. “For I had begun to explore the literary grotesque,” Charles Highway explains, giving an account of his “nocturnal reading”, a little way into Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), “in particular the writings of Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, to find a world full of the bizarre surfaces and sneaky tensions with which I was always trying to invest my own life.” Occasionally, Charles Highway finds something in the writings of Charles Dickens so close to his desires for his own life that he plagiarises it – or perhaps, in wearing “wiry wings” on either side of an “else” bald head, Charles’s father was simply plagiarising Mr Podsnap.

Like Angus Wilson and Edmund Wilson, like George Gissing and George Orwell, like V S Pritchett and F R Leavis, Amis expressed strong views on Dickens’s legacy. “While assured of his status as a great writer,” he wrote in the New Statesman in November 1973, “Dickens is still uncertain of his status as a serious one. He insists on being romantic, melodramatic, unrepresentational (like his trashier contemporaries) and will not be adult, introspective, mimetic (like the major Victorians).”

Following Northrop Frye, Amis saw the Dickens novel as the stage for a conflict between the “congenial” society, “mostly featureless and uniform . . . normally based round a quite young, and quite boring, couple”, and an “obstructing” society that is “far more exuberantly imagined”. Being “more vulgarly romantic” than Jane Austen, Dickens transformed these opposed societies into “the hidden, elemental worlds of Good and Bad”. The amnesiac heroine of Amis’s fourth novel, Other People: a Mystery Story (1981), reads a Dickens omnibus and notes that, in every story, “a nice young man and a nice young woman weaved through a gallery of grimacing villains, deformed wags and rigid patriarchs until, after an illness or a separation or a long sea voyage, they came together and lived happily ever after”.

Amis’s version of Dickens’s work – what it stands for, what it amounts to, the possibilities it flourishes – is narrow, to say the least, and so when he composes a more or less straight piece of updated Dickens pastiche, as he has done in Lionel Asbo: State of England, it is best to lower, or narrow, your expectations. The novel contains a nice young man in Desmond Pepperdine, orphan and autodidact; a nice young woman in his girlfriend, Dawn Sheringham; and a grimacing villain, or a grimacing anti-hero, in his uncle Lionel Pepperdine (“the great asocial”), “a subsistence criminal” who changed his name by deed poll to Asbo when he turned 18.

Lionel, being Desmond’s guardian, doubles as a rigid patriarch. The last-act reunion of Desmond and Dawn comes after an illness and a separation. Long train journeys take the place of long sea voyages.

Six years Desmond’s senior, Lionel is “a heav­ily weathered 21” when the novel begins. He doesn’t get any healthier as things progress, though he does get richer, and very quickly. About a quarter of the way into the novel, Lionel learns that he has won “very slightly” less than £150m in the National Lottery. He becomes tabloid-famous overnight (“Lotto Lout” is just one of his many alliterative nicknames). Then, after another stint in prison and a period of aggressive bachelorhood, he picks up a poet/glamour-model girlfriend, the colourful “Threnody”, all the while proving worthy of mock-heroic vocabulary (“Lionel betook himself to the Bolingbroke Bar”) and mock-heroic, Shakespearean allusion (“Propped up on silken pillows, Lionel Asbo sat in the great barge of the four-ton four-poster”). But all the money and fame and splendour make Lionel feel numb. He misses his old life; he even misses jail (“You know where you are in prison”).

If one can tell the preoccupations of an Amis novel by looking out for the phrase “much on X’s mind/s”, then London Fields (1989) is about death (“Death is much on people’s minds”), The Pregnant Widow (2010) is about sex (“Sexual intercourse . . . was much on everyone’s minds”) and Lionel Asbo is about the criminal law (“Criminal law was in any case much on his mind”). Desmond, who has committed statutory rape by having an affair with his 39-year-old grandmother, becomes a crime reporter, to his uncle’s dismay. There are scenes set in a courtroom and a remand prison. A murder committed early in the book has consequences further down the line. But the novel is also concerned with other symptoms of social decay – with single mothers and gang violence and all those things that have been much on Amis’s mind and that evidently left him feeling, like Terence in Success (1978), that there was nothing for him to do in London except gaze at aeroplanes and beg them to take him to America. (Eventually one did.)

It is tempting to see the London of Lionel Asbo less as a caricature of the declinist viewpoint than as a straightforward presentation of how things look to a physically vulnerable, surrealistically well-spoken family man who spends more time reading Saul Bellow and conservative newspapers than walking the streets – the “moronic inferno”, not as nightmare, but as reality.

It is clear by now that Amis’s updated Dickensianism is at least as interested in race as class. “We live in Bayswater – district of the transients,” writes Terence in Success: “A fucked-up Arab comes here and is an automatic success”; his sort-of-brother Gregory describes taking “a late safari down the Bayswater Road and Queensway, that unpoliced, forsaken strip of cruising Mediterraneans, sick vagrants, wheeling drunks and rare taxis”. In The Information (1995), we encounter such formulations as “given a black eye by a black guy”, “as black as the bedroom of Dominique-Louise”, “a big black guy in a big black leather coat”, “the black guy cast out of black iron”. Samson Young, the narrator of London Fields, explains that Keith Talent was struggling because: “[B]lack people are better at fighting than white people, because, among other reasons, they all do it (there aren’t any civilians).”

Although Diston Town, the borough where Desmond and Dawn live, and where Lionel lives until his Lottery win (and pines for once he has moved to Essex), is “as white as Belgravia”, Lionel Asbo contains some queasy-making reflections on race. Despite the lack of black or Asian competition, Lionel’s “training tools” for his dogs include “ethnic mannequins”. Awestruck fetishism of the Attenborough variety characterises the description of Desmond’s skin colour (“café crème, with the shadow of something darker in it. Rosewood, perhaps: close-grained, and giving off a distinctive fragrance”).

Towards the end, Desmond suffers a nasty case of UVI (urban vulpine influenza), a disease that shows “a shameless preference for people of colour”. We are invited to smile at the rhyming of “yardie” with “jihadi”. An omniscient narrator shouldn’t be cleanly equated with the author any more than a partial first-person narrator; still, it isn’t much of a leap to see Amis as the source of these obsessions.

But in Amis’s work, a setting exists not just for its polemical possibilities but to provide “opportunities to write well”, as he once put it. In the past, writing well has meant de­familiarisation: “Dusk was now falling; but the firmament was majestically bright; and the contrails of the more distant aeroplanes were like incandescent spermatozoa, sent out to fertilise the universe . . .” (Yellow Dog); “the big sky and its zoo of cumulus – its snow leopards and polar bears” (Time’s Arrow); “With a boyish flinch Keith looked up into the evening sky, whose pale pink, as usual, managed to suggest the opposite of health, like the face of a pale drinker” (London Fields). Notwithstanding all the usual pedantry and preciousness, the writing in Lionel Asbo is frequently pleasurable, at least for those with a taste for defamiliarisation. However, readers with other tastes, other needs, may not feel wholly satisfied by the unvarying regime of visual details (a stereo system “with its tiny but furious red eye”, the Serpentine “minutely runnelled by the wind, like corduroy”) whose sole aim is to prompt a response along the lines of: “Yes, it does look rather like that.”

Lionel Asbo is a contentedly throwaway piece of work, as can be deduced from the almost complete absence of reflections on physics, fascism and the waning powers of the middle-aged novelist. Yet it does offer a portrait of positive virtues, of ideal living – of human potential, as skewed by Amis. It is typical of this nuance-blind writer that, after bearing inordinately bad news for almost 40 years, he has undergone a complete reversal. (In accordance with the wider changes, the sky’s main appearance in the new novel has it looking not ill or wild or drunk, but “embarrassed” by the “adamant clarity” of the morning and “blushing an ever deeper blue”.)

As Amis’s taste in Philip Larkin has moved from “Dockery and Son” and “This Be the Verse” to “An Arundel Tomb”, so his sym­pathies have shifted from Dickens’s deformed wags to the nice young man and woman. Although the novel is tricked out with Dickensian characterisation, plotting and nomen­clature (Squeers, Carker, Murdstone), those elements of Dickens’s world to which Charles Highway aspired now represent everything we should try to avoid.

Dickens is called upon as a writer whose dealings with the grotesque function not as an end in themselves, a source of delight, an opportunity to write well, but as a mere tool of bourgeois utopianism. The state of much of the England portrayed in Lionel Asbo may be dreadful but it is there only as a reminder of the multifarious threats posed to the “congenial” society – with its blushing skies, singing kettles, babbling babies and fawning, boring couples.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide