Reviews: The Final Subject

Writing the Unwritable? The Holocaust in Fiction. A debate at the Royal National Hotel, London.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is entirely fitting that Professor Gabriel Josipovici of Sussex University should have eyebrows that look as extravagant as angels' wings. For only an angel could have moderated with scrupulous fairness on the subject of the concluding debate of Jewish Book Week: is the Holocaust, that defining tragedy of 20th-century Judaism, a suitable subject for fiction?

Martin Amis, the only gentile on the panel, thought it could and should be, as did the novelists Lucy Ellmann and Joseph Skibell. The angelic moderator had his doubts. And Bryan Cheyette, an academic who specialises in Holocaust studies, and a man long steeped in the memoirs of real survivors, was in no mood to tolerate fictional representation at all, not at first anyway. He began with a furious tirade against the unscrupulous and the inauthentic: "The difficulty is that the subject immediately gives a spurious sanctity to our words. It aggrandises the writer. And, put at its most cynical, it is not a bad career move to write about the Holocaust. If you are a non-Jew, it shows that you are serious and have a breadth of interest. Jews, on the other hand, can easily be dismissed for being obsessed by the subject."

Martin Amis, done up in a serious grey suit and blue polka-dot tie that looked as if they might have been plundered from his late father's wardrobe, thought that at least some of what Cheyette had said was piffle. Novelists don't take subjects off the shelf, he reminded him - a quick lesson to grandmother about egg-sucking. According to young Martin, novels get written from the subterranean mind.

Amis's first encounter with the subject had happened when he was a child, he told us, seeing mystifying images of smokestacks and railway tracks on television. He'd asked his mother what it was all about, and she had merely replied, protectively, and thereby redoubling his childish sense of enigma: "Hitler would have loved you with that blond hair and those blue eyes of yours...".

Cheyette was not the only one who questioned Amis's motives for writing his backwards-facing Holocaust novel, Time's Arrow. George Steiner, brooding like a ghost over this event, had once asked him whether, having written it, he would have considered not publishing it. That had been nonsense too, said Amis, because novels are written for readers. (Steiner has suppressed his own Holocaust novel, believing, like Cynthia Ozick, that there is a no-entry sign on the gates to Auschwitz.)

By the end, Cheyette had conceded that all those novelists present were men (and woman) of unimpeachable integrity, and pretty well everyone had agreed (or not bothered to disagree) that Spielberg was a disgrace to the planet. Even Lucy Ellmann, who had seemed a little somnambulistic throughout, chipped in with a harsh word or two in the closing minutes: "I wouldn't want to depend on Hollywood to deal with the Holocaust."

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