Howard Jacobson’s pathological need to be persecuted

There’s a disease that strikes English novelists of a certain age and fame, that makes them think whatever small talent they have at creating Times reviewed stories means they have an unique insight into human nature and the political realities of 21st century Britain. This usually manifest in rightwing babble about the problems of the day, as exclusively revealed to whichever newspaper with spare column inches to fill, as well as through novels that suddenly tackle big political issues in the way literary writers normally reserve for dabbling in science fiction: naively and ploddingly reinventing cliches better writers had long since abandoned and being proud of it. Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are the best examples of this disease, but Howard Jacobson seems determined to join them.

Jacobson is “best known for writing comic novels that often revolve around the dilemmas of British Jewish characters” as Wikipedia puts it. Not one to hide his Jewishness under a bushell and keen to let you know how his background makes him uniquely able to provide insights into the Israel/Palestinian conflict, he has been making a nuisance of himself for years in opinion pieces. As with Amis and McEwan, his politics also infected his fiction, metastasising in The Finkler Question, made unreadable by his politics.

So it comes as no surprise that when he saw the images of Asian shopkeepers defending their communities against the riots in London two weeks ago he saw something quite different from the rest of us:

The good thing that came out of the riots was a renewed sense of community. “How does one put this without sounding gross … it was terrific to see the Asian communities on telly and not to have to think about terrorism, and not to have to think about the thing I’m always thinking about… do they want to kill Jews?”

A remark on par with Amis’ similar ones on wanting to make Muslims suffer for 9/11. But there seems to be more going on with Jacobson, he seems convinced that pogroms could break out in London any minute and that like any good Jew he needs to be prepared. It’s not a mindset that’s not unique to him; I’ve stopped being surprised at the number of middleclass Jewish people living in England or America, never having suffered any discrimination in their lifetimes, convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the killings start again. If the most important event in your history is the Holocaust, it’s not surprising some people get a bit paranoid.

With Jacobson however it almost seems as if he would welcome persecution, that he feels agrieved that there are no pogroms in England and the number of real anti-semitic incidents (as opposed to people being accused of anti-semitism because they disagree with Israeli policies) is low and has remained low for decades. Hence remarks like the above, as to him it’s inconcievable that Asian people would not want to oppress him. Call it victim envy.

Reassuring to know Martin Amis remains a knob

Wild horses couldn’t drag me in front of the television to watch Sebastian Ffaulks on fiction and fortunately it’s also forbidden under the Genevea Conventions to force people to watch his self-satisfied smug face, which is why I missed Martin Amis being a knob again. When asked if he would ever write a children’s book he said “‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book”:

Remarks about children’s books made by Martin Amis on the BBC’s new book programme Faulks on Fiction, broadcast this week, have caused anger and offence among children’s writers.

“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book,” Amis said, in a sideways excursion from a chat about John Self, the antihero of his 1984 novel Money. “I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

“I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write,” he added.

These remarks led to the usual (justified) outrage by those he targeted, but they’re really nothing more than unthinking snobbism from a has-been, a somewhat desperate attempt to remain “controversial”. Of course Amis would be disdainful of children’s books: he wouldn’t be Amis if he didn’t look down on anything that wasn’t written by him or his mates like Ian McEwan. It’s pointless to get angry at him or try to reason him out of his prejudices; he only says these things for the publicity and the image.

“I think Martin has suffered terribly at the hands of the Guardian”

Martin being Martin Amis, the quote being from his writer pal Ian McEwan, refering to Mart’s growing reputation as a racist and/or Islamophobe, because of remarks like these:

caricature of Martin Amis

“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?”

McEwan, who is slightly but not much less nuts than Amis on this subject seems to blame the Guardian for publishing articles like the age of horrorism rather than Amis for opening his gob in the first place, which seems a bit unfair. The man himself meanwhile has hit back at his critics with a spectacularly incoherent piece in, you guessed it, the despised Guardian itself:

I want to talk about the discourse, and about the kind of public conversation we should be hoping to have. But before I do that, I will pay my Islamic readers – and I know I have a few – the elementary courtesy of saying that I DO NOT “ADVOCATE” ANY DISCRIMINATORY TREATMENT OF MUSLIMS. AND I NEVER HAVE. And no one with the slightest respect for truth can claim otherwise.

Has he read his earlier remarks quoted above, or does he think that if he denies them hard enough they will go away? Because, you know, that blaming of an entire population for the acts of a few seems awfully close to racism to me, especially considering the context. Ever since the September 11 attacks Amis has left no opportunity unused to discuss his disgust at the ideology behind it and over time he has done so in increasingly general terms, culminating in that awful “Age of horrorism” article which came very close indeed in blaming all of Islam for the misdeeds of September 11.

So is Amis a racist? Not in the sense that he’ll be sticking burning crescents on the council estates of Birmingham perhaps, but at the very least he’s an arrogant, self-absorbed ignorant blowhard who mistakes his regurgitation of whichever book he last read for insight. Very telling indeed in this context is the second paragraph of his “I’m no racist, honest” piece, which begins with “When I was five or six years old, my father took me to meet a black man.” That’s the level of self-absorption we’re dealing with here.

Amis and 9/11

I remember back in early 2002 or so reading a Guardian(?) interview with Martin Amis, in which he posed dramatically as The Novelist Who Had Lost His Faith in Novels Due to the Horrors of 9/11 and even then I thought he was a wanker. Since then he has only confirmed my opinion of him, as he has gone on his own peculiar little crusade against the Muslim menace, revealing himself as yet another bedwetter.

Now Ellis Sharp was so kind as to draw our attention to a Guardian Books article by Pankaj Mishra, which looks at how Martin Amis and other writers of his generation like Ian McEwan or Don DeLillo, have made of the September 11 attacks and its repercussions. These are writers who have said that they have been shocked awake by 9/11 into an uncertain world where what they used to believe in no longer seems relevant and who have written novels exploring this new post-9/11 world. Mishra doesn’t think they have succeeded in doing so, in honestly appreciating the effects of the September 11 attacks; comparing them unfavourably to what happened in European fiction after World War One. An interesting article. Not so much interesting, as appalling, are the quotes used at the start of the article, for their sheer pomposity and cluelessness:

Reflecting on the attacks on the twin towers in 2001, Don DeLillo seemed to speak for many Americans when he admitted that “We like to think that America invented the future. We are comfortable with the future, intimate with it. But there are disturbances now, in large and small ways, a chain of reconsiderations.” On September 11, terrorists from the Middle East who destroyed American immunity to large-scale violence and chaos also forced many American and British novelists to reconsider the value of their work and its relation to the history of the present. “Most novelists I know,” Jay McInerney wrote in these pages, “went through a period of intense self-examination and self-loathing after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.” Ian McEwan claimed in a later interview to have found it “wearisome to confront invented characters”. “I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.” “The so-called work in progress,” Martin Amis confessed, “had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of pitiable babble. But then, too, a feeling of gangrenous futility had infected the whole corpus.”

Amis went on to claim that “after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.” This is, of course, an exaggeration. Many writers had intuited that religious and political extremism, which had ravaged large parts of the world, would eventually be unleashed upon the west’s rich, more protected societies.

It’s the rampant narcissism on display here that appalls me. Amis and McEwans generation of writers rose to prominence in the eighties and nineties, when there were quite a few outrages far worse than the September 11 attacks. Yet it was because the latter happened on their doorsteps so to speak that they were finally forced to pay attention, so it galls to see Amis and McEwan hold themselves up as arbiters of moral worthiness now.