I feel some what foolish. Someone alerted me to teh fact that Christopher Hitchens had a review of Koba the Dread in the new issue of The Atlantic. I do not subscibe and it wasn’t online so I went to a bookstore – no luck the old issue was still sitting on the shelf. Today, I passed a bookstore, saw the new issue, and bought it. It turns out they had posted to the web site afterall!
Well, I will save you all that trouble. Here is Hitchens’ review: Lightness at Midnight.
In it, Hitchens begins with some kind remarks and begins to point out the strengths of Amis’ work and career. However, Hitchens soon gets ire up and ends with an rather brutal and eviserating critique of Koba:
With infinitely more distress I have to add that Amis’s newly acquired zeal forbids him to see a joke even when (as Bertie Wooster puts it) it is handed to him on a skewer with bÃ©arnaise sauce. . . The questions are so plainly wife-beating questions, and the answers so clearly intended to pacify the aggressor by offering a mocking agreement, that I have to set down a judgment I would once have thought unutterable. Amis’s want of wit here, even about a feeble joke, compromises his seriousness. . . I do not mean these to sound like commissar questions, or wife-beating questions either. On the first and perhaps most important one posed by Amis, for example, I find that I never quite know what I think myself about this moral equivalence. Nor did I quite know when I was still a member of a Marxist/post-Trotskyist group, when such matters were debated from dawn until dusk, often with furious or thuggish Communists. However, I do know from that experience, which was both liberating and confining, that the crucial questions about the gulag were being asked by left oppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to C.L.R. James, in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescient heretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expected far worse than that, and often received it), but I can’t bring myself to write as if they never existed, or to forgive anyone who slights them. If they seem too Marxist in tendency, one might also mention the more heterodox work of John Dewey, Sidney Hook, David Rousset, or Max Shachtman in exposing “Koba’s” hideous visage. The “Nobody” at the beginning of Amis’s sentences above is an insult, pure and simple, and an insult to history, too.
I think both Hitchens and Amis have too much personal history and intellectual baggage involved to deal with this issue “straight.” But Hitchen’s scores some points simply because Amis can’t get beyond his own life and mind. Hitchens has his own bliders but is more practiced at the art of literature as polticial warfare.
Well worth a read in any case. I promise not to post anymore on this book (unless aboslutlely neccesary). OK? OK.
UPDATE: Anne Applebaum covers the above fracas and adds her intelligent two cents to the issue:
Few things are more amusing than the sight of fashionable literati insulting one another in print. Yet one finishes the review feeling that Hitchens isn’t trying very hard. Of course Christopher Hitchens, a man who has publicly attacked Mother Teresa, can bat away a book that contains sentences like “I didn’t read The Great Terror [Robert Conquest’s classic account of the purge years] in 1968 … but I spent an hour with it” without blinking an eye. More to the point—and contrary to the reviews—Koba the Dread is not, in fact, a competent account of Stalin’s reign but rather a muddled misrendering of both Soviet and Western intellectual history. For that reason, the deeper points Amis seems to have been trying to make about the Western relationship to Soviet terror are lost on Hitchens and will probably be lost on everyone else as well.
She offers a much harsher critique then me:
In the end, one puts down Koba the Dread and wonders why it was written. Yes, indeed, Martin Amis appears to be very angry about something. Perhaps he is very angry about his father’s death. Perhaps he is very angry about being a fiftysomething novelist who has run out of things to write about. Yet by inexplicably funneling his displaced anger into a poorly conceived, improbably hysterical diatribe against Stalinism, he has neither revealed anything new, nor retold old stories in an interesting way, nor done any victims any favors. Amis poses, at the start of the book, a legitimate question: Why do we think it is OK to make jokes about Stalinism, to laugh at a political system that killed millions of people? By the end of the book, we no longer want to know the answer.