When Tina Brown signed her ex-boyfriend Martin Amis to the nascent
Talk Miramax Books, she certainly knew there was a memoir
in the pipeline; a collection
of reviews and essays was part of the deal as well. But after that,
surely, this great British novelist would surely provide — well,
a novel. Instead, we get Koba
the Dread, a history book-cum-memoir which less than two months
after its publication has already sunk to 1,440 on amazon.com’s sales
ranking. It might have made the front page of the Sunday New York Times
book review section, but the American public clearly has little time
for a précis of Stalin’s purges, interspersed with personal anecdotes
and peculiar sideswipes at Christopher Hitchens.
Bizarrely, the genre this book most closely approximates is neither
textbook nor memoir, but weblog. It was written, as far as I can make
out, while Amis was on holiday in Uruguay with "several yards of
books about the Soviet experiment". Sometimes Amis puts all those
books to one side and rattles off stories of himself at his father’s
knee in the company of Philip Larkin; most of the time he’ll pull one
of the books off the shelf and use it to bludgeon the figure of Iosif
Stalin. In keeping with the book’s solipsistic tone, thoughts of Stalin
bring up musings on Kingsley Amis, Christopher Hitchens and even Martin’s
own daughter, and so we hear about them as well.
None of it, I have to say, makes a great deal of sense. Amis jumps
around a lot, both chronologically and stylistically, and it can be
very hard to keep up. One minute he’ll be waxing grandly on the "politicization
of sleep"; the next he’ll quote a gulag survivor’s memoir just
because a particular passage speaks powerfully to him; and the next
his conversational tone will return, and we’ll get the feeling that
we’re eavesdropping on one side of an argument between Amis and Hitchens
in which a detailed knowledge of all several yards of books is assumed.
Amis is a much better novelist than he is polemicist, however, and
he has picked as an adversary one of the greatest polemicists in the
business. Hitchens’ demolition
of Amis in the Guardian is much more fun to read than the ponderous
and slightly incoherent accuasations against which he is defending himself;
review in the Atlantic starts with a section of over-generous praise
before morphing effortlessly into a well-deserved skewering session.
The real weakness of the book, however, is its historical unreliability.
Because Amis did no originial research, his prose is littered with paragraphs
like this one:
Stalin’s aims were clear: crash Collectivization would, through
all-out grain exports, finance wildfire industrialization, resulting
in breakneck militarization to secure state and empire "in a hostile
world." According to Robert Tucker, Stalin was beginning to picture
himself as a kind of Marxist Tsar; he hoped to improve and replace Leninism
(with Stalinism), and also to buttress the state "from above,"
as had Peter the Great. What remains less clear is whether his strategy
was thought through, or simply and intoxicatedly ad hoc. The Five Year
Plan, after all, was not a plan but a wish list. It was certainly Stalin’s
intention, or his need, to regalvanize Bolshevism, to commit it, once
again, to "heroic" struggle. And yet, unlike Hitler, who announced
his goals in 1933 and, with a peculiarly repulsive sense of entitlement,
set about achieving them, Stalin is to be seen at this time as a figure
constantly fantasticated not by success but by failure.
Wow. There’s a lot of omniscience here: "Stalin’s aims were clear…
It was certainly Stalin’s intention… Stalin is to be seen at this
time as". But there’s also that peculiar "According to Robert
Tucker" in the middle: is Amis hedging, or simply citing?
And he puts quotation marks around "in a hostile world", without
any indication of who or what he might be quoting. Then, that bizarre
final sentence: "And yet, unlike Hitler…" — why him,
all of a sudden? And what on earth does "fantasticated" mean,
The most withering criticism of Koba the Dread has come not from Hitchens,
or from Michiko Kakutani in
the New York Times ("the narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class
littérateur"). It has come, rather, from Anne Applebaum
in Slate."Contrary to the reviews," she writes,
"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
Amis has failed, in other words, even at the relatively modest task
he set himself. If we can’t trust his take on Soviet history, the very
foundations on which the book is built crumble, and we are left with
nothing at all.
that he’s working on a new novel, one which harkens back to the comedy
If I worked at Talk Miramax, I’d be very happy about that: Mart’s attempts
at genre-hopping only seem to land him in trouble. Bring on the old!