Chapter 1

Formal matters

Martin Amis, Time's Arrow

Readers and critics have had notoriously polarized opinions about Time's Arrow's success in representing the Holocaust, in reverse, from the point of view of a Nazi doctor. Mark Lawson describes the division as one 'between those who regard the novel as astoundingly original and those who regard it as frigid stylistic tricksiness'. 1 Novelist Simon Louvish, in the second category, describes Time's Arrow as simply having 'a Holocaust theme', which acknowledges the fact that it is not easy to say whether the Holocaust is central to Amis's novel. 2 The novel's title implies that it is the formal construction of the text, its backwards narration, which is central, and that the Holocaust is only an extreme instance of something which looks very strange backwards, apparently defying the principle that 'portrayal of the Holocaust cannot be subordinated to aesthetic goals'; 3 but the text itself implies that the reason for the backwards narration is the 'time out of joint' of the Holocaust. Amis's own comments on his inspiration for the novel in the book's Afterword suggest that his interest in the reversed form preceded the morally reversed content, although his emphasis on the simultaneity of his perceptions is interesting. He describes reading Robert Jay Lifton's book The Nazi Doctors:

It's the most extraordinary donnée I've ever had as a writer. It all fell into place at once. A doctor at Auschwitz was the absolute example of the inverted world…. German doctors went, almost overnight, from healing to killing. 4

In Time's Arrow, the protagonist's years as a doctor in Auschwitz take up only twenty pages of the novel, but the repercussions of what he did during that time have a radical impact on the rest of the text. His actions inform the way the text is narrated just as they haunt his mind. It is as if this protagonist, whose real name is Odilo Unverdorben, has effected a permanent version of what Robert Jay Lifton calls an internal 'doubling'. His soul has split off from his consciousness, and this accounts for the novel's particular kind of narration, as we will see. Unverdorben lives the rest of his life with a series of new, assumed identities, under the shadow of what he did during the war years. He is unable to conduct

-11-

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Holocaust Fiction
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - Formal Matters 11
  • Chapter 2 - Documentary Fiction 38
  • Chapter 3 - Autobiographical Fiction 67
  • Chapter 4 - Faction 90
  • Chapter 5 - Melodrama 117
  • Chapter 6 - Historical Polemic 141
  • Conclusion 161
  • Notes 168
  • Bibliography 229
  • Index 233
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