This is one of the most wonderful times of the year. A few weeks ago was the Chicago International Film Festival. The month is Halloween season. And now the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) has started. I have been a regular of CHF for years. I first went to see Roberto Benigni with my mom where Mr. Benigni recited and explained the final canto of the Divine Comedy. It was magnificent. Also the first time I learned the wonderful turn of phrase “frozen music” to describe architecture. Years later, we saw him again recite the circle of lust from the Inferno.
I’ve seen some amazing people over the years. A few years ago we saw the director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, who I regard as a rockstar of the museum world. Elie Wiesel spoke several years ago. Last year, I saw Sherman Alexie, who was hilarious and deep. I’ve been a member for the past three years after I missed getting tickets to see the Guerilla Girls (it still hurts) and a bus tour of Chicago murals.
So Thursday night, I went to see the British author Martin Amis. He’s the son of a famous author Kingsley Amis who wrote Lucky Jim, which is regarded as the funniest novel in the English language (it isn’t). I read only one book of Amis’ but it was a doozy. He wrote Time’s Arrow that shows the life of a former Nazi doctor in reverse. It starts with his death and goes back to the moment of his birth. This highly experimental structure is so well done that you buy it quickly and willingly. it’s one of the most interesting books about the Holocaust.
Thursday night he spoke about his work as a whole and his new novel called Zones of Interest. It’s another novel about the Holocaust (he wrote only two apparently). It was amazing to see how incredibly well read he is about the Holocaust; he kept naming off historical book after book about it. He mentioned how historians and other scholars have been trying to figure Hitler out. I hadn’t thought about it before since my interest is less with the leaders but with the ordinary folk who live the historical period. So I hadn’t realized that there is this whole line of thought trying to figure out why Hitler did what he did. Stalin, Amis explains, makes sense at least; Amis explains that in order to hold to the Marxist-Leninist ideology, Stalin had to do what he did. He saw the famine of Ukraine as a calculated thing to break the peasantry. Fascinating and throughly disturbing ideas. But no one has managed to figure out Hitler’s actions. At one point, Amis did go on a 5 minute thought exercise about Hitler’s sex life, which was sort of amazing while also terribly unnerving. Oh these author imaginations!
Amis talked a bit about the writing process. He explained that he doesn’t start a novel as a decision, that sounded like writer’s block, but it comes as a feeling. He believes in the line of thought that the words are there, you just have to reveal them. He sees fiction as choosing you more than you choosing it. He also said that you should never repeat suffixes and prefixes in a single sentence. For instance, you shouldn’t use confound in the same line as confirm. Never heard that before. It messes with the euphony of the piece.
The final thought he left us with was about Putin. Someone asked him if he thinks Putin can be compared to Hitler. Amis explained that he was more like Stalin; Putin’s actions are explainable. Amis said that Putin saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as the worse thing to happen to Russia. Moreover, that collapse also made Russia into the plaything of the Chicago economists. So Putin’s actions are reacting to that. Amis said, “Never underestimate the importance of face in politics.”
Good times. I’m going to see Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis. I’m so excited.