To Kill All Day

Frank Kermode

  • Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million by Martin Amis
    Cape, 306 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 224 06303 0

This book is primarily the product of some fiercely hard reading, a reaction to the shock of finding something out from books. It has some directly autobiographical elements – a letter to the author’s father, reminiscences of a dead sister, chats with Christopher Hitchens, tales of Oxford and the old New Statesman office, and so on. But fierce reading is what this book is about, and these other passages seem intrusive. It would have been enough to observe a good writer wrestling with material that clearly tested his nerve.

What he provides is an account of his deepening amazement as he learns more than he formerly knew (always feeling he ought to have known more) about a series of historical events horrible almost beyond understanding. The interest of the reader must be in the writing, in observing what this writer can do in order to speak what seems to him, and to most of his readers, unspeakable. Such work calls for extensive rhetorical resources. One traditional way of doing this kind of thing was to use irony, or what the rhetoricians called apophasis, a device of negation whereby, to cite an illustrative passage in the OED, ‘we deny that we say or doe that which we especially say or doe.’ Another is aposiopesis, an artifice by which, as the dictionary explains, ‘the speaker comes to a sudden halt, as if unwilling or unable to proceed, though something not expressed must be understood.’ The word is ordinarily used of sentences that stop before they end, and grammarians, from Ben Jonson to Martin Amis, normally disapprove of such sentences; but aposiopesis may be allowed as a structural feature, as when Yeats ends his ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ by claiming that he cannot continue his roll call of Gregory’s friends because ‘a thought/Of that late death took all my heart for speech.’

We may grant Yeats command of that trick and also say that to confront horror with irony calls for the powers of a Swift. Neither of these devices was available to Amis, unless one were to argue that there is, within his book, ‘something not expressed that must be understood’: if so, it is, roughly, a forlorn apprehension of all humanity as the virtually unresisting prey of the powerful, mad or sane – of men who enjoy, day in and day out, the infliction, on an enormous scale, of pain, misery and death.

In 1757 Dr Johnson wrote his imperishable review of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Looking afresh at this masterpiece, I see that Jenyns would have made a deft Leninist apologist. As far as the ‘universal system’ goes, Jenyns says, ‘there is no more pain in it than what is necessary to the production of happiness.’ Johnson replies, with studied moderation, that possibly ‘the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to the good,’ an opinion that would very likely have got him sent to the Gulag, while Jenyns was being showered with honours.

As the review goes on Johnson’s strictures grow more severe and indignant. Jenyns imagines that there may be, in the scale of being, creatures higher than we, who might be thought to deceive and torment us for their pleasure, just as we keep animals for our diversion. Johnson develops this great idea: perhaps, he suggests, some of these beings

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