Making Sense of the Holocaust by Means of Backward Narration

Martin Amis's Time's Arrow

Seminar Paper 2007 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Criticism and the Form-Content Problem

3. Narrative problems in Holocaust literature

4. The danger of Aestheticising Auschwitz

5. Making sense of the Holocaust
5.1. Temporal Reversal
5.2. Moral Reversal

6. Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors and Time's Arrow
6.1. Doubling
6.2. The Healing-Killing Paradox

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The problem of finding appropriate ways to represent the Holocaust has been haunting Holocaust literature ever since Theodor Adorno's famous dictum that there cannot be any poetry after Auschwitz.[1] In fact, the uniqueness of the Holocaust raises serious ethical questions whether there can be any appropriate representation of these atrocious events at all. As the horror of Auschwitz goes beyond human imagination, the problem boils down to the one question: How can you imagine the unimaginable?[2]

Martin Amis's novel Time's Arrow or the Nature of the Offence (1991) has a rather bold answer to this question: by narrating it backwards. In the novel, the story of the Nazi doctor Odilo Unverdorben is narrated vice versa, following his life from end to start through the eyes of a ghostlike narrator who emerges at the point of his death. As the technique of backward narration distinguishes Time's Arrow from almost any other Holocaust fiction, in the following my focus will be on the novel's use of narrative reversal to represent the Holocaust. I will argue that the technique of backward narration offers a way to make sense of the Holocaust and Nazism in general, thereby showing that the novel's form and content are inseparably linked. In order to do this, I will first go over some of the negative criticism that Time's Arrow was exposed to, focusing on the problem of form and content. I will then show how backward narration offers a solution to specific problems in Holocaust literature and how it helps to avoid the danger of aestheticising Auschwitz. After that, I will point out that backward narration can help to understand the Holocaust, exploring the connections between Nazism and the temporal and moral reversal effected by narrative reversal. Finally I will examine the influence of Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors on Time's Arrow. By applying Lifton's theory of psychological doubling to the novel, the close connections between form and content will once again be highlighted.

2. Criticism and the Form-Content Problem

Since its first appearance in 1991, Time’s Arrow evoked a wide range of critical reactions, reaching from praise to utter rejection. As one might except of a topic as sensitive and morally charged as the Holocaust, Amis was criticized for choosing Auschwitz as the theme of his novel. Critics argued that he only chose the Holocaust because it was fashionable to write about it; touching on the subject would guarantee Amis public attention. It was also questioned whether a non-Jewish author should write about the Holocaust at all. Holocaust literature by a member of the race of the ‘perpetrators’ would diminish the weight of Jewish voices.[3] Furthermore, as Time’s Arrow focuses on the representatives rather than the victims of Nazism, it may lead to the conclusion that the Jews’ sufferings were less important than the Nazi perpetrators.

However, most of the critical voices were not concerned with these rather general issues but with the specific feature of Time’s Arrow: its use of backward narration for representing the Holocaust. In the eyes of these critics Amis’s obsession with the technical problems of narrative reversal and its possibilities for ‘showing off’ the novelist’s stylistic mastership prevails the moral concern of writing about the Holocaust. As Sue Vice remarks, this “subordination of content to form”[4] is already suggested by the novel’s title, as it rather points to the reversion of temporal order by the reversion of narrative chronology than to the actual theme of the novel.[5] In fact, the Nazi past of the novel’s protagonist takes up only the last third of the novel. The remaining two thirds depict his post-war life in America, introducing the reader to the topsy-turvy world which results from backward narration. Narrative reversal often has quite funny consequences, and the narrator goes into great detail describing these consequences.

The lengthy exploration of the comic effects of backward narration and the seemingly short treatment of the Holocaust topic are also at the core of Michiko Kakutani’s criticism in his New York Times review of Time’s Arrow:

Unfortunately, the bulk of the novel seems like an extended setup for this emotional payoff pages and pages of sophomoric humor laid as groundwork for one hugephilosophical point. As a result, the reader must wade through the first threequarters of the book, which reads like a virtuosic but mannered performance by a writer eager to exploit the comic possibilities of a structual gimmick, before getting to the heart ofthe matter. Perhaps this is exactly what Mr. Amis intended, but it's a risky narrative strategy more suited for the short story form than a novel. As it is, the topheavy jokey part of the book overshadows its somber conclusion, blunting its larger moral ambitions.[6]

In the following, however, I will try to point out that rather than subordinating content to form, in Time’s Arrow form and content are inseparably linked. Rather than just providing a means for stylistic showing-off, backward narration in Time’s Arrow is crucial to an understanding of the perverted logic of Nazism and the Holocaust.

3. Narrative problems in Holocaust literature

On the most basic level, narrative reversal serves to avoid a general problem of Holocaust literature – the lack of suspense. I don’t want to claim that there is no suspense at all in Holocaust fiction, as the very cruelty of the events described alone should be enough ‘exciting’ for the reader; as my inverted commas show it would actually be wrong to judge Holocaust fiction by the standard criteria for literature. But one cannot deny that to a reader aware of the historical facts, the storyline and the end of any narrative dealing with the Holocaust are already familiar. By telling its story backwards, Time’s Arrow avoids that very problem as it changes the normal narrative order. As Sue Vice notes, it “paradoxically […] gives the reader a reason for wanting to read this particular story, which might seem too straightforwardly unpleasurable the right way round.”[7] Thus, it makes an otherwise appalling story more intriguing. It also avoids the problem that the reader, being permanently confronted with the most awkward atrocities, might finally grow numb to these cruelties. Jeffrey Brendle remarked that at the end of Time’s Arrow, “we are no longer shocked by atrocity. We have grown accustomed to atrocity, desensitized.”[8]. In my opinion, quite the opposite is true: Time’s Arrow avoids desensitizing the reader as it constantly compels him to ‘reverse the reversion’, to square the backward narrated story with his own memory of what really happened, leading to even greater horror. Considering the great amount of Holocaust literature, backward narration thus avoids the “danger of automatization”[9] by the permanent public commemoration of the Holocaust in the media.


[1] Cf. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Refelections on Holocaust Literature ( Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980) 13-14.

[2] For a more detailed examination of this topic confer Christian Kny, Representing the Holocaust: Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (Augsburg: Term Paper PS Literature and the Holocaust, 2007).

[3] Cf. Sue Vice, Holocaust Fiction (London: Routledge, 2000) 13-14.

[4] Vice 12.

[5] Cf. Vice 11.

[6] Michiko Kakutani, ”Books of The Times; Time Runs Backward To Point Up a Moral”, 23 August 2007 <http://www.martinamisweb.com/reviews_files/time_runs_backward.pdf>.

[7] Vice 20.

[8] Jeffrey Brendle, “Forward to the Past: History and the Reversed Chronology Narrative

in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow”, American journal of semiotics 12 (1995): 425-445, at 435.

[9] Brian Finney, English Fiction Since 1984. Narrating a Nation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 66.


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Making Sense Holocaust Means Backward Narration Literature Martin Amis



Title: Making Sense of the Holocaust by Means of Backward Narration