“I was no stranger to the flash of lightning; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt.” —Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest
I get it. Amis is out of fashion. He’s the bad boy of the literary world, the angry wunderkind who never grew up and always writes about sex. He’s also, in my book, a damn good writer and the first sentence of his most recent novel proves it.
Or maybe not. The sentence is symmetrical. It’s balanced on a semi-colon. But symmetry is passé. So are semi-colons. They recall a past when style and diction were more exalted, when writing was less immediately accessible, when authors expected their readers to work.
This is the reason I find his work so alluring. Amis evokes, perhaps unknowingly, a linguistic tradition I’ve spent much of my adult life studying. One of the basic features of Classical Hebrew is the symmetry of its sentences. Every single one, minus a handful of exceptions, was spoken in two parts. Each word possesses an accent—sometimes more than one—which indicates how that word relates to those around it. The principle that undergirds the accents is the idea that each sentence must have two halves. It must have balance; it must be symmetrical.
The clearest examples are from the poetic sections of the Bible. For instance, Psalm 18:5 (verse 6 in Hebrew versification): “The chords of Death surrounded me / and the chords of Pestilence fell upon me.” This line is symmetrical both in length and content. We could scan its structure as A B / A’ B’.
But even straightforward prose sentences were thought of as having two parts. “Ehud sent out his left hand and grabbed the sword under his right thigh / and plunged it into the king’s belly” (Judges 3:21). This second half of this sentence does not repeat the idea in the first half. Nonetheless, its author saw the latter part as extending the action mentioned in the former. This sentence could be broken in two. But its author chose not to because to do so would destroy the symmetry.
It’s no wonder that people regard Amis as not growing up, of not getting in sync with our time. The first sentence of The Zone of Interest—the very first sentence—is out of step with the way we speak. It’s stilted and formal. It’s equally weighted. It’s grandiose, megalomaniacal, almost. Biblical in form, proportion, and scope. What his critics fail to see is that this sentence is perfectly calibrated. A single word nixed or added would destroy the feel.
What if it read: “I was no stranger to the lightning; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt”? The symmetry is tighter—seven words in each half instead of nine to seven. “The flash” is superfluous, after all. The phrase makes complete sense without it. But if these two words are left out the sentence is too simple. It rolls off the tongue and puts the reader to sleep. There’s no longer anything interesting about it.
Or what if it read: “I was no stranger to the lightning flash; I was no stranger to the thunderbolt”? The words are the same (minus a the in the first phrase) but the cadence is off. It feels flat and lifeless. It makes me want to close the book.
The slight imperfection of the original sentence is what makes it interesting. In her collection of essays, Study in Perfect, Sarah Gorham describes an aesthetic within Japanese pottery: “To the Japanese, an object of supreme beauty must contain an imperfection.” It may be counter intuitive to some of us but tiny flaws are what separate masterpieces from plasticity and kitsch. Amis has the ability to compose absolute symmetry, but he has the skill to avoid it.
The slightly off-balance nature of this sentence drew me into the book and caused me to think about the ideas embedded in its structure. The beauty of its construction invited my curiosity. What lightning? What thunderbolt? Are we in the realm of metaphor or not? And why is this person on such intimate terms with something so dangerous and powerful? I wanted to keep reading to discover the answers.
And that’s what good writing is: constructing a string of well-crafted sentences, each one causing the reader to continue to the next. The reason why Amis is such a good writer, despite his at times infantile behavior, is because nearly all of his sentences do this, from the first to the last.
Amis isn’t perfect. That’s what makes him a damn good writer.