You may have seen that the writer Martin Amis died last week. I’ve never read any of Amis’s novels, but on hearing the news, I immediately recalled Amis’s short story ”Oktober,” a story that has lingered in my memory because of how much I have admired it ever since the first time I read it 7 or 8 years ago.
I’ve seen this story criticized as “non-fiction-ish” and “lightly fictionalized.” It doesn’t matter to me how much Amis heavily drew from his own experience and observations, as if there’s only a certain amount that’s okay. Rather, this story should be held up as an example of how we can fictionalize our own experiences to find deeper, emotional meaning on the page. Perhaps one reason this story speaks to me is because it’s archetypal in that it portrays a character on a journey, and, as Amis said:
“Even the dullest journey resembles a short story: beginning, middle, end, with the traveler displaced and, we hope, alerted.”
I admire this story for many reasons, most notably because it’s such a well-executed political story. It addresses world events on both the largest and smallest scales. In this case, the story centers on an Englishman in Munich during Oktoberfest, and more importantly, during an influx of Middle Eastern refugee movement. What the narrator witnesses is framed both by literature (Vladimir Nabokov & Thomas Wolfe) and history (Russian refugees in 1917 & German refugees following World War II).
The story’s refugee thread holds continued relevance in light of the migrations being politicized in the United States, centered around the expiration of Title 42.
One of the characters in “Oktober,” Bernhardt, is Iranian-German. He says about the migrants: “You know, they won’t stop coming. They pay large sums of money to risk their lives crossing the sea and then they walk across Europe. They walk across Europe. A few policemen and a stretch of barbed wire can’t keep them out. And there are millions more where they came from. This is going to go on for years. And they won’t stop coming.”
There are also mothers of various types appearing on virtually every page of “Oktober.” And in regard to the mothers that Amis portrays here, I would mention that one thing I admire about this story is how tightly he weaves all the threads of the story. It may not always seem so because the language is conversational, but everything seems to serve a purpose. Everything is connected. Meanwhile, the story is not so economical that it feels austere or lacking. It feels rather sprawling instead.
Amis received criticism during the last several years for some sloppy comments he made about terrorism and extremism. Some of these comments are not so far from those of Geoffrey, a British businessman in “Oktober” who has a less than welcoming attitude towards migrants. Geoffrey is also the character who brings the most shock value to the story. So while he is not a likeable character, he’s incredibly dramatic to follow.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading any of Amis’s better known works, but it was a pleasure to revisit this story and to remember all of the reasons I admired it in the first place. You can read Martin Amis’s short story, “Oktober,” online at The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/12/07/oktober. And I hope you will.
Thanks for reading. If you’re not already receiving these posts directly to your inbox, please subscribe.
In case you missed it… check out this month’s list of Submission Calls for Writers, and my conversation with Erika Nichols-Frazer, where we discussed my poetry collection Tamp and her memoir Feed Me, hosted by Birch Bark Editing.