It is bitterly cold as you enter the pub, already chastising yourself for agreeing to the night out. Evening out with your work colleagues can be fun if you get on well with them and enjoy their company. If you are in open conflict with some or more of them or have the reputation of being an irascible git, it has its advantages, as you won’t get invited. But what if you are the popular guy in your department, well-liked by your colleagues and— this is the nub of the problem—they labour under the erroneous belief that you like them, and—perhaps this is the real nub of the problem—you lack both the courage to decline the invitation and the ability to think on your feet to come up with a plausible-sounding excuse why you are not prepared to waste an evening of your life in their company instead of doing something useful like watching ‘South-Park’? It is not that one hates one’s colleagues (well, may be, a few of them); it is just that the effort of broadening one’s vowels while speaking, pretending to enjoy billiards, and standing for hours on end in the middle of a throng collectively smelling like a sinkful of unwashed dishes, trying to hide one’s indifference (affecting interest, even) to pointless anecdotes about the domestic lives of people whom one is obliged to see and interact with at work but about whom one doesn’t really care, can be very tiring.
‘Oh, here he is,’ shouts Betty, a pestiferous blonde in her 40s, who works at the reception in our company. She has parked herself on a chair which seemes about to collapse under her weight. Judging by the carnage visible on the table in front of her—empty packets of crisps, salty peas and, anomalously, a half-eaten apple, were lying like road casualties—Betty has been there for at least 10 minutes.
‘Dieting, are we?’ you ask smiling, you hope, maliciously.
‘Get off, you. You are always pulling me legs,’ screeches Betty like a railway engine.
You look around. The pub is not yet crowded. You become aware, at the periphery of your vision, of a presence. A middle aged man with an unhealthy paunch is staring at you, trying, so it seems, to arrange his facial muscles into something resembling a smile, but not making a good job of it. He looks vaguely sinister.
‘Have you met Patrick?’ hollers Betty. ‘He joined our team last week. He is the only man amongst us babes.’
You look at Patrick. ‘Lucky you,’ you say after some time. ‘ Are you settling down in your job?’
‘Yes,’ replies Patrick, ‘everyone has been most helpful.’ He speaks slowly, either trying to convince himself that everyone is indeed helpful, or weighing the possibility that he might be dealing with a retard.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ you ask Patrick with a sinking feeling that he is going to say Yes.
‘Yeh, thanks. A pint of Fosters,’ Patrick replies without a trace of hesitation that has plagued him a moment ago.
‘You know Joe, don’t you?’ Betty points at a waif behind the bar with a ponytail and sparse beard which clings to parts of his face and jaw, like cobwebs.
‘You’ve met Joe,’ says Maria, who, you realise, is standing next to you all along. She is non-descript in the sense there is really nothing to describe.
‘Who is Joe?’ you ask.
‘My hubby, you silly. You came for our wedding reception, remember?’
You then remember, with the exaggerated quality of a stimulant rush, the dreadful reception, held in some hole in the wall, which you had attended, you suppose, for the same cowardly reasons you are here tonight.
‘Of course I do,’ you say. ‘How is married life treating you?’
‘Very well, thank you.’
‘Joe and she are so much in love,’ Betty interjects.
‘How do you manage it?’ you ask.
‘Well, it is not something you ‘manage’, you see…’, Maria begins explaining as if you’ve asked her to explain the theory of relativity.
‘Sorry, I was asking Betty.’
‘Asking me what? How do I manage what?’ Betty asks. You can almost see her tiny brain trying to wrestle with the obviously intricate question you’ve asked.
Phoney, superficial, breezy and enthusiastic about matters no one with an ounce of brain would care a jot about, and being an interfering busybody. You say, ‘You are so passionate about things. And you seem to be in the know.’
‘I have got a big heart,’ Betty thumps on her bosom, winking at the same time. ‘If only people would care to find out.’
In utter revulsion you turn to Patrick. ‘I’ll get your drink’.
‘I am dying of thirst, here,’ Patrick says with mock-anger.
‘Only figuratively, unfortunately.’
You make my way to the bar. Joe bares his teeth at me in greeting. It is a blow to the optic nerve. Looking at him you wonder whether his blood-line isn’t thinned by a series of peasants and servants.
‘How you doing, Guv?’ he asks cheerily.
‘I doing fine,’ you say.
You order a pint of Fosters for Patrick and a pint of spiced ale for yourself. You are feeling rather hot and, while taking off my coat, you accidentally dislodge a bauble attached to the bar as a Christmas decoration. For some reason Joe finds this indescribably funny. Indicating to a buxom girl hovering behind him that she should serve me my order he rushes out to his wife, presumably to tell her the funny story.
‘I’ve obviously lightened up the proceedings in this establishment,’ you take a pause. ‘Natalie,’ I add, looking at her breasts. In response Natalie shrugs her shoulders, as high as her mammaries would allow, and rolls her eyes towards the ceiling.
You return to where our group was standing.
‘Here you are, Gary,’ you hand Patrick his pint.
‘The name is Patrick. Not Gary.’ Patrick is back to his slow-speaking mode.
‘Funny. I could have sworn you said Gary.’
‘No, it’s Patrick.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I think I know my name.’
‘Fair enough. Patrick it is,’ you concede.
By this time one more colleague, Sebastian, has joined the group. A shortish woman with face longer than the Nile is standing next to him with a look on her face that says she fervently wished she were somewhere else, whom he introduces as his wife. Whether she looks wretched because, like you, she is hating every minute of the dreadful evening or—this is also a possibility seeing her coiffure—because she is mulling over the disastrous, possibly suable, experience she has obviously had with her hairdresser is difficult to tell.
‘So what do you do…Umh,’ you realise that you’ve already forgotten her name.
In reply the unnerving line of her mouth shifts a little so that what you are witnessing is either a smile or a snarl. Sebastian beams.
‘ Jocasta is a painter,’ he shouts over the din Betty and Maria are making.
‘Really? How interesting.’
‘Oh, yes! Jocasta is very talented,’ Sebastian added in an aggressive tone that hinted at unspeakable consequences for anyone who dared to differ.
‘Excellent. Can she also speak?’
‘Just joking. She is very quiet. What sort of painting do you do, Jocasta?’
‘She does acrylic painting,’ yells Sebastian. His wife looks at him as if she would, at that moment, relish nothing more than strangling him.
‘I should slip ground glass in his tea,’ you say to Jocasta.
‘Excuse me?’ So she can speak.
‘With luck, his oesophagus will get ruptured, and he will bleed to death. Or you could put arsenic in his food. That will take time, though, and you will have to be patient,’ you say.
‘Look, I have got a sample of her art-work, here.’ Sebastian produces a small catalogue of Jocasta’s painting with the moronic enthusiasm of a Springer spaniel who has brought something disgusting from the bush and is looking expectantly at you expecting a reward.
‘Umh…That looks…interesting,’ you say.
‘What do you do, then?’ Jocasta asks me.
You tell her your job-title.
‘Oh, so you are Sebastian’s boss who makes him work so hard,’ she says with the air of a woman who has just then discovered the source of the evil blighting her life.
‘I don’t think I could make Sebastian work harder if I tried. I don’t think anybody could make this guy work,’ you pause, ‘harder’.
‘Ha, ha, ha. Ho, ho, ho. You are funny, mister,’ says Sebastian.
‘I am not joking.’
‘I am proud of what I do.’
‘Of course you are. And you should be.’ You turn to Jocasta. ‘Your husband is in his job for fifteen years and is dumb enough to be still proud of it.
‘I used to be a teacher,’ Jocasta volunteers further information about herself.
‘So why did you give up? Did the children say,” Boo”?’ you ask, smiling at the same time to indicate you are joking, in case she looks like taking offence at the insult.
‘ I just wanted to do, full-time, what I had always wanted to do.’
Even if you’ve absolutely no talent for it? You say, ‘That is really brave of you. Not many people would have the courage to give up the security of a regular job and embark upon an artistic career, which—how shall I put this?—is a journey into the unknown’, hoping that if she has any regrets about leaving her job, this little speech would add to that feeling. ‘How is it panning out?’
‘Not very well, I am afraid. I am not sure how long this artistic phase is going to last.’ You are pleased to hear.
‘Don’t give up,’ you say. ‘Persevere and you are sure to succeed.’ You sincerely hope that Jocasta would persevere at her painting for a few more years in the false hope that thing would look up, which they most definitely wouldn’t, and, after adding and dividing all the emotions of her ‘artistic phase’ would come up with an average of disappointment, deciding, then, forlornly to return to teaching (at which, you are sure, she was equally inept) except that having spent so many years away from the profession she would get a job only as a classroom assistant, which would add to her sense of failure.
‘That’s what I keep on telling her. You give up too easily, my girl,’ Sebastian’s pat on his wife’s bottom is almost a slap.
You are beginning to lose interest in the conversation and are looking for a way to escape. Just then someone taps on your shoulder. It is Patrick.
‘Hi Gary,’ you say. ‘You still here?’
‘Patrick. I just wanted to ask whether I could get you something.’
‘That’s very kind of you Gar…Patrick, thanks. I wouldn’t mind bitter shandy.’
‘How was the spiced ale?’
‘Dreadful. Undrinkable. Horse-pee would taste better,’ you say. The ale is excellent.
‘Oh! I was going to try it.’ Patrick sounds disappointed.
‘Don’t even think of it.’
Patrick mutters and nods as if his worst suspicions about the human kind have just been unequivocally confirmed, and trundles along to the bar. You wonder whether Natalie would remember your name; then realize that you did not actually tell her your name; then accept the fact that even if you had told her your name it wasn’t likely that she would remember it; and, finally, counterbalance this bitter truth with the solacing thought that if her breasts were half a size smaller, you probably wouldn’t remember hers.
You are painfully nudged in your ribs. It is Maria. She is cackling. ‘Joe asked me to keep you on a tight leash. He is worried you will rearrange the furniture and all the decoration before the night is over.’
I shall certainly rearrange the facial architecture of that cretin. You say, ‘Does Joe own this pub?’
‘Don’t be silly. He just works on the bar.’
‘What does he do?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What’s his job?’
‘This is his job.’
‘Are you saying,’ you say, appearing to weigh your words, ‘this is Joe’s full-time job? I see.’
‘Yes. And he is very happy in it. There are cleverer people like you to solve the world’s problems,’ Maria retaliates.
‘Well, as you said, he is happy doing it. That’s what is important. You have to have that inner happiness. Not everyone knows or accepts what he is good at.’
This seems to pacify Maria, as you expect; she is a bit thick, and not very good at ferreting out hidden insults.
Patrick comes back with bitter-shandy.
‘Thank you . . .’ you pause. Patrick waits. An unpleasant, truculent look comes over his unattractive face. ‘Patrick,’ you conclude. You note with satisfaction that he hasgot a pint of Fosters for himself.
Bette gets up from the chair, which cries out in an excruciating pain-relief. Betty, you notice, is wearing a tight skirt (an unfortunate choice of garment, you have always thought, if one is carrying extra ballast behind), which shows her mammalian thighs and large ugly feet to terrible disadvantage. She is not a site for sore stomachs, Betty.
‘You are a one to talk about keeping others on a tight leash,’ she says to Maria. ‘She can’t hold her drink, this one. I have never been out for the evening when she hasn’t vomited after a few drinks.’
‘I have got a sensitive stomach,’ says Maria, probably her idea of a witty remark.
‘Will you please rush to the loo at the first taste of bile in your mouth, because I have a sensitive nose?’ you say.
‘Why are you so horrid?’ asks Maria.
‘Don’t be horrid to Maria,’ says fat Betty.
‘I am just being practical,’ you say.
‘I went out with Fay last night,’ says Maria to no one in particular.
‘Do you spend any evenings at home at all?’ you ask.
‘Don’t listen to him, pet,’ says fat Betty. ‘He is being awkward.’
‘Anyway, as I was saying, I was speaking to Fay last night . . .’ continues Maria.
You look around. The pub is slowly getting filled by the usual cavalcade of curios one sees in such establishments. An old man with enormous belly and fantastically chromatic nose—is it Rhinophyma? You wonder—from either side of which spreads a dense network of burst capillaries, merging into the unhealthy drinker’s flush on his cheeks. He stands, legs wide apart, arms akimbo, next to our group; casts several glances in the direction of Betty’s buzukas, then looks away.
‘Two years,’ you say aloud.
‘What?’ It is Patrick, standing next to me, making this query.
‘I wasn’t speaking to you.’
‘Yeh, but… What were you saying?’
‘When you look at that fat edentate, what do you see?’ You ask Patrick.
‘A fat what?’
‘Never mind that. What do you see when you look at him?’
‘I see a guy who has come to the pub for a drink. He just wants to have a good time. What do you see?’
‘I see gluttony, greed, sloth, and indecent avarice. And he shall meet his comeuppance.’
‘How?’ Patrick asks.
‘A coronary if he is lucky. A stroke, if he isn’t. That will reduce him to incontinent cabbage. Do you think he will still drag his sorry arse, smelling of urine, here, to have a good time?’ You scowl at Patrick intensely.
Patrick opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again. ‘I’ll get myself another drink,’ he murmurs, and slinks away.
You begin looking around again. A gaggle of mouth-breathers had collected near us. One of the thicos is regaling his mates with the hilarious story of the shit someone called Gerry got into when his bird caught him at it with another bird. Next to him is standing a woman who is giggling as if she were sixteen, but, judging by the dried-cod texture of her skin, she was probably past it when the Beatles were playing.
Just then you hear the word ‘prostitute’ and turn your attention to Maria. Maria is still going on about Fay, who, it turns out, was working for some charity that works with ‘sex-workers’, the politically correct phrase for tarts, to improve their lives and reduce risks to their health.
‘But, wouldn’t the risks be reduced if these unfortunate women stopped prostituting, and got decent jobs, like the rest of us?’ You ask.
‘It’s not as simple as that. Not everyone is born lucky, like you, who get everything laid out for them on a platter. It is a complex issue. These women lead shitty lives, and what they don’t need is ignorant comments from the privileged, smart-arse middle classes.’
Maria then gives you a lecture about how it is not easy life being a prostitute. Apparently sucking every cock on the street is a lonely and dangerous way to live. It takes courage.
‘Let’s have some music,’ says Betty and bends forward towards the jukebox, her rump sticking out and her skirt pushed further up her thighs. You look around to see what the old geezer is up to, hoping that he is looking at Betty’s buttocks and that the excitement would bring the coronary there and then. But he is near the bar, leering at Natalie who, out of a sense of charity, appears to be humouring him.
‘Do you have any recommendation?’ Betty asks me.
‘Oh! Do you like them?’
‘Can’t stand the bastards.’
‘Why do you want me to put them on, then?’
‘Seems appropriate for the occasion.’
‘Oh, you are wicked, you are,’ Betty’s double chin mutates into quadruple-chin as she cackles.
The song begins. a woman starts wailing why nobody loves her. Probably because you wouldn’t stop singing you think to yourself. You are beginning to get a headache. You look at your watch and are amazed to notice that two hours have passed. Betty is dancing, if that is not a hyperbole to describe the laborious, elephantine shuffling of her feet while rooted to the same spot. Her face is turned upwards towards the ceiling, her eyes are shut tight, and she is silently mouthing the words of the banshee’s song. ‘The silly cow actually knows the lyrics’ You wonder in amazement. Sebastian is gesticulating, and appears to be speaking animatedly, no doubt boasting about how he won a super-deal for the company, lamenting at the same time how is talent goes unrecognised despite years of service. Jocasta, his talentless wife who can’t paint (and probably can’t teach) is looking increasingly mournful. Joe has joined the group, grinning about God knows what as he listens to Sebastian’s boasts. Patrick is nowhere to be seen.
‘OK guys, I shall disappear now,’ you say.
‘Oh!’ say Maria. ‘We are thinking of going clubbing after this. Don’t you want to come?’
‘I’d love to, but I don’t have a low-life visa.’ You say.
Betty wakes up from her reverie. ‘Are you going then? Give the old girl a kiss, then’ she spreads her arms.
‘You are not old, Betty,’ you say.
‘Oh, you are sweet.’
‘You still have a couple of years before you’ll need to be shot.’
‘There he goes again. What do we do with him?’ Betty surges forward, bounces you against her breasts, and plants a slobbery kiss on your cheek, her boozy breath clearing your sinuses.
‘You should do this more often. This is real life, not in your office in front of the computer. You meet real people here,’ shouts Sebastian.
‘Thanks for the advice,’ you say. ‘And you don’t forget to give a good shake or two when you are in the loo, so that you don’t come out with wet undies.’ And you walk out into the night.
Tuesday, 6 May 2008
In recent years Martin Amis has been preoccupied with many a weighty matter on which he has written at length, attracting approbation and hostility in equal measures. It feels as though Amis has decided that the rich subject matters of his earlier, incisive, satires—the world of upwardly mobile, Baby Boomer generation—are not weighty enough. He is a writer in search of gravitas.
House of Meetings is Martin Amis’s 11th novel, and it is about, in keeping with Amis’s recent preoccupations (or fascination)—he published a work of non-fiction on Stalin (Koba the Dread) a few years ago—, Russia during the Soviet epoch. More precisely it is about, a large part of it anyway, Russian Gulags, or the slave-camps, in which millions, all Soviet citizens, were incarcerated. It seems that the fierce condemnation of Stalin that was Koba the dread was not quite enough to exorcise the demons—what demons, some might inquire, can someone of Amis’s privileged English background have in connection with a system, of which neither he nor anyone in his family had any experience—and after five years, he has disgorged House of Meetings, the fictional companion to Koba the Dread. It is either that or Amis, going through a creative hiatus after his entertaining (and unfairly panned) Yellow Dog, has hacked out a novel from the material he gathered while researching for Koba the Dread.
The novel is a letter written by an unnamed ‘foul-tempered and vile-mouthed’ octogenarian—he prefers to say, tongue firmly lodged in cheek, that he is in his high eighties, and not in late eighties because of the unfortunate connotations of the word ‘late’—as a long communiqué to his step-daughter. The narrator, who has made a fortune in America, is visiting his mother country. He is travelling on a cruise-ship, up the Yenisei River from Krasnoyarsk and across the Arctic Circle, to Predposylov (a fictional city based on Norilsk), on the outskirts of which, on the slopes of Mount Schweinsteiger, was situated one of the gulags, Norlog, where he was incarcerated for years with his half-brother, Lev. This, as the narrator informs his step-daughter in the first few pages, is a love-story; it involves the two brothers and a Jewess whom both of them love. The narrator is no hero. As a young man, he informs without any trace of remorse, he raped his way, as a member of the rapacious Red army, through East Germany, and received decoration for his bravery. At the end of the war, during one of Stalin’s last waves of terror, he is declared, on the flimsiest of evidence, an enemy of the state and is transported to the gulags in Siberia. Just before his incarceration he falls in love, contrary to what even he admits as his base nature, with a young vivacious Jewess, Zoya, though his passion remains unrequited. Within two years he is joined in the gulags by his half-brother, who, the narrator is inwardly mortified to learn, has married Zoya. The two brothers are released from the gulags in the mid-fifties during the (relatively) liberal Khrushchev era as non-entities. For three years before their release, Zoya has been visiting Lev, travelling all the way from Moscow to the slave-camp, along with other wives of men incarcerated in the gulags, to the eponymous ‘House of Meetings’. Lev and Zoya get back together, but things don’t work out and they separate within a few years. They both get remarried; she to a man considerably older than her—the narrator suspects for his money—who has been in his youth a literary apologist for the Stalinistic regime and has been suitably rewarded; he to a shy young woman the narrator suspects to be a virgin. He has a son, who, predictably, gets killed in the Afghan war in the eighties. Soon after, Lev dies. The narrator, who has amassed considerable wealth in the preceding years, has decided to immigrate to America. Before his departure he meets Zoya who is still married to the old man and is spending more and more time of the day under the influence of alcohol. Zoya rejects the narrator’s proposal to accompany him to America, but comes to his hotel room, later, where, when she is practically comatose with alcohol he rapes her. The book ends with the old narrator dying in a hospice of an immune deficiency syndrome.
Martin Amis, like his father, started of as a comic novelist and writer of social satires. Both of them made their names and reputations with novels that were quintessentially English, Kingsley Amis perhaps more so than Martin, although both, from time to time, have moved into what a critic once described as other countries. For Sir Kingsley, the ‘other country’ was mostly metaphorical—in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Amis pere tried other genres such as horror and science fiction, the latter being a long-standing interest, with mixed success, before returning to, with Jake’s Thing, the terra firma of social comedy, from which he saw no reason to veer till the end—whereas for the son, the ‘other country’ has been metaphorical as well as literal. In his 1991 novel, Time’s Arrow, Amis took on the subject of Holocaust, a daring act for an English novelist, who was born four years after the Second World War, and had no personal connection to the genocide. There are those who believe that it is impossible to capture the full horror of the Holocaust, which was beyond imagination, in a novel, certainly not when the novelist has no personal experience of the horror. But Amis pulled it off, not least by the cunning device of having his protagonist live his life backward, from an all-American citizen in the present day to a newborn German baby in the young century, with visits in between to the death camps, where he had played a not insignificant role. Time’s Arrow remains, together with Schindler’s List (Arc), one of the very few novels written in original English on the subject of Holocaust. In some ways its achievement is greater than that of ‘Schindler’s Arc’ for which Thomas Kenneally won the Booker award—Time’s Arrow, too was short-listed for the Booker, only to be pipped at the post by ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Sacred Hunger’—in that it was a total fiction—the protagonist was a creation of Amis—unlike Schindler’s List, which was a fictionalised account of the heroics of Oscar Schindler. Time’s Arrow was a departure from the novels Amis had published till then, not only in respect of its subject matter but also its prose-style.
In the interviews he gave at the time of the publication of Time’s Arrow, Amis insisted that the novel was one of a kind, that he was essentially a comic novelist and not a political one. The subtext was: Amis had no intention of jettisoning the genre and style that had made his reputation as one of the outstanding comic novelists writing in English. His two subsequent full-fledged novels, ‘Information’ and the vastly underrated Yellow Dog saw him returning to his old style with his trademark fizzy language, which, as one critic (aptly) described, had a domino effect—‘one word or phrase nudging the next into motion and prose zooming along.’ During this period he also published his highly acclaimed memoirs, Experience which examined his relationship with Kinglsey Amis, and the cruelly and harshly reviled Koba the Dread. And now, with House of Meetings, he has decided to dip his toes in the waters of one of the dark chapters of twentieth century history: Stalin’s gulags.
House of Meeting, at one level, boasts of some of the distinctive features—peculiarities for some—that one associates with a Martin Amis novel, particularly intellectual violence. The protagonist is not a character most readers would warm up to: a multiple rapist, who lusts after his brother’s wife (and rapes her, too, when she is vulnerable after his brother’s death), makes his wealth using dishonest means, and legs it to America in the 1980s. The harshness and the daily barbarities of the Gulags are described starkly with no punches pulled. While there are occasional surges of linguistic vibrancy—Amis’s coruscating and sardonic wit shines brilliantly, for example, when he describes the wars between ‘the brutes and the bitches’ in the gulags; it also leaves the readers awestruck, and not only at the excellence of writing— that has won Amis many admirers, the tone, overall, in keeping with the sombre subject-matter, is more measured and subdued. The language, for most part, is sparse, almost minimalist, and, accustomed as one has become to Amis’s customary explosive literary flourishes, it takes some time to get used to the pared-to-the bone style of House of Meetings. It also has a curious effect of disconnecting the readers from the pathos of the story. It is not easy to convey poignancy using this style, which, one suspects, does not come naturally to Amis, unlike, say, Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark. Was Amis responding to the unnecessarily harsh criticism his last novel, Yellow Dog, with its ‘gratuitous word-play’, was subjected to from some quarters?
At less than 200 pages (paperback edition) this is a slender novel, and there are times when the readers may be left with a feeling that Amis is shoehorning too many themes. Therein lies, I think, its drawback: unlike the audacious ‘Time’s Arrow’, it tends to lose its focus at times. Although the narrator declares at the beginning that it is a love-story, it is not just that: it is also a commentary on Russia, and what the narrator describes as its slow decay, firstly under the stifling Communism, and later, under the post-Soviet corruption and chaos. From time to time, true historical events and their descriptions are thrown in for good measure. The diverse, albeit related, elements that form this conglomerate do not always gel effectively; they add very little to the narrative flow, indeed, at times, prove to be annoying distractions.. The narrator’s animadversion of the successive Soviet regimes—Stalin, Khrushchev, and Breznev—is too American in its intellectual posture. It is Amis, the Westerner with his comfortable, upper-middle-class heritage, who is criticising, and not the survivor of the gulags. You are hard pressed to believe that the narrator is a Russian (albeit a one who has lived for more than a decade in the West) and that Russian is his first language. He does not strike as a real character. It is almost as though Amis, preoccupied with moralistic fastidiousness, has little interest in verisimilitude.
In one of Kingsley Amis’s early novels, That Uncertain Feeling, is a passage where the hero classifies the books on his bookshelves into four categories: books which would tell him what he knew already; books which he couldn’t understand; books which wrote things he knew to be untrue; and books which told what he did not want to be told about—“especially that”. It might be argued that ‘House of Meetings’, which, as Amis has openly acknowledged, derives its inspiration from several recent works of non-fiction on this grim subject—the title itself seems to have been inspired by descriptions in Ann Applebaum’s excellent ‘Gulag’ of the designated place of assignation for the men in slave camps and the few wives who made the journey, having been unofficially allowed visits in Khrushchev’s regime to spend a night with them, and some of the experiences of Lev seem to have taken from, with insignificant alterations, from Janusz Bardach’s memoirs Surviving Freedom: After the Gulag—the fictional narrator even recommends this book to his fictional niece—, tells what those interested in the subject already know (barbarities in the gulags), and many others may not want to know (barbarities in the gulags).
House of Meetings is Amis’s bleakest book. It has its moments, but leaves the reader untouched and unsatisfied. It is not quite the epic it aspires to be. In a recent interview Amis announced that his next novel will be autobiographical and ‘everyone will hate me again.’ I certainly hope so. I should rather be hated than pitied as a writer past his sell-by-date. We await the return of Amis of the old.