Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Book of the Month: House of Meetings (Martin Amis)

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.