Martin Amis’ House of Meetings

“Russia is the nightmare country. And always the compound nightmare. Always the most talented nightmare.”

– Martin Amis House of Meetings

How could any novelist resist?

Martin Amis’ new novel House of Meetings is a book about the compound nightmare that was / is Soviet Russia – more specifically, it is the story of two brothers, one a war veteran and ‘heroic rapist’, the other a pacifist, who are thrown into a labour camp under the Stalinist regime and must spend the rest of their lives coping with the realities of political oppression, both during their imprisonment and after it. The book is also, nominally, a love story (the two are in love with the same woman) but this is at least somewhat of a red herring. As Amis unnamed narrator puts it, “I and my brother are characters in a work of social history from below, in the age of titanic nonentities.”

At this stage, it is reasonable to ask what Amis, born and brought up in England, is doing writing a novel about political oppression in Soviet Russia. “You must try hard to imagine it”, Amis writes, “the disgusting proximity of the state, its body odour, its breath on your neck, its stupidly expectant stare.” But what does he know about it? Isn’t he imagining it too?

The truth is (and this is the key reason why the book works) that House of Meetings is not so much an imagined account of political oppression as it is an account of what oppression does to the imagination, to the human spirit. Amis is not writing about a police state, he is writing about a state of mind. In the grand tradition of Dostoyevsky and Conrad (two authors he explicitly acknowledges as influences) this is a book not about oppression per se but about the idea of oppression and about the response of what we could once have called the soul.

It is also, therefore, a book that explores not only what Amis claims is a uniquely Russian attitude to life, but also that implacable behemoth – the Russian novel. Oh, there is a good deal of realism here, and a fair deal of what is no doubt carefully researched detail. But House of Meetings is not a Solzhenitsynian description of the harsher realities of labour camp existence, Amis’ Norlag is, at the end of the day, a quasi-mythical place – a state of being more than an actual barbed-wire prison. So strong is the sense of this prison camp as a mental construct that no sooner has the emotional crisis that the brothers’ stay there has been building up to (a conjugal visit for the younger brother Lev in the House of Meetings from which the novel takes its name) taken place, than the camp simply crumbles away – it takes Amis all of half a page to do away with it entirely. “When there was no prison left”, he writes, “they let the prisoners just wander away”. What other writer writing today could afford to be so explicit, so transparent about his own construction?

Amis’ credo as a novelist is, of course, to avoid the cliche – and this gives his work a deliberate, almost self-conscious quality. He is a painstaking stylist, a writer who invests an extraordinary amount of effort into a sort of baroque phrase-making, an effort to polish every sentence he writes to a glittering newness. At his worst, this pathological inability to call a spade a spade can make his work seem contrived, even trying – as when he calls the earlobe “the soft underbelly of the ear” or describes a woman’s breasts as “the pendency beneath one armpit, the pendency under the other”. But when he succeeds, and he does more often that not here [1], the result is prose of a Nabokovian inventiveness, that combines an exquisite attention to detail with richness of imagination and felicity of language to create paragraphs of prose so sparklingly beautiful you can’t help going back up the page to re-read them. Consider:

“As I ducked out of the shed and straightened up, I saw something I hadn’t noticed, on the windowsill – and much magnified, now, by a lenslike swelling in the glass. It was a test-tube, with rounded base, kept upright by a hand-carved wooden frame. A single stem-less wildflower floated in it, overflowed it – an amorous burgundy. I remember thinking that it looked like an expirement on the male idea. A poetic experiment, perhaps, but still an expirement.”

It isn’t just the fact that this is superbly written, or the intricateness of the detail. It’s the boldness of conception that allows Amis to make so lyrical a leap in the middle of what is a description of a prison scene, and the delicious, almost solipsist cleverness of a passage that ends up describing itself – for what is this paragraph if not a poetic experiment?

Yet Nabokov is not, it turns out, Amis’ principal referent. That honour, such as it is, goes to Dostoyevsky (or, as the narrator calls him, old Dusty). Dostoyevsky’s characters, according to Amis, devote themselves to the invention of pain. A similar accusation could be made against the brothers in House of Meetings. The problem, in the end, is the old, old one – mortality. As Amis puts it:

“It might even be that all the really staggering male exertions, both great and base, are brought on by this single incapacity. No other animal is asked to form an attitude to its own extinction. This is horribly difficult for us, and may be thought to mitigate our general notoriety…You need mass emotion – to know how to die. You need to be like all the other animals, and run with the herd. Ideology gives you mass emotion, which is why Russians have always liked it.”

Yes, this is Dostoyevsky country, all right. Faced with the certainty of his own destruction, and his helplessness in the face of it, man’s only hope of reasserting the self, of establishing control is to indulge in destruction himself. That, and that alone, can make him feel master of the forces working against him. Yet this urge to destruction itself can take two forms – each embodied by one of the two brothers. The older brother, the narrator, chooses to establish his superiority by inflicting suffering on others, abrogating power to himself. Thus rape becomes an assertion of manhood, killing a confirmation of the self – but behind these acts of unspeakable violence is a pathetic and ultimately vain attempt at self-belief. The younger brother, Lev, goes the other way – retreating into denial, into pacifism. Lev’s plan is self-destruction of the kind familiar to the readers of Kertesz. By denying himself the ordinary consolations, by refusing to serve the state (and the fate) that oppresses him, Lev hopes to prove himself spiritually superior. He is Alyosha to the narrator’s Dmitri. And yet his triumph is both pyrrhic and incomplete – in the end the habits of the spirit and body can never be entirely denied, and even the renunciation of what is precious provides little happiness.

But what, one may ask, is particularly Russian about this? At one level, Amis himself acknowledges that the underlying malaise is universal. And yet the western dalliance with suffering he suggests, is but an ersatz approximation of the real thing:

“There is a Western phenomenon called the male midlife crisis. Very often it is heralded by divorce. What history might have done to you, you bring about on purpose: separation from woman and child. Don’t tell me that such men aren’t tasting the ancient flavors of death and defeat.

In America, with divorce achieved, the midlifer can expect to be more recreational, more discretionary. He can almost design the sort of crisis he is going to have: motorbike, teenage girlfriend, vegetarianism, jogging, sports car, mature boyfriend, cocaine, crash diet, powerboat, new baby, religion, hair transplant.

Over here, now, there’s no angling around for your male midlife crisis. It is brought to you and it is always the same thing. It is death.”

And therein lies the difference. What state oppression does, Amis suggests, is amplify the lack of meaning, the hopelessness, the fundamental cruelty of the universe. In Russia people expect the worst, and are proved right. As the narrator describes present day Russia (he has returned there to spend his last days), the picture he paints of it is of a world of suffocation and despair. Politically, this is what the novel is about – the way that the constant need to negotiate oppression destroys not the will to live but the will to play, to imagine, to explore – replaces living with survival, joy with a terrible numbness. It is not what oppression takes away from us, rather it is what we are so afraid of losing that we become incapable of enjoying it. What is stifled is not action, but the emotion that goes with it. The House of Meetings becomes the House of Partings.

Overall then, House of Meetings is a fascinating read, one that is both a gripping exploration of grand ideas as well as a tortured and authentic love story, with dashes of sparkling social observation and the breezy flavour of playful self-reference thrown in for good measure. It is, in some indefinable but fundamentally spiritual way, a Russian novel; and it is one of the best things Amis has ever written.

[1] It helps that the novel is written as a long letter from the narrator to his step-daughter. This makes some of Amis’ over-wrought fussiness more bearable, and allows him to pass off some of the more clunky contrivance in the book as the writings of a man self-consciously trying to justify his own life.