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Ohdave's Sunday Reading
Gulag Fields

[Originally published at Ohdave's Into My Own.]

Martin Amis' recent novel House of Meetings is a fascinating and dark novel, readable but unlikeable, compelling but repulsive. Its main character is a war criminal and more or less unrepentant rapist for whom it becomes increasingly difficult to feel sorry, in spite of the ten brutal years he spends in the Soviet slave labor camps. What kind of book is that--one in which you feel compelled to keep turning pages, even though you find it hard to like? The affirmation a reader seeks in the midst of the despair, pain, and agony seems to never arrive in House of Meetings, but the inventive prose style of Amis and his treatment of the magnum opus of 20th century Russian history pulls you through the muck.

What can you say, for example, about a novel that identifies a caste of characters (pun intended) called "shiteaters"? Thank god, the "shit" seems to be metaphorical here (although that's never made explicitly clear) for the "slop" thrown out by the kitchens in the Soviet workcamps. "Shiteaters" are the lowest caste in the Soviet labor camps, but even among the shiteaters there is a hierarchy between those who merely stand and eat shit, and those who gobble it up on all fours. These are the depths of human depravity, or misery, which Amis depicts in his harrowing novel: how low can we go?

The novel's narrator can go pretty low. Unnamed, he is an octogenarian returning to the scene of his crimes and his imprisonment, all the while writing his memoir in the form of a letter to his American stepdaughter Venus. She serves as his unwitting confessor to his war crimes: he "raped his way across Germany" during the war. The speaker's relationship to this young woman is never really clear, as the narrative more or less ends with his defection to America in the 80's, and his stepdaughter seems to be a product of that untold American life. All we know about it was that the narrator's marriage with Venus' mother was "chaste" but loving. At the end of his life, she is all the readership he has, all that he cares about or corresponds with: he asks her to give his memoir a single printing, one copy only, which will belong to her. No one else is left to read it or to care. In the few footnotes she applies to the text, she provides precious little information about herself, but the apostrophes provided by the narrator tell us she is a with-it, pierced, and self-assured 20-something.

The narrative then is a frame, and both stories more or less begin in the slave labor camps in the Soviet Gulag. In the outer frame, the old man is revisiting these sites as a tourist in Putin's Russia; but the interior narrative begins there also, as the younger narrator as a prisoner in the camps discovers the arrival of his brother in the same place. His brother Lev, upon arrival, gives him some shocking news: he has married Zoya, the Jewish sex kitten upon which the narrator has lavished a fascination, practically a fatal attraction. All of the narrator's darkest impulses come to the fore: secret desires that his brother die, profound lust for his sister in law, yet all the while he protects his smallish brother in the camps from unwarranted violence and the affection of much larger fellow inmates. They endure together in the camps, with Lev becoming stronger and working to get the best assignments, protecting their status in the camps. One serious disagreement arises when the narrator leads a camp rebellion which Lev refuses to participate in. The rebellion earns a few meager rights for the prisoners, but Lev on his own earns the right to communicate with his wife, and even earns the right to a conjugal visit with her in a cabin in the camp known as "the house of meetings."

Following Stalin's death, the camps are closed, and the narrator manages to purchase a certificate of rehabilitation. He earns money by repairing and installing televisions for the nomenklatura, but eventually turns to the black market arms business and gets rich. Lev and Zoya eventually divorce, and Lev is remarried and has a son who is tragically killed in the Salang Tunnel during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and battles with the mujahadin. Lev dies shortly after. It is 1983. Following the funeral the narrator meets with Zoya who has married a famous Russian playwright of the Soviet era. The narrator lashes out at her, telling her she is a sellout. Later, she comes to his hotel. In a "shallow coma that normally precedes recovery" from alcoholism the narrator begins having sex with Zoya, to which she seemingly wakes up, saying "Oh, fuck, yes," but then becomes enraged when she realizes what is happening. Our protaganist returns to his warlike past: "...I remembered how you did it: the heavy palm over the airway, while the other hand..." A few months later she throws herself from a bridge over the frozen Moscow River.

The House of Meetings stands as a haunting moment for the narrator, whose brother warns him that what went on there would change him forever. At the end of his life, the narrator finally reads the letter from his brother about that day in the Gulag at the House of Meetings, and the letter tells him that the camps had taken away all joy from his life. He says that he discovered there that the camps had taken away his sense of "play"; he could still love but not enjoy the pleasures love brings. During his sex with Zoya, all he could think about was food.

So what, in the end, is the point? That violence and sex are intertwined? His only love seems to come in a marriage without sex. That the violence of state power infuses itself into the psyches of men? Poisons them into becoming violent and oppressive in their own spheres? The novel is full of observations and possibilities, that it seems reductive to pinpoint a single theme; instead we are left to imagine the ways that men can be drawn to the violent power that oppresses them, just as the men don't seem to want to leave the camp once they finally can. Meanwhile, there is the thread of pointless, horrible, nihilistic violence that pervades the novel. The narrator's nephew's death in a tunnel, for example, or the murder of schoolchildren in Chechnya that is ongoing as the narrator composes his memoir.

Another of the novel's powerful themes, the self-infliction of pain, is expressed in the following excerpt, with which I will conclude this piece on The House of Meetings, a haunting and provocative read:

Your peers, your equals, your secret sharers, in the West: the one Russian writer who still speaks to them is Dostoevsky, that old gasbag, jailbird, and genius. You lot all love him because his characters are fucked-up on purpose. This in the end was what Conrad couldn't stand about old Dusty and his holy fools, his penniless toffs, and famished students and paranoid bureaucrats. As if life isn't hard enough, they devote themselves to lives of pain.

And life isn't hard enough, not for you... I'm thinking of your first wave of boyfriends--eight or nine years ago. The shat-myself look they all favored, with the loose jeans sagging off the rump; and the eviscerated trainers. That's a prison style: no belt or laces--lest you hang yourself with them. Looking at those boys, with their sheared heads their notched noses and scarified ears, I felt myself back in Norlag. Is this the invention of pain? Or a little reenactment of the pains of the past? The past has a weight. And the past is heavy.

...There is a Western phenomenon called the male midlife crisis. Very often it is haralded 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, joggin, sports car, mature boyfriend, cocaine, crash diet, powerboat, new baby, religion, hair transplant.

Over here 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.

Links, reviews and more

The above essay's original URL here.

The On Point Interview which is at its best, I'm afraid to say, when the listeners are asking the questions rather than the host.

The Guardian's Digested Read, a comical one page imitation of the novel.

The New York Times has its say.

The Village Voice review, a sharply written pan, the beginning of which begs for an excerpt:

There's a passage in Kingsley Amis's novel That Uncertain Feeling (published in 1955 when his son, Martin Amis, was six) in which the hero gazes at his modest bookshelves, hoping to find something to read, and disappointedly classifies their contents as follows: "No, it was no good; one book would tell me what I knew already; another what I couldn't understand, a third what I knew to be untrue, a fourth what I didn't want to be told about—especially that."

Uninvitingly, House of Meetings, Martin Amis's 11th novel, adheres most closely to the first and fourth categories. It tells you what you already know (life in a Stalinist labor camp was awful) and what you probably don't want to be told about (life in a Stalinist labor camp was awful). It further intimates that all life is a pretty grim business, and if the state won't screw things up for you, you'll probably find ways to do it all by yourself.


The best review I found is here, in the New York Magazine, which is hilariously and intriguingly entitled, "Amiserable: Come on, Martin Amis, you can do worse than this. An excerpt below gives a better and fuller discussion of Amis' style, with quotes, than I ever could:

Amis remains, for my money, the world’s best writer of vivid, zippy prose-bursts. His natural unit of thought seems to be the comic riff, an approach that lends itself to some genres better than others. His career-spanning collection of book reviews, The War Against Cliché, is a masterpiece, and probably his most satisfying single book. But his talent translates less easily to the novel, where he tends to look like a sprinter running a marathon, trying to compensate for muscle fibers and long-term racing strategies he doesn’t actually have. It feels like he’s trying to write entire books out of first sentences. It doesn’t help that he takes a defiantly narrow, self-handicapping view of the genre. He has called plot a “secondary” concern, along with (incredibly) “characters, psychological insight, and form.” He’s obsessed, above all, with style: The gamble at the heart of every Amis novel is that the prose itself will be so orgasmically dazzling you’ll forgive the fact that he’s omitted 80 percent of what makes fiction actually work. This leads to certain obvious deficiencies—most seriously, that his characters are all just Amis himself with a fake mustache or boobs; like him, they tend to quote Auden three times a page and speak in fluent Nabokovian sentences. (Amis is king of the Nabokov knockoffs.) He’s so devoted to Voice he doesn’t care about the nuances of actual voices. In House of Meetings, the narrator writing his memoir sounds exactly like his brother speaking aloud, who sounds exactly like his wife, who sounds exactly like the narrator’s American stepdaughter adding footnotes to his memoir after his death. You might say that Amis doesn’t actually write novels at all, he writes brilliantly stylish essays about fictional situations. His phrases are his real characters; his sentences are his plots. Reading even the best Amis novel is like watching a highlight reel: It’s breathtaking, but soon you start to miss the mundane drama of the actual game.

Even mediocre Amis, however, is better than most writers, and House of Meetings has plenty of great moments. His metaphors are still dazzling: A primitive Soviet TV looks “like an especially disgraceful deep-sea fish,” a disgusting handshake is “like holding a greased rubber glove half full of tepid water,” and the narrator’s aging brother develops “a bald patch, perfectly circular, resembling a beanie of pink suede.” There are several convincing stat-filled mini-essays about the decline of Russia—plunging life spans, climbing syphilis rates—and he powerfully distills the ironies of totalitarianism: “Something strange was happening in the Soviet Union, after the war against fascism: fascism.” But, tragically, even style is beginning to desert him. It often feels like he’s working from an Amis template: And there was x, with its y and its z, its q, its r, and its s. “And there we were, Lev and me, with our books and our thick periodicals, our basic German, English, French, our heavy chess pieces, our maps and charts.” He strains to jerry-rig profundity out of gimmicks: italics, ellipses, and faux-poetic repetition. (“I too had crossed over into the other half of my life: the better half. He crossed over and I crossed over. We crossed.”) Two thirds of the way through House of Meetings, the narrator warns his reader to “keep an ear out for my clucks of satisfaction—the little snorts and gurglings of near-perfect felicity.” We didn’t need the heads-up. At this point, the music of Amis’s prose is almost entirely drowned out by self-satisfied snorts and gurgles.

The unofficial Martin Amis website, full of resources on the author.

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