This novella is the best thing Martin Amis has done in fiction for years: very complex, very forceful, startling in the amount of ground it covers, and densely and intelligently put together. Though there are, as I’ll discuss later, problems with it, you’d have to be dumb not to read it with admiration.
House of Meetings is presented as a manuscript memoir, sent by the unnamed narrator to his daughter and written, in old age, during a trip in which he returns as a tourist to the Russian gulag where he was enslaved in the 1940s. Venus, his daughter, grew up in America – ‘the name of your ideology, in case anyone asks, is Westernism. It would be of no use to you here.’ As his wintry travelogue unfolds, the narrator describes the years in the camp, and his relationship with his younger brother Lev, also interned there, during those years and afterwards. It represents a sort of coming clean, but with a vicious twist.
At the centre of the narrator’s relationship with Lev is a bewitching Jewish beauty called Zoya, with whom the narrator has a lifelong erotic fixation – yet who married Lev. The House of Meetings is the little hut in the gulag set aside for conjugal visits, where Lev first consummates the relationship. What went on there consumes his brother’s imagination – that tormenting unknown becoming the centre of gravity for a narrative that reaches forward right to the present.
House of Meetings reminded me, more than simply by being about a love-triangle (scalene, Amis insists), of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Greene’s Bendrix and Amis’s narrator are alike morally compromised – though Amis’s book is set in a world where ‘the acceptance of murder’ is the basic predicate of survival: we’re not long in before our narrator confesses to being an accomplished rapist, and that’s the least of the ways in which his and his daughter’s moral scales are mutually unintelligible.
It ends, like Greene’s book, in a viper’s nest of ironies. As he travels, the narrator carries with him a letter, unopened for many years, from his dead brother. Before he dies, and before the book ends, he (and we) will read it, and it will tell him, as Lev promised, what actually happened in the House of Meetings. This is not entirely a boon: ‘it is my intention … to encumber you – to hobble you – with confidences’. The letter – Lev’s damning forgiveness above all – is a sort of time-bomb in the novel. And as it detonates you realise (which by this stage you have forgotten) that the framing device is itself a letter. This whole narrative is itself a time-bomb, directed at Venus.
Amis’s narrator is a man who does wrong, and knows he has done wrong, and takes revenge for it, a sort of revenge against the world, on others. He passes the horror along; avenges his guilt by compounding the offence – the pathology of a deep, wounded cynicism. Lev tells his brother that, around Zoya, he looks ‘like Vronsky when he starts shadowing Anna. “Like an intelligent dog that knows it’s done wrong.”’
House of Meetings succeeds – triumphantly so – as a literary performance. The problem is that it wants to do more. Early on, we’re warned: ‘keep a look-out, hereafter, for other national traits: the freedom from all responsibility and scruple, the energetic championship of views and beliefs that are not only irreconcilable but also mutually exclusive, the weakness for a humour of squalor and cynicism, the tendency to speak most passionately when being most insincere, and the thirst for abstract argument…’. Elsewhere, though not without irony, the narrator says: ‘I am not a character in a novel … Like many millions of others, I and my brother are characters in a work of social history…’. The narrator’s moral condition is, Amis insists, not particular but in some way typical. House of Meetings wants to be more than a good novel: it wants to tell us something important about the world.
Here, it is less successful. Martin Amis’s best novels don’t, except tangentially, tell us about the world; he’s simply not that kind of writer. With Amis, the writing does not serve the subject: the subject serves the writing. It becomes the occasion for a literary performance; a surface on which Amis can build his verbal effects in thick impasto. Take, for example, one sentence from early in the book: ‘When you look into it, when you look into the Russian case, you feel the stirrings of a massive force, a force not only blind but altogether insentient, like an earthquake or a tidal wave.’ He’s talking about historical determinism, but the point of the sentence isn’t historical determinism: the point of the sentence is the sentence itself. The redundancies – why the first clause: why not just write ‘when you look into the Russian case’? why the repetition of ‘force’? – are admitted for no other reason than the cadence.
The problem with House of Meetings, then, stems from two contradictory impulses in Amis’s writing. What, at his best, he’s so jaw-droppingly good at is riffing and vamping and observational burlesque. His narrator is captivating because he writes – well, he writes exactly like Martin Amis. But what Amis wants to be good at is writing about the world. He wants in House of Meetings to tell us something profound about the nature of slavery, and masculinity, and love and hate and damnation and sibling rivalry and – bedad – the psychological gestalt of ‘the northern Eurasian plain’. The question, of course, is not whether he’s right, but whether he convinces. He doesn’t. Amis’s prose doesn’t illuminate historical reality – it distracts you from it.
This raises an issue of presumption – even of bad taste. The more serious the subject – the more demanding it is of reportage, of sober witness being borne – the more awful the screeching and grinding as the gears fail to mesh. And yet it is to just these subjects that Amis these days seems most strongly drawn. I think, in effect, that Amis mistakes the nature of his own talent. His Dickensian comic mode is his strongest suit – gravitas or moral clairvoyancy his shortest. But Amis still fails more interestingly than most of his peers succeed.