House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Knopf. 242 pp. $23.00
Martin Amis’s new novel may be the first serious literary treatment by a non-Russian of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, called Russia’s “sewage-disposal system”: the prison camps that flourished in the Soviet Union from almost immediately after the October Revolution until well into the 1960’s. Solzhenitsyn also anticipated Amis’s main theme when he presented the essence of the camps’ moral code in a prisoner’s motto: “If they’re not f—–ing you, don’t lie down and ask for it.”
The affinity is less surprising than it may sound. No theme is more consistent in Amis’s novels than that of potency—especially male sexual potency. From his hectic and candid first novel The Rachel Papers (1974), through his black comedy of literary failure The Information (1995), to his recent, much-derided Yellow Dog (2003), Amis has examined, in sometimes excruciating detail, the ups and downs (as it were) of masculinity. These same vicissitudes inform the pages of House of Meetings, which is as much a tale of sexual cruelty as of physical and spiritual suffering.
Amis addressed the historical subject of the Gulag once before, in his non-fiction book Koba the Dread (2002)—a brief, dense account of the origin and nature of the Soviet prison-camp system and of the failure of Western liberals to respond with outrage to its ghastly enormities, or indeed to respond at all. Drawing heavily on the writings of others, notably Solzhenitsyn and the Anglo-American historian and poet Robert Conquest, Koba is a work of social and political history. But it is also, and simultaneously, an extended personal meditation—on Amis’s own position as a bourgeois artist, on the death of his sister Sally, on his close friendship with the left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens, and on his relationship with his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis.
A kindred autobiographical impulse is on display in House of Meetings. The book’s unnamed narrator, a Russian now living in the United States, is himself an amateur memoirist. Having served as a soldier in Stalin’s army during World War II, he was later incarcerated in Norlag, one of the worst of the Soviet labor camps. Decades later, returning to Russia in safety and comfort on a luxury tour that takes in the former Gulag, he begins to put down the story of his life, the details of which include not only his own prison experience but the arrival in the same camp of his younger half-brother Lev, their joint and separate sufferings, their eventual release, and the moral (in Lev’s case also physical) degeneration that followed upon their reentry into freedom. The narrator addresses these reminiscences to his stepdaughter from a late marriage, a paragon of Western youth, possessed of “good diet, lavish health insurance, two degrees, foreign travel and languages, orthodonture, psychotherapy, property, and capital.”
The story of the two brothers’ horrendous struggles merely to stay alive in Norlag supplies much of the novel’s narrative drive. But the real crux of the book centers on a brutal and unequal love triangle. Before his arrest and imprisonment, Lev had married a Jewish woman named Zoya with whom the narrator himself was deeply obsessed. The information—which the narrator learns only upon Lev’s arrival in camp—induces in him a shattering dismay; thereafter, his efforts to protect his frail half-sibling are tinged by a mixture of morbid fascination and sublimated hatred. The narrator, who describes himself as having raped his way across the Eastern front, cannot fathom how the physically unprepossessing Lev could have captured Zoya’s affections. At the same time, he is the sort of man who has always indulged a passionate erotic interest in his ex-lovers’ liaisons—an “endless wank about the past.”
Undergoing starvation, extreme physical abuse, factional warfare among their fellow inmates, military intervention, and afflictions of an astonishing variety and complexity, the two brothers do manage to survive. Upon his release, the narrator becomes a black-marketeer and medical engineer before finagling his way out of the Soviet Union and landing in America; Lev, who remains in Russia, withdraws entirely from Zoya and allows their marriage to disintegrate, taking up instead with a mousy nurse, fathering a son who grows up to join the Soviet army only to be killed in an accident emblematic of the regime’s pathological carelessness, and finally dying of what seems to be spiritual exhaustion. Some years after Lev’s death, the narrator looks up Zoya in Moscow and makes a drunken, half-successful sexual attempt on her, in response to which she leaps to her death from a bridge, her blood coloring the ice of the frozen river beneath.
To readers of Amis’s work, the motif of asymmetrical relations between two literal or figurative brothers is as recognizable as the theme of sexual potency or the lack thereof. Unbreakable pairings fill his books: the two foster brothers penned in a tiny Bayswater flat in Success (1989), the two novelists locked in (more or less) mortal combat in The Information. Even the comparatively sunny adolescent romantic rivalry of Charles Highway and DeForest Hoeniger in The Rachel Papers foreshadows the competitive struggle between House of Meetings’s narrator and his brother.
The novel’s prose, too, is typical of Amis and his acid, epigrammatic style. Zoya reacts with distaste to the “ferrous hormone of war” emanating from the narrator’s body; a cigarette propped up by the lips of a camp commandant resembles a “piccolo that would trill [his] praises.” In one extended passage addressed to his stepdaughter, the narrator reflects, in Amis’s trademark mode of slightly abstract and deliberately self-aware meditation, on the feelings aroused by his release from camp:
I am a stranger in a strange land. A freshly glittering landscape is opening up before me: I mean the mundane. God, what a beautiful sight. There will be ups and downs, of course, especially for your step-uncle [Lev] and his spouse, but for now these lives rise and fall as they will. We no longer sense uninterruptedly the leaden mass, the adenoidal breathing, the moronic stare of the state. How can I evoke it for you, the impossible glamor of the everyday? We are safe, for now; above us is the boilerplate of banality.
Since the start of his career, Amis has labored relentlessly to perfect the rhetorical skills deployed here to such undeniable effect. For all its somewhat obtrusive virtuosity, moreover, a passage like this does approach at least the verbal style of The Gulag Archipelago, the book to which House of Meetings owes its greatest literary debt. But House of Meetings is also Amis through and through—and therein lies the difficulty.
The difficulty is not unlike the one that besets Amis’s earlier book on the Gulag, Koba the Dread, a book both framed and penetrated by Amis’s own experience. His life, his friendships, his sorrows are the life, friendships, and sorrows of an upper-middle-class intellectual who has never wanted for anything. They are rich and interesting in their own right, and one sees the point of introducing them into the book: here, Amis is saying, is an English novelist of a certain class and type encountering both the phenomenon of Soviet Communism at its horrifying worst and the historic complacency displayed by his class and type in the face of it.
Still, in the end Koba the Dread tells us more about the novelist and his encounter than about the phenomenon in question, and as a result we can never quite trust what he does tell us about it. It is the same with House of Meetings, which is less a novel of the Gulag than a novel that, imbued with Martin Amis’s bitter vision of human relations, told in his hard voice, and dressed in his polished style, only happens to take the awful history of Russia in the 20th century as its occasion.
Is it needlessly fastidious to find fault with this? After all, Amis’s talent for high and showy writing has been put to good use in illuminating his themes, especially the sexual one as defined in terms of Solzhenitsyn’s indelible motto. But complete engagement with a subject of such world-historical import, and bearing such a catastrophic weight of human suffering, requires more than acrobatic prose. Specifically, it requires the capacity to create characters and situations that live on their own, outside their author’s imprisoning projections and obsessions. For Amis, the Gulag and its inhabitants finally seem only another subject on which to exercise his writerly bedazzlements: literary fodder.
This is not a matter of any lack of immersion in the subject, let alone of Amis’s not being a witness himself. Being a witness, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, does not in itself a novelist make. It is far more a matter of moral imagination and moral sympathy. House of Meetings is a formidably executed performance, and its study of human failure reaches lacerating depths; but it is Martin Amis’s gifts and psychological preoccupations to which we are constantly being directed, and not to the tens of millions of souls who languished and perished in the Gulag archipelago.