I went on a book buying binge the other day. My bad. But, in my defence, none of the books I bought were full price. So that counts for something, right? Anyway, this book was in the binge, and when I saw a cheap Martin Amis novel, I knew I was going to end up with it. Let’s face it – his novels I’ve read so far have been pretty amazing.
Our unnamed narrator is back in Russia, after a self imposed exile. At the age of eighty, he had returned to the sites of his incarceration at a gulag camp during and after the Second World War. He remembers his relationship with his brother Lev, who married the woman our narrator had intended to marry, and the way this affected how each man saw the rest of the century play out in front of them.
I should start by pointing out that I have not read very much Russian literature, so I don’t really have a comparison to other books about Russia. But Amis does a fantastic job of recreating a part of history that is unwelcome in the public mindset. Obviously, Amis has a gift for writing unpleasant characters and situations, and a Russian gulag is no different. He vividly recreates the condidtions of the labor camp, from the physical squalor of camp conditions, to the social strata that pop up in the camp – right up to the lower class shiteaters. There’s a lot to love here, particularly since our unnamed narartor, for the most part, stays out of trouble. Instead, he must reflect on what his brother does when he arrives at the camp, and how his brother fits in to the already established order. Lev is, at first, willing to play the game, but by the end, he just doesn’t want to, forcing a wedge between the narrator and Lev, and setting up their relationship outside the camp.
Once the gulag parts of the novel end – about two thirds of the way through – House of Meetings does, to an extent, run out of steam. Trying to cover a lot of groun in not much time, Amis doesn’t leave himself enough room to tell us everything he wants – indeed, he barely mentions his marriage to his stepdaughter’s mother (important since the novel is a letter addressed to said stepdaughter) – and so the ending does feel rushed. In this sense, then, it does feel like a missed opportunity. This novel cries out to be a grand sweeping epic, in the Russian tradition, and yet it simply isn’t.
Having said this, the closing letter of the novel – a letter carried around by the narrator since a long time ago – is a perfect closing, and almost worth the cover price in itself. All Lev ever wanted was normality, but he has become so twisted by the experiences of the gulag, he can’t even make love to his wife anymore. The man outside the gulag gets off on the idea of physical love, but as Lev makes love to his wife for the first time in many years, he gets off on thoughts of food, of warmth, of freedom. And he can never change back to his old mindset. And he nearly goes mad because of this. This is, then, perhaps a timely reminder to the reader not to take things for granted. And yet, Amis never hits one over the head with this message, particularly since this revelation is only mentioned near the end of the novel. We want desperately to understand what has happened in the House of Meetings, but this blindlingly obvious and normal explanation makes the most sense. No lover’s tiff, no erectile dysfunction – simply the realisation of the simple things in life. A lovely thought.
Here’s the kicker, though. I reckon Amis is wasted on writing historical novels, no matter how obscure or disgusting the period of time he’s writing about. This man has such an amazing imagination and ability to write mind bendingly postmodern novels, that in many ways, I felt that House of Meetings could have been written by anyone. Sure, it’s probably better than the average historical novel, but I want more. So here’s the question, can you separate the author from their work? I’m going to go with probably not. We come to expect certain things from certain authors, and when we don’t get it, we, as readers, are disappointed. Well, maybe disappointed is not the right word. But there is a sense of loss when they don’t do what we expect. And that is, of course, completely our fault – I’m not blaming Amis at all. The thought is there, though. Who knows – maybe Amis has one trick, and when he doesn’t use it, novels don’t turn out so well.
I don’t want to put anyone off this novel – as a generic historical novel, it is perfectly competent. Indeed, it’s probably quite a bit better than competent. But, to judge it as an Amis novel, you would be (in my opinion) perfectly correct in saying it’s not one of his better works.