Thursday, March 22, 2007

Books: House of Meetings by Martin Amis

House of Meetings, the latest novel by Martin Amis is definitely a return to form after the depressingly shit Yellow Dog, where it felt as if the author was fulfilling a hated contractual obligation rather than actually trying to write a memorable or enjoyable book. The lazy borrowing from his own journalism - an article he wrote on the porn scene in LA re-appears barely disguised - and the work of others - a biography of 'Mad Frankie Fraser'- highlighted the lack of interest Amis appeared to have in his own novel. Plot or character are never paramount in his work because the prose is so good but Yellow Dog was characterised by an enervated style that suggested a writer who had lost any sense of purpose.
Such lassitude was not in evidence a year before when 'Koba the Dread' was published. Both a wild, short survey of the crimes of Stalin and a series of reflections on his father and friend Christopher Hitchens' supposed fellow travelling, the book had many faults - comparing the cries of one of his children to the screams heard from the Butyrki prison in Moscow was one- but there was an undeniable energy in the prose and an engagement with the subject hardly seen in 'Yellow Dog'.
It is probably not a surprise then that Amis has returned to this terrain in 'House of Meetings', which relates the story of two brothers' love for the same woman as they try to survive life in a Siberian gulag. Framed as a letter to his American step-daughter long after these events have occurred, the unnamed narrator is now an old man who is making a final journey to the region where he and his brother were incarcerated. On the way, he not only reflects about life inside but also about Russia before the Second World War and the country now as it recovers from the Beslan school massacre but faces a seeming terminal decline in its population.
John Banville has written a comprehensive review of the novel in the New York Review of Books but he does leave out discussion of what I thought was a striking deficiency and that was the recurring references to English literature that are supposed to offer insights into the Russian experience. The narrator explains this away by mentioning a relationship with an English woman that caused him to develop a pedantic anglophilia - he says at one point 'I prefer the droller cultures, and the wizened ironists, to be found on the north western fringe of the Eurasian plain'- but I kept on thinking wouldn't a Russian use Pushkin or Tolstoy rather than Marvell? Perhaps I'm being parochial but I think it suggests that Amis, not a separate fictional narrator, is telling this story. When he writes about Beslan or other contemporary atrocities, you sense the same outrage witnessed in 'Koba the Dread'. But then what saves 'House of Meetings' from being another tirade is the prose, alive again and not palely loitering.
When the aged narrator arrives in Dudinka, 'the tannoy erupts, and my hangover and I edge down the gangway to the humphing and oomphing of a military march. And that's what the port looks like - a mad brass band, with its funnels and curved spouts, its hooters and foghorns, and in the middle distance the kettle-drum of the storage vats.' Or when his brother Lev is beaten in the prison camp, he lie on bed recovering with 'two worms of bloody phlegm coiling out of his head.' Or to the Russian experience;: 'the frequency of the total. The total state - the masterpiece of misery.'
There are many more such examples of fine prose in the novel and it is these rather than the subject matter, which somehow still doesn't convince, that make House of Meetings worth reading.

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