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.
Amis’s novel is written in the form of a memoir by an 84-year-old Russian who, in the service of Stalin, fought and raped his way across Germany at the end of World War II and then, after being labeled “a political,” spent 10 years in a Soviet labor camp for his troubles. Addressed to an American stepdaughter named Venus, who one gathers knows her way around shopping malls and has a ready line of clichés like “Don’t go there,” the prose in House of Meetings is simultaneously ornate and menacingly austere, like spiky jewelry.If you’re familiar with Amis’s book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, you’ll know more or less what you’re in for anyway: a lot of death, and a lot of pain. This one also also includes a love story, but for the unnamed narrator, that provokes even more pain than Stalinism. On his return from the war, he falls in love with Zoya, a Jewish girl with a voluptuous body and smart mouth. But Zoya, the only woman this ladies’ man has ever loved, is also one of the few who’ll have nothing to do with him. And then he’s shipped off to Norlag, a labor camp near the Arctic Circle.
While he’s there, Zoya decides she will have something to do with the narrator’s younger brother, Lev, a dreamy unhandsome poet. In fact, she’ll marry him. Then Lev is shipped off to Norlag himself, so now the tough, practical older brother must protect the younger from the devastations of the gulag while nursing a fierce and terminal case of sexual jealousy (something he’s particularly prone to anyway). As love triangles go, it’s a nasty, inescapable one—brothers, lovers, prisoners, victims.
“Closure is a greasy little word,” the narrator writes. “The truth is that nobody gets over anything.” And what is true for him is true for modern-day Russia, depicted as a deathbed country that unlike Germany has never come to terms with its blood-soaked past and is therefore terminally short on children and hope. “The conscience … is a vital organ. And when it goes, you go.”
At 247 pages, House of Meetings is a slender valise bearing a trunk-load of history. Both brothers survive the gulag, and on Stalin’s death in 1956 are released as virtual non-persons into the Khrushchev era. The narrator slowly regains his footing, repairing Soviet-made television sets that never worked in the first place, and on which there would have been nothing to see anyway. Amis breezes through the Brezhnev era and the Glasnost era, during which our hero goes into the weapons trade and eventually becomes extremely rich. We get the Putin era (by then he’s emigrated to America) and—bringing us almost to 2004—the fresh abomination of Beslan, when Chechen terrorists took 1,200 Russian school children hostage. There are some affecting, memorable moments, but too often Amis’s almost sadistically polished prose feels glaringly inappropriate, like a virtuoso pianist preening before an audience of starving prisoners. It also feels all wrong. Amis has a comic genius for describing the suffering we endure over small things, like trying to give up smoking or flying tourist class or being thrashed on a tennis court. But increasingly he is drawn to sites of truly gargantuan suffering: the Holocaust, the Gulag, and (recently) suicide bombings. Yet one of the best (and funniest) passages in Meetings is about the “horror,” the sheer petty human tedium, of having to go on cutting your own toenails year after year after year.
Amis is a novelist who is in some sense at war with himself, and the tension can make for interesting reading. But inside this very solemn novel one suspects another kind of fiction altogether is struggling to get out. Just as Woody Allen isn’t Ingmar Bergman, Amis isn’t Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, or Bellow, for that matter. What he is, or ought to be, is what he once was—an updated version of his dad, Kingsley. Anyone who’s laughed himself sick over Martin’s hilarious earlier novels—The Rachel Papers, Money, or The Information, will know that’s plenty good enough.