Monday, October 30, 2006

Martin Amis - House of Meetings

I imagine being commissioned to write a review of a Martin Amis novel is as daunting as painting a portrait of the Queen. So for this post, consider me at best an amateur Rolf Harris.

My love of such masculine writers as Amis borders on pathological. It’s no doubt an extension of my child-of-divorce habit of picking up father figures as friends and confidantes (you don’t have to be older than me, incidentally, if any of you have just counted yourself out).

I’m pretty sure Amis mentioned the impact of his parents’ divorce being somewhat responsible for his own collection of fathers in Experience – the likes of Saul Bellow, Nabokov and another of my favourites, Philip Roth. His later books, including this latest - House of Meetings - feel a little like homage to this collection of fathers with their tales of Russia, immigrants, America, Jews. Ageing plays a stronger role here than in past books, too.

Still the biggest theme of House of Meetings and all other Amis novels – maleness – is the anchor. And as it’s addressed to a daughter, Venus, I found one of my literary fantasy fathers was finally talking me just as I’d always wanted.

The book explores the two sides of man (and Martin), the aggressive, single (one-track) -minded beast and the gentle, at times feeble, reasoning, kind intellectual. Each side is represented by one of two brothers consigned to over a decade of life in a Soviet gulag and their reactions both inside and later in life to the horrors and pleasures they witnessed and participated in (much more of the former than the latter).

Amis works hard to further expose the Stalinist regime (after Koba the Dread), and the horrendous conditions endured by the enslaved brothers are hard reading at times, at others barely comprehensible. It is akin to tales of the Holocaust, and I confess there were times when I really wanted to see a picture and look and look and look to ensure I had fully understood exactly what went on.

More than a tale of deprivation and violence, however, the depth of the book comes from it being a kind of fucked-up love story of power imbalance between all the major characters; Stalin and Russia, Russia and its Jews, Russia and Russians, man and woman, brother and brother, encapsulated by the main thread of the relationship – or lack thereof – between narrator and Zoya, the sensual “Jewess” he is obsessed with before and after camp, who he finds to his disgust has married his younger, feebler brother.

There is so much going on past and present throughout the novel, that it can be an exhausting read at times – although it picks up to a gallop by the end. But it’s how Amis writes, as ever, that still makes me sigh; I was so delighted with the following illustration of a handshake I looked up from the page, looked back down and pointed at it:

"White and humid, the flesh seemed about to give, to deliquesce. It was like holding a greased rubber glove half full of tepid water."

I noted tons more examples of wonderful writing that I would love to pore over as poetry, from descriptions of Arctic summers as anxious-to-impress late-running housewives, to scenes of extreme violence compared to the explosive snap within a reptile house.

Occasionally I find myself angry when he uses phrases that I feel like he’s been waiting to slot in somewhere – he describes American teens wearing “the shat-myself look they all favoured, with the loose jeans sagging off the rump” and despite its simple brilliance and accuracy my gut reaction was a strong desire to slap his smug face.

It was at times like these I wondered whether I heard too much of Martin Amis in the narrator to the detriment of the fictional character. I also thought there was something missing from the depiction of Russians and Russia somehow – in my experience of Russian ex-pats, there is always a bit more noise, absurdity and colour than you ever expect - although that could have been deliberately drained away given the extraordinary life experiences this story depicted.

But overall, whilst not the greatest of his books, House of Meetings is extremely good, and lots of the comments, themes, ideas and language will stay with me, some to positively haunt me (unlike, for example, Yellow Dog, which I enjoyed but haven’t really retained). Engendering sympathy for a rapist, for example, is no mean feat.

You can rarely knock the ambition of Amis’s novels nor his tactics. In House of Meetings, the enormity of subject matter coupled with some delicate portraits of brutalised individuals, makes for a rich – if, at times, depressing - feast.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

It's On.

We're moving on Saturday. I am surrounded by boxes. As detailed previously, we are moving to Hampstead Garden Suburb, and I've uploaded my first Youtube video to show you what the downstairs looks like when it's empty. Excuse very shaky camera work (this was done with my phone) but please enjoy the only slightly entertaining moment when Dolly Daydream here tries to turn the light on in the bathroom forgetting that no lights are fitted. (Chinese Backstreet Boys mime artist I am not.)

We are both petrified that we will ruin its perfect little loveliness by shipping all our crap in. But had a breakthrough moment when the carpet went in upstairs earlier this week i.e. this is actually our home and we will live there. So we're both a bit scared but mostly excited.

Monday, October 16, 2006

To The Loud, Offensive Boy on the Victoria Line at 7pm

At around seven o'clock this evening, two red-faced boys with puppyish hair fell through the tube door just as we pulled out of Victoria station headed for Walthamstow on the Victoria Line. They plonked themselves diagonally from me, the first loud and brave and slurping at a beer, his shifty sidekick stared at his knees, cupping his can. They sat like they'd arrived in a bar - loads of energy and self consciousness.

The loud one started to swear loudly about the attractiveness of another passenger, and once her beau was established, they both began to bark at each other about what the lucky fella would be doing to her later, their faces grimacing towards the squirming couple, eyes and voices askance. Their palpable angry nerves suggested they had never done what they were loudly detailing.

The couple got off at the next stop, the guy grinning whilst he apologised to his gorgeous girl. The boys repeated what they had been saying for a few minutes after their departure, like a dying echo, until the shifty boy doled out another can from a blue plastic bag to his superior and the slurping recommenced. Two teenage girls opposite me tittered.

The loud boy's eyes darted around the carriage looking for his next victim, our next entertainment. He motioned between two men in front of them, then mumbled something punctuated by the words "Muslim" and "killed" spoken in a slightly shriller tone.

I looked to see the person they were referring to. An Asian man in his late twenties/early thirties sat reading a London Lite. He looked like he could be a sweet person, possibly a bit boring.

Then the loud boy said something truly horrible, really loudly, fired at the sweet-but-boring looking passenger. The shifty boy flinched at his partner's words, the passenger didn't - I hoped he didn't notice but doubt that was the case.

The loud boy drew breath and looked around the carriage. I stared at him, wanting to know what to say to make him stop. I shot a glance back at my fellow passenger to let him know that other people on the carriage did not agree with the boys; he didn't look up from his paper.

In the end, I ended up locking eyes with the loud boy, and tried to look as angry as I could to stare him down. He looked at me, cheeks burning with beer, and he stayed silent. Whilst I'd love to think differently, I don't think there was any causality between my glare and his silence. In summary: I did nothing.

I reflected on their words, thinking I almost wished that he had started on me, so then I would have been really justified to say something, and maybe then could speak on behalf of other people on the carriage too nervous of repercussions or maybe just too tired of similar incidents to speak up for themselves or defend others.

Then I started worrying that maybe other people did agree with them, which was why they had been bold enough to speak up. I'm pretty sure some other men on the carriage would have had the same lewd thoughts about the gorgeous girl, for example, and even her boyfriend had just shrugged his shoulders.

It reminded me of when, as a young teenage girl again on the tube, I found myself grinning and fluttering my eyelashes at three men sat opposite me who were winking at me and discussing how pretty I was. Then they turned on the Asian girl who was sitting next to me and started saying how much nicer I was than her because ... you can fill in the rest. I didn't say anything to the men that time either, I just stopped smiling and blushed for a different reason. But at least I got off at the next stop with the girl and apologised to her in person for not saying anything and, I suppose, their behaviour.

It's hard to hold onto the thought that both times I was really justified to say something because I was offended, and I don't like people feeling scared who sit with me on the tube. Did I really need to be scared of two slightly drunk teenagers? They were the ones who ran off at the next stop this time.

I'm still none the wiser as to how to handle such a situation in future, but a trend possibly reported from Japan a while back came to mind, when women take pictures with their mobile phones of men who have touched them up on the train and publish them to a website to denounce them and warn others.

Maybe we could start a movement here - take a photo of someone who is being racist, homophobic, sexist or just generally obnoxious on the train and publish it - hey, send it to your local paper. I would actually love a column like that, an alternative lonely hearts "To the loud, offensive boy on the Victoria Line on Tuesday night at 7pm: you are a horrible person who deserves a big smack in the mouth and to learn that no one wants to hear your idiotic views on sex you've never had and politics you don't understand."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Schoolboy Terrors

Yesterday, without having seen The Sun's headline or this excellent post about it (link courtesy of Tom Coates), I started to write a post about how strange it was that Kim Jong-il has been consigned, not only by the South Park fellas, but also the mainstream British media, to a comedic figure teetering around North Korea in platform shoes, high on brandy and Elnett.

Admittedly, there is something odd about the Korean leader from the reported stories - and the quote on the BBC article above, "I know I'm an object of criticism in the world, but if I am being talked about, I must be doing the right things." seems wildly Wildean given recent actions.

Evidence above would suggest it's clearly not just a British trait to use playground tactics in political commentary, but my next example of how ridiculous British politics actually is was when listening to yesterday's exchange between Cameron and Blair in the Commons.

Cameron totally out-Blaired Blair in terms of wit and polish but at the end of the day it was like listening to kids from rival schools trying to outdo each other. It ended up not seeming to have all that much to do with politics, which, to be fair, Blair tried to spit out. But then it became mostly about this strange teenage obstinacy of Blair not wanting to be open about wanting the leadership contest to be a bit more open.

But worse was to come today. I challenge ANYONE to sit through Sion Simon's spoof Cameron Youtube video - it is truly hideous, a total misfire that makes me feel comparative affection for Cameron's calculated but earnest efforts.

I realise that some of the language in the Youtube comments is hideously offensive, some of which I'm about to quote, but totally in keeping with this schoolboy toss e.g. "you spasticated gaylord" seems a fair criticism. The Tory anger is clearly misplaced, if I were a member of the Labour party I'd be demanding Simon's head on a stick.

Later Note 16:30, 13th October: Simon Video removed.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Back in the Saddle Again

In the past month access to computers and connection to the Internet have been intermittent, and latent anxiety levels have crept up. Now Toshiba has handled the tea incident for me and I've returned home after dog sitting in an internet-free Essex house, I feel a lot more relaxed.

Here are some of the things that I have written about mentally in the past month and may expand on at a later date:

  • The RSC's latest production of The Tempest - I've never seen the play before and was really moved. The set is incredible and the portrayal of Ariel as a tragic Nosferatu character inspired. It's coming to London next year.
  • Banana Yoshimito's Hardboiled Hard Luck - clean writing portraying complex emotions. My second Japanese author after Murakami and one I will read again.
  • Understanding philosophy via In Extremis - a poignant and thrilling love story with more enduring lessons than the handful of lectures I sat through at university
  • Is email the new fax? Interested to read this story about how the preference for instant messaging and social networks may sound the death knoll for a technology that my age group and older thought revolutionary
  • Whether or not to start driving - after discussion with a fellow non-driver, I am considering a one-week residential crash course to get me started.

More in the coming week. I'm drooling over the new Martin Amis book on the shelves and will be purchasing this week, so they'll be a no-doubt adoring review coming soon.