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.

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