On House of Meetings

I just got around to reading the latest novel by Martin Amis this weekend. Good, even very good, and very, very grim. Four or five years ago he wrote Koba the Dread, a book of history about Stalin and his murderous regime. For me it remains Koba the Unread, but after finishing the novel I think I’ll have to go back to it. Or maybe Anne Appelbaum’s Gulag, an updating of Solzhenitsyn’s Archipelago, buttressed with new info from the Soviet archives.

Going back a little further, London Fields and The Information are good books that you should read, assuming you haven’t already. I also liked Night Train, although not many other people seemed to care for it. House of Meetings is one of his best, altlhough it’s a different kind of novel altogether. On the dust jacket one blurb compares it to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and this strikes me as a fair comparison. Both are concerned with personal and national disgrace; both are slim volumes with a wide reach, and the narrators of each are so heavily freighted with sheer hopelessness at the plight of their countries that they have little to offer later generations but their testimony.

In House of Meetings, that narrator is in his mid eighties, and several times I found myself asking, “Well, you made it past eighty – that’s reason for hope itself, in’it?” Yes and no, naturally. As an octogenarian he makesa chronologically viable witness to Russia since the Revolution. And as a survivor he makes a nice town cryer for the world that remains – not, significantly, Russia, but America. For the novel is in the form of one long email to his American stepdaughter, Venus, of whom we learn little. That she was refused when she offered to drive him to the airport, possibly for tossing off two clichés unbearable to the narrator (Amis once wrote an essay titled “The War Against Cliché):

The first was “closure.” Why didn’t I seek “closure”? “Closure”: ech, if I so much as whisper it or mouth it I felmyself transformed into a white-coated, fat-necked peanut in a mall-style consulting-room. Closure is a greasy little word, which, moreover, describes a nonexistent condition. The truth, Venus, is that nobody ever gets over anything. Your second enormity was not a lone epithet: it went on for an entire sentence. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Not so. Whatever doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. It makes you weaker, and kills you later on.

Is it unkind for someone to point out the linguistic shortcomings in another? Sometimes, maybe, but Miss Manners will point out that much depends on the circumstances. Here, the circumstances involve an eighty-something about to fly off to his funeral, and his stepdaughter, Venus, quite literally the very best of what the world can offer:

You are as well prepared as any young Westerner could hope to be, equipped with good diet, lavish health insurance, two degrees, foreign travel and languages, orthodonture, psychotherapy, property, and capital; and your skin is a beautiful color. Look at you – look at the burnish of you.

“The burnish of you” certainly describes The West pretty well, certainly when compared to the last 100 years of Russian history. No, there isn’t much difference between Putin and Soviet Russian. I learned in this book that the USSR faced a birth dearth in the 1930s. According to Amis, Desperation and Despair had reached such a pitch in the years leading up to WWII that people just quit fornicating. The USSR responded with social programs encouraging copulation and its usual results, results that evidently were enough to carry them through the Desperation and Despair of WWII and beyond. Beyond is the future of Russia, which has no future at all; sometimes Amis reads like a minor-key version of Mark Steyn. “On the larger scale, destiny is demographics; and demographics is a monster.” Graphically described thus:

The graph consists of two lines that toil their way from left to right. The upper line is the birth rate, and slopes downward; the lower line is the death rate, and slopes upward. They converged in 1992. Thereafter the line of life drops sharply, and the line of death as sharply climbs. It looks like a three-year-old’s attempt to draw the back half of a whale or a shark: the broad torso narrows to nothing, then flairs into the tailfin. Russian cross.

This is only the introduction and the end of the book. What is in the middle is a love triangle that has its own improbable and enigmatic middle: a conjugal visiting room in the Soviet labor camp called the “House of Meetings”. The three points of this triangle are the narrator, his younger half-brother, Lev, and Lev’s wife Zoya. There’s not much to write here about the triangle, which shares a little with all triangles and necessarily differs in its own way as well. Much of the value comes not in recollection or description, but in contemplation. It’s well done. There is jealousy, there are shattering revelations, and there is love, in defiance of one of the mottos of the labor camp: You may live, but you won’t love. Sadly, almost the entire story prove this to be true. Almost.

There is much to say about life in Norlag, the Soviet Labor Camp. Although the brutality begins earlier, because the narrator himself, a refugee of sorts from the Red Army, is a brute himself:

My dealings with women, I concede, were ruthless and shameless and faithless, and solipsistic to the point of malevolence. My behavior is perhaps easily explained: in the first three months of 1945, I raped my way across what would soon be East Germany.

So while reading his descriptions of existence in a Labor Camp north of the Arctic Circle, one must grant that he may well belong there with the brutes and bitches and pigs and all the other social classes that even Communist slave labor is powerless to eradicate. Lev, his younger brother, a poet, does not belong there; Lev arrives some years later, and on his first day he and his brothers witness this. Which is supposed to be fairly typical:

We sucked up breath and looked out into the sector. And saw what? In the space of three minutes we saw a bitch sprinting flat-out after a brute with a bloody mattock in his hand, a pig methodically clubbing a fascist to the ground, a workshy snake slicing off the remaining fingers of his left hand, a team of locusts twirling an old shiteater into the compost heap, and, finally, a leech who, with his teeth sticking out from his gums at right-angles (scurvy), was nonetheless making a serious attempt to eat his shoe.

For the survivor of such a world, what follows must suffice for hope:

Let’s not submit ot the gloom supposedly so typical of the northern Eurasian plain, the land of compromised clerics and scowling boyars, of narks and xenophobes and sweat-soaked secret policemen. Join me, please, as I look on the bright side. Russia is dying. And I’m glad.


  1. Rufus McCain says

    Here‘s another angle on Russia’s population implosion. “Abortion rates in Russia are some of the highest in the world. Conservative estimates indicate 60% of all pregnancies end in abortion. LifeSiteNews reported in August that Russia’s abortion rates exceeded the national rate of birth for the first time in 2005.”

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