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January 17, 2007

The House of Meetings marks in Amis a new and stronger understanding of how to make ethical commitments count in fiction: The House of Meetings - Martin Amis

Posted by David Womersley

The House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Pp. 198. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006
Hardback, 15.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews The House of Meetings, Martin Amis's new novel about the horrors faced in Russia in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Literary style, at its highest, is not merely a matter of the choice and arrangement of words on the page. It is the signature of a distinctive vision of the world. A criticism which has been from time to time levelled at Martin Amis is that, on the contrary, his style has been too often a way of obscuring the world - the surface of his language is so rich and interesting in itself that there seems no way through it to a level of referential meaning (and often, such is the sheer interest of his language, that that will to seek out such a route through is often sapped and weakened). This was particularly true of Yellow Dog (2003), in which the exuberance of Amis's style had petrified into a manner, at least according to many of the capital's literati.

One way of telling the story of Amis's career would be to see it as a linguistic rake's progress, albeit with an un-Hogarthian moral reformation at mid-point. The fecundity and originality of the style Amis coined in The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success was intoxicating, and the author was unmistakably one of those intoxicated by it.

But then the cool, amoral hipster got a conscience, and the clever shocker found himself transformed into one of the shocked. Where should we place this pivotal moment in Amis's career? It was probably with the publication of Money (1984) - still arguably Amis's most powerful and central novel - that we can sense the turn, and the extraordinary recantation by A. N. Wilson in The Spectator of his earlier dismissal of the book, and his belated recognition that it possessed a moral dimension, was a significant straw in the wind.

Thereafter, Amis's fiction has catalogued the ways, both various and curiously unvaried, in which the twentieth century was a blasted century. Its strong poisons - pornography, drink, drugs, nuclear technology - became Amis's home ground, the Stamford Bridge of his multi-talented imagination, at once disgusted, indeflectible, and discriminating.

Most recently, that imagination has been gripped by the peculiarly systematic nature of twentieth-century brutalism - it is the unholy alliance between the technological reach of the twentieth century and the perennial, steady, inhuman baseness of its purposes which has become Amis's current subject. Inevitably, this has drawn him to Russia. Koba the Dread recorded his horrified, fascinated squint at Stalin. The House of Meetings derives from that earlier book, but far surpasses it. It is a marvellously rich, but severely and artistically disciplined dramatisation of the particular horror of Russia in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The House of Meetings will assume importance in Amis's career because in it we can see the convergence of a theme and a tendency. The theme is that of the sibling relationship. Success was Amis's first essay on the theme, but the geometrical simplicities with which the earlier novel approached the rivalries and proximities of the sibling relationship (notwithstanding its often wonderful prose) are far surpassed by the laminated richness of The House of Meetings. The tendency is Amis's interesting and fruitful fascination with shorter novels: The House of Meetings takes its place at the end of a sequence which began with Time's Arrow, and moved through the unjustly neglected Night Train.

There is a common misapprehension abroad that Amis can't do plots. It's true that some of his more pageant-like longer novels obscure their own shapeliness. But all his shorter novels are exquisitely plotted. The House of Meetings is wonderfully put together, with mere sequence of time firmly subordinated to literary point. The experience of writing Experience is evident here.

The House of Meetings is the story of two brothers, Lev and his unnamed elder brother, who are both imprisoned in the gulag, and who both fall in love with the same woman, the desirable Jewess Zoya. The hideous, definitive and central event in the novel comes when the unnamed brother rapes his sister-in-law (now separated from his brother): an action which crystallises and focuses all the accumulated inhumanities of Russia post-1945.

The novel is told in the form of a letter to the unnamed brother's American step-daughter, written while he is returning to the area of the slave camp to die of AIDS in the same hospital as his brother. Recent events, such as the school siege in Ossetia, are referred to, bringing the matter of the novel terribly close. What, one wonders, might Amis have made of the latest music-hall touch of Russian espionage grand guignol, in equal measures cheesy and terrifying, namely the radiation poisoning of Litvinenko? It is as if Putin's instruments had leapt up, fresh from a viewing of Bond films from the Roger Moore era, and had decided to make them real. The poisoning of Litvinenko reveals an imaginative impoverishment every bit as terrible as its inhumanity of purpose (but of course the imaginative impoverishment is easier to rub along with).

The unnamed brother comments at one point in The House of Meetings that few tears, rightly, are wasted on the sufferings of the rapist. Yet one of Amis's triumphs in The House of Meetings is to make us feel something of the desperate bleakness of that predicament. We have no complicity with the crimes of the unnamed brother, but we are nevertheless made aware that he is to be included in the list of the victims of his own crimes. His life has been perverted and buckled by forces he did nothing to summon into existence. It is however Lev, the named brother, who keeps us from feeling any misplaced sympathy with his rapist sibling: Lev, who takes a pacifist line in the gulag, and who does not just go with the herd, as his elder brother had done in the closing months of the Second World War, raping his way across Eastern Europe in the company of his superiors.

The House of Meetings is an important novel. It marks in Amis a new level of technique, a new level of moral engagement, and a new and stronger understanding of how to make ethical commitments count in fiction.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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