House of Meetings Paperback – Jan 8 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
A unnamed former gulag inmate in Amis's disappointing latest is now a rich, 84-year-old expatriate Russian taking a tour of the former gulags in 2004. The narrator chronicles his current and past experiences in a book-length letter to his American "stepdaughter," Venus. Wry remarks on contemporary Russia and the U.S. run up against gulag reminiscences, which tell of the years 1948 through 1956, when the narrator and his brother Lev suffered in the Norlag concentration camp. The letter contains another letter, from the dying Lev, dated 1982, which was the year Lev's son Artem died in Afghanistan. Lev's first wife—and the narrator's first love—was Zoya, a Jewish Russian beauty who by 1982 was an alcoholic married to a Soviet apparatchik. The narrator's own feeling of debasement, when, after Lev's death, he finally meets Zoya again in Norlag's conjugal cabin (the House of Meetings), is complicated to the point of impaction. Amis's trademark riffs are all too muffled in his obvious research. And Venus, the narrator's supposedly beloved stepdaughter, is such a negative space filled with trite clichés about affluent young Americans, and such irritating second guesses about her reactions, that it lends a distinctly bullying tone to the book. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* Amis has said that he's never been to Russia, but you'd never know that by reading House of Meetings, which stares into that country's soul deeply enough to convince anyone who's ever read its novels, at least. The narrator, an elderly man given to fits of rage and outbursts of generosity, is returning as a tourist to the work camp above the Arctic Circle where he was once a prisoner in Stalin's Gulag. As he travels, he writes his memoir for an audience of one, reconstructing the love triangle that includes himself, his brother, Lev, and his brother's wife, Zoya. (The House of Meetings is a building where Lev, also a prisoner, is allowed a single conjugal visit with Zoya.) The grim story builds with a Dostoyevskian sense of doom and a Nabokovian dark wit. But, for a Russian novel, this one is exceedingly economical, encompassing in its brevity an exploration of Russian history and character, political intolerance and anti-Semitism, the psychology of incarcerated life and the problems of freedom, and the weight of crime on the conscience. The narrator is a man who's done terrible things and is able to look at them philosophically--a perfect character for a fearless writer like Amis. His prognosis for Russia is grim, but fans of the writer will be gratified by this remarkable return to form. Keir Graff
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
There were conjugal visits in the slave camps of the USSR. Valiant women would travel continental distances, over weeks and months, in the hope of spending a night, with their particular enemy of the people, in the House of Meetings. The consequences of these liaisons were almost invariably tragic. House of Meetings is about one such liaison. It is a triangular romance: two brothers fall in love with the same girl, a nineteen-year-old Jewess, in Moscow, which is poised for pogrom in the gap between the war and the death of Stalin. Both brothers are arrested, and their rivalry slowly complicates itself over a decade in the slave camp above the Arctic Circle.
To be brutally honest here I wasn't expecting a whole barrel of laughs from Amis. In that respect he didn't disappoint. What I was expecting though after reading various comments on the book..........
'Amis draws on his considerable talent, intelligence, compassion and anger in this outstanding short novel' -- Irish Times
`Amis engages compellingly and eloquently with the "Russian Soul"'
-- The Sunday Telegraph
`Amis writes with enough force to entertain even while describing depravity'
`Amis' mini Russian epic... is audacious, shocking and the best thing he's done in years' -- Evening Standard
`Martin Amis is always essential reading' -- The Times
`Some of the best, most highly charged prose of Amis's career' -- Guardian
`This is the most enjoyable Amis novel for some time' -- Sunday Herald
...... was a book that interested me, both in respect of his characters and their experiences in the Soviet Gulag.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The material about life in the camps is harrowing, and Amis' skill is well used here. His phrase about the cold "grabbing you and frisking you," will stay with me through all my thoughts and reading about the Gulag. His passages about erotic and violent encounters can pack quite a wallop, no question. But I found the characters in the love triangle to be rather too familiar, and I really couldn't muster much interest in how their lives would turn out. The narrator talks like a, well, like a litterateur...how did he get that way after such a brutal life? No clue. His brother, a man of iron principles...why? No clue. The love interest, a Venus of Wittemberg type, all earth, sex, sensuality. (And it's all written to his step daughter, Venus, a typical American girl - the irony is a bit too thick.)
The sentences in the book can be marvelous, the descriptions haunting, but they don't seem like the sort of thing that would come out of the character who's telling the story. They seem more like Amis trying to sound like an intellectual Gulag survivor. Not bad, but once they get out of the camp, not too compelling. The plot is supposed to be tragic and weirdly contorted, but it just seems contrived to me. Would anyone really talk about their lives as these people do?
This is a very rare novel by a major Western writer about the Gulag; perhaps it will begin to correct the increasingly embarrassing absence of attention this subject has gotten from Western literary intellectuals. The basic triangular situation of the characters is a familiar Amis situation, but one he has adapted to the tortured history of the times. The nameless narrator is a vital barbarian who grows more sensitive and intelligent with the more and more torment Amis puts him through (although not sensitive enough perhaps to save him in the end.) His brother Lev is not so handsome or assured. He is in fact very passive and inadequate, but because he is a poet he manages to wed Zoya. She is one of Amis' earthly goddesses who becomes the catalyst for the brothers' destruction. During World War II the narrator "rapes his way across eastern Germany" in the Red Army. (That Amis is able to keep us involved with such a morally compromised character is a measure of his great talent.) After the war the brothers end up in Norlag, near the Arctic Circle, "sold into slavery" in the huge concentration camps of Siberia. Amis presents a horrifying but compelling and convincing portrait of those times and places, layered with actual events gleaned from the best histories (like Solzhenitsyn, and Anne Applebaum's definitive Gulag : A History.) After ten years the brothers are set free but discover that freedom is not granted, but struggled after with hideous cost. The epigraph of this novel could be from Shakespeare: "There's a destiny which shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will." Amis' narrator comes to believe there is a damnation set aside for each of us. But we come to see how unreliable he is. There is an assignation in the so-called "house of meetings" in the camp, used for conjugal visits, which haunts the book like a ghost and the nature of which is revealed only at the end after a series of events which leads to disaster for all. Amis is famous for his bleak surprise endings, and this one gave me chills. Because it is so cruel and yet so in keeping with what has gone before. If you enjoy fine literary fiction and are interested in the terrible history of the 20th century, like me, you must read "House of Meetings."
As an essayist and reviewer, Amis is unmatched--his talents are perfectly suited to those forms. And his novels are great reading as well: both profound and enjoyable. Yet House of Meetings shares the one significant flaw that marks all the Amis novels I've read (and which another reviewer here touches on): his characters inevitably speak (or in this case, write) like Martin Amis the essayist. And just like the mismatched half-brothers of Success, the half-brothers who meet again in a Soviet gulag in House of Meetings regularly make Amis-like insights on their lives and the people they know. That one flaw in Amis' fiction doesn't stop me from enjoying, or recommending, his novels, including this one. The author's wit and insight and the quality of the writing more than pay back your reading time, flaws and all.
But in HOUSE OF MEETINGS, Mart gives his fans a twist. This time, he takes this same dynamic and imagines its expression between two brothers in Soviet Russia, the older a soldier brutalized by his experiences in World War II. In HOUSE OF MEETINGS, Mart explores how this dynamic, which drove the lives of his characters in 1980's London and New York, would withstand years of slave labor in Stalin's Gulag.
One Amazon.co.uk wag (the review has disappeared) called this book ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF MARTIN AMISOVITCH. Mart's fans who read HOUSE OF MEETINGS will see this comment is spot-on, since this novel explores such familiar Amis themes as male competition, loveless sex, retribution, and bad teeth, this time in heavy-handed Soviet society. It's fascinating stuff and the writing, especially in the first and last sections, is brilliant.
One word of warning: The experience of reading this book is similar to reading EVERYMAN, the latest from Philip Roth. I'd call each novel a short and mesmerizing page turner. But neither book is happy reading, even with the guilt plagued narrator of HOUSE OF MEETINGS finally earning profound but ironic praise from his younger brother.
Thus, for years Martin Amis been one of my favorite authors. However, I couldn't point to one of his books and say that it was on my list of favorite books.
"House of Meetings" should be on anybody's list of favorite books. I could go on like all of the reviewers and talk up its historical and moral virtues. This worries me though, because lots of books have great historical virtues (e.g. Colleen McCullough's excellent series on the fall of the Roman Republic) without being truly magnificent novels. And Amis' description of Russia is fantastic. . . However, independent of the history, "House of Meetings" is one of the most psychologically and ethically astute novels I've ever read. That is, if Soviet Communism had never happened, and Amis' book was a work of pure counterfactual history, it would still be in the top tier of novels.
The narrator's old age reflections on his often morally repugnant life, the narrator's advice to his daughter (reflecting the awful wisdom he has gained from said life), the narrator's presentation of his brother and brother's wife (and the narrator's brother's letter), the narrator's description of the different kinds of prisoners, the narrator's thoughts on what is happening in Russia today. . . not one sentence of it rings psychologically false. Moreover, it's all interesting; both the world presented and the writing style make it an impossible book to put down.
Now for the moral aspect of the novel. Yes, communism was horrible, and people need to understand it. However, Martin Amis' non-fiction book on Stalin helped in that task. This novel does that but much more. Bertrand Russell said the main task of philosophy now is to help people to learn to live in a world without certainty without themselves being paralyzed. I think moral literature helps us learn to live in a world of such massive injustice, cruelty, and ignorance without succumbing to it ourselves. Somehow, in creating a fictional world around real monstrous injustices and cruelties, Amis has succeeded in this as well as any novelist.