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House of Meetings [Paperback]

Martin Amis
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 8 2008
A haunting new novel that ratifies Martin Amis’s standing as “a force unto himself,” as the Washington Post has attested: “There is simply no one else like him.”

In the slave labour camps of the Soviet Union, conjugal visits were a common occurrence. Valiant women would travel vast distances, over weeks and months, in the hope of spending just one night with their lovers in the so-called House of Meetings. Unsurprisingly, the results of these visits were almost invariably tragic.

Martin Amis’s new novel, The House of Meetings, is about one such visit; it is a love story, gothic in timbre and triangular in shape. Two brothers fall in love with the same woman, a nineteen-year-old Jewish girl, in 1946 Moscow, a city poised for pogrom in the gap between war and the death of Stalin. The brothers are arrested, and their fraternal conflict then marinates over the course of a decade in a slave labour camp above the Arctic Circle. The destinies of all three lovers remain unresolved until 1982; but for the sole survivor, the reverberations continue into the next century.

A short novel of great depth and richness, The House of Meetings finds Martin Amis at the height of his powers, in new and remarkably fertile fictional territory.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Description

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.

From Booklist

*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.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Souls laid bare May 5 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
As I finish this novel, I am left with nothing less than a feeling of having being stunned. The manner, in which the main character recounts events, suggests a soul delving that leaves everything bare; including the souls of the two people closest to him - a former wife and his dead brother. Told in the first person, the protagonist seeks to explain himself to a daughter, who will read the text posthumously; parallels abound in truths received after his own brother's death. It's not an easy read, but it is well worth the struggle.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  33 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too Good a Writer for His Own Good Jan. 30 2007
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Amis is a fine writer, and I think he lets his skill get in the way of his book. If he had been more concerned with writing a good book than writing well, it might have been better. House of Meetings contains much gripping material, especially in the first half that focuses on life in the Gulag, but I found the characters not too credible.

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?
39 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blood On The Ice Feb. 28 2007
By R. W. Rasband - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I've been a big fan of Martin Amis' work since I discovered "Money", which forced me to devour all his previous and subsequent books. And I have read with dread fascination a lot of the history of the Soviet Union, including many of the books used by Amis to prepare "House of Meetings" and the great earlier historical essay Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million Amis is a natural with the English language; it's like watching Steve Young throw touchdowns. His earlier, darkly comic novels were a lot of nasty fun, but he went through something of a slump in the last decade. It seemed he was searching for larger tragic themes for his fiction. He may have found them. I think "House of Meetings" is his best book since "London Fields" and may just be his finest book yet. It's like one of those massive Russian novels compacted into a brisk 240 pages; imagine Dostoevsky crossed with Nabokov. In "House of Meetings" he is able to combine a harrowing historical novel about Soviet Russia and serve his own preoccupations with black comedy, human destructiveness, and tragedy. It's a novel about the cruelties of ideology and the annihilating power of twisted sexual obsession.

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."
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dark Mart Jan. 16 2007
By Ethan Cooper - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Fans of Martin Amis will recognize a narrative dynamic in HOUSE OF MEETINGS. This is fraternal competition, which manifests in the novels SUCCESS, MONEY, and THE INFORMATION as the hilarious but sad interplay between dependent men.

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.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another four-star Martin Amis novel Feb. 5 2007
By Dan Plankton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If you're a fan of Martin Amis' writing, then you probably know what you'll get here. First-rate prose, sharp psychological insights, and devastating (and funny) commentary on life and humanity that strikes some readers as cold and clinical, but is in fact quite compassionate and at times even poignant.

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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars perhaps his finest work of fiction June 28 2007
By Jon M. Cogburn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
For years I've been ambivalent about Martin Amis. He is even better than his father at depicting physical and moral decrepitude, and just as talented a humorist. For these and other reasons, I love his previous fiction. However: (1) almost invariably around 4/5ths of the way into his novels he fails to resolve the narrative tension in a convincing or readable manner, and (tied to the first one), (2) when the moral concerns of the author intrude (usually when the novels are being resolved) there is no longer sufficient distance between author and narrator, leading the books to become either muddled or unconvincing. [note: If you are a believer in the anxiety of influence, then there is a compelling explanation for this. Martin Amis is one of the few people that reads his father correctly as being one of the truly great moralists in the Western literary tradition,-and here I refer only to his Kingsley Amis' fiction.]

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.
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