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the complete review - fiction
House of Meetings
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B : has qualities, but veers oddly about
See our review for fuller assessment.
Mixed, though some very enthusiastic
From the Reviews:
- "Amis confines himself to the more mundane forms of violence and torture practiced in the camps. This is not to say that House of Meetings is for the squeamish; it's not set in the gulag for nothing. (...) Unfortunately, the secret of what went on in the "House of Meetings," and what's contained in the letter the narrator has carried with him for two decades don't pack the necessary revelatory punch. So the story ends with a muted fizzle. But as long as Amis's characters stay in the gulag, the book is on frozen solid ground." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "Martin Amis has suddenly -- and unexpectedly, even to his publishers -- turned in a work of real worth, a novel that not so much makes the spine tingle as the heart race at its passion and richness. (...) House of Meetings is a singular, unimpeachable triumph, as powerful as J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace and the small list of novels that have unanimously carried off the Man Booker prize for fiction." - The Economist
- "Amis' new novel, House of Meetings, is a slim book with the aspirations of an epic.(...) If all this sounds like a captivating 1,000-page Russian novel, be advised that it's a semi-touching 240-page British one. (...) The epistolary form feels like a musty, distracting convention for a novelist of Amis' power. What's worse, his famously stylish prose has vanished in favor of a solemn baritone." - Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly
- "It rapidly becomes clear that itís those depredations, and not the putative love story, that really interest Amis. He is unflinchingly attentive to the gulagís squalor -- these are the most powerful pages in the book. But they are also the most perplexing." - Jonathan Derbyshire, Financial Times
- "House of Meetings is actually an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as the monologue of someone whose name we're never told; an ambitious plan, held together by the sound of a voice. (...) Everything is presented with Amis's customary élan and intelligence. He will go the long way round to avoid a cliché, sometimes he will coagulate from trying too hard and sometimes he will be a pedant -- all this is to be expected. But the result is often a prose packed, dense, full of felicities.(...) It is a book about ageing, rusting, rotting away. What seemed to be a novel about the decline of Russia is seen to be a novel about decline." - M. John Harrison, The Guardian
- "Indeed, it is so uncompromisingly bleak that only dedicated readers will stay with the tale, though in that darkness also lies its truth. (...) This is a short book, fewer than 200 pages, and packing it with every Soviet atrocity since 1941 is an ambitious feat, not always perfectly achieved. Some passages read like historical notes, and Amis's debt to Anne Applebaum's superb Gulag is excessively clear. There is too much, sometimes; the book bursts with its facts. For all that, the result is brilliant." - Catherine Merridale, The Independent
- "But there's something essentially unserious, something almost glib, about Amis's constant propensity for aphorism, about the glittering delight in words that overlays the text, about the relentless editorialising that each character is now compelled to undergo. You can almost see Martin, stooped over his laptop, becalmed, trying to think of another smart epithet for another horrible thing. And the result, more often than not, comes to read like a wicked parody of the Amis style." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday
- "House of Meetings only Ďpurportedlyí describes conditions at Norilsk, not because the account isnít accurate -- though it isnít -- but because description isnít the novelís purpose, which is to hope for the moral redemption of his sub-Nabokovian, ex-rapist narrator." - Daniel Soar, London Review of Books
- "What really works in House of Meetings is not the narrator's doomed attraction to Zoya, who resembles any number of Amis' mouth-watering female creations, but his agonizing relationship with Russia itself." - James Marcus, The Los Angeles Times
- "For admirers who feared, after his last novel, Yellow Dog, that Amis's non-fiction endeavours had leached the force of life from his fiction, House of Meetings should be a reassurance; taken alone, it is a compelling work of fiction in which learning and imagination are beautifully counterpoised. Placed alongside Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, however, it can't help but look like an audacious fake." - Stephanie Merritt, New Statesman
- "Despite some improbably glowing early reviews -- many of which have the flavor of apology for the Yellow Dog business (cf. Kakutani) -- the book is, unfortunately, disappointing on a couple of levels. Itís not nearly as good as we want it to be, but itís also -- heartbreakingly -- not nearly as bad. (...) Itís like Solzhenitsyn, except 3,000 pages shorter and drowned in stylish Amis irony (.....) Sadly, however, the novel comes to us pre-abridged (...) and Amis, as usual, seems less concerned with fleshing out complex human drama than he does with being memorably pithy. Itís like notes for a great novel to be written by someone else. (...) Even mediocre Amis, however, is better than most writers, and House of Meetings has plenty of great moments. (...) House of Meetings is an average little weird disposable novel -- not terrible, not great" - Sam Anderson, New York
- "If Mr. Amisí principal aim is to make the slave archipelago and its human toll real to those of us, like Venus, who were born after the Gulag was dissolved -- if his aim is to show us the atrocities of Soviet communism in action -- then his novel is a failure, in part because of the repeated intrusion of the octogenarian lecturing his stepdaughter, but mostly because the love triangle thatís meant to give dramatic impetus to the story is neither credible nor compelling. (...) It all adds up to a lifelike tableau of gruesome inhumanity. But on the whole, I think itís time Martin Amis left Russia to the Russians." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
- "It is a remarkable achievement, a version of the great Russian novel done in miniature, with echoes throughout of its mighty predecessors. (...) Yet the book is a powerful and not untimely reminder of what Lenin and Stalin and their henchmen between them did to their enormous, vulnerable, and tragic country. (...) House of Meetings is a rich mixture, all the richer for being so determinedly compressed. In fewer than 250 taut but wonderfully allusive, powerful pages Amis has painted an impressively broad canvas, and achieved a telling depth of perspective. The first-person voice here possesses an authority that is new in Amis's work. It is as if in all of his books he has been preparing for this one." - John Banville, The New York Review of Books
- "(A) book whose high-concept summary cannot help sounding like a joke: It is a Martin Amis novel set in the Gulag. (...) (A) book that at times feels nearly blasphemous in the way it treats ultimate evil as a backdrop for Mr. Amis's usual favorite obsession: male sexual potency. (...) Even in outline, the bad faith of this plot is unmistakable. By turning the experience of prisoners in an Arctic labor camp into a romantic melodrama, Mr. Amis falsifies history in exactly the same way as a Hollywood screenwriter might (...) His moral imagination begins and ends in the bedroom." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun
- "House of Meetings' is a powerful, unrelenting and deeply affecting performance: a bullet train of a novel that barrels deep into the heart of darkness that was the Soviet gulag and takes the reader along on an unnerving journey into one of history's most harrowing chapters. (...) (T)he author has produced what is arguably his most powerful book yet: a novel that subjugates his penchant for postmodern pyrotechnics to the demands of the story at hand, a novel that takes all the knowledge he accumulated in the course of researching Koba and transforms it, imaginatively, into the deeply moving story of two brothers who were interned at a slave labor camp in the arctic wastes of the Soviet Union." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "Fortified by an arsenal of new details, he has revisited his magnificent obsession with systematized inhumanity, coloring in areas of despair that previously had languished in murky outline, eye-catching to scholars but perhaps not clear enough to others." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
- "(M)uch of the book is wonderful.(...) Though Amis, in his previous novels, has been something of a meta-fictioneer, the shining virtue of House of Meetings is its old-fashioned psychological realism. (...) It is interesting, in the face of such burning beauties and griefs -- so uncontrived, it seems -- to consider the number of old, gear-grinding narrative ploys that Amis uses to move his novel forward." - Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
- "Once we get over our narrator's suspiciously good English and the fact that his voice is essentially that of Amis, it is difficult not to be impressed by this compact tour de force. Despite its early pledge, House of Meetings is more than a love story; it is about envy, ethics, chaos, resistance, violence, solipsism and confession. Not to mention politics." - Toby Lichtig, The Observer
- "Russia is dying under the weight of its past, but also under the weight of what this past tells us about ourselves. Much as in Koba the Dread, Martin Amis is at both his most powerful and most compromised in confronting these facts. House of Meetings contains verbal brilliance, inspiration and insight, but it also suffers from an intellectual and moral paralysis -- a writerly faith in the efficacy of confession and atonement that does not survive its author's horror at the apocalyptic mess of recent history." - Tom Chatfield, Prospect
- "No one writes suicide notes like Martin Amis; one might even say that he has invented the suicide note as a literary genre. (...) And it does not spoil his new book -- there are many clues along the way -- to say that House of Meetings eventually reveals itself as a suicide note." - Gideon Lewis-Kraus, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Amisís novel represents one manís obsession told as another manís story. It is the curious emanation of a British intellectualís desire to have been involved, truly involved, with a history from which he should be thankful to have been excluded. (...) He has written a slender, moving novel, streaked with dark comedy, which investigates how Stalinism exacted a price from its subjects, a price which was "to be paid, not by the spoonful or the shovelful, but by the dayful, the yearful, the lifeful"." - Robert MacFarlane, Sunday Times
- "House of Meetings reads like what it is: the work of an Oxford-educated littérateur taking a tour of Stalin's labour camps, digging up material for aphoristic pith (...) Every now and then there's a flicker of character and story, but this isn't a bona fide novel; it's a notebook charting Amis's current interests and musings with a few dollops of imagination tossed on top." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph
- "House of Meetings is terrific. Dense but, for my time-killing purposes, all too readable, Amis's 11th novel is serious in the best sense, its subject matter pleasingly unpredictable. (...) Painful, trenchant, and elegantly written, House of Meetings is every bit as affecting and rich with emotional content as Yellow Dog was inconsequential and empty." - Lionel Shriver, The Telegraph
- "As a novelist, Amis has never been emotionally user-friendly, and in House of Meetings there is a chilly distance created between the narrator and the horror show he is describing. As such, itís a bit like being guided through a series of museum exhibitions depicting a vortex of hell. Though fascinating, they lack visceral punch. This reservation aside, the novel has a cumulative power and resonates with many reflections about the course of individual destiny in a profoundly cruel universe." - Douglas Kennedy, The Times
- "There is a restraint in evidence here, that sits in contrast to much of Amisís recent writing, and lifts it to something like its best. Not that everything in the novel works so well: notably, the figure of Venus, the stepdaughter who edits the memoir, feels imperfectly fleshed out, a collage of modern American health and fashionable piercings, relegated to the textual margins in a few small, if decisive footnotes" - Bharat Tandon, Times Literary Supplement
- "It tells you what you already know (life in a Stalinist labor camp was awful) and what you probably don't want to be told about (life in a Stalinist labor camp was awful). It further intimates that all life is a pretty grim business, and if the state won't screw things up for you, you'll probably find ways to do it all by yourself. (...) At 247 pages, House of Meetings is a slender valise bearing a trunk-load of history. (...) There are some affecting, memorable moments, but too often Amis's almost sadistically polished prose feels glaringly inappropriate, like a virtuoso pianist preening before an audience of starving prisoners." - Brendan Bernhard, The Village Voice
- "House of Meetings remains less a story of romantic rivalry than of fraternal love. (...) The difficulty with such bravura moments is that readers will too often feel themselves hearing not the gulag survivor but the accomplished English novelist. (...) What actually happens inside the House of Meetings, and its shattering effect upon the narrator's half-brother, become the chief psychological mystery and source of suspense in the novel, but the revelatory payoff may strike readers as somewhat vague and anticlimactic, dampened as it is by some of the same abstraction that the narrator finds so telltale in the national character. Still, the book gnaws at one's memory." - Thomas Mallon, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
House of Meetings is a staggeringly odd piece of work.
Martin Amis has talent.
He writes with an ease that few contemporary authors can match -- though it's an ease and confidence that can (and here often does) lead him astray.
There are a lot of fine bits to House of Meetings, but the whole is close to a monstrosity.
House of Meetings is a summing-up, Martin Amis writing off a whole nation.
It's a book about national character, Amis of the old (and ugly) school of historic forces and national destiny, of mass-movements beyond the individual.
One very broad brush suffices for him: yes, there are some characters who maintain some individuality (or seek to), but even they can't fight national fate and group identity.
And, as if all that weren't enough for Amis, he has to pair this idea with ... a love story ?
House of Meetings is presented as a memoir, written by an octogenarian Russian émigré.
He is on a pilgrimage to the Norlag gulag where he was held after World War II, and writes from along the way, telling his life story and offering a few glimpses of contemporary Russia, anno 2004.
He's writing to his step-daughter, Venus: "I'd like a print run, please, consisting of a single copy. It is yours."
The girl is a young Westerner (American, as it happens) with the world and all opportunity in front of her, while step-dad is returning to the hellish past (which is what even the present there is still stuck in).
Among Amis' odder touches: the protagonist's marriage with Venus' mom -- Phoenix -- remained "chaste".
It's perhaps the logical conclusion: sex is rarely a good thing in House of Meetings, and the narrator admits to having gone through Europe raping right and left at the end of World War II.
Coming of age in the 1930s, the state already saw to it that sex wasn't all it could be, as Amis has it in one of his best observations:
But the state wouldn't have it.
"Free love" was officially classified as a bourgeois deformity.
It was the "free" bit they really didn't like.
Still, they didn't like love either.
Presumably the sexless marriage is meant to make Venus even more emphatically a creature of undefiled innocence, upholding the illusion that if the mother- and father-figures never went at it the child herself is some sort of pure creation.
The narrator needs her to be such a figure in order to finally reveal himself completely; tellingly, he can't face her after doing so.
The sex-obsession is also a significant part of Amis' larger thesis.
Yes, House of Meetings is obsessed with demographics, and the fact that Russian mortality rates (especially for men) are so high (and birth rates so low).
"Russia is dying", he observes several times, and he does mean it literally (too), its population in a (numerical) decline unheard of elsewhere.
(Of course, the old geezer is dying too, an embodiment of the nation .....)
House of Meetings also dwells on a love-triangle.
There's the narrator, his considerably younger half-brother, Lev, who winds up at the same gulag as him, and there's Zoya -- whom Lev married.
The narrator is obsessed with Zoya (as were, apparently, a lot of other men), and he has trouble moving on -- especially when she's a part of his brother's life.
The narrator does watch out for his brother at the camp, and they get along, more or less.
They do have very different attitudes: the narrator is willing to do what it takes, moral compromises be damned.
Rape, murder, whatever.
Lev holds out -- though part of Amis' point is the futility of it all in this nation.
And then there's that 'House of Meetings' of the title, a conjugal-visit-shack, where Zoya shows up in 1953.
(In keeping with his attitude about Soviet and Russian sex (i.e. the near-impossibility of it all) the narrator comforts Lev by acknowledging: "You know, in its whole history, I don't think there's ever been a single fuck in the House of Meetings" -- though Lev, the (slightly) individualist, proves him wrong.)
Amis has his narrator excuse himself right off as a "'shock' writer" (like the Soviet authors "trained to write propaganda in the guise of prose fiction"), i.e. an amateur, but Amis' prose gets in the way of that too often to be convincing -- except in some of the plot-build-up.
So also with the 'House of Meetings' and what happened there, Amis repeatedly going in for sinister foreboding glimpses -- without getting to the point.
So, the reader is told:
I was there when my country started to die: the night of July 31, 1956, in the House of Meetings, just above the sixty-ninth parallel.
But not a word about what happened. Then, ten pages later:
I was a Communist.
And a Communist I remained until the early afternoon of August 1, 1956.
Again: not a word about what caused the change.
And even near the end of the book, the question lingers:
I asked her what happened in the House of Meetings.
As if one teased-out tale were not enough, Amis offers a second, putting a letter in the narrator's hands which he repeatedly mentions ("I will open it and spread it out before me, any day now", he promises, etc.) but only opens near the end.
It's a terrible literary 'trick', and it's certainly annoying here.
"The house ...?"
In her brow many tiny lines conspired before she said, "Oh.
Why do you ask ?
I mean, what do you think happened ?
It was lovely."
Much of House of Meetings describes life in the gulag, and while Amis does capture some horrific detail it's surprisingly easy reading, with limited shock value.
And it's not because the narrator wins the reader's sympathy; indeed, the best that can be said about him is that he is a survivor.
Perhaps it's because it's part -- a specific piece -- of such a programmatic novel.
And/or perhaps it's because of Amis' bleak vision, which suggests what happened in the gulags was just the Russian way .....
There are odd failures in tone, too.
The narrator repeatedly says he's a very angry man, and yet the writing is almost eerily tempered: he does not rage on the page, and hence it's hard imagining him raging in real life (as he claims to do).
There are a few footnotes, too, added by Venus, including an explanation of why Stalin is referred to only as 'Joseph Vissarionovich': "It would have cost the memoirist his soul, I know, to write out the word Stalin."
Yet such visceral feelings about Stalin do not come across in these pages: certainly, when he's mentioned he's the horrible, immense power-figure that ruined so many lives, yet the narrator seems to be able to bring him and his doings up with more or less the same calm he describes all the other horrors and horrible people he mentions.
House of Meetings is full of terrible generalisations.
About Russia most of all, but Amis doesn't stop there, offering pseudo-insights of the worst kind:
But I do know this.
Women can die gently, as your mother did, as my mother did.
Men always die in torment.
Toward the end, men break their habit of a lifetime, and start blaming themselves, with full male severity.
Women break a habit too, and start blaming themselves no longer.
We can't do that.
Perhaps one should excuse Amis: it's his old man writing here, after all.
But the book so emphatically seems to want to convey a message that every such observation sounds like Amis himself is convinced of it.
Which brings us to the biggest issue: Amis' strange fixation on and interpretation of Mother Russia.
It's not hatred that's expressed here, but it is deep loathing and contempt.
Russia is presented as a failed nation, the Russians a contemptible lot.
Much of the book also deals with the present, as the narrator travels through contemporary Siberia (while the school-hostage crisis is going on in another corner of the former Soviet Union), allowing him to note how little has changed, how Russia continues to fail.
Amis blames the failure to even take a first step towards Vergangenheitsbewältigung -- that dealing with the (ugly) past that, for example, the Germans practiced after World War II -- for the Russians' continuing problems.
He believes in atonement:
We will never have the "luxury" of confession and remorse.
But what if it isn't a luxury ?
What if it's a necessity, a dirt-poor necessity ?
The conscience, I suspect, is a vital organ.
And when it goes, you go.
And in Russia, he finds, it is long, long gone.
Yes, Amis seems to be wholeheartedly endorsing such noxious concepts as Sippenhaftung and that the sins of the fathers and the motherland are carried on in every son (not so sure about the daughters).
Among the last images from Russia the narrator relates is of going up to a kiosk:
All she had for sale was surgical spirit and heaped paperbacks of a single genre.
That's all she was dealing in: The Myth of the Six Million, Mein Kampf, The Protocols of theElders of Zion, and spirt.
That, for Amis, is what Russia has been reduced to -- but the great irony is that his book is, of course, of the same genre, and if not hate-mongering, its message is certainly that all of Russia, every last bit of it, is beyond contempt, a compromised wasteland that is not part of the West, an embarrassment and danger to civilisation, a failed nation and culture beyond redemption, in the protracted throes of an agonizing suicide.
With his ridiculous broad generalisations and harping on national-universals -- a national character, national traits -- Amis has written a book with a very ugly and misguided aspect to it.
He's not the only one to believe in such nonsense (indeed, nationalism and all its attendant beliefs are resurgent in our times, all the rage), but it is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense.
But, aside from that, he manages a lot very well, too.
House of Meetings doesn't really work as a love story (a love triangle, a story of brotherly love, however you want to sum it up), but he still does so many of the small bits well that it certainly is readable.
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House of Meetings:
Other books by Martin Amis under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
British author Martin Amis lived 1949 to 2023.
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© 2007-2023 the complete review
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