Two Russian brothers (pacifistic poet Lev and the more pragmatic and violent unnamed narrator), sent to the same Siberian gulag in the aftermath of World War II, battle for survival in the brutal conditions and for the love of Zoya, the beguiling Jewess with whom they are both in love (and to whom Lev is married). After a night with Zoya in the House of Meetings, the gulag’s special building for conjugal visits, Lev emerges a broken man. After the two brothers emerge from the gulag into an equally oppressive communist Russia, they struggle with the suffering of their past and the increasingly heated rivalry for Zoya.
This (as the back cover of the book will tell you) is the basic plot of The House of Meetings, an apparently straightforward story of a love triangle in difficult times. But despite the novel’s slender size, Martin Amis is hunting bigger game. The Great Russian Soul and how it has been lost, the competitive, combative and indestructible bond of brotherly love, and the thin line between erotic desire and violent rape in the male psyche are just a few of the weighty themes that Amis is chasing after in less than two hundred pages.
At first, it seems that he has overstretched himself badly. In an attempt to make an assay into the state of Russian society, the narrator is apt to make sweeping generalisations about Russia in only the way that a foreign writer would have his character speak. Didactic statements about the character and sins of a nation tends to make for empty and self indulgent prose in fiction, doubly so when it is about a country that is not the author’s own.
The writing itself is an occasional problem. There are some marvels of description, from the apocalyptic horrors of the camp to the more subtle horrors of domestic life in communist Russia in a society that is gradually disintegrating. But often Amis’s prose reminds one of a fussy, fidgety, brilliant child – one longs to give it a clip around the ear (normally I am against the striking of children, but prose is no place for liberal parenting), tell it to sit still and to stop showing off for the sake of it. The story is an equally fidgety thing. Trickily framed as a long letter to the narrator’s daughter and compressing an impressive span of time into relatively few pages, until the very end it seems that the fragile book is trying too hard, trying too much, and will come to pieces.
But Amis is a master, capable of turning the most debased novelistic lead into high carat gold. An unopened letter from Lev to his brother, detailing just what happened on the fateful night in the House of Meetings, seems for much of the novel to be a lazy way of building tension and propelling narrative – a lesser novelist’s trick. But in the final pages, this letter converts from narrative prop into a furious, desperately sad meditation on what brutalisation can do to a man, what vital parts of the soul shrivel and die in the Siberian cold and never grow back again, the fragile solace offered by both brotherly and erotic love and how easily they can be taken away. This letter is followed by a second (just how can Amis get away with two revelatory letters as a conclusion? Only the gods that govern novels can know for sure), the final address of the narrator to his daughter that builds and builds into an apocalyptic vision of a doomed Russian society. Despite its occasional arrogance and self indulgence, at the death this little novel has developed an irresistible momentum, becoming a powerful and moving study of the terrible wounds that a man, a society, a country, and a world can inflict upon itself and survive, only to die slowly in the decades that follow.
Book-in-laws: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevski)