The House of Meetings (Knopf, 256 pages) is a narrative delivered as a long letter from an unnamed narrator, an 86-year-old Russian man, to his step-daughter Venus, living in Chicago. He is in the midst of traveling back home after many years in the U.S. The point of his journey is to revisit a work camp in the Artic where he had been held prisoner and slave laborer in the 40s and 50s. Particularly, he wants to visit the “house of meetings,” where, late in the labor camp era, the Soviets had begun allowing some prisoners to meet briefly with their wives. The narrator’s brother, Lev,with whom he shared most of his prison years, had been able to meet with his wife Zoya there on one occasion. Something occurred during the meeting that changed Lev’s life for the worse, and the narrator has yearned to know the details, partly out of perverse curiosity since he was also in love with Zoya—or rather in lust with her—and partly out of a need to understand what happened to all Russian men in the 20th century. Whatever happened to Russian men, the narrator comes to believe, resulted in the “Russian cross,” the intersection of the national birth rate, ever-declining, and the death rate, ever climbing.
On his journey the narrator carries a letter in his pocket from Lev, which he has kept for many years but has never read. It was sent to him by Lev’s second wife after his death and it explains what happened in the house of meetings. Now, late in his life, the narrator is finally preparing himself to read the letter, after which he has made arrangements to be euthanized by lethal injection.
The narrator has been called an anti-hero by other critics, wholly unlikable, if not evil. He had been in the “rapist Russian army” during the Second World War and lost his virginity in a ditch raping a housewife and went on this way across Eastern Europe. He says the devastating effects of rape on women may be well-known, but not much is said about what it does to the rapist. Amis likes to challenge our sensibilities by asking us to have empathy for such a man. Since The House of Meetings is written in first-person a certain degree of empathy is assured. The narrator is admirably honest, if a little too dry, about his crimes—against women, against humanity. He is not only a rapist but a murderer, having taken part in a mass riot in prison, killing three informers. He admits with some shame to getting an erection during the act. Lev, in contrast, is a pacifist, and while in prison, he never succumbs to that group thinking, madness, which may be rare in individuals, but, as Nietzsche pointed out, is typical in crowds. Thinking with the crowd may be the deep fault of the Soviet—perhaps even the Russian—mentality, so argues the narrative.
So what did happen to Lev in the house of meetings? The contents of the letter are finally revealed, but I am not certain I comprehend fully their meaning. There are passages in this sometimes obscure narrative that made me have a few Ashbery moments. I could understand the words, but wasn’t sure who so-and-so was or what sort of connotations were being made. I’m not uncomfortable with some degree of confusion. The narrative is, after all, written to someone who is, presumably, more familiar with the people and events described, while I, as the reader, am not. This lends a degree of verisimilitude to the narrative of an overheard conversation, which is what The House of Meetings is. What happened to Lev, I think, is that he saw himself as a slave, not a man, and with the loss of his humanity, he lost his confidence, and later his sexual appetite for Zoya. The loss of interest in sex is loss of interest in life. After being released from camp, the homely Lev joins his beautiful and doting wife but he cannot muster the affection for her that she deserves. This is the one time that Lev seems, to the narrator, to succumb to that Russian collective mind, joining the nation’s men in deep despair. Lev later recovers and marries Lydia, with whom he has a son, but when that young son is killed, Lev promptly reverts to despair; all his vital organs begin closing down and he dies.
The letter was written prior to the death of Lev’s son, so its tone isn’t affected by that impending tragedy. In a less despairing mind, Lev advises his brother to get a family around him, as he had. Lev also reveals to his older brother that he regarded him as a hero. Handsome, strong and fierce enough to make wild dogs cower, he protected Lev when they were boys and later when they were in prison. He broke arms for Lev, perhaps killed for him, which gave Lev the luxury of being a pacifist. In the letter Lev pays due respect to his brother’s strength—pure brute force though it was.
Amis’s ability to create empathy for this narrator is commendable. And he does not stoop to sentimentality. The empathy one feels comes with great discomfort. Early in the novel, addressing his stepdaughter directly the narrator self-consciously notes,
I realize you must be jerking back from the page about three times per paragraph. And it isn’t just the unvarying morbidity of my theme, and my general poor performance, which is due to deteriorate still further. No, I mean my readiness to assert and conclude—my appetite for generalizations. Your crowd, they’re so terrorstricken by generalizations that they can’t manage a declarative sentence. ‘I went to the store? To buy orange juice?’ That’s right, keep it tentative—even though it’s already happened….
A generalization might sound like an attempt to stereotype—and we can’t have that. I’m at the other end. I worship generalizations. And the more sweeping the better. I am ready to kill for the sweeping generalizations. The name of your ideology, in case anyone asks, is Westernism. It would be no use to you here.
We can hear the honesty but also the irony, and these are not necessarily in conflict. When the narrator disembarks from his ship on Artic soil, he describes the port city in a passage which shows Amis’ great talent imbuing physical objects and place with thought. The shipyard “comes alive,” to be a bit trite about it, but importantly it reflects the narrator’s own state of mind as a casualty of war, slavery, mass rape, and utopianism. The port city is
a Mars of rust, in various hues and concentrations. Some of the surfaces have dimmed to a modest apricot, losing their barnacle and asperities. Elsewhere, it looks like arterial blood, newly shed, newly dried. The rust boils and bristles, and the keel of the upended ferryboat glares out across the water with personalized fury, as if oxidation were a crime it would lay at your door. …I think I’ve got it [icophobia, fear of rust]. The condition doesn’t strike me, now, as at all ridiculous—or at all irrational. Rust is the failure of the work of man. The project, the venture, the experiment: failed, given up on, and not cleaned up after.
At some point later the narrator muses over the idea that Russians weren’t given or didn’t take the opportunity to admit to their crimes and suffer for them, as a means of absolution. They never had the luxury of recovering. This little bit of writing about the shipyard functions like a Spenserian ornament reflecting in miniature a theme, which is repeated with variations throughout the novel.
When I read the “revelation” of the letter at the end of the novel I was disappointed—or thought I had just missed something—because it didn’t seem to be much of a revelation. It told me nothing new. On reflection, however, I can appreciate it as yet another restatement of the theme that develops throughout the texture of the narrative itself. Every line and word of this impressive novel reflects the image of the “Russian cross.” While this may not do much for the dramatic force of the novel, it is an absolutely beautiful, musical way to for Amis to resolve, with a satisfying final chord, the variations on his theme.
V. N. Alexander, author of Naked Singularity (2003).
Makes me want to read this book, although I would expect lots of mistakes and faux pas on Amis’ part. He is taking the ultimate risk in writing a first-person narrative as if he were a Russian himself. That’s beyond difficult for any non-Russian to do. Then again, I’m not sure what the puzzle is about the declining birthrate and burgeoning death rate. In the first place, millions of Russian males were killed off in the wars and Stalinist terror, so there just were not as many men left to propagate the species. Russian males, right up to the end of the Soviet Union and then at least twenty years into the New Russia, were afflicted with a pernicious fatalism about their lives: they lived fast, drank, smoked and fought, died young.