So instead, a review of a review.
LI is a great fan of the early Martin Amis – the period from Money to London Fields – and is, consequently, very much thumbs down on this ill formed, ill thought out toss off of a new novel, the House of Meetings, a sort of test tube baby that resulted from the unprotected meeting of Anthony Beevor’s Berlin and Anne Applebaum’s Gulag on Amis’ bookshelf. Martin Amis has decided that he, unlike other British comic novelists of the past, is peculiarly gifted with insights into vast swathes of human history – he’s Tommie Mann, if you will, sledding down the Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, the U.K. just doesn’t create the exciting world historical stuff anymore for a novelist of his caliber, so he has to go abroad. (There is a funny dismissal of Robert Graves, of all people, in the House of Meetings - but no, no, no, I must include this in a ps - it is a funny one-off comment that says everything about the safari tour morality of not only Martin Amis, but of the whole liberal warhawery as constituted at present). The premise of House of Meetings is that this Russian expat, magically rich – it is a symptom of how bad this novel is that the striving for money, one of Amis’ great themes, is tossed aside for the scriptwriter’s given of affluence – is moved to write patronizing screeds to his step daughter, an American who apparently went to college in a Tom Wolfe novel (she is a wavering fantasy of PC gestures and, for some reason, blameable money – that she has never had to lie in her own shit in a prison camp has definitely put her lower on the gravitas scale both for her stepfather and for Amis) whilst returning, via a tour boat, to the Gulag camp in which he and his brother were held in the late 40s and early 50s. Oh, and the narrator went marching through Germany raping, vide the Beevor. This sadly loose premise, especially compared to the fine little traps Amis used to make to squeeze his characters, allows for a lot of pontification, as well as for a very weird metaphor for the ass of the woman that both the narrator and his brother are in love/lust with.
Well, this is just the kind of studly, liberal hawk stuff (against the Gulag, check; against the softhearted PC-ers, check) that some reviewers – notably, Michiko Kakutani -are going to find absolutely thrilling. But the cover review of the novel in the Sunday NYT by Liesl Schillinger has to be one of the worst reviews I’ve read there in years. Already, the paper has published the following correction:
“The cover review in the Book Review today, about Martin Amis’s novel “House of Meetings,” misstates the relationship between the unnamed narrator and Venus, the young woman he addresses throughout. She is his stepdaughter, not his daughter.”
Now, since one of the few episodes set in that part of the narrator’s life in which he becomes rich in America is explicitly about Venus choosing to stay with the narrator, it is a measure of Schillinger’s shall we say hit and run way of reading the novel that this passes her by. Not that she doesn’t pretty much broadcast that she is a woman who skips a lot in novels, as for instance in this astonishing paragraph:
“Writers seeking to capture the nature of Russia in one take have often favored grand oppositional schemes: “Crime and Punishment”; “War and Peace”; or, in the case of Woody Allen, “Love and Death.” It goes without saying that there’s more punishment than crime in Dostoyevsky’s novel; and a guilty secret of Russian bookworms is that many of them skim or skip the war parts of Tolstoy’s classic, focusing on the romantic sections devoted to peace. But “House of Meetings” is primarily, obsessively, occupied with the gulag and lacks a counterweight, at the expense of the usual teeter-tottering Amis brio. A woman named Zoya masquerades as a love interest. Luscious, lurching, swivel-hipped and Jewish, she is the wife of the narrator’s brother, Lev.”
Right, skipping those war scenes is just what Russian bookworms are all about – just as readers of Hamlet often skip the tawdry bits about revenge and shit to concentrate on whether Ophelia and the Prince are going to make it, or whether they’ll have to break up, which would be such a bummer for Ophelia.
I have, maliciously, quoted the nadir paragraph of Schillinger’s review, but the rest is equally incoherent. She seems to have decided, having skipped the gross parts in House of Meetings, to free associate about Russian literature in lieu of, like, actually reviewing House of Meetings. If she couldn’t take Prince Andrei loosing consciousness on the battlefield of Austerlitz, it is unlikely she is going to read about lice with any happiness. I have never read a review that made me suspect more that the author reached page 30, went to the middle of the book, and then took a look at the last ten pages. And this is a short book.
I will give Schillinger this – she never commits blurb language. Kakatuni’s first graf about the novel ends like this: “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.”
This is a bullet train of a sentence – one that crashed as it hit the heart of darkness that was the Soviet Gulag, and out of which passengers leaped as it was going off the track, explosions racking the lead train, balls of fire casting shadows over Nyt readers trying desperately to avoid the harrowing clichés ahead as they tumbled into the outer darkness.
ps - about the Robert Graves comment. Here it is. Remember, our narrator has served in the Soviet army and spent a decade in a slave labor camp:
... I read the famous memoir by the poet Robert von Ranke Graves (English father, German mother). I was very struck, and very comforted, by his admission that it took him ten years to recover, morally, from the first World War. But it took me rather longer than that to recover from the Second. He spent his convalescent decade on some island in the Meditteranean. I spent time above the Arctic Circle, in penal servitude.
The balance between the pendantic precision accorded to Graves name - here's a wanking toff, look at that von Ranke, will ya - and the imprecision of what Graves did - he actually went to Majorca in the twenties after spending a very stormy time in Britain that ended with his attempted suicide, so it wasn't exactly that he took a cruise boat tour - and of course he fled Majorca in the end because of a little thing called the Spanish Civil War - is indicative of Amis' odd notion that, deep from within the bright heart of his affluence, he is more of a he-man, really, than this Graves chap, and all of those earlier generations that had no appreciation for the really heroic gestures - except perhaps George Orwell, one should never forget him: we are all Orwells today! A little trench warfare and that sissy Graves has to go to Majorca!
For connoisseurs of the ridiculous, Amis' career since he discovered the Gulag, what was it, in 1998, offers a case study that just keeps on giving. Compared to Graves life of luxury in the trenches, one can only see Amis' agonizing encounter with the Gulag in book after book as a sort of martyrdom, much like Joan of Arc's, except with better lunches in between.
The House of Meetings, by the way, is packed with these invidious comparisons between the decadent West, full of Gulagofascist supporters, and the horrors, absolute horrors, gone through by the narrator. Usually one would say - well, the narrator is not to be identified with Martin Amis, the author - but these off the cuff remarks are so consistent with the remarks Martin Amis, the author, likes to make in newspaper articles and so inconsistent with what we imagine the narrator saying (for instance, about, of all people, Robert Graves) - that we have good reason to conflate the two.