Thursday, December 16, 2010

House of Meetings by Martin Amis

This novel was written by Amis during a two year long self-imposed exile in Uruguay following the release and tepid reception afforded to his 2003 novel Yellow Dog. It should be read in tandem with Amis' Koba the Dread, Stalin being the reigning fiend in both books. The title of the book is taken from Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History, in which she writes of a special place for conjugal visits of the wives, at the edge of the prison camp, soon instituted after Stalin's death. The novel is framed as a letter, a book addressed to the narrator's black (hint on p. 72) step-daughter, Venus, as it opens and closes with letters to her. It is a voice from beyond the grave, a posthumously edited testimony of an old Russian émigré and Gulag survivor. Note that Venus also gently plays the role of editor (e.g., p. 177).

Ellen Kanner (Pages Online) makes a very insightful observation about the brothers who are portrayed in this novel about the gulag written in 2006, citing from Experience - "Love has two opposites. One is hate. One is death" (p. 187). Hate in House of Meetings is embodied by the book's unnamed narrator, whose rage helped him survive in a Russian prison camp half a century ago. Death is played by Lev, his half-brother (p. 30), imprisoned in the same gulag but fortunate enough to marry Zoya (on the day he entered prison, Winter, 1948), the Jewish woman the narrator has loved all his life, in a fashion reminiscent of Zhivago. Lev is a pacifist, while the narrator "raped my way across what would soon be East Germany" (p. 35).

The narrator, early on, states "Character is destiny" (p. 16), allusion to Bellow's Augie March, Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Novalis.

The 85-year-old narrator, who defected to Chicago in the 1980s, has returned to Russia to revisit Norlag, the slave camp in the north of Siberia, "just above the sixty-ninth parallel" (p. 17), where he and his brother were captive from the late 1940s into the 1950s, after Stalin had died. Neither had committed a crime. Many Russian veterans who fought in Germany were suspected of having been exposed to fascist and Western influences. Lev was convicted for having been heard "praising America in his college cafeteria line, when in fact he had been praising "The Americas," his sibling code name for Zoya (p. 49).

The narrator travels on a cruise ship up the Yanesi River from Krasnoyarsk, across the Arctic Circle to Predposylov (based on Norilsk). It is early 2004 and news is rife with the Beslan atrocity, in which Chechen terrorists took over a school in North Ossetia, resulting in the loss of 344 civilians, 186 of them children. The narrator quotes "an old Kremlin hand" (p. 142), Viktor Chernomyrdin, former Russian prime minister, "We wanted the best,....but it turned out as always" (p. 142). The narrator says "I can't find a Russian who believes that. They didn't want the best, or so every Russian believes. They wanted what they got. They wanted the worst" (p. 143). So true in the case of Beslan.

Conjugal meetings often went disastrously wrong, with the men despairing of their sexual competence after years of privation. The narrator recalls "The only impulse resembling desire that Tanya awoke in me was an evanescent urge to eat her shirt buttons which were made from pellets of chewed bread" (p. 23). Indeed, it is after a visit on July 31, 1956, from his wife Zoya, that Lev loses his faith in life and its possibilities (p. 193). The jealous narrator comforts himself that it is likely that the meeting will be a sexual disaster. When asked how it was, Lev promises to reveal all at a later date (by letter, delivered with his belongings, to be opened after his death). In that letter, Lev recalls "As I made love, I wasn't thinking about my wife. I was thinking about my dinner" (p. 222). The narrator chooses to read the fateful letter only upon his own death years later.

In the meantime, the narrator has an opportunity to reconnect with Zoya, after Lev's death, yet she is still in love with him. He begs the middle-aged Zoya to defect with him to America, reminiscent of the encounter of Humbert Humbert's encounter with Lolita (p. 186):

I said I was getting out: America. Where I would be rich and free. I said I had thought about her a thousand times a day for thirty-six years. Here and now, I said, she delighted all my senses.

So the second question is - will you come with me ?

There it was again: the sweet smell. But now all the windows were closed. And at that moment, as the blood rose through my throat, both my ears gulped shut, and when she spoke it was like listening long-distance, with pause, hum, echo.

"America? No, I'm touched, but no. And if you want me to just kiss goodbye to what I have here and put myself back at risk, at my age, you're wrong...America. It's months since I've been out on the street.

Within a few pages, we have the narrator and Zoya making love in an exquisitely crafted, highly erotic scene (p. 196). Rapidly it transforms into something "that was not a rape from scratch" (p. 197). Commenting on the rape later "At the Rossiya, I crossed over from satyr to senex in the course of an afternoon. As early as the next day I couldn't even remember what it was I liked about women and their bodies" (p. 241). Early on, the narrator comments on his own Zhivagoesque focus - "When a man conclusively exalts one woman, and one woman only, "above all others," you can be pretty sure you are dealing with a misogynist" (p. 34).

In the final analysis, what is this book really about fundamentally ? One hint lies in the influence that Michael Specter's piece in The New Yorker (11/10/04) entitled "Is Russia Dying" had on Amis story. "Russia tried to kill herself in the 1930s, after the first decade of Joseph Vissarionovich [Stalin]. He was already a cadaver millionaire about ten times over, even before the Terror. But he did need Russians to go on producing Russians. And they stopped" (p. 237). Moreover, "Over the next fifty years, in any event, the population is expected to halve" (p. 209). Amis comments on the mid-life crisis. "In America, with divorce achieved, the midlifer can expect to be more recreational, more discretionary. He can almost design the sort of crisis he is going to have: motorbike, teenage girlfriend, vegetarianism, jogging, sportscar, mature boyfriend, cocaine, crash diet, powerboat, new baby, religion, hair transplant. Over here, now, there's no angling around for your male midlife crisis. It is brought to you and it is always the same thing. It is death" (p. 72).

The second theme is summarized by a prisoner's tattoo "You may live, but you won't love" (p. 85). The camp extracted a huge toll through "a weakened power to love" (p. 234). It is captured in the inevitable transformation from satyr to senex quoted above.

Amis foreshadows his next book, The Pregnant Widow, on the final page with "go, little book, go, little mine tragedy" (p. 245), a line from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, the author hoping that before he dies that he can "make [...] som comedye."

"Rictus" sighting (p. 128).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions by Martin Amis

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993) is the most purely journalistic of Amis' essay collections. In the introduction he states dismissively "Writing journalism never feels like writing in the proper sense. It is essentially collaborative: both your subject and your audience are hopelessly specific" (p. ix). That specificity plays against a reading of this book 18 years later, much of it feels very dated. The collection of essays is essentially random "Getting out of the house is the only thing that unites the pieces in the present book" (p. ix).

There are many delectable tidbits. He interviews Salman Rushdie in exile. We learn from Graham Greene that "I never eat vegetables. Castro was shocked..." (p. 4). The review of Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak is unintelligible without having read the book. Amis has amusing comments about the tennis player Gabriela Sabatini - "Her beauty alone scares the life out of her opponents - because tennis is above all an expression of personal power and, i the women's game, is closely bound up with how she looks" (p. 64). He has a great piece about chess. "Let us take an average experience of chess. You master the moves, start to play frequently, buy a book or two, learn some ground-rules, some openings, develop a little 'vocabulary', a bit of 'pattern recognition'...After a while you notice that you have stopped improving. Your progress, so far, has felt like a slow ascent along rising ground; then you pause, look up, and see a cliff face almost beyond the dimensions of the globe, whose crest is merely a false summit, itself the first of many" (p. 84). He comments on Bobby Fischer's sense of decline in the game it had "an air of ubi sunt" (p. 85), meaning 'where are' (those who were before us) ? He picks on Dan Quayle's famous gaff at the 1988 Republican Convention in New Orleans - "The question today is whether we are going forward, or past to the back" (p. 108). Oops, shoulda been "back to the past."

Regarding John Lennon, "I felt a sense of shock well beyond what I felt at the deaths of the Kennedys and Luther King" (p. 185). He trashes the Rolling Stones at Earl's Court (1976), but applauds Madonna, who possesses a "protean quality, her ability to redesign herself" (p. 263), and is "the most post-modern personage on the planet" (p. 256). In the Introduction he says "The great post-modern celebrities are a part of their publicity machines, and that is all you are ever going to get to write about: their publicity machines" (p. viii). He reviews her book Sex, which "merely confirms that she is exhausting her capacity to shock" (p. 261). She is "a masterpiece of controlled illusion" (p. 264). By the way, he only reviews the book because she rebuffs him on the interview opportunity.

Amis' greatest literary influence was Vladimir Nabokov. He suffered enforced exile from revolutionary Russia, the hyper-inflation of Weimar Germany, a precarious stay in France as the country fell to the Germans, and last minute escape (Véra is Jewish) to the U.S. Amis visits widow Véra Nabokov at the Montreaux Palace Hotel (where she had taken residence) in 1981, ten years before she died. They are joined by Dmitri, her only son. When he died in 1977, they were entrusted with Nabokov's literary executorship, devoted to the full time job of translation of Nabokov's novels. Also fascinating is the existence of samizdat printings of Lolita. It is curious (some would say not) that Véra is the only woman he talks to (Madonna snubbed him) in the entire book.

Amis reveals small bits of himself, including his expulsion from grammar school in Battersea, South London. "I had been 'expelled', and felt all the heaviness of this rejection" (p. 188). Ultimately, it was his good fortune - "I had far less to fear than those who remained" (p. 188).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dead Babies by Martin Amis

Twenty-five years after this book was written, Amis would describe in his ambitious novel The Information, the books written by the protagonist Richard Tull: "Aforethought was first person, Dreams Don't Mean Anything strictly localized third; both nameless, the I and the he were author surrogates...." (p. 125). That "localized third" narrative is this book, Dead Babies (1975). It is his sophomore effort in what is loosely referred to as the "Apprentice Trilogy." I have to say that this is a great book, the reader sensing a Ten Little Indians-type of doomed ending. An epigraph from the 3rd-century satirist Menippus alerts the reader that this will be a Menippean satire. Ultimately, the story is about country cottage carnage. Diedrick (Understanding Martin Amis) reveals that the phrase "Dead Babies," which refers to a variety of humanist beliefs that most members of the group have declared defunct, is derived from Swift's Modest Proposal, which calls for the killing and eating of Irish babies.

The story takes place over three days at the estate of Giles Coldstream, the Appleseed Rectory (think flower power gone to seed, Apple resonates with the Beatles) and involves ten characters suffering from "street sadness...and cancelled sex" (pp. 20, 96, 133, 162, 182). Amis lists the characters at the front of the book, dividing them into 3 groups (6 residents: Appleseeders, 3 Americans, and 2 Others). Each character's bio appears scattered throughout the 72 chapters of the book, viz. Quentin (Renaissance man, parents killed in plane crash, book reviewer for Yes, a career (p.38) that echos the author)(chap. X) and Celia (chap. L) Villiers, Andy Adorno (abandoned by mother)(chap. LX), Giles Coldstream(wealthy hypochondriac fearful of losing his teeth, has oedipal complex (p. 108)) (chap. XXX), Keith Whitehead ("court dwarf", drug tester (p. 20), Rabelaisian descriptions of his obesity abound (pp. 129-130), only gets respect from the Tuckles (p. 45), period of insanity in asylum - Blishner Institute) (chap. XL), Diana Parry (socialite born of wealthy divorcees, promiscuous for whom "two-night stands were...a rarity" (p. 68) meets Andy in Ronda, Spain, sanest of the Appleseeders) (chap. XX), Marvell Buzhardt (Jewish intellectual and hedonist, virtual "pharmacist" for the weekend, author of The Mind Lab)(chap. 11), Skip Marshall (gay, father raped him (p. 52) and murdered mother in Tennessee (p. 54), found in Arizona roadside ditch by Roxeanne and Marvell) (chap. 15), Roxeanne Smith (of perfect body), Lucy Littlejohn (a hooker, note the surname)(chap. 7), and Johnny (joker who terrorizes Diana (p. 81), Keith (p. 129), Giles (p. 148), Celia (pp. 173, 176), Skip (p. 204, enabled at p. 145), ...)(chap. LXX). The Americans are a threesome or a "troy" (pp. 11, 52), as in ménage à trois, that Keith met "when I toured the States last year" (p. 128).

The authorial persona appears occasionally to remind the reader of his control over the other eleven. Regarding Keith, "Well, we're sorry about it, Keith, of course, but we're afraid that you simply had to be that way. Nothing personal, please understand - merely in order to serve the designs of this particular fiction" pp. 146-147), designs being the Menippean satire.

The book spans 3 days. The neurosis of each character is traced to the Oedipal triangle (Giles' mother's sexual advances, Skip's mother murdered by his father). Very little of the sex talk is consummated, despite some amusing efforts. At one point, Andy says "'I think I Mailered her, actually---up her bum'," (p. 29) poking fun at our American author with a little porno taxonomy. Also "sexual lassitude and disgust seemed to be everywhere among the young, and two-night stands were becoming a rarity" (p. 68). The funniest is a scene where Andy's romancing of Diana gets derailed - "'Then they just let go, and the earth soars up and - AW, MY RIG!' Andy backed off, half doubling over. 'The, my fuckin' snake!'" (p. 71). Amis makes a statement when the group is immediately bored by a porn film (p. 165) but captivated by the eroticism of another film based on Hollywood decorum (p. 166).

Early on, we learn that Quentin has been reading Diderot's Le neveu de Rameau (p. 3), one of the great Menippean satires of the 18th century. Diedrick sets this up nicely. Here Amis provides an intertextual clue to his own narrative. Amis stages dialogues ("those conversations" (chap. 37, pp. 140, 143, 149, 155)) between Marvell and the others echoing the two speakers in Diderot's famous book: one is an unrepentant hedonist, the other clings to the belief that civic virtue is compatible with materialistic hedonism. This all comes to a head in Chap. 37: "Those Conversations." Marvell is the voice of hedonism: "In the seventies...they separated emotion and sex," (p. 122) to which Quentin defends love and monogamy (p. 122), even feudalism (p. 139). Diderot believes hedonism is an outcome of materialism - "'We're ecstatic materialists,' said Andy" (p. 140). Later, "'...perversion is an environment that is now totally man-made, totally without a biology'" (p.154), which resonates with the Marquis de Sade's belief that perversity is Enlightenment's mastery over nature.

Mikhail Bakhtin provides an extended definition of Menippean satire in his book Problems of Dostoevski's Poetics (1974). He writes "the idea...has no fear of the underworld or of the filth of life." As Diedrick states, Amis rubs the reader's face in it where the worst tendencies of the present are exaggerated and projected onto a post-seventies future that has become a theater of cruelty, with the body as its stage. The simulated beating of an aged comedian (part of a guerrilla theater group called the Conceptualists) at the 'Psychologic Revue' (chap. 25) is mirrored in the pain and humiliation the characters visit on one another. This all comes to a head when it is revealed that one member of the party murders those at Appleseed who remain after other group members have taken Giles and Keith to Hospital to no good end. At the end of the day, false evidence is planted to make it look like murderous Conceptualists raided the Rectory. To what degree does the ruthless murder of the weekend assemblage betray the author's wish to exorcise his own generation ? Read the book, those taking safe harbor in certain characters may be surprised.

This is one of only two Amis novels (The Rachel Papers) to become a feature film. It was released in 2000 and called The Mood Swingers in the U.S. It is the directorial debut (and swan song) for William Marsh (American who lived in London), is a faithful adaptation, but appears dated (despite some millennial updating), largely because it took 9 years to raise the funding (see Y. Allen et al., Contemporary British and Irish Film Directors: a Wallflower Critical Guide). The only actor of note was Paul Bettany. The film has a heavy emphasis on the Conceptualists, with Giles watching a news broadcast of their "Gestures" early on.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million by Martin Amis

This book was published (2002) soon after Amis' memoirs about his father (Experience), primarily as a response to his sister's (Sally) death at 46 (November, 2000), six months after its publication. He put his writing chores for his next novel (Yellow Dog) on hold, which had begun in earnest the day after 9/11 (2001). September 11 seemed to make fiction pointless. The only problem is that Sally is given very short shrift in the book. Diedrick (Understanding Martin Amis) points out that more is said about her in Experience. It is worth quoting, because it confirms Amis' view of women as mere delineators of the relations between men. M.A. "figuratively limits the meaning of Sally's life to her attendance on Kingsley, and equated Kingsley's death with hers" (Diedrick) - "Sally, I'm sorry, but no urgent tasks await you. He has finished his work and you have finished yours. There is nothing left to be done" (Experience, p. 355). We'll get back to her soon enough. Essentially, this book is an "historiography" (pp. 35, 125) of Stalin's reign of terror. Historiography is writing about rather than of history. Historiography is meta-analysis of descriptions of the past. The analysis usually focuses on the narrative, interpretations, worldview, use of evidence, or method of presentation of other historians.

At this juncture, Smith (The Scotsman) comments "Amis is still in his post-Experience experience." Evidently, the real raison d'etre for the book is a chance for Amis to fume about the death toll from Stalin's reign of terror, a settling of the score regarding his father's known Communist Party affiliation in the 1950s (echoing the "extravagant dupes of the USSR: H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw..." (p. 21n)) and the politics of his closest friend, Christopher Hitchens (for which he replied formally in the Guardian). Amis' preoccupation with the evil of Stalin stems from his desire to understand why his father "believed, and believed in, Soviet Communism for fifteen years" (p. 272). Beyond that interest, he never visited any gulag sites or North Korea, for that matter, the only surviving Stalinist state. Amis "read several yards of books about the Soviet experiment" (p. 4), including his father's close friend and leading Sovietologist Robert Conquest's The Great Terror (1968). Conquest is famously said to have suggested the revised version (1990) of the book be titled "I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?" (p. 10). Amis relates (as told to Preston, The Telegraph) his surprise at "the eisteddfod of hostility" the book received in the UK. Amis really takes it on the chin from genuine historians like academic heavyweight Orlando Figes (A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, which Amis mined as source material for the book (p. 224)), who crafts careful arguments showing the multitude of egregious errors in the text. But I think Kakutani (The New York Times) got it right, despite it being self-conscious and self-indulgent, saying "it does a credible job of conveying just how Stalin went about "breaking the truth," and it should send readers running to better, more scholarly books on this tragic period in history." Her elegant remarks also appear at the end of this post.

Koba is a name that Stalin adopted from a popular Russian novel titled The Patricide. Stalin wsa also a nickname for Man of Steel. He was obsessed with "prepotence" (p. 110). His purges killed 20,000,000 people. Diedrick notes that laughter identifies "the literary paradigm that organizes...Amis' analysis of Stalin's evil....Stalin comes to resemble an outsized, world-historical version of the grotesque villains that populate his novels....Amis assigns the Russian nightmare to a subgenre of comedy...[his comparisons of Stalin with King Lear] trivialize both literature and history." The book is replete with Shakespearian references. He quotes Solzhenitsyn: "'The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses...Because they had no ideology'....Ideology brings about a disastrous fusion: that of violence and righteousness - a savagery without stain" (p. 86).

Amis relates his father's belief in communism as emblematic of the "chief lacuna" (p. 5) of the 20th century: the failure of western intellectuals to condemn Stalin's horrors. Orlando Figes (The Telegraph) dismisses both his father and Hitchins as café communists. In "Letter to a Friend" Amis challenges best friend Christopher Hitchens from his Uruguayan retreat in Maldonado. Hitchens felt compelled to draft a lengthy letter to Amis in The Guardian (September 4, 2002), rebutting Amis' claims. Hitchens ribs Amis the "counter revolutionary tourist" and reminds him that in Uruguay 10% of the population was forced into exile in the 1970s. He ends "I'm sorry all over again that you have written on the subject in such a way as to give pleasure to those who don't love you, as I do."

In his novels, Amis often uses comic pairs to offset each other, this is done in Koba to compare Stalin with Hitler, in a chapter entitled "The Little Mustache and the Big Mustache" (p. 81). Alluding to Dr. Faustus and Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Amis states "Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub ? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kid of laughter is it ? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the twenty million" (pp. 256-257). Needless to say, Amis took heat on this concept of laughter in a serious study of history.

Along these lines, Hari (The Independent) makes the case that Amis "equates human worth with literary worth," having done this in Experience with Lucy Partington's killer, Fred West (whose evil stems from literary failings, Experience, p. 172). Hari claims "Stalin's murders of artists like Meyerhold is held up by Amis as axiomatically worse than the killing of, say, a peasant grandmother." Further (taking things personally), "he has given us this book...because he thinks his own literary interpretation of Stalin is important...The only human response is to pity poor, preposterous Martin Amis, deluding himself that he---or his talentless father---have more merit than toilet cleaners like my granny, who read little but love more than he can ever know."

Back to Sally. In the "Afterword: Letter to My Father's Ghost", Amis soothes the paternally anxious spirit of his father: "Even in death, Sally Amis facilitates communion between men" (Diedrick). Yet, Amis throws a curve ball. Anonymously present at Sally's funeral was Sally's daughter. Remember, you and I saw her when she was a baby (in the summer of 1979), just before her adoption. The baby, who was perfect, was called Heidi, names after Sally's very unencouraging new mentor. She is not called Heidi any longer. Sally, then, was twenty-four. Catherine, now, is twenty-two. She had never met her mother" (p. 275). This is eerily reminiscent of Delilah, M.A.'s daughter from a brief affair with Lamorna Seale, showing up at a similar age. It is noteworthy that poet Philip Larkin read a poem written on the occasion of Sally's birth "Born Yesterday" at her funeral (pp. 268-269).

Perhaps the most outrageous takehome from the book is how his daughter Clio (dedicatee) was nicknamed Butyrki, after "the best prison in Moscow" (p. 259): "I was alone in the house [Primrose Hill mansion] with my 6-month old daughter...Without preamble she embarked on a weeping fit that began at the outer limit of primordial despair, and then steadily escalated. "The sounds she was making," I said to my wife on her return, "would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror....Butyrki, I am afraid, is now established as one of my daughter's chief nicknames" (pp. 259-260). Further, as Kakutani asserts "Mr. Amis suggests that by looking at one individual death- namely, his sister's - he is delivering a kind of response to the assertion attributed to Stalin that" - "while every death is a tragedy, the death of a million is a mere statistic" (pp. 276-277). "The problem is that Sally Amis turns out to be little more than a footnote in this volume [rather than a rebuttal of Stalin's aphorism], and Mr. Amis's other personal asides, plopped in the midst of what is a historical survey of Soviet crimes against humanity, feel like the narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class littérateur who has never known the kind of real suffering Stalin's victims did." Ultimately, the connection between Stalin and Sally Amis is tenuous at best. Stalin's aphorism is rebutted and cannot form a bridge between the two, a disjunction that remains unresolved.

Let's end with a joke from the book. "Q: Why are the USSR and America the same ? A: Because in the USSR you can joke about America and in America you can joke about America" (p. 21). Or even better by the executioner of the Tsar and family, that he could "die in peace because he had squeezed the Empress's ------" (p. 56).