House of Meetings

House of Meetings

by Martin Amis

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Overview

An extraordinary, harrowing, endlessly surprising novel from a literary master. In 1946, two brothers and a Jewish girl fall into alignment in pogrom-poised Moscow. The fraternal conflict then marinates in Norlag, a slave-labor camp above the Arctic Circle, where a tryst in the coveted House of Meetings will haunt all three lovers long after the brothers are released. And for the narrator, the sole survivor, the reverberations continue into the new century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400096015
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/08/2008
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,206,968
Product dimensions: 5.14(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.77(d)

About the Author

Martin Amis's best sellers include the novels Money, London Fields, and The Information, as well his memoir, Experience. He lives in London.

Hometown:

Oxford, England

Date of Birth:

August 25, 1949

Place of Birth:

Oxford, England

Education:

B.A., Exeter College, Oxford

Read an Excerpt

1.The Yenisei, September 1, 2004My little brother came to camp in 1948 (I was already there), at the height of the war between the brutes and the bitches . . .Now that wouldn't be a bad opening sentence for the narrative proper, and I am impatient to write it. But not yet. "Not yet, not yet, my precious!" This is what the poet Auden used to say to the lyrics, the sprawling epistles, that seemed to be lobbying him for premature birth. It is too early, now, for the war between the brutes and the bitches. There will be war in these pages, inevitably: I fought in fifteen battles, and, in the seventh, I was almost castrated by a secondary missile (a three-pound iron bolt), which lodged itself in my inner thigh. When you get a wound as bad as that, for the first hour you don't know whether you're a man or a woman (or whether you're old or young, or who your father was or what your name is). Even so, an inch or two further up, as they say, and there would have been no story to tell—because this is a love story. All right, Russian love. But still love.The love story is triangular in shape, and the triangle is not equilateral. I sometimes like to think that the triangle is isosceles: it certainly comes to a very sharp point. Let's be honest, though, and admit that the triangle remains brutally scalene. I trust, my dear, that you have a dictionary nearby? You never needed much encouragement in your respect for dictionaries. Scalene, from the Greek, skalenos: unequal.It's a love story. So of course I must begin with the House of Meetings.I'm sitting in the prow-shaped dining room of a tourist steamer, the Georgi Zhukov, on the Yenisei River, which flows from the foothills of Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, thus cleaving the northern Eurasian plain—a distance of some two and a half thousand versts. Given Russian distances, and the general arduousness of Russian life, you'd expect a verst to be the equivalent of—I don't know—thirty-nine miles. In fact it's barely more than a kilometer. But that's still a very long ride. The brochure describes the cruise as "a journey to the destination of a lifetime"—a phrase that carries a somewhat unwelcome resonance. Bear in mind, please, that I was born in 1919.Unlike almost everywhere else, over here, the —is neither one thing nor the other: neither futuristically plutocratic nor futuristically stark. It is a picture of elderly, practically tsarist Komfortismus. Below the waterline, where the staff and crew slumber and carouse, the ship is of course a fetid ruin—but look at the dining room, with its honey-gold drapes, its brothelly red velvets. And our load is light. I have a four-berth cabin all to myself. The Gulag Tour, so the purser tells me, never quite caught on . . . Moscow is impressive—grimly fantastic in its pelf. And Petersburg, too, no doubt, after its billion-dollar birthday: a tercentenary for the slave-built city "stolen from the sea." It's everywhere else that is now below the waterline.My peripheral vision is ringed by crouching waiters, ready to pounce. There are two reasons for this. First, we have reached the penultimate day of our voyage, and by now it is massively established, aboard the Georgi Zhukov, that I am a vile-tempered and foul-mouthed old man—huge and shaggy, my hair not the downy white of the unprotesting dotard but a jagged and bitter gray. They also know, by now, that I am a psychotic overtipper. I don't know why. I was from the start, I suppose, a twenty-percenter rather than a ten, and it's climbed steadily since; but this is ridiculous. I always had a lot of spare cash, even in the USSR. But now I'm rich. For the record (and this is my record), just one patent, but with wide applications: a mechanism that significantly improves the "give" of prosthetic extremities . . . So all the waiters know that if they survive my cloacal frenzies, then a competence awaits them at the end of every meal. Propped up before me, a book of poems. Not Mikhail Lermontov or Marina Tsvetaeva. Samuel Coleridge. The bookmark I use is a plump envelope with a long letter in it. It's been in my possession for twenty-two years. An old Russian, coming home, must have his significant keepsake—his deus ex machina. I haven't read the letter yet, but I will. I will, if it's the last thing I do.Yes, yes, I know—the old shouldn't swear. You and your mother were quite right to roll your eyes at it. It is indeed a charmless and pitiful spectacle, the effing and blinding of an ancient mouth, the teeth false or dropped, the lips licked half away. And pitiful because it is such a transparent protest against failing powers: saying fuck is the only dirty thing we can still get up to. But I would like to emphasize the therapeutic properties of the four-letter word. All those who have truly grieved know the relief it eventually brings, to dip your head and, for hour upon hour, to weep and swear... Christ, look at my hands. The size of cheeseboards, no, cheeses, whole cheeses, with their pocks and ripples, their spread, their verdigris. I have hurt many men and women with these hands.On August 29 we crossed the Arctic Circle, and there was a very comprehensive celebration aboard the Georgi Zhukov. An accordion, a violin, a much-bejeweled guitar, girls in wenchy blouses, a jodhpured drunk who tried to fake the Cossack dance and kept falling off his stool. I now have a hangover which, two days later, is still getting steadily worse. And at my age, in the "high" eighties, as they now say (in preference to the "late," with its unfortunate connotations), there just isn't room for a hangover. Dear oh dear ... Oh dear oh dear oh dear. I didn't think I was still capable of polluting myself quite so thoroughly. Worse, I succumbed. You know very well what I mean. I joined in all the toasts (a miniature dumpster had been provided for us to smash our glasses into), and I sang all the songs; I wept for Russia, and staunched my tears on her flag. I talked a very great deal about camp—about Norlag, about Predposylov. Around dawn, I started physically preventing certain people from leaving the bar. Later on I did a fair amount of damage to my cabin and had to be moved the next day, in a blizzard of swearwords and twenty-dollar bills.Georgi Zhukov, General Zhukov, Marshal Zhukov: I served in one of his armies (he commanded a whole front) in 1944 and 1945. He also played a part in saving my life—eight years later, in the summer of 1953. Georgi Zhukov was the man who won the Second World War.Our ship groans, as if shouldering yet more burdens and cares. I like this sound. But when the doors to the galley blat open I hear the music from the boombox (four beats to the bar, with some seventeen-year-old yelling about self- discovery), and it comes to my ears as pain. Naturally, at a single flicker of my eyelid, the waiters take the kitchen by storm. When you are old, noise comes to you as pain. Cold comes to you as pain. When I go up on deck tonight, which I will do, I expect the wet snow to come to me as pain. It wasn't like that when I was young. The wake-up: that hurt, and went on hurting more and more. But the cold didn't hurt. By the way, try crying and swearing above the Arctic Circle, in winter. All your tears will freeze fast, and even your obscenities will turn to droplets of ice and tinkle to your feet. It weakened us, it profoundly undermined us, but it didn't come to us as pain. It answered something. It was like a searchlight playing over the universe of our hate.Now the boombox has been supplanted by a radio. I hold up a hand. This is permitted. Today saw the beginning of the siege of Middle School Number One, in North Ossetia. Some of the children happened to be watching when the gunmen and gunwomen came over the railway track in their black balaclavas—and they laughed and pointed, thinking it was a game or an exercise. Then the van pulled up and out he climbed, the killer with the enormous orange beard: "Russians, Russians, don't be afraid. Come. Come . . ." The authorities are saying three or four hundred, but in fact there are well over a thousand hostages—children, parents, teachers. And why is it that we are already preparing ourselves for something close to the worst possible outcome? Why is it that we are already preparing ourselves for the phenomenon understood by all the world—Russian heavy-handedness? For what reason are our hands so heavy? What weighs them down? Another cup of coffee, another cigarette, and I'll go up on deck. The Siberian expanse, the olive-green immensity—it would frighten you, I think; but it makes Russians feel important. The mass of the land, of the country, the size of the stake in the planet: it is this that haunts us, and it is this that overthrows the sanity of the state . . . We are cruising north, but downriver. Which feels anomalous. Up on deck, it's as if the ship is motionless and the facing riverbanks are on the move. We are still; the riverbanks bob and undulate. You are borne forward by a power that is traveling the other way. You have a sense, too, that you are looming up over the shoulder of the world and heading toward an infinite waterfall. Here be monsters.My eyes, in the Conradian sense, have stopped being Western and started being Eastern. I am back in the bosom of a vast slum family. Now it has to fend for itself. All the money has been divided up between the felons and the state.It is curious. To type the word "Kansas" still seems reassuringly banal. And to type the word "Krasnoyarsk" still seems wholly grotesque. I could of course type "K——," like a writer from another age. "He journeyed to M——, the capital of R——." But you're a big girl now. "Moscow," "Russia": nothing you haven't seen before. My mother tongue—I find I want to use it as little as possible. If Russia is going, then Russian is already gone. We were very late, you see, to develop a language of feeling; the process was arrested after barely a century, and now all the implied associations and resonances are lost. I must just say that it does feel consistently euphemistic—telling my story in English, and in old-style English English, what's more. My story would be even worse in Russian. For it is truly a tale of gutturals and nasals and whistling sibilants.The rest of me, even so, is becoming Eastern—re-Russifying, all over again. So keep a lookout, hereafter, for other national traits: the freedom from all responsibility and scruple, the energetic championship of views and beliefs that are not only irreconcilable but also mutually exclusive, the weakness for a humor of squalor and cynicism, the tendency to speak most passionately when being most insincere, and the thirst for abstract argument (abstract to the point of pretension) at unlikely moments—say, in the middle of a prison stampede, at the climax of a cholera riot, or in the most sepulchral phase of a terror-famine.Oh, and just to get this out of the way. It's not the USSR I don't like. What I don't like is the northern Eurasian plain. I don't like the "directed democracy," and I don't like Soviet power, and I don't like the tsars, and I don't like the Mongol overlords, and I don't like the theocratic dynasts of old Moscow and old Kiev. I don't like the multi-ethnic, twelve-time-zone land empire. I don't like the northern Eurasian plain.Please indulge the slight eccentricity in my use of dialogue. I'm not being Russian. I'm being "English." I feel it's bad form to quote oneself. Put it that way.Yes, so far as the individual is concerned, Venus, it may very well be true that character is destiny. And the other way around. But on the larger scale character means nothing. On the larger scale, destiny is demographics; and demographics is a monster. When you look into it, when you look into the Russian case, you feel the stirrings of a massive force, a force not only blind but altogether insentient, like an earthquake or a tidal wave. Nothing like this has ever happened before.There it is in front of me on the screen of my computer, the graph with its two crinkly lines intersecting, one pink, one blue. The birth rate, the death rate. They call it the Russian cross.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.2.House of MeetingsIt was with some ceremony, I remember, that I showed my younger brother the place where he would entertain his bride. I say "bride." They'd been married for eight years. But this would be their first night together as husband and wife . . . You head north from the zona, and after half a mile you strike off to the left and climb the steep little lane and the implausible flight of old stone steps, and there it is: beyond, on the slope of Mount Schweinsteiger, the two-story chalet called the House of Meetings, and, to the side, its envied annex, a lone log cabin like an outpost of utter freedom.Just the one room, of course: the narrow cot with its furry undersheet and dead-weight gray blanket, the water barrel with the tin mug chained to it, the spotless slops-bucket with its tactful wooden lid. And then the chair (armless, backless), and the waiting supper tray—two fist-sized lumps of bread, a whole herring (slightly green around the edges), and the big jug of cold broth with at least four or five beads of fat set into its surface. Many hours had gone into this, and many hands.Lev whistled.I said, Well, kid, we've come a long way. Look."Jesus Christ," he said.And I produced from my pocket the squat thermos of vodka, the six cigarettes (rolled out of the state newspaper), and the two candles.Maybe he was still recovering from the power-hose and the shearer—there were droplets of sweat on his upper lip. But then he gave me the look I knew well: the mirthless rictus, with the two inverted chevrons in the middle of his brow.

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House of Meetings 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
TheAmpersand on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Prior to picking up "House of Meetings," "Dead Babies" was the only Amis I'd read. I found that novel almost offensively terrible, a shallow, sophomoric exercise in provocation for its own sake. I'm glad I gave Amis another chance, though. While Amis hasn't lost his taste for the grotesque, "House of Meetings" is a fearless novel that isn't afraid to describe some of the twentieth century's worst moments or to tackle it's thorniest ethical problems. It is also, to Amis's credit, compulsively readable and unwilling to waste time or space on sentimentality. The voice of Amis's now-aged narrator rings out clear as a bell from the book's pages, a remarkable achievement in so brief a book that covers so much ground. "House of Meetings" tells the story of two brothers, both of whom are what the Soviet authorities used to call "politicals," attempting to survive incarceration in the Soviet gulags where millions of prisoners met their deaths. It's also an exploration of how different characters might behave when faced with an interminable, society-wide catastrophe. Even the novel's narrator, his brother, Lev, and his sister-in-law, Zoya do their best to survive emotionally and economically in post-war Russia, they are constantly reminded that their deaths - from starvation, the state, or the unforgiving Russian cliimate - might come at any time. Worst of all, they knew their fate may not be tied to any of their decisions, since the Soviet system often doled out punishment and reward in unpredictable and capricious ways. The novel asks whether one can remain human, concerned with love or art or morality, under such circumstances, and whether meaningful resistance is even possible when people must fight so hard to survive. It manages to turn the entertaining, and sometimes bitterly funny, story of three individuals into an effective elegy for the million now-nameless Russians that perished under Stalin. Amis has clearly done his research here. For millions of Soviet citizens, these weren't just academic questions, and it's discouraging to note that most of the degrading scenes in this novel were most probably drawn from the historical record. He also takes us on a very comprehensive tour of gulag life, describing in careful detail the and subtle hierarchies and bizarre economies that existed among the prisoners. After Stalin dies and the brothers are freed, Amis offers a description of the marginal economic and cultural undergrounds that provided a necessary counterpoint to a drab, unhappy society drowning in bureaucracy. He even takes time to ruminate on the nature of the Russian soul, and, even though he's an Englishman by birth, he manages to tie these familiar generalizations in with his developing narrative so that they seem both accurate and trenchantly sad. Mixed up somewhere in all of this mess, life happens to these characters. Our narrator and his two companions meet, fall in love, have sex, work and grow, even if they're sometimes forced to make terrible compromises in order to do keep themselves from perishing. "House of Meetings," is, in its own way, a testament to human survival under the harshest conditions, evidence that a good story can emerge from even the darkest chapters of history.
kishields on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The 4th or 5th of Amis's books that I've read, and it reminds me of many familiar patterns, themes and tones in his work. The prose is beautiful, though more concise in books like London Fields. The narrator is bitter and jealous, in conflict and competition with his brother. Their paths crisscross, one ascending as the other plummets. However, unlike other of his novels that I've read, this book is set in another place and time¿in the Russian work camps, which Amis has researched very thoroughly. The book brought this setting and period of Russian history alive for me better than any other work I have read, including A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The grimness and hardship of Russians both inside and outside the camps is very well portrayed and while the characters are not cozy and lovable by any means, the book ends up being very affecting.
Gary10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I feel like I should like Martin Amis more than I do! Well written but I did not find it that engaging. Maybe it is impossible to talk about Stalin's work camps and have it be pleasant. But in spite of the fact that you would think you could find sympathy for people being so mistreated, the main characters in this book do not evoke much sympathy. I always find it hard to relate to a book when you dont really like any of the characters.
RickK on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Found it a little hard to follow but enjoyed Amis' writing style. Perhaps the subject matter was something that I just didn't have enough insight into
nohablo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautiful, lush, hard-nosed prose of someone who clearly hammers together and prises apart sentences. Pitch-perfect diction, with the sort of OED, heat-seeking missile accuracy that speaks of dogged talent and workmanship. However, has the same sort of emotional distance and aloofness as his memoir, Experience. Connects cerebrally but doesn't really hit any switches in the heart or gut.But oh the prose.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a dark and frighteningly tender book. Amis masterfully crafts his narrator's voice and the surrounding characters, and his poetic prose makes even the most violent sections of the book both horrifying and brilliantly realized. Certainly, this isn't a book for everyone--the depictions of violence and work camps, not to mention hate, are too realistic to be taken easily. Amis' explorations here, though, are powerful and unrelenting. Yes, this is a dark and violent book built to explore darker issues. It is also a masterpiece, beautifully and written and perfectly conceived.
chengiz on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The one good thing about this book is that it is quite readable, I finished it in two sittings (it helps that I find the Soviet Union fascinating -- in a "thank God I wasnt born there" way). Much of the rest often feels good and bad at the same time.The protagonist/narrator *describes* himself as angry, well-read, a war veteran and rapist, labour-camp survivor, black marketeer, technical expert (ie. he is interesting, flawed, multifarious) but what *comes across* due to the writing is a pretentious, literary bore (Amis himself?). The descriptions of the Gulag and insights into the Soviet Union are well put, but there is no feeling in them. Perhaps it's because Amis isnt Russian and it shows: one cant *write* British and *be* Russian at the same time (apparently the narrator's English is so good because he dated an Englishwoman!).The suspense about the brother's letter is felt well by the reader, but there is absolutely no reason for keeping it. Moreover, the contents of the letter are totally and *pretentiously* anticlimactic. The writing towards the end feels confused, and it could be because after the anticlimax of the letter, all I wanted to do was finish the book fast. On the whole, not a bad read, but left me with a "what was the point" dissatisfied feeling, so I wouldnt recommend it.
paperhouses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had almost given up on Amis doing Amis over and over again. But the prospect of his writing a russian novel intrigued me. I'm a sucker for those slavs. So glad I took the bait, if you can be glad of reading a book so monstrously depressing. Well realized, well crafted, well done. Perfect tone. Hadn't ever reflected so much on the culture of the gulag. Glad my grandfather got the hell out of Russia.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the first book I have read by Martin Amis though I have had him on my reading list for some time. I can therfore draw no comparisons between it and his previous books. I enjoyed reading the reviews by other members who did that. I can say however that Mr Amis is a very fine writer and I found this first person memoir of a survivor of Stalin's labour camps a compelling read. My overwhelming reaction was that he is just such a good writer. I definitely will be reading more of his books. While the literacy and wit of the narrator may be unrealistic given his personal circumstances (no education) , it was nevertheless brilliant and entertaining. The book is quite readable, two sittings were just right. And I have to admit that the first sitting kept me up a bit late. I did not find the story of the love triangle very interesting, suffering as it did from the usual male fantasy of a woman as nothing but a passive sexual being upon which they project their supposedly profound jealousy, violence and angst. But after all we put up with that in many great books so it is hard to fault Mr Amis for being traditional. This is a Russian story, and the narrator survives WWII as a supposed war hero but is then sent to a slave -labour camp above the Arctic circle called Norlag. Later , his brother arrives at the same camp. Their brutal lives are described but this is in the context of their personal relationship and their shared history and the narrator's growing political consiousness. There is direct reference to Russia's leaders through the 20th century and the footnotes are a welcome aid. This is a political novel, a harsh commentary on the repressive politics of Russia, and the book ends with a discussion of Russia's dramatic fall in birhrate, perhaps a rational response to life.
soylentgreen23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I never expected to read this: a book by Martin Amis about life in a Russian forced-labour camp. It's like Solzhenitsyn in a way, only more than just a day's sojourn into the horror. And it would have to be Amis, choosing as he does a Russian war hero and notorious thug and rapist as his lead character.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ya sure
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Amis' novel is not only an introspection into the relationship of two Russian brothers. While this surface plot is moving an exceedingly well written, those who have read Conrad's Under Western Eyes and Dostoyevsky will also enjoy the numerous quotes and ideas from these authors and their works that Amis includes in order to show the difference between actual Russia and the Russia that is perceived by Europe. This is a superb work.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 2004, the wealthy octogenarian Russian tours one of his former homes, the gulag and several other such horrific places. As he looks around this place of horror, he writes down what he sees and what he remembers so that his American 'stepdaughter' Venus will never forget long after he dies.---------- He compare the Russian-American relationship today to that of his time along with his brother Lev in the Norlag concentration camp from 1948-1956. On top of his memories, he provides Venus with a second letter that a dying Lev sent him in 1982 soon after his nephew died in Afghanistan. He thinks about his first love, Lev's wife Zoya, who married a Soviet apparatchik before becoming a drunk. Life has been hard on him and his family, but he can go peacefully because his Venus lives in affluence in America.------------ Though not quite as powerful as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn¿s THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO 1918-1956, the brothers and Zoya are compelling characters as readers will envision Stalin¿s death camps from their perspectives. The key message of ¿never forget so that history does not repeat itself¿ hits home throughout the plot and is accentuated when the unnamed narrator and Zoya meet years later at a gulag¿s HOUSE OF MEETINGS. In contrast, Venus comes across as a stereotypical shallow ugly American who has no appreciation for what her ¿stepfather¿ or others went through as she has never had to sacrifice any of affluent lifestyle for any cause or atrocity. She serves as contrast to a evocative look at the effect of surviving carnage.--------- Harriet Klausner