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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006 10:26 am
Love, Gulag-Style
Posted by: Keir Graff

I’m reading House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. So far, it’s great. (Despite its compact size and clean, whittled prose, it’s been slow going for me this week due to the six-month-old’s nighttime schedule.) Written as a memoir intended for an audience of one, it’s the story of an elderly Russian man who returns as a tourist to the work camp where he was once a prisoner. With remarkable economy, Amis explores Russian history and the national character, the hardship of both free and incarcerated life, political intolerance and anti-Semitism, all the while building a love triangle that I sense will have a tragic outcome. (The “House of Meetings” is building where Lev, the narrator’s brother, and Zoya, his wife, are allowed a conjugal visit.)

The narrator is a man who’s done terrible things and is able to look at them philosophically–a perfect character for a writer like Amis, who isn’t afraid to say anything. (And who indeed may fear the idea of failing to outrage people.) But I do suspect that old age leads us toward extremes of either nostalgia or disillusionment, and the narrator is at a point in his life where there’s nothing to be gained by dishonesty. (Although I find myself wondering why he’s so blunt with Venus, the young woman for whom he’s writing.)

Often Amis writes something that registers a little shock–but I think the shocks often come not from what his characters are saying or thinking but because, even in fiction, we have so few examples of people who say or think things that are truly unconventional–often they’re just aping someone else’s idea of unconventional–or that aren’t in some way trying to win our approval.

Discussing the possibilities of love, romance, or just physical contact in the camp (there were women there, too), this short passage strikes me as vintage Amis. It’s original, sad, funny, and unlikely to win him any new friends among a certain type of reader:

Usually I could conjure with Tanya, and recreate the little darling she must surely have been in freedom. But that night, as we sat for an hour on the tree stumps in the clearing behind the infirmary, all I could manage was a kind of callous fascination. It was her mouth. Her mouth resembled one of the etched hieroglyphs you see on the walls of the cell of the prototypical solitary, in cartoons, in the illustrations to nineteenth-century novels about epic confinements; a horizontal line measured off with six notched verticals, representing yet another week of your time. 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. Oh yes: and the sandpapery grain of the flushed flesh of her cheeks, in the white dusk, made me long for the rind of an orange.

 


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