the invention of pain

Martin Amis – House of Meetings

Might Amis have been stung by the criticisms of his Koba the Dread into writing this book? Johann Hari suggested that “the only human response is to pity poor, preposterous Martin Amis”, for Koba is a 'chilling book', in which its author has 'revealed his own deformed personality'. Hari writes out of a fury at Amis's egoism; at the complacent subordination of suffering (most dubiously, the suffering of other people) to style and literary dazzlement. The shaping impulse, the writerly instinct to cast attractive verbal toys from the stuff of experience – this seems fairly unexceptionable; yet Amis stands charged with doing so without due regard for the magnitude of sorrow, he is guilty of so much posturing, and, damningly, of having conducted no original research of his own. The fate of the twenty million is a pretext for paronomasia. By this account Koba the Dread arises from an almost bottomless self-regard, a work wrong-headed and misconceived in every way. Tibor Fischer's infamous attack on Yellow Dog seems pretty mild by comparison.

But what exactly is the burden of the complaint? The historians weighed in, predictably – Orlando Figes found Amis's effort inexcusable in its amateurism; as if, when Amis turns his gaze on the topic, he undoes the Gordian knot: “The true subject of his book,” Figes concludes his Telegraph review, “is not Stalin, nor even his victims, but Amis the would-be historian, Amis brooding on the suffering of the world from the safety of his home.” Koba is in one respect an hommage to the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, its dedicatee – and Amis makes explicit his debt to his fathers's friend. But reviewers were scandalized more by the autobiographical insertions than by the bad history: the two letters, one to Kingsley Amis, the other to Christopher Hitchens; but the critics' patience expired the moment when Amis bestowed the nickname 'Butyrki' on his distressed daughter: “'The sounds she was making,' I said unsmilingly 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...'” Unsmilingly – something trivially high-minded about it, its earnestness and the weirdness of the association.. The confessional mode so exhaustively mined in Amis's memoir Experience leaks into this book, and we look back on the earlier work hospitable to suspicion. Koba the Dread, its critics insist, is a book disfigured by Amis's superbia – like any egotist, he takes history personally, not least because it happened without his involvement.

In House of Meetings, then, Amis returns to the scene of the crime. His prose has undergone a fair degree of streamlining, the manner become more disciplined, cleaner. The epileptoid metaphorizing of Yellow Dog gives place here to a chill exactitude of phrasing. There are fewer false quantities in this writing; it no longer feels hamstrung by its unmoored, unchecked inventiveness. The Information and Yellow Dog felt more like style-sheets than fully realized fiction – their language, superabundantly aerobic as it was, somehow masked a void. Progression d'effet tended more to be governed by spasms of virtuosity than by fidelity to felt experience. Amis allowed his art to become fattened on facility. The Comic Spirit, as George Meredith described it, morphed into a flailing, diabolic Urizen. House of Meetings marks a new sobriety, a reckoning with larger responsibilities.

Amis's literary coordinates are freely declared: Conrad, Dostoyevsky. But his narrator's cultural tastes show him up as an Anglophile, radically Westernized – he is more apt to quote Coleridge than Pushkin or Lermontov. Indeed the effect is stereophonic, with the narrative voice proceeding in the coolest of mandarin styles to speak of eye-watering scenes of human degradation: “..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 whistling sibilants.” (Remember that Nabokov's White Russian exiles and renegadoes were impeccably articulate, too.) Amis seems to be trying for a kind of inverted ostranenye. Decorum announces itself in this proposed stylistic asepsis; and it must be through a formidably controlled language that – in a phrase Amis mints in Koba – the 'beginnings of the search for decorum' can be found. What does Amis himself understand by this? The English literary tradition has always been read as the vehicle for a liberal humanism that was at once unemphatic and benign, decent and tolerant. The catastrophes of the twentieth century - the 'carnival of bestiality', in George Steiner's phrase – dealt a blow to such pretensions; and, as the class origins of the Novel were exposed, the moral cleanliness came further to be corroded. Any claim to universality on behalf of the tradition has equally been cast to the winds. Amis's own fiction dramatizes the absurdities of our fallenness – the grotesque amoral acquisitiveness of the Thatcher era, the 'moronic inferno' hothousing beneath the nuclear umbrella. With Time's Arrow he deployed techniques loosely borrowed from magic realism (although inspired more directly by the Dresden bombing in Slaughterhouse Five) to take us into territory that even the most industrious of Holocaust historians would find inaccessible. Amis has long understood that realism can only carry you so far – that the culture, the world itself will always outstrip it; and certain modes of being, certain experiences can only be caught expressionistically: in the sense that Otto Dix shows us Weimar with a lethal authenticity quite beyond the powers of journalism or historical record.

Amis has remarked that, in House of Meetings, tragedy is the dominant chord. Much of his work to date has been a scabrous comédie humaine, brimful of modernity's by-blows and bogeymen. He seemed at his most agitatedly assured when setting in motion the squads of hopeless monsters – the Keith Talents, the Clint Smokers – who garrison the chapters of London Fields and Yellow Dog. This was James Wood's hysterical realism in a cyclotron, a snarling fusion of Hogarth and Ballard. Yet for all the gravity of Amis's stated themes – male violence, millenial terror - his characters always felt thinly realized, more allegorical figures from the baroque Trauerspiel than flesh-and-blood selves.


Daniel Soar's bitterly tendentious piece in the London Review of Books – in which the essentially uninteresting business of reading House of Meetings is disposed of in a couple of paragraphs – excuses itself from the side issue of critical appraisal and quickly slides into an attack on Amis's recent stance on the War on Terror and Islamism. Amis's long essay 'The Age of Horrorism' has been taken as a significant public statement: drawing heavily on the thesis propounded in Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, it seeks to pathologize Islamist motivation, and suggests, among other things, that from unresolved psychosexual aberration arise the doctrines of modern radical Islamism's ideologues. Berman carefully examines the career and thought of Sayyid al-Qutb: Amis glosses Berman's text, imparts to it a novelist's finesse and imaginative license. (It forms the basis of an aborted short story.) The LRB write-up finds in House of Meetings the occasion for a bit of timely Amis bashing; Soar might well identify hatred as a governing principle in Amis's work, but Soar's own contempt for a reading of the contemporary scene at odds with his own (and the liberal elites who form the LRB's natural constituency) blazes through. In a similar spirit Ziauddin Sardar recently coined the term 'Blitcon' to identify and arraign Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie for their apparent apostasy: throwing in their lots with America – and so with neoconservatism and the New Imperialism – each of these writers have so decisively chosen to ally themselves with the meretricious glamour of power, silently condoning acts of imperialist aggression, that they've passed on any claim to moral authority. They've become state-sponsored hirelings, the Southey and Wordsworth de nos jours. Aside from its paranoia and exaggeration, Sardar's was a fairly redundant polemical sally; not least because the politics of the trio is actually more nuanced and ambiguous – shot through with self-doubt – than Sardar seems prepared to admit. If Amis is so exercised by Islamic theocracy, it's rather because he recognizes it as a threat – not just to the civitas of literary art – but to the hallowed covenant between artist and humanity as a whole, to liberty of conscience and free agency. Soar's rhetorical jugglery, with Amis is portrayed as spoilt haut bourgeois with a distempered ego, and the delightful al-Qutb a noble figure sinisterly traduced by his enemies, takes question-begging to another level. (It also seems the merest silliness to complain of Rushdie's attitude to Islamism when for a decade he was at the sticky end of one of its representative's murderous bans.)

The liberal left distrust Amis. They distrust him for his unpredictability, his literary fideism – the spooky art, as Norman Mailer calls it, won't let itself be suborned by any political programme. His work refuses the saving pieties that survive as the long tail of the radical tradition. Sardar and others balk at his willingness to take America seriously (as does Rushdie); and they find distasteful his ready acceptance of the master narrative entrained since 9/11 – the Manichean struggle between the forces of enlightenment and the myrmidons of reaction; and yet wouldn't it be proper to interpret House of Meetings parabolically, as a work engaged with the eternal recurrence that would warn us against reenacting the miseries and tyrannies of the twentieth century? Its narrator sourly, impotently observes as the Beslan massacre unfolds: the pitiless slaughter of innocents in a national liberation struggle, underwritten by Muslim humiliation and nihilism. (The very 'necessary murder' predicated by Frantz Fanon's programme of violent decolonization.)

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