Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Review: Amis – House of Meetings

Amis is deeply interested in Russia. He is an accomplished student of its history, and a huge fan of its literature. With this novel, he has made a very personal attempt to craft his own Russian novel. In fact, I know this because he tells us this in the text.

Most of the story takes place in a Siberian gulag, and this is where the novel’s best scenes take place. Amis’ account of the labour camp is both horrific and thrilling, but also curiously funny in many places. Reminiscent of Primo Levi’s account of Auschwitz, one probably needs the full 70 years of intervening time to find humour in such places, but even so, it is there. But the secrets that bind this text together are ultimately disappointing. Amis lords the Magoffin over the reader in an uncharacteristically clumsy manner.

It will surprise no one to learn that I have not read as much Russian literature as he has. But I do share a deep love for his hero, Nabokov. And, from this perspective, I regret that he has not nearly equaled any of Nabokov’s work, nor Dostoyevsky, for that matter, whom he is also clearly emulating here.

But even as I tire of his increasingly over-ripe leering, and occasional hubris, the fact is I will never tire of Amis’s style. Whatever the topic, and regardless of his age, the man is a delicate (though sometimes brutal) craftsman. I will keep reading him, but certainly won’t advise new readers to pick up this volume of his as their first.

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