CAPE £15.99 £14.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

The House of Meetings by Martin Amis

Bloodlust lays down like... wine?

'I have an informal method of evaluating tomes of this kind (729pp)," pronounces Martin Amis of Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, one of the many books acknowledged in the endpapers of his new novella House of Meetings. "I look to see how many notes I have made at the back of them..." Reading that, I felt the sudden brief thrill of identification that one feels when coming across something very minor held in common with a figure one admires - the me-too! of learning that your favourite artist used to drink in your local, say, or that Descartes too really preferred to get up at noon. Then, flipping expectantly to the end of my review copy, I felt the elation evaporate. Littered across the blank pages were not the concise formulations that Amis lists in support of his own method ("39 - serf theatres and orchestras ... 552 - Nabokov Sr's murder") but something that more resembled the code-clusters of a military transmission. "51. VAPHR. 52. VAPHR," it read. "57. VAPHR. 72. VAPAR. 79. VAPHR. 113. VAPAR. 117. VAPHR."

See if you can work it out. On page 51, the VAPHR runs as follows. "I think of those more or less ridiculous words, Greek-derived, for irrational fears... anthophobia (fear of flowers), pogonophobia (beards), deipnophobia (dinner parties)... But there's one for rust (iophobia); and I think I've got it. I've got iophobia." On page 72, the VAPAR ends like this: "Don't you find, my dear, when you step out into the rain, that you always have a moment's grace before feeling the first few dots on your hair? Cold isn't like that. Cold is cold, obviously, and wants all your heat. It is on you. It grips and frisks you for all your heat." And here is the VAPHR from page 117: "What I'm doing, now, is dead reckoning. I am making a reckoning with the dead."

Very Amis Phrases; Very Amis Paragraphs. That's what they are. If you could blind-taste literature then those little coda sentences, with their little flourishes of rhetorical reformulation, would stand out like a glass of Coca-Cola slipped in among the Chardonnays; undeniably, distinctively identifiable, vintage Martin. It's this voice, this particular and inimitable way of putting things, that has been the real protagonist of each of Martin Amis's 12 works of fiction: plots and parts may change, but the VAPHR inevitably supervenes. You judge a new novel not on how well Amis manages to impersonate his characters, but on how plausibly he has them impersonate him.

So: House of Meetings is a short novel about the Russian gulag. Some months ago, the publishers abandoned their plan to issue it in the same volume as a pair of short stories about Saddam Hussein's doubles and the 9/11 hijackers - conceived, perhaps, to demonstrate that after the quasi-comic farrago of Yellow Dog Amis had set his sights on the most undeniably serious of serious concerns - and so it comes off more as a tactical strike on humour than an all-out thermonuclear assault. This year's inhabitant of the Amis voice is an 86-year-old veteran of the Soviet slave camps, who returns in late 2004 to the site of his and his brother's incarceration in the Arctic Circle. On the news, Chechnyan terrorists have taken hostages in a school in Beslan, and the Russian military is preparing to lay siege. In a book-length letter to his American stepdaughter, the unnamed narrator tells the story of his and his brother's love for the same woman, of the murders, rapes and rebellions that stalked their Arctic prison, and of what happened in the house reserved for conjugal visits by the wives of Soviet prisoners - the House of Meetings.

Readers of Koba the Dread, Amis's running-commentary-cum-digest of the literature on Stalin, will recognise the tone and much of the content here: the ghastly brutality, the incessant psychic and physical mutilation, the death of love, the death of reason - and, new in this edition, the death of Russia, painted as a form of willed national suicide. Fair enough. You wouldn't expect a comedy. But there's something essentially unserious, something almost glib, about Amis's constant propensity for aphorism, about the glittering delight in words that overlays the text, about the relentless editorialising that each character is now compelled to undergo. You can almost see Martin, stooped over his laptop, becalmed, trying to think of another smart epithet for another horrible thing. And the result, more often than not, comes to read like a wicked parody of the Amis style. Sometimes, indeed, it appears that the author has wholly abdicated in favour of Craig Brown. "Oppression lays down bloodlust. It lays it down like a wine," writes Amis, and you imagine the cogwheels whirring... or a... or a... check what else you lay down... Or there's this: "Air, even the air, with its smells and ashtrays (everyone still smokes, patients, cleaners, caterers, doctors, nurses), fierce medications, and terminal tuberculosis, tastes nice."

(Wait for it.)

"Air tastes nice."

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?