Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Favorite Quotes from Amis' House of Meetings

Below are a few favorite quotes from Martin Amis' House of Meetings.

You are as well-prepared as any young Westerner could hope to be, equipped with good diet, lavish health insurance, two degrees, foreign travel and languages, orthodonture, psychotherapy, property, and capital;  and your skin is a beautiful color.  Look at you--look at the burnish of you.

..this is a love story.  All right, Russian love.  But still love.

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.  It's barely more than a kilometer.

Moscow is impressive--grimly fantastic in its pelf.

The Siberian expanse, the olive-green immensity--it would frighten you, I think;  but it makes Russians feel important.

All the money has been divided up between the felons and the state.

My story would be even worse in Russian.  For it is truly a tale of gutterals and nasals and whistling sibilants.

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 tsars, and I don't like Mongol overlords, and I don't like the theocratic dynasts of old Moscow and Kiev.

There 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.

By now the five-week Arctic summer was under way.  It was as if nature woke up in July and realized how badly she had neglected her guests;  and then of course she completely overdid it. There was something gushing and hysterical in the show she put on...

There were in fact enormous quantities of thwarted love, of trapped love, in the slave archipelago.

The Secret Speech caused a planetary sensation.  It was "the first time" a Russian leader had ever acknowledged the transgressions of the state.  It was the first time.  It was the last time too, more or less...

Joseph Vissarionovich:  I knew his face better than I knew my own mother's.

You must try to imagine it, the disgusting proximity of the state, its body odor, its breath on your neck, its stupidly expectant stare.

But at the time we had no idea what was going on.  We never had any idea what was going on.

You have consumed your share of Russian novels:  every time a new character appears, there is a chapter break and you are suddenly reading about his grandparents.  This too is a digression.  And its import is sexual.

That's how a "love triangle" could be wonderfully simplified.  An anonymous phone call, an unsigned letter, to the secret police.

...the shortage of housing was slightly eased by the shortage of people...

Universal dissatisfaction took the following form:  everyone everywhere complained about everything.

Come over here to participate in the Soviet experiment, he told the CP man who issued his passport that he was fully prepared to take the big cut in his standard of living.  That same day he got the quarter--twenty-five years. And were you praising America?

I remember the convocations of the Komsomol:  try to imagine something halfway between a temperance meetings and a Nurenberg Rally.

Something strange was happening in the Soviet Union, after the war against fascism:  fascism.

Over here, now, there's no angling around for your male midlife crisis.  It is brought to you and it is always the same.  It is death.

The train rocks and knocks across the simplified land forms of the tundra: Russia's great white page, awaiting the characters and sentences of history.

In the Gulag, it was not the case that people died like flies.  Rather, flies died like people.

At the moment of arrest you already feel halfway vanished.  In prison you're a former person and already dead.  In camp you're almost sure you've never been.

The sound seemed to trumpet the dawn of a new dominion (more savage, more stupid, more certain) and to repudiate the laxity and amateurism of the day before.

"...if God really cared about us, he would never have given us religion." But this loose syllogism is easily exploded, and all questions of theodicy simply dissappear--if God is a Russian.

I became convinced, around then, that boredom was the second pillar of the system--the first being terror.

Now [Stalin] was nowhere.  But he used to be everywhere. 

I knew then that massacres want to happen.  Massacres want there to be massacres. 

The center--I could feel it tugging at me, with its women and its money.  And in the late summer of 1958 I started orbiting Moscow. 

Between 1946 and 1957 I ate two apples, one in 1949 and one in 1955. 

He despised my appetite.  I had drive, and all Russians hate that. 

We were both subject to the centuries-old momentum of Russian drunkenness

Now, smoking (like drinking) allays anxiety.  So try not smoking in Russia and see how far you get.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Gulag in Fiction

Like many people, I have relied upon nonfiction books such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History to help me understand one of the twentieth century's greatest moral catastrophes.  This past month, I dipped into several works of modern fiction to see what novelists could do to further explain the historical and moral meaning of Stalin's grand experiment with systematic cruelty and economic exploitation.  The first book, Martin Amis' House of Meetings is a powerful work of fiction predicted to some extent on the Amis family's historical antagonism to Stalinism, previously discussed in his memorable nonfiction account of Stalin's legacy, Koba the Dread:  Laughter and the Twenty Million.  For me, the best part of House of Meetings is that Amis gives the denizens of the gulag a great deal of agency.  That is to say, Amis' narrator is not merely a victim, but also a multidimensional character capable of inflicting both good and evil on those around him.  Amis' novel provides readers with a detailed description of the violence, brutality, and hunger associated with life in the gulag, but it also manages to tell a story of love and hate that is not completely subsumed by the coercive exigencies of prison life in Russia's inhospitable northern climates.  The protagonist of the House of Meetings is not a martyr, but a typical Russian who has been at one time or the other both an exploited person and one who has exploited others.  In fact, Amis is careful to tell us that his protagonist had raped Russian women in the course of his participation in the conquest of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.  Thus, Amis' protagonist has already been victim and the victimiser prior to his experience in the camp.  And both in the camp, and after the camp, the narrator will possess his moral Janus-head:  on the one hand, the narrator nobly protects his defenseless brother from camp villains, but on the other hand,  employs extreme forms of violence to do so. 

Perhaps the moral ambiguity of the narrator is fitting for a story of the gulag, where innocence quickly disappeared in a savage fight for existence against guards, the so-called "bitches" and "brutes," and other camp actors.  Certainly gulag characters deserve to be depicted as something other than passive recipients of communist cruelty.  Another excellent approach to the gulag was written by novel prize-winner, Herta Muller, an ethnic German from Romania whose own mother once survived a deportation to the gulag.  Muller's treatment of camp life is meticulous.  It's creative power stems from the fact that Muller has analyzed so many components of gulag life in such exquisite detail.  In fact, each chapter of The Hunger Angel explores an extremely specific facet of camp life, such as bread-hoarding, in order to depict or even create a complete universe of suffering for readers.  Like Amis, Muller does acknowledge that her protagonists were not purely the subjects of history.  As ethnic Germans, they had listened to German propaganda and felt a great deal of sympathy for the German Chancellor.  Although they had not personally committed any crimes against humanity, they had been typical of men and women in the 1930s had done little to resist the advancing tide of totalitarianism. More than that, they had not even realized Hitlerism was an evil.  And then again in the camps, Muller's subjects were thrown into a moral morass almost incapable of supporting the existence of heroes. 

A third creative approach to the gulag appears in Anthony Marra's wonderfully witty and wise collection of linked short stories, entitled The Tsar of Love and Techno. Although Marra's book isn't centered in the gulag, it does demonstrate the centrality of the slave labor system to twentieth century Russian lives.  Marra's short stories span seven or so decades, but in each case the gulag plays an important direct or indirect role in character story-lines.  Characters are either worried about being sent to the gulag in the Great Terror, struggling to survive the gulag, or living in its shadow.   Marra's book has much to recommend it.  Its dialogue is clever, its stories linked together in original ways, and its depiction of both Soviet and post-Soviet life spot on.  But perhaps the book's best quality is the way in which Marra, like the other authors mentioned in this post, gives agency to his characters without ignoring the tragedy of gulag life.  For Marra, the gulag seems to be both a microcosm of totalitarianism and also an explanation of both the demographic and moral state of modern Russia.  Although Marra ends his story by dwelling on the moral morass of the Chechen conflict, he seems to be saying that it wouldn't have been possible without the lasting effects of the authoritarian legacy of the Great Terror and its associated prison system.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Curzio Malaparte's The Kremlin Ball

The prose of Curzio Malaparte's unfinished novel, The Kremlin Ball, is as stylistically inventive as its ideological perspective is historically destabilizing.  To read Malaparte, is to be bombarded by frenzied dialogue, absurdist plot lines, biting political satire, and madcap descriptions of Russia's Bolshevik elite in 1929. But to read Malaparte is also to be stunned by his depiction of the Soviet elite as just another decadent aristocracy.

Malaparte's vertiginous prose relies upon the stylistic conventions of journalism and creative fiction in equal measure.  The Italian diplomat, political actor, journalist, and cinematographer, frenetic plot has few analogues, but could perhaps be compared to the comic tone and modernist pyrotechnics in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.  The protagonist, an Italian diplomat with old-world charm, seems to regularly encounter Moscow's most inaccessible political actors, including Lunacharsky and Tolstoy's sister.  In terms of content, the protagonist seems intent on proving that Moscow's new revolutionary elite is every bit as pretentious and out of touch as Europe's most fragile ruling classes. 
Malaparte's novel seems as intimate as a roman a clef, only the circle of his protagonist's circle of acquaintances is large enough to include several dead people, including Lenin (slowly rotting despite the best efforts of embalmers) and Mayakovsky (whose suicide is interpreted as a revolutionary act of bourgeois romanticism). 

As one might expect, Malaparte's Stalin-directed Soviet Union of 1929 is militantly atheistic and awash in political orthodoxy.  However, it's also shockingly hypocritical.  Its leaders shop abroad, display their power to one another, and do their best to hang on to power for its own sake. Traditionally, the Soviet Union has been depicted as absurdly terrifying as it entered into the bloody 1930s.  But Mapaparte's genius is to demonstrate that the Soviet Union was terrifyingly absurd as well.  In some ways, this insight into the insanity of totalitarian Russia was recently replicated in the move, The Death of Stalin.  One customarily, and understandably, dwells upon the horror of Stalin and his bloody epoch.  The movie, The Dean of Stalin, seems to reverse the equation:  asking the audience to note how, given enough historical distance or philosophical perspective, even terror can prove to be ridiculous.  For only terror could have produced the circumstances in which Stalin's heirs prevented Stalin from getting immediate medical attention, or produced such intertwined sycophantic ravings and cynical power plays.

Some favorite Quotes from Malaparte's The Kremlin Ball

Curzio Malaparte's unfinished novel, The Kremlin Ball


One day while speaking with Lunacharsky, the author asked him if a Marcel Proust existed in Russia. 
"Yes," Luncharsky responded, "every Soviet writer is a proletarian Proust."

Since the Europe of tomorrow is to be found in the Russia of tomorrow, it is equally true that the Europe of today is to be found in the Russia of today.

The time for laughter is well-night over for the free men of our times.

Character Descriptions

Her black eyes were swollen with sensuality, malice, and lack of sleep. So unlike the glassy eyes of Russian working-class women, her eyes were eyes of the flesh in which images didn't reflect but appeared tattooed.

She had a large pulpy mouth with thick lips across which an ironic and sometimes spiteful smile strayed like a ray of light through the crack beneath a closed door.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multi-shaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

At the base of the Kremlin wall in Red Square, inside the great wooden mausoleum designed by Shchusev, Lenin's mummy, small and shrunken like the mummy of a child, was slowly rotting.  Periodically, German specialists showed up from Berlin to empty, scrape out, and disinfect the shell of that precious crustacean, that sacred mummy, the porcelain white face lit up by freckles veiled by a greenish mold-like sweat.

His small decrepit hand, dark and hairy, moved across his face like a large spider on its web.

Communist Elite

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity, and power:  It is suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence.

From a social point of view, actually, snobbishness was the hidden source behind the many worldly activities of that very powerful, and already corrupt, society, which had lived, up until just a moment before, in misery, suspicion, and with the uncertainty of secrecy and emigration.

I felt it was all doomed--all that rot, that corrupt class, that great jumble of prostitutes, pederasts, actors, actresses, libertines, and profiteers, of Nepmen and kulaks, of black-market merchants, of Soviet functionaries who bought their clothes in London and Paris, and imitated the fashions in New York and Berlin...

Moscow's communist high nobility didn't  like to show off in public places.

"Only a blind man," he said, "could laugh at Lunacharsky.  Of all the communist high nobility in Moscow, he is the only one who has a presentiment of death."


"And to think," she said after a brief silence, " I am accused of having counterrevolutionary tendencies simply because I dress decently."

"Here in Moscow, one likes only what is liked by the workers."
Everyone contents himself with whatever Napoleon he happens to find.

Kamenev was a harmless man, but one doesn't have the right to be a harmless man when among the leaders of a revolution.

"Not everyone knows how to die in a gilded armchair..."

"William Blake saw angels perched on tree branches," Mayakovsky said.
"Hush, it's forbidden to speak of angels in Russia."

"Mayakovsky was nothing but a dirty bourgeois."

"Mayakovsky didn't have the right to kill himself."
"You're right, Marika," I said.  "In Russia, it is forbidden to kill oneself for nothing."
"The word nothing," Marika said, "doesn't exist in Lenin's Russia."

"Why do you want to see the room where Mayakovsky died?" Lunacharsky asked.  "Are you by chance a bourgeois romantic?"

"...occasionally there are deaths, but never corpses."

"Are you sure you believe in God?  All foreigners, as soon as they've set foot in Soviet Russia, suddenly realize they believe in God!"

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

"In Soviet Russia," I said, "suicide has the explosive power of a miracle."

In the USSR, miracles don't happen.  God doesn't count for anything here and has nothing to do with what happens in Soviet Russia.

What presumption, what insolence, what a lack of tact to be stationmaster during a revolution.  He deserved what he go.  It's a luxury to be innocent when the world is blowing up like an old locomotive boiler.

It was a bourgeois presumption to believe oneself innocent, always innocent.  Christ hadn't possessed that stupid bourgeois presumption.

Jesus Christ was a notorious instrument of global capitalism, a dangerous Trotskyite.

On Soviet Man

He was the first "lonely" man that I had seen in Soviet Russia, where loneliness was considered a luxury, a form of bourgeois degeneracy, an intellectual condition that was incompatible with Marxism.

"What is Christ called in Soviet Russia?  In the USSR where is Christ hiding?"

"Christ is by now a useless character in Russia.  It's useless to be Christian in Russia.  We don't need Christ anymore."

"Christ was not resurrected!  When Christ tried to go up to heaven he was shot down by the glorious Red Army Air Force."

"Why are you laughing?" he asked me.  "Perhaps you find me ridiculous?  Perhaps you think that an armchair in Soviet Russia is a useless and ridiculous object?  Lenin actually died in an armchair."

"What do poets sing about in Russia?" I asked in a raised voice.
"...We sing of the smell of iron filings," he said, "of the smell of human sweat in Soviet workshops full of men drunk on weariness, we sing of calloused hands, unkempt beards, of the flaming eyes of naked men before the mouths of the blast furnaces.  We sing of the Five-Year Plan, of tractors, of mechanical plots, anvils, hammers and trip hammers, of Stalin's genius and of the red flags fluttering on factory chimneys."

In the USSR, a waistcoat and a briefcase under your arm were signs of power.

Suicide in the USSR was a typical counterrevolutionary act...

He was a man without guilt, an innocent man, finding himself at a particular moment in the middle of the railway tracks, and the locomotive that was the Soviet Revolution had run him down.


One cannot pretend that in a revolution only the guilty die.  Imagine such a thing!  Someone has to die.  In fact, the death of someone innocent is always much more useful than the death of someone guilty.

On Russians

I asked myself if his personality hadn't been, in fact, determined by that typical Slavic narcissism that afflicts every character in Russian literature, especially in Dostoevsky, as well as every Russian hero, be he the most humble, the most deprived, the most ignoble, the most corrupt.

He appeared oppressed by a resentful modesty, by a sad jealousy, but at the same time intoxicated by the deep gratification of his own public humiliation, which is characteristic of Russians and left him naked and helpless.

...displaying that loving familiarity with the dead unique to Russian people.

"All of Russia is a tomb.  All of Russia is Stalin's tomb."


Sparrow Hills, St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Bulgakov, Yesenin, Mayakovsky, Isadora Duncan


Stalin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Luncharsky, Lenin, Patriarch Tikhon, Trotsky's sister (Madame Kamrneva), Prince Lvov, Chekhov, Solovyov, Krapotkin