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Amis vs Barnes – history in the novel

posted on 23 Dec 2016

Amis vs Barnes – history in the novel

I read Martin Amis’s House of Meetings when it first came out a decade ago and was disappointed. But recently I read The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich, similarly set during Stalin-era Soviet Russia. It struck me as odd that these two famously estranged novelists had both tried to tackle this darkest period in Soviet history and it prompted me to give Amis’s book another try.

It is worth remembering that in the 70s and 80s there probably wasn’t a more famous British novelist than Martin Amis. Indeed, with his debauched rock star good looks and his golden family tree he seemed the very archetype of the ‘Young British Novelist’. If he hadn’t already existed the marketing people would have had to invent him. His reputation and his place in the English literary scene seemed secure.

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But then came a problem. Some time in the late-80s, Amis left behind his usual cast of raffish, generally wealthy demi-monde characters and discovered ‘big themes’ – nuclear proliferation, Soviet totalitarianism, and more recently the Holocaust – and began tackling these first in essays and longer non-fiction works, notably Koba the Dread, and latterly in fiction.

Suddenly, the enfant terrible of British literature seemed to be playing catch-up, chasing the ‘big, serious novel’ that others had already beaten him to and his recent novels have had a very mixed reception. Certainly, it must be recognised that in continuing to mine ‘difficult’ subjects such as Stalin’s terror and the death camps of the Reich Amis doesn’t make things easy for himself. There is, after all, no room for ‘nearly good’ with subjects such as these.

Amis seems intent on shoehorning sixty years of Russian history into the uncomfortable confines of House of Meetings. Paradoxically, this doesn’t make for a richer read. The characters, such as they are, are not embedded in the history and, worse, the history isn’t embedded in the characters. Somehow the book lacks integration. It cannot bear its weight of history. And while Amis has always been a great prose stylist and the novel contains some marvellous writing, the downside of this is that even the characters sound like Amis.

In contrast, Barnes’s The Noise of Time seems a much more authentic immersion in Stalin-era Soviet Russia. It succeeds in all the ways that Amis’s book doesn’t.

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It illuminates Shostakovich the man and sets him – compromises, guilt, paranoia, moral failings and all – firmly in his time and place. It asks serious questions about culture, morality, artistic courage and the role of the artist. And while it is perhaps true that admirers of Shostakovich won’t learn much that is new – especially if already familiar with Solomon Volkov’s marvellous book, Shostakovich and Stalin – this isn’t the point. Barnes’s book is a work of imagination, and in this it succeeds magnificently. Barnes imagines himself – and us – into the oppressive, dangerously paranoid world that Shostakovich inhabited and which inhabited Shostakovich, and its rank stink of fear and moral shame permeates very page.

Perhaps it is unfair to try and compare two very different novels, separated by more than ten years, based solely on their sharing a historical setting. But it has proven instructive. What it has helped me understand is that in using such historically powerful themes, the novelist has to convince at an additional and altogether more complex level. Being interested in – even obsessed by – a period is not enough. For a work to really excel, we have to experience what Tolstoy achieves: history not as ‘setting’, but as the living, breathing medium in which characters exist and act.

Perhaps this isn’t the only way that fiction can approach history, but it still seems to me to be the greatest and the hardest to achieve. Amis, of course, may have another aim entirely. Over Christmas I plan to read his most recent novel, The Zone of Interest. I’m hoping I’ll find out.

 

Update 03/01/17: And I did find out. The Zone of Interest fails for precisely the same reasons — albeit more grandly and on a larger scale — that House of Meetings does. Far from rising to the challenge of convincing “at an additional and altogether more complex level”, as I was suggesting was necessary in novels using ‘difficult’ historical themes, it didn’t convince me at any level. If you read Amis’s short piece at the end of the book, it seems there is almost no ‘holocaust literature’ of any significance that he didn’t read in preparing for this novel. And yet the novel is dwarfed by its sources and is an altogether meretricious book, devoid of any saving graces.

 

Alun Severn

December 2016