The Russian Girl – Kingsley Amis

This is a somewhat belated review because I finished the book a little bit ago and was then on the road for a bit more than a week.

Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don’t crush literature from the outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we’ve all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes…

As soon as originality became important, the days of artistic merit or excellence were numbered. The question Is it any good? had always been hard to discuss, and only to be settled after a lapse of time and by the judgement of the wider public. This irritated intellectuals, who found it easier and more agreeable to ask Is it new?, together with What does it mean? and Is it art?, questions easy to discuss and never to be settled.

Richard Vaisey is a cantankerous but generally respected professor whose academic work is the study of Russian literature. On the surface, his life is great. He has a good job, but is able to live above his pay because he is married to the wealthy Cordelia who, particularly, allows him to indulge in his taste for sports cars. However, this life is turned upside down when the Russian poet Anna Danilova comes to London asking his help. Her brother is in prison, but in the tumultuous years around 1990 she believes that if she can make a name for herself as a poet in London, a public petition would force the government to release him. She just needs Richard’s help introducing her to people and, importantly, making people see the importance of her poetry. There is just one catch: in Richard’s (and most everyone else’s) opinion, her poetry is an offense against literature.

Of course the wretchedness of the poetry does not stand in the way of Richard falling in love with Anna, which leads to the story tumbling toward a potentially explosive conclusion.

The main choice that Richard has to make is between the two women, his wife and Anna. As mentioned above, he hates Anna’s poetry, but falls in love with her force of personality (which he notices at a poetry reading) and with her for more generic reasons. In contrast, everyone in the story considers Cordelia a monster. Richard’s friends repeatedly ask him why he married her since, in their descriptions, she is beautiful, but selfish and talks with a obnoxious cadence that they like to mimic. They repeatedly ask him whether he married her for the money or for the sex. Cordelia and Anna are conspicuously constructed as opposites, but, while some of Cordelia’s actions are genuinely monstrous, the people around her are mean in their own right.

The Russian Girl is a curious book. Like other Amis novels I have read, including Lucky Jim, there is a familiar hook of one “sane” individual amid a maelstrom of chaos. Similarly, it is liberally sprinkled with observations about the decline of the academy and London society. Some of these are insightful or funny, but some cross into mean-spirited or are so specific about a context I don’t know well enough to connect with. The result is that while I liked passages in the novel, I did not like the overall story to the extent that I had hoped.

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Next up, I finished Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Patrick O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World while I was traveling. I am also nearly finished with Roberto Arlt’s brilliant The Seven Madmen, a feverish Argentinian story in the vein of Dostoevsky.

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