Lynn Barber

Good Old Grumbly

The Russian Girl

By

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The problem with this novel, published to coincide with Amis’s seventieth birthday, is the Russian girl of the title. For a start she is Russian. In Russia, Amis says, everything is political and therefore this is, I suppose, a political novel – the Cold Warrior’s response to detente and the Gorbachev years. The message seems to be: OK let’s make that act of faith and stop distrusting the Russkis if we must but let’s not have any high hopes of the outcome. Amis seems to know a lot about Russians. Unfortunately he assumes a corresponding degree of knowledge in the reader which this reader for one couldn’t deliver. What does the heroine mean when she keeps castigating the hero for treating her ‘like a Russian’? Is she talking about trust purely, or is she talking about received prejudices about the Russian character, in which case what are they? She seems to behave much like any fictional Russian, or at any rate funny foreigner: she is wilful, rude, uninhibited, good in bed, humourless, immune to irony and so on.

And then she is a ‘girl’. In fact she is over twenty-one but we know what Amis means: she is put in the novel to fulfil various sex and sentiment requirements, but not to be a fully realised human being. ‘Girls’ are never Amis’s strong point anyway but this one seems particularly weak. Her funny foreigner behaviour is plain irritating, and her sex object credentials are never sufficiently established. Why does Richard Vaisey, a married, fortysomething, professor of Russian Literature, fall so head over heels in love with her that he ruins his own life? Especially when we know that his wife, Cordelia, is absolutely brilliant in bed, despite her many other drawbacks.

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