The Russian Girl
Some years ago British television ran a documentary on the life and work of the novelist Kingsley Amis. We were afforded privileged views of Amis at his typewriter (a machine built c. 1957, I should say, high-set and smoothly curved, rather like the hood of a Rolls-Royce), drinking with his cronies in dark-brown pubs, and sitting comfortably in an armchair delivering judgments on the state of contemporary fiction, etc. The scene was predictable, and much too cozy. One brief passage, however, has stayed in my mind. On a return visit to Swansea in Wales, where he had worked for a time as a young man, Amis was filmed walking along the quiet suburban street where he had lived in those days. The street was empty save for an elderly lady with a shopping bag, who had stopped in vague amazement to watch the filming. As Amis was passing her by he gave her a rueful, humorous, and self-mocking glance, as if to say, Yes, missus, this is the kind of thing we writers have to subject ourselves to in order to make a crust. It was an endearing moment, in which one glimpsed the warm and funny man that Amis used to be before he decided, some time in the 1960s, to turn himself into a literary Colonel Blimp.
Amis was born in London in 1922, was educated at Oxford, and went on to lecture in English at University College, Swansea, and Peterhouse, Cambridge. His first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), a comedy set in a provincial university, was an immense success and made him a leading figure among that generation of postwar English writers dubbed (by journalists) the Angry Young Men: others were the novelists John Wain, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe, and the playwright John Osborne. As is the case with all such “movements,” this group was marked more by differences than similarities, but there was an identifiable, essential tone common to all of them. They were not so much angry as impatient with authority, with the drabness and hypocrisy of postwar Britain and its class system, and with what they saw as the stagnation into which English writing had fallen.
Looked back on now and compared with, say, the Beats in the US, the Angries seem tame: in their time and place, however, they were revolutionary. They were funny, irreverent, anarchic, and honest. They rejected Modernism, Bloomsbury, and the Jamesian novel, in favor of a gritty and, in the case of Amis, hilarious realism. As with a novelist of the previous generation, Evelyn Waugh, they regarded themselves less as artists than as craftsmen, taking their aesthetics, consciously or not, from thinkers such as Ruskin and William Morris. They were determined that their work should appeal to a wide audience, that it should be as comprehensible to the “man in the street” (or the woman in Swansea) as to academics and their fellow writers; that it should entertain, inform, criticize, and in general add to the gaiety of the nation.
The result was a series of novels and plays (among them Lucky Jim, Braine’s Room at the Top, Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger) which sought to present, and in many cases succeeded in presenting, a picture of postwar British life as it was experienced by large numbers of people and not by this or that privileged coterie of class or intellect. The characters in this new kind of fiction and drama thumbed their noses at the powers-that-be and spent their time drinking beer and scheming to get girls into bed, though at bottom they were thoroughly decent chaps. Women had a small part in their world, except as objects of bafflement and desire (though Amis famously declared that as a species women generally are nicer than men).
In politics the Angries were firmly socialist, which meant that they supported the Labour Party of Clement Attlee and his successor, the incisive Hugh Gaitskell. As the years of postwar austerity gave way to the “Swinging Sixties,” however, many of these writers became stridently reactionary, chief among them Amis, whose essay “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right” attacked increasing government intervention in private life, a trend that he saw as one of the main causes of a falling-off of standards in public and individual behavior, and the consequent failure to resist the dilution of English culture by creeping Americanization. Amis despised the new, selfish Britain run by “a cast of crooks and tarts,” as his friend, the poet Philip Larkin, put it, and formulated the neat if simplistic dictum that in life as in art, “more means less.”
A period of emotional turbulence in the 1980s (one thinks inevitably of the episode of clinical paranoia in Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold) was followed by a return to Amis’s acerbic comic manner in Stanley and the Women (1984) and The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986. The years since have not mellowed Amis, and he has held fast to his dystopian, not to say cacotopian, view of his country and the world. The handsome young devil of the 1950s has turned into a portly old party, large and smooth and vinously mottled, hair raked rather than combed, his tweeds tightly buttoned; but he is still mordantly funny and, in a peculiar way, lovable. The Russian Girl is his twenty-first novel. It follows a by now familiar Amis formula, in which a hapless, flawed, but on the whole morally sound chap faces a world of bounders and bitches and, with the help of a true friend and a good “girl,” comes out at the end bloodied but not beaten, and with at least some of his principles intact.
His hero this time is Richard Vaisey, a Russian scholar who teaches, when the barbarians within the gates of modern academe allow him to, at the London Institute of Slavonic Studies. Vaisey, late in his forties, is married to Cordelia, rich, upper-class, beautiful, and, like more than a few of Amis’s female characters, a monster. He is approached by a young Russian poet, Anna Danilova, who wants him to lend his reputation and his energies to organizing a petition to the Soviet government for the release from prison of her brother. The time is the summer of 1990 and Gorbachey’s USSR is in upheaval, though Amis, and his hero, are under no illusions about the nature of the “changes” that are occurring; as one of the novel’s—admittedly somewhat suspect—incidental characters has it,
The hateful Russia of Lenin and Stalin and their heirs is collapsing and will gradually disappear beyond recall. But what is replacing it is no better, no less violent, no less tyrannical, no less ugly, dirty, barbaric, illiterate, boorish, no less complete and irremediable a cultural desert.
Inevitably Vaisey at once falls in love with Anna, and she, less precipitately, with him. Amis presents their affair in a characteristically cool and humorous fashion, though not without tenderness; he has always been good with “girls,” beginning with Jenny Bunn of Take a Girl Like You, and Anna Danilova is shrewdly and convincingly portrayed. Vaisey’s first impression of her is not encouraging (“…rather dark hair worn rather long, not fat, not thin, not beautiful, not ugly, not striking…like many Russians he had met she was too Russian, too conscious of it or herself with all those words and gestures and expressions”), but as the tale progresses Amis skilfully shows us how attractive this plain-spoken, down-to-earth, uninhibited, and, above all, young woman comes to seem to Vaisey the aging academic caught in his dead-end job and hopeless marriage. There is a difficulty, however, and for Vaisey it is a large one: Anna is an extremely bad poet, a trait which is not only discouraging in a potential loved one but which will present Vaisey with the moral dilemma at the heart of the book.
In the matter of the petition Vaisey turns for advice and practical help to his best friend, Crispin Radetsky, the son of expatriate Czech parents, a rich and influential lawyer, and a genuine English gentleman in all the matters that count: clothes, knowledge of wine, detestation of socialism. Crispin is also the brother of Vaisey’s wife’s ex-husband (the family relationships of the characters are extremely, and surely unnecessarily, complex, which makes the first fifty or so pages of the book in places difficult to follow). As a Czech, Crispin is no lover of Russians; nevertheless he agrees to help Anna, not only because he likes her but because it gives him a chance to annoy the Soviet authorities. He gets busy gathering signatures from the great and the good of his acquaintance, and very soon the petition is ready for Vaisey to put his name to it. Here, however, the problem of Anna’s poetry becomes a serious issue, for the petition declares her to be a major poet and Vaisey believes that his principles will not allow him to be a party to such judgment.
One of Amis’s strengths as a novelist has been his ability to construct subtle and convincing plots. In this instance, however, the armature of contrivance breaks through the novel’s surface in a number of places. The petition quickly becomes an annoyance not only to Vaisey but to the reader and, so it seems at times, to the author as well. One can feel sympathy for a novelist who finds himself stuck with a mechanism which is too cumbersome to be convincing and yet is the mainstay of the action. In the end, Amis seems to lose patience and throws the thing away, to the reader’s surprise and consternation. Having maneuvered his hero into a fascinating moral dilemma—sign the petition, get the girl; don’t sign it, lose her—he allows him to extricate himself by means of a highly dubious piece of sleight of hand which, if I understand it rightly (the close of the book is uncharacteristically evasive), involves Vaisey signing the petition with his moral fingers, as it were, crossed behind his back. But then, I suppose this is the point of the book, that life will not allow grand gestures, and that we must take love over principle, since in the long run everything will go wrong anyway. As the realist Crispin puts it: “Nothing to do with morality, just prudence.” Vaisey, who despite his haplessness tends toward pomposity and a prissy scrupulousness, must be weaned from his naiveté and take his place in a less exalted but emotionally warmer world.
A second weakness of the book is Vaisey’s marriage to Cordelia. Of course people make disastrous choices, and the most unlikely people marry, but Cordelia, with her miserliness and manipulativeness, her bangles and her overblown accent (Crispin’s wife refers to her as Nggornndeenlia the self-styled arreezdongrrannd), is little more than a skillful exercise in black humor. And when Vaisey makes his decision and leaves her, the revenge that she visits on him—canceling his credit cards, reporting his car as stolen to the police, loosening the wheel bolts of his car (this last unproven)—seems merely farcical, with a distinct layer of misogyny. However, in the usual way he has of giving the devil his due, Amis allows even this harridan her moment of pathos, when, realizing he is falling for Anna, she confesses to Vaisey the insecurity and sense of falseness of the self-made woman: when she was a girl “nobody paid me any attention.”
So I made myself a new voice and a new…manner to go with it. A new way of behaving. And did it so completely that I can’t do the old ones any more. I know, because not so very long ago I tried twice to do them and I just couldn’t either time.
Apart from Anna, the women in the book tend to be disagreeable. Crispin’s garrulous wife Freddie is taking to drink and her sister Sandy has already taken to men (she has a go at Vaisey, not very successfully). Viragos pop up with depressing regularity. Inside the porters’ lodge at his institute, “he was faced by a middle-aged female hunk of death-camp-guard material in uniform, though mercifully without headdress.”
This is Amis’s predictable way of having “fun” but at other times he is at his vituperative best, and he is irresistible. The opening pages of The Russian Girl, describing a departmental meeting at the Institute, show the old guard, such as Vaisey and Hallett, the chairman of the Russian department, trying to maintain credibility with the young faculty by talking tough:
From where he was sitting at the long table, a couple of places down from its head, naturally, Hallett caught the eye of a short-haired, moustached young man in a sleeveless undervest that revealed an irregular cylinder of bangles piled up one arm. The eye of his that Hallett had caught, while the other wavered towards the ceiling a metre above their heads, had an aggrieved look, but that was standard.
“Yes, Duncan,” said Hallett, “would there be some additional…do you have a beef?”
In this and other such passages one imagines the author, with head thrown back, smashing the typewriter keys in a transport of disgust with the young and contempt for their elders, who should know better than to sacrifice their dignity in the face of the “filthy modern tribe.” Amis’s genius lies in his ability to draw caricatures and yet portray a palpable and meatily immediate world. It is not a “world” as we understand the term in the case of, say, Waugh or Graham Greene, but the actual place in which people live; Amis’s humility before ordinary reality, and his conviction that it is the novelist’s duty to portray that reality, is what makes him so admirable.
His style is so plain and doggedly precise that at times the reader feels a sense of unfamiliarity setting in; his prose can be as invasive and disorienting as the prose in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. When Anna suggests that he does not like her poetry.
He had several not very sincere palliatives and extenuations ready, like insufficient sample, only a translation, hasty look, but could do no more than get started on any one of them, even though he got up from the armchair again for emphasis.
He is a master at selecting the comedic adjective: “…like a monster in the dreams of some unenlivening character in The Possessed or The Brothers Karamazov“; “The pair of eyes in the parsnip-coloured face in front of him…” “In highly opportune fashion a thoroughgoing thunderstorm started up…”
The Russian Girl is genuinely entertaining, and corrosively funny, and of course it makes a point of being politically incorrect. Amis’s vision of the world and its inhabitants is as grim as Philip Larkin’s, but although Amis is himself a not inconsiderable poet he lacks Larkin’s joyous precision of eye and ear. His work, if not art, is the result of beautifully organized and polished craftmanship. One closes this late novel echoing the sentiment at the end of Larkin’s poem “Show Saturday,” that marvelous psalm in celebration of quintessential Englishness: “Let it always be there.”