- The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis
Hutchinson, 296 pp, £14.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 09 174536 5
Two core propositions occupy the centre of Sir Kingsley’s fiction, and are doggedly reflected in his occasional journalism, his memoirs, his poetry and his conversation. Rendered as questions, these propositions make it vitally necessary to ask, of everything: ‘Is it any good?’ and ‘Is it nice, or is it nasty?’ (Amazingly, he himself answers in the affirmative when these questions concern, of all crappy things, Science Fiction.) Generally, though, the interrogation is more discriminating than it sounds. To be more specific, life and judgment can be tricky if something, or somebody, turns out to be jolly nice but no bloody good.
Such is the case with Anna Danilova, whose first appearance in London is enough to vanquish and dissipate the phlegmatic composure of the Russianist lecturer Richard Vaisey. As we come to know old Vaisey we can only guess at how his phleg. comp. has held up so long, what with his terrifying spouse Cordelia and all. Cordelia, though rendered in an aspect of nastiness which entirely lacks chiaroscuro, turns out all the same to be in one surpassing respect bloody good. Amis plays fair, as always. However, the Russian girl is by the sound and feel of it at least her equal in that good respect. So old Vaisey wonders, with us and with his friends, how he’s put up with the homestead so long. For one thing, and in addition to numberless other crimes against humanity, Cordelia is nasty about money while affecting staunchly to be good about it. One or the other, you hear yourself muttering, but not sodding both. As old Vaisey himself puts it, while trying to arrest an avalanche of wifely condescension on the point:
‘Anna Danilova is an educated Russian, not a savage. Like many Russians she’s not well-off, and even if she were she wouldn’t have been able to bring much money out with her, and out of what she’s got there’d be very little left to spend on clothes. She’s fiercely independent and she doesn’t want charity. It wouldn’t be a kindness to dangle a lot of stuff she could never afford in front of her. In fact it would be a ...’ He stopped before saying what manner of thing it would be.
The faintly Biblical echo of that closing phrase serves to protect Richard Vaisey’s dignity, but only against his ghastly wife and that not for long, and not at all in any case against the suggestion, which Cordelia is too shrewd to make, or to make directly, that he is in love and no error. For the moment, all he concedes is what ‘educated Russian’ means to him, which is pretty near everything. It means, first, an imperishable yet untranslatable literary canon; second, a willingness to do battle against the Soviet Communists and all who euphemise or excuse their foul arrangements.
But this isn’t easily compatible with his mounting fever of yearning. Because Anna Danilova’s verses are no bloody good. In fact, they are double plus un-good. More fatiguing yet, her own special gripe against the pre-Yeltsin Muscovite authorities concerns an imprisoned brother who would himself be adjudged a no-goodnik in any known society or state. Casting as cleverly against character as he has done since Girl, 20, Amis gives us a rather sympathetic KGB man who’s ostensibly trying to do his job, and at least initially he makes the only other fat-of-the-land person, apart from Cordelia, an anti-Communist rather than a fellow-traveller.
But that’s not to say that there’s any softening on the main point. As in The Anti-Death League, not to mention Lucky Jim, Amis can give the full effect of nastiness or madness in a few suggestive lines. At one stage, Richard asks an absent question about the apparent tedium of a randomly-chosen Soviet exile splendidly yclept Hamparzoumian. He doesn’t get long to ponder his mistake:
‘He used to speak like you and me. And he sang beautifully and was beginning to be quite famous for it. Not any more. There’s not a great deal to see on him, but they took care of the whole thing in the place where he was. He’s mostly all right otherwise but sometimes he gets very tired.’
‘Oh,’ Richard shut his eyes. ‘I’m sorry I mentioned it.’
That last bit – the Richard bit – is perfectly supererogatory except as showing his, Richard’s, rather literal cast of mind. This becomes a help rather than a hindrance as the novel gets on with things. For example, Richard always puzzles before we do when English people in the novel start talking London pidgin. Not as dense or complex as the codes in The Folks who Live on the Hill, these nonetheless reasonably good noises (‘Hey, how’s me oh pow git-non then?’) always have a Richard-derived moment of drawback in which they can be interpreted.
The great scene-saving character is Crispin Radetsky, a bloody-minded and efficient Anglo-Czech with no time for buggering about. At one point he tenderly reminds old Vaisey that ‘if for any reason you leave your things undone, the result is merely an irreparable cultural loss, whereas if I do anything like that it can have consequences that really matter.’ Richard isn’t, as it happens, very much inclined to put a high price on his cultural activities, which are stalled in their private dimension (some long-meditated work on Lermontov) and positively dingy in their public one. I looked at first for some tossing and goring from Amis on the ‘PC’ or politically correct score, since the early scenes from academic life appeared to give promise here. But he seems to lose heart and even nerve as the nub approaches. There’s a good hag of a college porter (‘middle-aged female hunk of death-camp-guard material in uniform, though mercifully without headdress’), but she isn’t half as irritating as the genial Ernie in Jake’s Thing, and the most insufferably OK-minded departmental colleague turns out to be almost witty at his only other appearance in the narrative. It could be the old fair-mindedness breaking through again, or it could be that Amis knows a tired subject when he sees one.
The same sense – of a slight lack of follow-through – is conveyed when we come to the Hampstead fellow-travellers. The caricature is all limp and perfunctory. It lacks brio. In fact, what you might term the unevenness of the novel derives from precisely this sort of rather idle backing and filling. Can we suffer with the girl? Can we burble with amusement at the hero’s fallabout triumphs? Can we believe in the contrivance of the dilemma? Not as readily as we might like.
There’s an excellent diatribe against the politicisation of fiction, by anybody, for any purpose at all, ever, that is properly delivered by a certified Great Russian exile novelist. There’s a bloody good hangover: ‘like an emergent antler on the point of bursting through the skin’. But the real muscle and sinew of the thing lies in its revelation of the minutes of the male trade union executive committee. When Richard finally speaks in candour to Cordelia’s ex-husband (something one wonders he didn’t do before), the upshot is as jolly and clarifying and chilling as the comparable moment in the pub in Lucky Jim. Perhaps because it comes a touch too close to the end, though, it robs some of the force from the Lucky Jim-type dénouement, where moneyed old Worldly Wiseman more or less guarantees both stipend and girl. Still, you don’t often get, or get enough of, ‘You know, when she was going on about how pathetic she was and how frightful you’d made her feel and were still making her feel, it brought it back, what it had been like right in the middle of being married to her. Never knowing whether she meant a word she said and then gradually realising she doesn’t know what meaning what you say means.’ Richard chucks himself into all this, and more, with an almost suicidal disregard for male trade union rules, but this in itself will redeem the book from any snore-making stuff about misogyny. It’s not about woman-hating, you idiot. It’s about love.