The Russian Girl, by Kingsley Amis
This book finds Kingsley Amis deep in his late-career misogyny, filled with a dark and sometimes cruel wit about people who range from slightly sympathetic to deeply and hauntingly odd. That is not to say that this is a bad novel. It is a good novel, but not good in a way that is likely to make the reader feel very good unless they are the sort that likes cynical appeals to men ditching their shrewish middle aged wives for younger and more attractive ones. Does this book reflect the author’s own bitterness about marriage? Are the appeals the author seems to make to the worth of being loyal and dutiful as well as jealous of their personal integrity (when it comes to judgments about art) simply covers for the desire of the lead character, one Richard Vaisey, for an attractive Russian dissident trying to save her ne’er do-well brother from prison by acquiring a reputation as a great modern poet when her poetry is recognized by anyone who has read them as garbage? Ultimately, the book attempts to pass of what Richard does as good and goes out of its way to negatively portray his wife Cordelia, but not in a way that makes this reader content.
This book is a love story, but the course of love does not run smoothly. Married scholar Richard Vaisey meets Anna Danilova after she has come to England as a dissident poet seeking a reputation, and is curious about her poetry and disappointed by its quality. While undeniably attracted to her, to the amusement of most people aside from his wife, who is quickly (and understandably) jealous, Richard finds himself being pressed into service to help Anna gain a reputation as a poet that would allow her to be a suitable critic of the Russian government so that her counterfeiting brother can be freed from prison. Richard finds himself torn between his desire for Anna, which he succumbs to before too long, and his desire to retain his integrity by not viewing her poetry as good, but eventually he convinces Anna not to give up poetry and she resolves to write worthwhile poetry, and Cordelia changes the locks and makes sure that Richard ends up without any money, and the book ends with a sort of happily ever after where Richard finds himself love and a pretty and less shrewish partner and everyone gets what they author thinks they deserve in a novel that leaves a sour taste for this reader at least.
Ultimately, this book fails to provide the sort of insight into the battle of the sexes that one would expect. Cordelia is viewed as being particularly evil and vindictive, coming from wealth and still having beauty despite being middle aged, and it is impossible that she could have been so nasty of a person and so condescending to everyone else and have a generally decent fellow like Richard marry her. Clearly Richard’s negligence of his duties as a husband to love and cherish his wife have something to do with the bitter woman she has become, and as Richard is clearly someone who is capable of love, love for the Russian language and its body of literature as well as the titular Russian Girl, one Anna Danilova, one wonders why it was that he failed in his duty to love his wife and have children. After all, it appears that part of Cordelia’s bitterness is not having any children, even if the characters mock what kind of woman she would have made as a mother. The mocking in this novel comes off as cruel and unfriendly when it could have easily been otherwise.