Kingsley Amis is decidedly part of the “great tradition” of the English novel, in turn a branch of the older tradition, going back to Geoffrey Chaucer, of the realistic comic narrative in which pure humor and satire contend for prominence. He deposits his heroes firmly and inescapably in the everyday social world and forces them to learn that the road to the happy ending is a rocky one that exacts its toll on the traveler.
Amis, who served notice of his intention to join and enrich that tradition four decades earlier with the eminently successful Lucky Jim (1954), a novel with an academic setting, makes one of his periodic returns to academia in The Russian Girl. Here his blundering hero is not an angry young man but a rather confused middle-aged one who is nevertheless recognized as the reigning Russian literature authority at the London Institute of Slavonic Studies in the waning years of the Soviet Union’s existence. There is, however, little of academia on display in the book. Chiefly Richard Vaisey is seen living comfortably above his academic means because of, but not exactly thanks to, his wealthy and still beautiful wife. Unkind comments by Richard’s friends and colleagues make it clear, even before Cordelia Vaisey is permitted to demonstrate her ruthless and vindictive nature, that she is a dreadful woman and that it is beyond common understanding how Richard can live with her.
In fact, Richard lives with her only in the sense of sharing the same house. He has not loved his wife for some time, and early in the novel he is found wondering whether he ever did. A phlegmatic man whose only passion has been Russian literature, he has centered his life on his scholarly work at the institute. This life is complicated in June, 1990, by the arrival in London of a young woman billed as an important Russian poet. Speaking almost no English but determined to establish her credentials in England, Anna Danilova plausibly enough gravitates to a man who speaks fluent Russian and appears well equipped to publicize her poetry. Her motive, however, is less literary than political. Her ne’er-do-well brother back in the Soviet Union is being held in prison, presumably beyond the termination of his sentence. Apparently believing that if he becomes known as the brother of an internationally recognized poet, he is more likely to be freed, she hopes to use Richard to promote her literary status.
Richard finds Anna tremendously attractive, but he also quickly discovers that her poetry is bad—not merely bad but execrable. (One can imagine the fun Amis had cranking out samples of her verse.) With surprisingly little thought of personal or professional consequences, he falls, though vaguely, into her promotional scheme. Inept in nearly all the practical aspects of life, Richard has long relied heavily on the friendship of his chairman at the institute, Tristram Hallett, and his wife’s former brother-in-law, Crispin Radetsky, to guide him through all problems of life other than those of teaching or writing. Crispin, despite a Czech heritage that might be expected to argue against such efforts on behalf of a Soviet citizen, agrees to orchestrate the Danilova project.
Cordelia, gifted with the ability to compel all sorts of personal services from her friends, lounges through life, seldom setting foot outside her home, but she possesses a keen antenna for possible disruptions of her lazy, comfortable existence. Hearing of Anna, she begins to suspect Richard of infidelity even before the fact. As the Vaiseys’ mutual indifference gradually ripens into something more poisonous, Richard begins to hate her “a certain amount.” Not until he announces that he is leaving her, however, does she abandon the role of passively jealous wife and turn on a fountain of amazingly effective retaliation. Suddenly he finds himself with no financial resources except his own rather meager ones and unaccountably in trouble with the law at every turn. Cordelia’s vindictiveness extends even to her own woman friend who inadvertently allows Richard back into the house to pick up some of his personal belongings on his way to a new life with Anna.
Although Richard has upheld his professional judgment sufficiently to tell Anna of his dislike for her poetry, his real test comes when Crispin requests that he sign a statement calling Anna “a poet of major achievement and international importance.” It is this choice, not his abandonment of his wife, that constitutes his major moral challenge, for it will determine not merely his marital but also his professional future.
The Russian Girl is chiefly inhabited by characters even more appallingly ill-bred than is...
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