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BOOK REVIEW : A Loud, Sexy and Flawed Russian Novel : RUSSIAN BEAUTY by Victor Erofeyev translated by Andrew Reynolds; Viking; $22, 349 pages

April 22, 1993|RICHARD EDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She is a Russian amalgam of Holly Golightly, Molly Bloom and Playboy's faux-naif sexpot, Little Annie Fanny. Throw in a touch of Catherine the Great, turn the volume up, leave it playing nonstop all night and you have an approximate impression of Victor Erofeyev's novel and its heroine.

"Russian Beauty" may not be the first post-Soviet novel to be translated into English, but it is the sexiest and the loudest. Sexy should be understood in terms of hard work, political metaphor and a fable of the new--and always old--Mother Russia. Loud should be understood as an inflated comic rhetoric that tickles the reader's sensibility with pile-drivers. The book's comic and cosmic intents, respectively, produce pulverized funny-bone and allegorical heartburn.

At its bare bones, which can be hard to find given Erofeyev's expansive style--all accelerator and incapable of denying itself the slightest digression--"Russian Beauty" is a fantasy about Russia's state of vociferous chaos.

It is told by Irina Tarakanova, a young woman who left two successive husbands in the provinces to make her fame and fortune in Moscow. She works in a second-rate dance troupe, but her looks and pizazz--her genius for beauty--take her much further.

She has had a string of useful lovers, including a South American ambassador. Her breakthrough is the connection that launches the book into the region of picaresque fantasmagory.

Her friend and lesbian lover, Ksyusha, who lives in Paris and prospers suspiciously, returns to introduce Irina to Leonidik. He is the grand old man of Russian letters, favored by Stalin and his successors, an icon to generations of schoolchildren and a pinnacle of the fading old Establishment. Irina besots him. He promises to marry her but dies in her arms of excessive enjoyment and crusty arteries.

That might have been the end for Irina, but these are new times. Ksyusha, the arranger, arranges for her to be a centerfold in an unnamed American sex magazine, with a text describing her as the tragic naked muse of Russian literature.

When she is fired from her dancer's job and evicted from her apartment, she receives support from America's "most fabulous beauties": seven other centerfold stars. They threaten to marshal their patrons--three oil barons, 35 senators and seven Nobel laureates--in Irina's defense.

Things expand from there. Irina is surrounded by a new circle of young literary figures and intellectuals. She conceives a mission to purify the Russian soul of the dark spirit that has always oppressed it by going to an old Tatar battleground and letting the spirit rape her.

Something like a phallic column of viscous air materializes, in fact, but it goes limp and disperses without accomplishing anything. On the other hand, the ghost of Leonidik returns, has pyrotechnic sex with her and leaves her pregnant with what I take to be Russia's shiny new/stale old future.

There is more, or perhaps less. With Irina and her circle of fleshly and ghostly Russian types, Erofeyev has perhaps tried to accomplish something magical and ironic, on the order of Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita." He lacks the strength and finesse. Instead of a large canvas, he has an inflated one.

His major error is Irina's nonstop voice. It provides not a narrative but a monologue. This is a difficult thing to bring off, particularly at nearly 350 pages, but it can have its uses.

As the lone voice beats round and round, it can etch a steadily deepening and enriched portrait of the speaker; as with Molly Bloom's final solo in "Ulysses." It can also work, as it does in Strindberg's "The Stronger," when it becomes a one-sided dialogue with a silent partner or silent audience from whom it is asking something.

Irina's raucous and jumbled voice is unchanged from beginning to end, and it is all we get. She is addressing no one, she is making no effort to convince a reader or elucidate or paint a picture. Her self-absorption goes nowhere.

What she has, of course, is a story, but her kind of noisy monologue is a poorly chosen way to tell it. For the book's intended social satire, with its magical and surreal touches, an outside voice or at least a drier one would be needed.

Erofeyev gives Irina a series of flamboyant, large-scale gestures that are too sweeping to point to anything in particular. It is coarse imagery, infested with hit-or-miss megalometaphors.

Over and over she will relate or picture something in a swiping phrase that blurs it or knocks it over. When she speaks of her indolence, she says, "I am so lazy I could infect an island the size of Iceland."

An American journalist who interviews her is "about 40 years old and good-looking: graying, with a stylishly trimmed beard and languorous eyes. He kept nodding, no matter what I said, and sometimes wrung his hands helplessly and hit his knee with his fist. He arrived in checked woolen trousers, blue and green."

It is energetic language but all wrong, a description without an image.

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