Sara Wheeler

Too clever by half

There’s not one likeable character in a novel that centres around the sort of extravagant lifestyle favoured by rich Russsians in London

Too clever by half
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Awful Beauty: Confessions of a Coward

Andrei Navrozov

Zuleika, pp. 268, £

This book — the title is from Pasternak —is billed as ‘literary fiction’. The narrator, a Russian gambler and drinker who has settled in the West, leaves his rich American wife of two decades when he falls hard for a Russian prostitute he meets in London (‘the first and last love of my life’).

Andrei Navrozov has worked as an editor and journalist (he has written for this magazine) and published several books, including a poetry collection with the same title as his new volume. As the subtitle indicates, he and his narrator are keen on self-deprecation — a sure sign that one thinks oneself frightfully clever.

The £300-an-hour hooker, Olga, is 25 when the narrator meets her, and he is 20 years her senior, a man wearing ‘the perennial plumage of optimistic duplicity’. He enjoys exploiting ‘the Lebensraum of [Olga’s] unconcealed social innocence’. The duped wife inherits a substantial sum from family trusts (the narrator writes of ‘the ineptitude and stupidity of her parents’), and ‘suddenly it seemed there was money to burn’. Many scenes ensue involving opulent hotels, vulgar restaurants of the kind favoured by Russians in London and the purchase of expensive jewellery. I hated every character in the book.

Navrozov lards his overwrought prose with literary references, from Gogolian noses to Wertherish youths and notably, at the outset, to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (though the author translates this as Notes from the Underground, as if Fyodor were composing on the Tube). The narrator addresses the reader directly, just as Dostoevsky does in Notes: ‘Do you understand me?’ But literary references don’t make a literary book. In a rare flash of self-awareness the narrator describes his authorial talents ‘failing, rather like Venice, with the imperceptible slowness of soil subsidence’.

Navrozov is a pretty awful writer, with little sense of style and a tin ear: of his protagonist’s early literary aspirations he writes: ‘Every provincial duckling wants to become a Swann’, a reference to Proust which fails not least because Charles Swann wasn’t a writer. Often sentences topple into incomprehensibility: ‘Hypocrisy would be a shaky colossus were it not girded by the steel of reason.’ And this: ‘Like great wealth or exalted rank, beauty is above all else an endowment.’ I don’t think so.

Awful Beauty is the first of a trilogy.