BOOK REVIEW / Young Socrates goes West: 'The Gingerbread Race: A Life in the Closing World Once Called Free' - Andrei Navrozov: Picador, 17.99

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The Independent Culture
A MUGSHOT on the inside flap of this book's cover shows the author (40ish) standing in front of the Albert Bridge, Chelsea. Next to him, caught in the corner of the photo, there is a sign: 'All troops must break step when marching over this bridge.' This slightly contrived composition, at once obscure and heavy-handed, captures the essence of Andrei Navrozov's work - part autobiography, part disquisition upon 'the theme of the individual as the last free man in unfreedom'.

Navrozov recounts an idyllic upbringing in the literary enclave of Vnukovo just outside Moscow. Here in 'the last Atlantis of cultural universalism', amid a 'Socratic dialogue . . . dominated by the fundamental problem of differentiating between fact and verisimilitude', the precocious Andrei was treated to what he describes as a brilliant liberal education by his father Lez Navrozov, a well-known dissident writer. According to Navrozov fils, the milieu in which he was brought up - essentially that of Pasternak - and the manner of his education instilled in him a unique sense of the values of 'civilization' and 'free thought': 'I was probably alone in all of Russia never to attend school or participate in anything 'collective', 'obligatory' or 'relevant'.'

Navrozov's book aspires, in fact, to be a paean to the sort of cultural aristocracy and creative individuality that, he boasts, he experienced around him as a child. Of course, the liberal values of Vnukovo could find no home in the Soviet Union. But The Gingerbread Race is not a book about Russia; it charts, rather, the author's disillusionment with the US - a country that, before they moved to it in the early 1970s, the Navrozov household had worshipped as its God.

Any country, one suspects, would have been bound to fail the Navrozovs, and it can only be said that if Andrei Navrozov did not judge highly of America, America does not seem to have thought particularly highly of him. At a New York high school, our 'hereditary freethinker' found nothing in common with the sporty, lemming-like democrats who made up its numbers. Yale proved even more of a disappointment. Although he evidently hoped that this would finally signify his passage from the world of shadowy opinion to Platonic truth, the young Socrates quickly discovered that he was intellectually superior not only to 'the bejeaned multitude', but to his teachers.

Having flirted with conservative politics, Andrei became publisher and editor of the once prestigious Yale Literary Magazine. 'I wanted,' he explains, 'to translate everything I knew about the golden age of publishing in Russia into a modern idiom, and to hypnotise my provincial bourgeois audience with this shimmering phoenix.' By this time Andrei, like his father a dissent-addict, had become a declared enemy of the American establishment, while the authorities at Yale felt uneasy about being associated with a right-wing undergraduate magazine packed with adverts for Rolls-Royce and Hermes (Navrozov appears besotted by wealth) and - probably wrongly - conspired to have it repressed. The dispute finally went to court, where Navrozov's stewardship of the 'Lit' came to an unhappy end.

A great part of The Gingerbread Race is devoted to a drawn-out account of this little brouhaha, presented, of course, as a 'microcosm' of man's 'creeping universal enslavement'. Towards the end of the book, however, Navrozov once again lifts his sights a little higher. Delving into the history of the university that had caused him so much grief, Navrozov discovered the existence of Yale's secret student fraternities, most notably Scull and Bones, to which George Bush and a large number of other leading American public figures have belonged. Navrozov's poorly documented charge seems to be that this cult, which he alleges exercises a 'secret hold over such bureaucracies of power as the Supreme Court, the State Department, and the CIA', makes a mockery of American claims to democracy. If The Gingerbread Race begins as cultural history, and then degenerates into a courtroom drama, it ends with the rant of conspiracy theory.

Navrozov is by all accounts (his own included) a very fine translator of Russian poetry, especially that of Pasternak. He is genuinely learned and neither his wit nor force of personality are to be doubted. Yet these qualities are scarcely put to work in this arrogant, self-indulgent, desperately unedited, prolix and lazy volume. It is this, in fact, that makes The Gingerbread Race such an intensely irritating read. It is not, as its author perhaps originally wished, that its elitist disdain for the US is contentious, or its commitment to cultural aristocracy provocative. Navrozov's writing is too careless, his arguments too opaque to elicit serious intellectual dissent. The infuriating point is that all the indications suggest this work represents the waste of something close to brilliance. Moreover, Navrozov knows it but, as a self-styled aristocrat, at least pretends not to care. That, of course, is doubly provoking.