INTERVIEW / How was it for you?: Dina Rabinovitch meets Victor Erofeyev, the exuberant new iconoclast of Russian literature

WHILE NOBODY does passion better than the great Russian writers, they have never been all that explicit when it comes to sex. The latest novel from Moscow has changed all that. From its opening pages, which detail a doctor's examination of a woman's vagina, Victor Erofeyev's book, Russian Beauty (Hamish Hamilton pounds 9.99), gives new impact to the phrase 'the Russians are coming'.

Erofeyev caused a few heads to turn when he walked into a Notting Hill restaurant for this interview: he wore a lime T-shirt under a sky-blue checked jacket and the thinking woman's crumpled good looks.

Irina, the heroine of the novel, straddles all levels of Russian society, sleeping with old Communist heroes and dissidents alike. 'Irina is beautiful,' says Erofeyev. 'Therefore many men like her, so she could go from high society to low, from left to right, and to the foreign correspondents.'

Irina is also the narrator, relating her exploits in the form of a diary, which nevertheless manages to flaunt every post-modern literary trick in the book - not bad for a girl who's supposed to have come from the uneducated provinces.

Erofeyev was a literary critic before he was a novelist, but his life resembled Irina's in his unusual access to all levels of Soviet life. 'I came from a Red bourgeois family (his father worked for Stalin and was an ambassador), so that was upper-class, and we lived in Paris, where I met Westerners; and then I was expelled from the Writers' Union twice, which got me in with the dissidents, so the whole society was open to me.'

Irina is the mistress of, and pregnant by, a Communist Party hero called Vladimir Sergeyevich, who likes being physically and verbally abused. Irina's true love, though, is her girlfriend, Ksyusha. While homosexuality was illegal under Communism, lesbianism was considered so far beyond the pale that nobody bothered to prohibit it.

'The best girls in Russia,' says Erofeyev, 'became lesbians because they couldn't meet interesting men - they didn't rate CP members who have to play at all that politics. Also men in Russia drink too much, so have no sex life. For Russian girls lesbianism is not clinical - women who don't want men - but social. Having found each other, many of the lesbian couples would then take a man to tease, three of them together. It's very common but nobody ever wrote about it, either in the Soviet or Western press.'

Erofeyev, through Irina, is scathing about the sexual performance of his male countrymen, whatever their political persuasion. 'It's true,' he says, 'the only good lovers in Russia are women. Russian women are more human than the men, somehow.'

Irina is betrayed by the dissidents who befriend her as well as by the Party. This also reflects Erofeyev's experience. Having made a name for himself as a literary critic, he was expelled from the Writers' Union in 1979 for publishing a collection of censored literature and his father sacked from his posting as Soviet ambassador to the United Nations.

'The dissidents said, 'We'll take care of you, Victor', which was OK for a month or two. But then I saw these are not my people. They were full of political tricks, and the vanity . . . I am general of the dissidents, you are colonel.'

Dissidents are the sacred cows of Russian society, says Erofeyev, so his attack on them was as scandalous as adding a lesbian affair to the canon of Russian literature.

Erofeyev, 44, wrote Russian Beauty in 1980, but it was not published in Russia until 1989. It was then seized upon by glasnost- hungry Western publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It has since been translated into 20 languages. The furore which publication created - 'the older generation hated it, the young loved it' - made Erofeyev a celebrity in Moscow. Teenage girls write to him to ask for advice on whether to get married, and he has his own television show.

Before Russian Beauty, Erofeyev was hardly known. He says he couldn't publish in the West because he was afraid of further retaliations against his family. At home he had one short story published - in outlying Riga. Friends told him to stick to criticism and forget the fiction. Official appraisal of his work said it was full of sadists and perverts and 'stole graffiti off bathroom walls'.

But others hailed Erofeyev as the second coming of the Russian avant-garde. He says he wants to take the political agenda out of Russian literature and make it less heavy. Russian Beauty has a lot of fun in it - it's a rollicking romp with a bitter-sweet ending. There are plenty of cracks at high culture and the Russian mentality. Irina horrifies everybody by procuring five kilos of oranges during an interval at the opera.

There is a religious streak, too. He says that when he wrote the scene where Irina is possessed in a field, he felt possessed himself. 'This is another taboo, of course,' said Erofeyev. 'The kind of thing people don't like to admit to. But you cannot be a writer and be an atheist.' There are also many allusions to Russian literature in the book: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin make an appearance.

But Erofeyev says he finds Russian literature too macho and wanted to get away from that in his novel. However, the sex gets tiring in this book precisely because it is so male: best from behind, plenty of violence. He claims Nabokov as his literary influence, but in the sex at least, it's all Kundera - with one eye firmly fixed on what the French and Italians will want to make into a film. (Not surprisingly, Russian Beauty is currently in production in Italy.)

Forgetting all the literary flounces - the references, the double ending, the revelation that things are other than they seem, the narrative intrusions - the main challenge for Erofeyev was to achieve the woman's voice and express her sexuality. 'The most difficult thing,' he says, 'was when I had to write men as seen through a woman's eyes. Not with her female lovers, but with other men - then I started to feel myself as a man intruding.'

Does it work? Irina is funny and wry, although sometimes arch, but she dips in and out of femaleness. I never believed that she was a woman carrying a baby - she has conversations with the foetus which sound like she's talking to a disconnected being at the end of a phone. Only someone who's never been pregnant could think of the mother-foetus relationship as being so cute and detached.

Erofeyev's other aim was to smash every taboo known to Soviet society. He has just come from Amsterdam, where an opera of one of his short stories was performed before royalty. People were shocked by it, he says. His glee is infectious. I accuse him of being like a kid out of school. 'Yes,' he replies, 'but you know, to shock people in Amsterdam is no small achievement.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links