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)

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