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“…equally voracious, submissive, and improbable”

August 7, 2020

Muireann Maguire recently reviewed Lisa Hayden’s translation of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov (Соловьев и Ларионов, 2009). In it a post-Soviet graduate student (Solovyov) researches a fictional White Army general (Larionov):

Solovyov visits Yalta, where the general spent his final decades as a tenant in a communal apartment, to make contact with the woman to whom the old man dictated his memoirs. Instead, Solovyov meets—and is rapidly seduced by—her daughter Zoya. Here and elsewhere, Vodolazkin struggles to write convincingly about female sexuality. Leeza, Solovyov’s first love, is a study in Portnoy-ish passivity, constantly available and readily forgotten. The Crimean seductress Zoya is equally voracious, submissive, and improbable. Take their first encounter: “He went over to Zoya’s bed and pressed his legs into her. […] A moment later he was lying next to her. […] As if out of nowhere, she took a condom and placed it in Solovyov’s hot hand.” Compare Ustina, the hero’s perfect helpmeet, in Vodolazkin’s second novel, Laurus; or Anastasia in his third, The Aviator, whose romantic interchangeability with her granddaughter Nastya (both are, at different times, engaged to the narrator) is ludicrous. Vodolazkin captures minor female characters brilliantly (like Solovyov and Larionov’s glorious Professor Dupont), but as soon as a woman becomes a love interest, she loses all subjectivity. This is a rare weakness in the author’s otherwise carefully crafted style.

I haven’t read Vodolazkin yet, but Maguire’s examples are persuasive. I’ve been wondering lately why we as readers have such strong reactions to how authors write about sexuality. In a way the topic is like all others: artifice is required to make a literary simulation of something seem like the real thing. But since sexuality is typically private and clearly different from person to person, you’d think we’d be forgiving, even credulous, when reading about it, leaving open the possibility that the author is accurately describing something we’ve never encountered. The opposite is true: we’re strict on this point. Many ways of writing sexuality don’t feel right, and they quickly start to seem ridiculous.

Our instinct that an author does this well can also be strong. Anna Kozlova’s F20 (F20, 2017) felt like the most convincing portrayal of female sexuality I’d ever read—but why do I have an opinion? I also thought male sexuality in Roman Senchin’s Nubuck (Нубук, 2003) and Moscow Shadows (Московские тени, 2008) seemed realistic, even though what many of his male characters feel—a minor temptation for adulterous or otherwise illicit sex with female strangers, in service of a major temptation to wreck one’s own life—is as far from my experience as Kozlova’s teenage girl protagonist.

I suspect readers often agree about which portrayals of sexuality seem plausible (just as they agree about which written simulations of oral speech sound authentic), but not always. To move to a nineteenth-century example, I once thought Fet’s poems written from a female persona would seem implausible to a female reader, but I’ve since heard women say that “Sister” (Сестра, 1857) rang true to them.

Maguire’s full review is mostly about other things and makes the book seem well worth reading!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    August 7, 2020 8:06 am

    The problem with such imagined women isn’t that they’re not “plausible” — всё бывает, as they say — it’s that they’re lazy repetitions of a limited number of male fantasies about the kind of woman they want to write about (which is pretty much equivalent to “have sex with”). This is understandably infuriating to women, and has been for the last few centuries. There are just as many kinds of women out there as there are men, and yet novels written by men are pretty much entirely populated by variations on Наташа, Татьяна, and (in modern times) the enthusiastic (young, hot) woman who pulls your clothes off and makes torrid love to you. It’s tiresome and stupid.

    • August 7, 2020 11:23 am

      That absolutely fits “the Crimean seductress Zoya,” and maybe the “perfect helpmeet” is a modern Tat’iana, but the case of the interchangeable grandmother and granddaughter sounds like it must be objectionable for other reasons—again, I haven’t read Vodolazkin, but from Maguire’s review it sounds like Anastasia and Nastya in The Aviator don’t work artistically because, if anything, they’re too far from that “limited number of male fantasies” we’re all used to seeing in books.

      On a more general level, surely it’s easy to imagine a male author writing about female sexuality in a way that neither repeats those same lazy fantasies nor convinces the reader?

  2. languagehat permalink
    August 7, 2020 12:18 pm

    I can imagine all sorts of things, but that’s something rarely seen, though perhaps more common these days.

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