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SWALLOW by D. M. Thomas



Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Viking

Sergei Rozanov, the 50-year-old Soviet writer at the center of Ararat (1983), is again--still?--in bed with a blind woman, telling her improvised tales-within-tales. . . as Thomas' ""sequence of improvisational novels"" continues. This time, in fact, Rozanov himself is a character in a tale being recited by Corinna Riznich, an Italian improvisatrice competing in Finland at the Olympics of improvisation. And so it goes, with the Olympiad as a frame for another mosaic of narrative fragments--mostly about Rozanov and about his alter-ego (as in Ararat), Russian poet Surkov. The ""swallow"" of the title is Rozanov's mistress Sonya, a KGB-trained Intourist guide who sleeps with foreigners for information or quasi-blackmail; her activities give rise to one of the best vignettes here--a strong scene of drunken jealousy. Meanwhile, poet Surkov continues his adventures in America: a Washington sex-club visit; an interview with a Reagan-like president at the White House--as Surkov amusingly mistakes all the movie references in the President's speech for startling revelations. (""A couple of weekends ago I watched My Wife and Her Lover."") And some of these miscellaneous chunks of storytelling are very agreeable--from smoothly written sex scenes to a section (first in a verse version, then in prose) of Thomas' recollections of his own Australia childhood. But much of this collage again merely recycles Thomas' expertise in Russian literary culture, with arch references to Pushkin and Pasternak; here, too, more narrowly and self-indulgently, Thomas uses the device of the Olympiad judging to offer, indirectly, another version of his defense--as a translator of Russian poetry--against accusations of plagiarism. (""He was blessed or cursed with a photographic memory. He believed--continued to believe--his verses were in some sense original. He believed he had changed many details. He had not intended to deceive anyone."") And, like Ararat, this complicated literary construct finally seems frail, synthetic, and uninvolving (except for specialists in Russian literary translation)--with the barest realistic situation teased out through deft inventiveness, but with almost no real invention or substance.