A RUSSIAN NOVEL – Emmanuel Carrère; trans. Linda Coverdale (2010, Serpent’s Tail, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1-84668-085-4)

Carrère is one of the best current writers in France. This book, allegedly a novel, but in fact a work of fiction based (apparently) on a great deal of personal experience, is one of the most unusual I have read in a long time.

The story meanders: a French film crew is in Russia, making a verité film about life in a small and obscure industrial town. The director, or auteur, is Carrère himself, trying to find a film that could be about the drab surroundings or the unpromising characters he meets — these passages appear to be based on real events. As a counterpoint, the Carrère character’s relationship with his partner in France is going through a crisis. At the heart of the book, almost in fact physically in the middle of the novel, is a piece of erotic fiction written in the hope of drawing back his lover. It is an astonishingly original and impressively explicit sequence. My jaded palate, born of boredom with repetitive, unoriginal and in many cases unbelievable sexual antics in fiction, was refreshed by it and eager for more. It is a remarkable piece of writing, certain to become a classic of erotic writing. However, the lead-up to it, and the shocking and agonizing consequences of it, are also pretty impressive.

Like the new novel by Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) much of the book is given over to introspective grappling with feelings of love, loneliness, jealousy, passion, possessiveness, frustration, and all the other experiences around sexual life. Unlike the feeble offering from Mr Barnes, A Russian Novel is a radical, daring and honest work of literature.