Joseph Vissarionovich and the People Who Loved Him

Because some of them undoubtedly did, even people who knew him quite well. In his heyday, millions professed their love, sang his praises. Even those he had condemned in show trials, or in no trials, wrote to him of their devotion, wrote of their faithfulness, wrote of their belief. Perhaps they meant it, perhaps it was the only hope they had to continue living.

One person who does seem to have loved him in something like the normal sense of the word was his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. Perhaps that is why she shot herself.

Simon Sebag Montefiore opens Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar with a private party to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The party was held at the Kremlin apartment of the Defense Commissar, Voroshilov, and the very inmost of the Party elite was there.

They ate well, though not as lavishly as would later become the court custom. They toasted, they drank copiously, they danced and sang and flirted. The upper reaches of the Bolsheviks were tightened by kinship, by conspiritorial years together and by numerous affairs. Nadya, as Stalin’s wife was known, danced with her godfather, “the official in charge of the Kremlin who was already shocking the Party with his affairs with teenage ballerinas.” Stalin, in Montefiore’s account, was busy with his own flirtation with the wife of a Red Army commander. Stalin and Nadya quarrelled, loudly, visibly at the party. Eventually, Nadya stormed out, returning in time to their apartment. Sometime in the night, she took a small pistol her brother had given her and shot herself in the heart.

Accounts differ about what Stalin did in those hours. He may have gone to one of his dachas, where he may have pursued a dalliance. He may not have done either, and returned to the apartment to sleep in his separate bedroom.

“Stalin was poleaxed. This supremely political creature, with an inhuman disregard for the millions of starving women and children in his own country, displayed more humanity in the next few days than he would at any other time in his life.”

It would not be right to say that everything changed after Nadya’s death. Famine gripped the Ukraine before she died, and after. Stalin sent close comrades to their deaths before and after. He was ruthless, bloodthirsty and calculating before and after.

Yet Montefiore chooses the incident as the crux of his biography because there were discernible differences, magnified two years later by the assassination of Leningrad party boss Kirov, who might reasonably be described as a friend of Stalin.

The book is an intimate portrait, based on access to archives and interviews with the few survivors of the inner circle of that period. It captures the Bolshevik ethos, the continuous conspiring, and the servility of true Stalinism. His intimates’ power and total dependence are clearly on display, perhaps most clearly in the careers of the heads of the secret police. Yegoda succeeded by Yezhov succeeded by Beria, each pushing the previous master out of power and into the grave. Beria survived Stalin, but was shot within a year.

Those poisonings and shootings are but a snippet. Very few of the people who appear in the books pages die natural deaths. Anastas Mikoyan is remarkable in the Politburo for having served from Ilyich to Ilyich–Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. Millions die off-stage, in the terror famine, in the gulag, in the war. Stalin knew and approved of it; much of it he directed himself.

One particularly chilling chapter details how Stalin proceeded to have the wives of his close comrades either executed or sent to the gulag. Molotov was practically the only one who stood up even a little for his spouse.

The cruelty on a personal level, the industrial scale of murderousness, the amount of torture and death are almost enough to make one favor the invading Germans. Except that their victory would probably have been even worse.

One good aspect of the book is its thorough coverage of Stalin after the War: his pursuit of the bomb, the dangerous game of succession among the Soviet magnates, and his final purges. It’s a period that I didn’t know much about, and one that often seems a bit of a blank in other histories. Another strong point is its 30-page index, a model of the art. Finding almost anything in the 660+ pages of text is a breeze.

Montefiore give a sense of the personalities of the people closest to Stalin, the intimate details of their holidays, their habits, their jealousies. He portrays a convincing Stalin and lays bare the logic of the regime. It captures the small and the sweeping. It’s a gripping, sickening, astonishing work.

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Catching up with Greatness

Not mine, of course, the 50 novels from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung‘s list. Since several of my recent book reviews have been negative or lukewarm, I’ll say here above the fold that the latest batch has indeed brought me in touch with literary greatness.

In the order I have read them, not of publication or anything else:

The Lover, Marguerite Duras, no. 49. As slender, lithe and desirable as its protagonist in her youth, as insightful as she became in her later years. Steamily tropical, rooted in its era, a topical examination of colonialism and exploitation. Yet also a timeless story of love, growth and madness.

The Judge and His Executioner (Der Richter und sein Henker), Friedrich Duerrenmatt, no. 42. A much more tightly crafted whodunit than the Simenon book that preceded it in the series, Duerrenmatt’s book follows a murder in a Swiss village not far from the capital. The location allows him to contrast his country’s self-image to its actual situation, with the country-city divide paralleling many others in Swiss society. He also sketches the Swiss role during the war: his protagonist was fired from a position in Germany for an anti-Nazi remark–an unbelievable affront in the mid-1930s, understandable if tactless by 1942, and by 1945 the only honorable course for a Swiss policeman. The title is also a play on a common statement about Germany’s transformation after 1933, that the land of poets and thinkers (Dichter und Denker) had become one of judges and executioners (Richter und Henker). The story is ultimately less political than psychological, as themes of morality, guilt and greed come to the fore as the action proceeds. (Unfortunately, the summary on the dust jacket gives away a little too much of the plot; skip it if you don’t want to figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through the book.)

Under the Wheel (Unterm Rad), Hermann Hesse, no. 46. When I was drafting a stand-alone review of this book, I called it “Old Europe,” for the world that Hesse sketches is what the phrase conjures in my mind. Small villages, horse travel, pervasive influence of one church or another, generations passing with little change. Three of the four Hesse books I have read (this plus Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund) try to paint some sort of timelessness. The book is heavily autobiographical, and the plot is predictable. On the other hand, Hesse subverts the timeless vision as well, showing the cracks in the setup through which modernity will soon come bursting through: the trains, the new ideas of science, the application of historical scholarship to the Bible, the decline of the guilds and the rise of technology. Though he could not have known it, the Great War was less than a decade away. But looking in the other direction, Hesse’s idea of an unchanging society proves an illusion, too. Less than a hundred years before his story is set, Napoleon’s armies had marched through the area, upending the political order and much besides. The mid-century revolutions had not left this corner of Germany untouched either. The only way he can present a tableaux as enduring is to ignore the evidence all around. The book is much better at painting a picture of Europe at the start of the twentieth century than, say, The Magician, but its aspirations are all askew.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, no. 20. One of Brad DeLong’s commenters wrote that no one can appreciate Marlow before reaching age 40, but I think I’m early. This is a great book, and the overlay from having seen “Apocalypse Now” only adds to it. In the framing story he suggests there is not much difference between what the Belgians did in the Congo and what the Romans did in Britain. The lead character isn’t all that keen on Brussels either, calling it “the sepulchral city.” Brilliantly written, portraits of greed, privation and madness, provocative about the meaning of civilization itself. Maybe I’ll try it again when I’m 40 and report back on what strikes me anew.

Couples, Passers-by (Paare, Passanten), Botho Strauss, no. 38. Clever, deft, but I’m not sure what it adds up to. Microportraits from the late 1970s, headed mostly nowhere. A timelessness not unlike Hesse’s, one in which the Wall would be up forever and the problems of consumerism would be much more pressing than the great questions of history. Also like Hesse’s, it outlasted the publication of the book by less than a decade.

The Periodic System, Primo Levi, no 48. Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist from Turin (though not necessarily in that order) tells his story, that of his forefathers, his extended family, his profession and much of his surroundings in 21 exquisite chapters. Each one is named for an element in the periodic table, and the metaphor organizes not only the book as a whole but each section. Precious metals, many of the chapters, rare earths that yield jewels of expression, of human stories and the press of time. He brushes lightly on his time in Auschwitz, which he wrote about in another book, yet that fate is constantly present, and the dramatic climax of the book involves a later encounter with someone from that time. This is one of the books from this list that I would move into the adjacent list of the 50 greatest novels of the twentieth century.

The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman, Andrzej Szczypiorski, no. 41. Szczypiorski saw the war from another of its hottest forges, Warsaw. The novel’s main action follows how Mrs Seidenman, who is Jewish but living in disguise outside of the Warsaw Ghetto, falls into the clutches of the Gestapo and emerges shortly afterward. That she survives is told in the first pages, but the questions of how, and perhaps why, are engrossing throughout. This small story is the springboard for encounters with almost every type of person present in wartime Warsaw, from Volksdeutsche who have lived in Poland all their lives, to young religious, from revolutionary workers to petty spies. Yet none is purely a cliche. Szczypiorski follows many of his characters to the end of their lives–some ends much closer than others–so that the arc of the story seems to have rays springing upward from it, some reaching into the mid-1980s. The book was published in the emigre press, as it has scathing things to say about Communism, too. (Szczypiorski was elected to Poland’s Senate as a Solidarity candidate in the first free elections.) Each of the characters is a rounded person, and Szczypiorski does not present any easy answers. In fact, Mrs Seidenman’s survives because of a particularly unlikely person. A metaphor for Poland?

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Very Old Europe

New work by Sophocles? Hesiod? Lucian? Euripides? A precursor to the Illiad?

All coming up, thanks to satellitte imaging technology and a century-old trove of manuscripts brought to Britain from Egypt.

In the past four days alone, Oxford’s classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament. …

Oxford academics have been working alongside infra-red specialists from Brigham Young University, Utah. Their operation is likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth. It could easily double the surviving body of lesser work – the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day.

Exciting time to be a classicist, no?

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Because I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver a couple of times earlier this year, I will now add that I’ve finished reading it. The pace picks up a bit around page 800.

To be slightly less unfair, I should say that a number of people have told me that the second and third books are better. And the narrative pace does not detract from the argument about the beginning of modern Europe, which is an interesting one.

Also, Body of Secrets drags towards the end, too. The last two chapters seemed to be mostly proving that he had walked around inside NSA-land and talked to a bunch of people about things that had largely been secret before. It read like he was paying his sources back for the access they had granted. I think the basic problem is that the details from the late 1990s are still close for Bamford to have worked out the historical importance of what he learned. That’s a real contrast to the parts of the books that cover the period from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Anyway, Bamford’s new bookis about intelligence failures that preceded 9/11 and the misuse of intelligence in the runup to the Iraq war. If he’s still got his good sources, it should be a knockout.

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As Trains Go By

The New Republic has published a long review of three novels by Georges Simenon. The thesis is that they are “are superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction.” Simenon wrote more than 400 novels, under his own name and various pseudonyms.

One of them, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, was published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s set of great novels from the twentieth century. It’s apparently of a piece with the three reviewed by the New Republic — the reviewer called it “insouciantly gruesome” — and will soon be republished by New York Review Books.

I’ll agree with the insoucance and the gruesomeness, but I’m not sold on the greatness. Each chapter has an odd and cryptic heading — “On the difficulty of getting rid of old newspapers, and the usefulness of a fountain pen and a wristwatch” or “Kees Popinga experiences a remarkable Christmas Eve and, towards morning, selects an automobile.” I had the sense that Simenon wrote the twelve headings and then put the novel together to tie one to the next.

TNR’s reviewer sees books “more philosophically profound than any of the fiction of Camus or Sartre, and far less self-conscious. This is existentialism with a backbone of tempered steel.” Maybe it’s a sign of how both existentialism and Simenon have aged; I just saw a quickie mystery.

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A Little Less Magical

I’m not sure what possessed the editors of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung to add Somerset Maugham’s The Magician to their list of 50 great novels of the twentieth century. In the preface to the edition that I have, the author admits that when it was republished, he had not read the book in nearly fifty years. “I had completely forgotten it,” he writes.

The book captures the atmosphere of early-twentieth-century Paris, and specifically of upper-class Britons visiting the Continent for outr? pleasures not to be had at home. As such, it’s better as a historical document than a novel. The protagonist failed to arouse my sympathy, the villain sparked no anger or horror, and the development of the plot was plain to see from about twenty pages in.

I suspect that I passed the proper age for reading this novel at least a decade ago. I had a similar problem with John Fowles’ The Magus, another book dealing with appearances of magic in our mundane world. Fowles’ story had been praised to me as life-changing; I found it wavering between silly and dishonest. (Basically, after all of the setup, The Magus does not take its conjuring seriously either as mysticism in an essentially non-magical world or as an actual manifestation of the supernatural.) Brad DeLong and his commenters have some thoughts on books and their sell-by dates.

The Maugham strikes me as an apprentice work. Maybe it’s somehow much better in German translation.

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Echelon Back Story

The British edition of Body of Secrets, James Bamford’s second book about the US National Security Agency, gives equal billing to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the subtitle, but that’s just marketing, making the home audience feel good. The same subtitle also alludes to Echelon, an eavesdropping program that was on its way to being notorious, particularly in Internet circles, when the book was first published in 2001.

Both get their due, of course, but the book is really a history of the NSA, the agency that does the lion’s share of America’s electronic intercepts, cryptology, cryptanalysis, signals intelligence and so forth.

I haven’t finished the book, but there’s a lot in it. Factually, it’s dense, with very precise details that show how thoroughly Bamford had done his homework.

Lessons abound. First, how little is new in the fraught world of spying and democratic decision-making. Korea and the early Cold War period produced examples of leaders who did not want to hear what people on the ground were reporting. Resources were allocated to the wrong places; the country was caught flat-footed by events that shouldn’t have been unexpected; there was a critical shortage of personnel who could speak crucial languages. In the early 1950s, it was Korean; half a century later it’s Urdu or Pashtu or various branches of Arabic.

Then there’s involvement by the top leadership in operational issues. Bamford presents convincing evidence that Eisenhower was personally deciding and signing off on the U2 overflights of the Soviet Union. When Powers was shot down, the White House first lied about what happened, and then covered up its own involvement. According to Bamford, some of the officials perjured themselves before Congress. (There are recurring examples of how the mantle of national security is used to cover political embarrassments.)

A less than candid relationship with Congress is another emerging theme. The NSA expected the people to sign the bills and no questions asked. Bamford also presents compelling of far-right influence at the top of the US military establishment. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Eisenhower appointed just before leaving office comes in for particular scrutiny; he was a thorn in the side of an incoming Democratic administration. The Clinton team might have done well to reflect on this example when they came into power in 1993.

Bamford also notes that the Soviets had stationed 161 nuclear warheads in Cuba during the missile crisis. This was not known in the wider world until the 1990s.

Bamford, by the way, is an extraordinary reporter. For his first book on the topic, he fought off legal threats from the NSA and discovered boxes of interesting material lying around, unclassified but unread. That enabled him to put together a good picture of an agency that officially didn’t exist.

Amongst the skulduggery, self-righteousness and partisan slant that Bamford digs through, there are positive signs as well. Foremost among them is the existence of the books themselves. Without the US Freedom of Information Act, they could never have been written, and if there were a US Official Secrets Act similar to the one in Britain, they could never have been published. Between the first and the second, the attitude of the NSA changed, too. They are no longer “No Such Agency,” and Bamford received a reasonable amount of cooperation for the second book.

Back in the late 1980s, the then-director of the NSA came to talk to a class I was taking on intelligence and the history of the 20th century. He said there was a “lot of bone poop” in The Puzzle Palace. But then that’s what he would have to say, isn’t it? A decade and a half later, much has changed, but the problems of oversight, of balancing spying and democracy haven’t.

Speaking of reviews books I haven’t finished yet, the second ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a bit of a slog. The lead characters in this section, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza the improbable Welshwoman, aren’t yet interesting in and of themselves, their dialogue tends to exposition (worse, exposition of history I already knew), and there isn’t much suspense in their exploits. I’d been warned about this part of the book, and friends say the second and third volumes are much better. Here’s hoping.

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If On a Winter’s Night a Publisher

Brings forth the fiftieth and last of its great novels of the twentieth century, a resolutely head-spinning inquisition of a book by Italo Calvino, one that keeps introducing a novel titled If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In this, the coldest week in Munich in twenty years, the series not only takes notice of the weather, it refuses to end, spiraling instead into this ouroboros of a book.

Over the last four weeks, the editors have toyed with the readers and the season, jumping from Peter Hoeg’s tale of Greenlanders in Denmark, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, to the hothouse of colonial Vietnam in Margeurite Duras’ slender, tender The Lover, and now, of course, to Calvino’s winter night.

I’ve read not quite 30 of the books in the set; unfortunately, the long ones are the ones that are still to com. Or perhaps fortunately, I’ll be savoring them for longer. But I will miss the sense of making progress through the lot, and the punch of works such as Coup de Grace, Heart of Darkness or Voices of Marrakesh owes a good bit to their compactness, to their verbal and artistic tightness.

I hope to have some more capsule reviews up soon, but to wrap up the series, a few facts and figures.

Male authors: 46 Female authors: 4

Rough geographic origin –
American: Paul Auster, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith, John Irving, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck
Argentine: Julio Cortazar
Austrian: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Arthur Schnitzler
Belgian: Georges Simenon, Marguerite Yourcenar
British: E.M. Forster, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ian McEwan, Oscar Wilde
Canadian: Michael Ondaatje
Czech: Franz Kafka
Danish: Peter Hoeg
Dutch: Harry Mulisch, Cees Nooteboom
French: Marguerite Duras, Julien Green, Marcel Proust, Claude Simon,
German: G?nter Grass, Uwe Johnson, Eduard von Keyserling, Wolfgang Koeppen, Siegfried Lenz, Rainer Maria Rilke, Botho Strau?, Martin Walser
Irish: James Joyce
Italian: Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Primo Levi
Ladino: Elias Canetti (a problematic identification)
Polish: Jurek Becker, Joseph Conrad, Andrzej Szczypiorski
Spanish: Jorge Semprun
Swiss: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Hermann Hesse
Uruguayan: Juan Carlos Onetti

Year of publication:
Before 1900: 1 (Dorian Gray; don’t know why it’s in a “20th century novel” list…)
1900-1909: 3
1910-1919: 5
1920-1929: 4
1930-1939: 4
1940-1949: 1
1950-1959: 8
1960-1969: 4
1970-1979: 4
1980-1989: 13
1990-present: 3

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Ray Bradbury

Through a series of stupidities, when I moved from Washington to Germany, I lost a fair number of books. Several hundred, I think, but it’s a little too sad to count them up. There was, and still may be, a list I made when packing.

An indulgent winter evening’s thought is which one I would most like to have now. It changes, of course, with time, but the one I would most like to lay my hands on is one that I never read.

The book is Green Shadows, White Whale by Ray Bradbury, and I wish I had it because it’s autographed. Back when I worked in bookselling, I accumulated a fair number of autographed books, but there are only three that really thrilled me: the Bradbury, Jimmy Carter’s story of his first election, and a galley by Carl Sagan (who was as gracious as can be in an interview and really was a true geek, but that’s another story).

Two of the three I got to meet in person, but not Bradbury, alas. His wife passed away in 2003, and the book I have in my hands now, One More for the Road, may well be his last.

He writes short stories better than anyone I can think of. When they’re on, every word advances the story, sets up the ending, not one out of place and not one too many. There’s wit, there’s snappy dialogue, but more than that there’s wonder and pathos and fate and exuberance and heartbreak and hope and surprise and compassion.

He’s famous for The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, both of which landed him in the science fiction marketing niche, but both are full of rich metaphors and deft social criticism.

Even in his eighties, he surprises. The current book has a surprisingly sympathetic story of what it was like to be a gay man in the 1940s. There’s a bright blaze of rage at writers who waste their talent. There’s a wild romp through avant-garde cinema. And for a man who’s been writing about death since his twenties, there are several intimate looks at the final mystery. Death is no longer a Mexican carnival, a breath in the night, something wicked this way coming; now for Bradbury it is something like a companion.

Ever since I discovered The Illustrated Man squirreled away on my parents’ bookshelves and shivered, delighted and frightened by its creepy tales, I’ve been enthralled. Not everything is great — Dandelion Wine is best left in the barrel — but so much is so wonderful.

October is his month, Halloween his holiday, small-town Illinois as much his natural habitat as Mars or Los Angeles, and just when you think you know where the story is going, it goes somewhere else.

“The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” is beautiful, bittersweet, brings tears every time I read it. And who hasn’t had an affair like that?

All kinds of love shine through in One More for the Road, not least what he writes in his afterword to the collection

Then again, simply put, I have never been jealous of other writers, only wanted to protect them. So many of my most beloved authors have suffered unhappy lives or incredibly unhappy endings. I had to invent machines to travel in time to protect them, or at least say I love you. Those machines are here.

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A Note …

Upon Reading the First Ninth of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

It is a Frolick, a Cornucopia of interesting things, a narrative of the discovery of the calculus, scientific feuds, dissection, Religious Dissent, changing fashions in art, the return of comedy to the English stage, computation, coinage, banking and much, much more. One of the Leading Characters, Daniel Waterhous, is a bit of a Forrest Gump of history, accidentally giving New York its name here, helping the young Benjamin Franklin there, keeping Isaac Newton alive as an undergrad, and so forth.

It’s not particularly a Novel, certainly not all that interested in character and personality. As a friend of mine once remarked about Patrick O’Brian, history drives the plot, rather than artistic concerns. This makes it appear a bit haphazard at times, and Stephenson is also prone to winks at the audience (there is a demo of a computer) that strike me as forced.

More interesting, however, is the Argument of the Work: That the Baroque period is the birth of modern Europe. The Wars of Religion have given way to dynastic and territorial concerns. Alchemy is fading, outshone by Natural Philosophy. Paper money is on its way in, along with joint stock companies and global markets. England’s Glorious Revolution (a Dutch invasion) will put paid to Divine Right, at least in that part of the continent, completing Cromwell’s work. Christendom is being replaced by Europe.

In politics, the Argument is not bad. By convention, the Peace of Westfalia is the beginning of the modern state system, particularly the notions of sovereignty and non-interference. (These are eroding today, but that’s another story entirely.) While that’s a bit before the story begins, the period that Stephenson is writing about is the time when the system comes together. We’ll see how the Argument holds up over the next 2700 pages.

In his acknowledgements, Stephenson indirectly addresses the size of the work:

Many other scholarly works were consulted during this project, and space does not permit mentioning them here. Of particular note is Sir Winston Spencer Churchill’s six-volume biography of Marlborough, which people who are really interested in this period of history should read, and people who think that I am too long-winded should weigh.

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