Keving Saving on
The Stalin Epigram
By Robert Littell
(Duckworth Overlook, 2009)
More Than A Littell Flawed
Having enjoyed several of Robert Littell's previous fictions, notably the well-plotted and well-researched The Revolutionist (about an early Bolshevik) and The Company (set in the formative years of the CIA), I had looked forward to reading his latest, The Stalin Epigram.
Whilst an historical novel concerning itself with the doings of a cadre of Russian poets might seem to be an unlikely frame upon which to fashion ripping yarns, there is definitely an intriguing story to be told about the persecution and mysterious disappearance of Osip Mandelstam during the 'Red Terror' of the Nineteen Yhirties. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced that the much-praised Stalin Epigram fully exploits its opportunities.
Historical novels can be a relatively painless way of learning about a particular period. C.S. Forester's Hornblower series and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman books - each in their own different ways - represent especially successful depictions of life during the Napoleonic wars, and the Victorian era, respectively. However, in the very best historical fiction, the author will make clear just which aspects of their work are historical, and which imagined. Littell has signally failed to do this here, with no scholarly foot notes nor addenda to guide the reader.
His story is narrated by a succession of charactors, some actual - like Nadezhda Mandelstam (the protagonist's wife, upon whose memoir Hope Against Hope Littell has significantly 'leant') and some apparently fictive - like 'Zinaida Zaitseva -Antonova' (described as 'a very young and very beautiful actress who is on intimate terms with the Mandelstams'). This an be disorientating, especially when there is, as yet, no standard English language biography of Mandelstam. Both Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova play narrative - and 'walk-on' - roles, though each fails to convince entirely.
Another (probably) fictitious narrator, a circus-strongman 'Fikrit Shotman', adopts a faux-naif style which proves tremendously difficult to consistently 'pull-off'.
Part of the problem with this publication is that the central 'charactor', Osip Mandelstam, does not fully engage us. His epigram about the 'Kremlin mountaineer' (Stalin) whose 'fingers are as fat as grubs' (and for whom 'every killing is a treat') was almost foolhardily courageous. Yet the poet later wrote an 'Ode to Stalin' which was obsequious in the extreme. Libidinous, hallucinatory, lapsing in and out of plausibility, the Mandelstam presented here is a wonky reed upon which to play a tune. Of the 'Epigram' itself, purported here to have been composed during May 1934, there is evidence that it was first 'birthed' in November, 1933. Nor does Littell (who, justly, portrays Stalin as a monster) appear to realise that the 'Man of Steel' took such a close personal interest in his poets because he had once been a practitioner himself, back in his native Georgia.
Wilfred Owen felt that it fell under a 'true' poet's remit to 'warn'. This his near-contemporary Osip Mandelstam attempted to do - though he later retracted his admonishment and retreated into nebulousness. (Not that it saved him). Yet another writer from this same, wounded, generation, (the more fortunate) Bertolt Brecht, famously asked the rhetorical question:
In the dark time
Will there be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
Often posing more questions than it is able - satisfactorily - to answer (about poetic integrity versus political pragmatism, about historical provenance) The Stalin Epigram cannot be said to 'sing', but it chirrups along entertainingly enough.
Kevin Saving © 2010