Sunday, 3 October 2010


I wonder how hard it has been for this excellent novel to find its audience. Robert Littell is one of America's best espionage novelists, best known for The Company, but a major player ever since his first stunning novel of Cold War spies, The Defection of AL Lewinter. He's never been a one-trick pony (see The Visiting Professor) and his speciality has been Russia, which he once covered as a journalist for Newsweek. But the casual reader might well look at The Stalin Epigram and mistake it for a proto-Ludlum thriller, when in reality it is a finely-judged and moving novel about the poet Osip Mandelstam, and the eponymous poem that got him sent to the Gulag.

It's a novel of ambiguity, which is appropriate because Stalinist Russia was a land where ambiguity was a way of life, where even the simplest tasks of daily living could take on an Alice in Wonderland sense of unreality. It is this atmosphere which Littell not only captures, but thrives on, and he does it by setting up opposites, the most telling being that of Mandelstam himself and his fellow prisoner Fikrit Shotman, champion weightlifter turned circus strongman, imprisoned because a trunk he bought has a sticker of the Eiffel Tower on it. Really. The most telling contrast is thus between Mandelstam, who lives in the mind (even when engaged in a menage a trois with his wife, Nadezhda and the actress who eventually turns him in for writing the offending poem) and Shotman, who lives in the body. Shotman believes what his interrogators tell him, that he is a member of spy ring, even if he didn't realise it, and it is this ability to live with ambiguity, rather than be confounded by it, frustrated with it, that keeps him alive. Whereas Mandlestam winds up being arrested for the second time for writing a poem which would not offend Stalin, in effect being condemned by own artistic insincerity.

Littell writes the book in first person narrations, as if he'd interviewed each character; he does appear to have interviewed Nadezhda, though that too could be an artistic conceit. The narrators range from Stalin's bodyguard to the poet Anna Akhmatova and the writer Boris Pasternak, and there are also telling sections of Mandelstam's 'encounters' with Stalin himself, which also appear to have been conducted solely in the poet's head. The best sections are those where the personal details carry the wider points; occasionally some characters slip into what might almost be authorial voice, but this multi-narrator approach is difficult in the extreme, and overall it's convincing. What makes it work is the building sense of frustration, the foreboding, and the absolute strain of living in that society. Littell does this so well the readers comes to internalise some of the frustrations of the system, to the point where the denoument ought not to be as moving as it is.

You can see where the material for Cold War thrillers, the nature of that Soviet 'evil empire' (sic) came from. I was in Moscow in 79-80, and saw it first-hand, and have seen the difference in the new, more chaotic but less ambiguous Russia. This was the stuff that Littell, LeCarre, Hennisart and McCarry were able to mold into their exceptional spy fictions, but the strength of this book is that we may be led to wonder whether we celebrate the great Russian writers of the Stalinist era with the right understanding of the surreal dangers of their existence.

You might also consider a little aside which Stalin makes to Mandelstam (and which, since it sounds so much like the poet's voice, helps us understand the unreality of their conversations) that his status as a Georgian is like Napoleon's as a Corsican or Hitler's as an Austrian (he might have added Alexander, the Macedonian). The nature of totalitarianism seems to be something easier understood from the outside, or by poets, and in this novel Littell makes this touchingly clear. This is a major novel, which deserves far more attention than it has thus far received.

The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell
Duckworth, £16.99, ISBN9780715639030


Anonymous said...

Whoever you are, thank you for this review. I appreciate not only its compliments but its understanding of the book. Few reviews have been as insightful as yours.
Robert Littell (the writer of The Stalin Epigram, which seems to have sold 500 copies in England!)

Michael Carlson said...

I didnt like the cover much, and wonder if something with the gulag as a setting and stalin in the background might have been more commercial...
The title, as I mentioned, has a certain problem--people thinking it's a thriller--but I havent come up
with a decent alternative: 'Beyond Sleep And Death' was the best I could do and it didnt quite seem right.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading the Stalin Epigram and loved it. I've been reading Littell's books recently and this is probably my third favorite after The Company and AJ Lewinter. I didn't like The Visiting Professor much, but as far as non-spy works of Littell's I really like A Nasty Piece of Work. I can see where it could be difficult to find an audience for it. I'm not really into poetry or poets so I was a little skeptical going into it, but I found the depth of the characters made them so interesting.