BY WILLIAM HARRIOTT
Great men do not always lead the most interestesting lives. If greatness be measured by the mark a man sets on history, then perhaps nobody in this century can be rated above V. I. Ulyanov, better known to the world as Lenin — whether or not we like what he accomplished. Plodding, meticulous, and bourgeois in his habits, Lenin seems hardly an exciting character, but because his life launched events of vast scope — revolution, civil war, and the intrigues of power — it was a most adventurous one; and in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF LENIN (Simon and Schuster, $8.50) ROBERT PAYNE, writing with his usual verve and energy, makes the most of his material in a very vivid and readable biography that sheds much light on the background and course of the Russian Revolution.
Mr. Payne is a journalist-historian who has ranged widely in his choice of subjects, from China to ancient Troy. But in recent years he has been concentrating on the Russian terrorists of the nineteenth century, and he is particularly illuminating in locating Lenin against this background. The fact that Lenin was an early convert to Marxism and remained thereafter unwavering in his Marxist faith only partly explains his revolutionary zeal. He was also the heir of the Russian nihilists, who were intent on destroying the existing social order; and he was a particular admirer of the monstrous Nechayev, on whom Dostoevsky modeled the revolutionary in The Possessed. Had Lenin not existed, Marxism might well have become a very different doctrine.
One thing emerges very clearly from Mr. Payne’s narrative: the Revolution was not historically inevitable, as Communists are wont to profess. Time and again the issue hung by a hair; and in retrospect it was a tremendous fluke, surprising even to the leaders, that the Bolsheviks conquered and remained in power. Without Lenin’s personal gifts as a leader the Revolution might not have taken place at all. The abstract play of social forces never completely explains history; chance, luck, and individual genius cannot be eliminated from the historical process.
The one matter on which Mr. Payne is not quite satisfying is his depiction of the character of Lenin. His final assessment almost becomes vituperation. History may well pass such a final verdict, but there seem to have been other more engaging aspects of the man. No doubt Lenin made himself a dictator and thus directly paved the way for the more awesome tyranny of Stalin. But Stalin’s cruelties corresponded with some sadistic streak in his own nature, while we do not feel this to be the case with Lenin. When in the grip of his political ideas, Lenin could be fanatical and ruthless; but when the issue was not politics, he seems to have possessed some very warm and human traits that could captivate people in all walks of life. His character was more contradictory and many-sided than Mr. Payne makes out.
One of the mysteries surrounding Lenin’s death is whether Stalin himself poisoned the father of the Revolution. Lenin had had a stroke; and during his incapacitation he became suddenly aware that Stalin had already amassed too much personal power and was a menace to the Party. When he began to warn other Party members of this danger, Stalin may have felt he could not wait for Lenin’s death and may have forced the doctors to poison him. Mr. Payne contends that he did; but on the evidence he offers, the case must still be said to be unproved, though the suspicion remains strong. Of this, as of so many other dark matters in Soviet history, we shall probably be sure only when all the records are made available. The irony of the Russian Revolution, as Mr. Payne makes abundantly clear, is that a regime purporting to bring enlightenment and progress to a sixth of the globe did in fact, by its record of intrigue, violence, and assassination, only restore the ancient court of Byzantium.
DEATH OF THE GODS
GORE VIDAL in JULIAN (Little, Brown, $6.95) attempts to do for the fourth-century Roman Empire what Robert Graves in his I, Claudius and Claudius the God did for the first century: bring the remote past alive in the intimacy and freshness of a firstperson narrative. While he does not write quite with Graves’s authority and depth, Mr. Vidal nevertheless carries off his project so well that he can stand the comparison.
The fourth century was a far more interesting chapter in Roman history than many of us, who think of it merely as a period of decadence, would have believed. Julian the Apostate came to the imperial throne in 361 A.D. determined to restore the old gods of Hellenism. He had been brought up a Christian, but through reading the philosophers and being inducted into the Eleusinian mysteries, he had been reconverted to paganism. He did not, however, persecute Christians; he preferred methods of reason and persuasion. His efforts failed, for he came too late to bring back the old faith; and with his death, after a brief twoyear reign, the old gods had passed forever.
Julian was a remarkable military commander, and Mr. Vidal’s accounts of the campaigns in Gaul and Asia Minor are exciting and vivid. His imagination in thrall to the glories of the past, Julian fancied himself, first, another Caesar, reconquering Gaul for the Empire, and then, a second Alexander, marching to the conquest of India. He did succeed in driving the Germans out of Gaul; but on the second campaign, in the Near East, he met his death at the hands of one of his own men, a disgruntled Christian.
Mr. Vidal obviously sympathizes with Julian against the Christians, and this gives his novel, when considered simply as history, the bias of Edward Gibbon. No doubt history cannot be written without some bias, but the Christian world of the fourth century was far richer in human drama and far more productive intellectually than Mr. Vidal allows. Julian would be a deeper and more interesting character if Mr. Vidal had given him more worthy antagonists.
BIG CANVAS AND SMALL
Wars are often won and lost in the political struggles that follow peace. In ARMAGEDDON (Doubleday, S6.95) LEON URIS provides a broad and moving panorama of the rebuilding of post-war Germany at the time when the Allies and the Russians first came to clash over Berlin and its routes of access.
It is easy, perhaps too easy, to belittle Mr. Uris’ gilts. His novel is not serious literature but journalism, and his documentation is at times so straightforward and unadorned that he seems almost to have lifted papers from the files of the American Military Government. His characters are flat and one-dimensional, as if already prefabricated for the Hollywood movie in which they are bound to appear. Yet despite these inadequacies, Mr. Uris turns out a gripping and compelling story. He has a keen nose for the times and places where the important business of history is being done, and he is able to evoke the atmosphere and tension of major events. Nobody can put this book down without being convinced that the post-war years in Germany, culminating in the Berlin airlift of 1948, were a great testing ground of men and ideas.
Colonel Sean O’Sullivan, a young officer in the Military Government, has lost two younger brothers in the war, and he carries from that tragedy a fierce hatred for all Germans. Yet he is as just as Aristides, and succeeds in bringing civil order and denazification to the town of Rombaden. Sean wants to go home to his own life, but at the request of his superior officer, he yields to duty and goes on to service in Berlin. (Mr. Uris wants to stress that the Berlin garrison of soldiers are sacrificing themselves as much as those in the line of battle.) Here he meets and falls in love with a German girl, Ernestine, and he is racked with conflict between this love and the burden of hatred he carries for her people. Their love is impossible, and at the end, Sean is on his way home just as the battle of the airlift has been won and the Russians have been forced to abandon the blockade. His work has been done; but he bears away with him some bitter and probing questions that he cannot yet answer.
Somewhere in the course of his story, Mr. Uris, too, has had a change of heart about the Germans, He begins with violently anti-German feelings, and he uses all of the old clichés about the essential viciousness of the Germans as a people. But as his story progresses, the Germans become our allies against the Russians, and they are seen to be individual mixtures of good and bad, like every other people. Mr. Uris, like Sean himself, seems still to be struggling to take a just but enlightened view of that very thorny question of the German character.
While Mr. Uris’ story has the proportions of a gigantic opera, THE SOUL OF KINDNESS, by ELIZABETH TAYLOH (Viking, $3.95), resembles a small piece of chamber music. Mrs. Taylor speaks with a quiet voice, which at times is almost no louder than a whisper; yet her handling of human relationships is so sure that when the climax comes, though we have hardly been aware that it has been developing, it is as explosive as a clap of thunder.
The theme of this novel is the harm that good people can do. Flora is young and beautiful, and she bestows her innocence and goodwill all about her. T he only trouble is that the recipients of her benevolence are often left writhing in irritation at her blandness. Her husband, Richard, is frustrated, feeling that he is not encountering a real human being in his wife, and he takes up for a while with another woman. Her mother is continually made to feel inadequate. All the other people in the circle of her marriage serve as minor martyrs to Flora’s goodness.
To be sure, they are rather a cantankerous and high-strung bunch — an odd mixture of middle-class and bohemian types that Mrs. Taylor has assembled out of the London suburbs. Yet, in their very mixture of good and bad, they are individuals with a depth that Flora is too good to reach.
The climax occurs when Flora’s good offices, turned upon a sensitive young man, Kit, subtly provoke him to an attempted suicide. She receives an anonymous letter telling her just what she is and just what she has done; and for a while we watch this beautiful creature disintegrate in tears and despair before her own shattered image. But her innocent assurance is too strong for despair; and at the end, as blind to herself as always, she has become the old Flora once again and is carrying on as ever.
Nowadays, when so many novelists are inclined to roar, stamp, and shout to make their points, it is a pure joy to read a novel so restrained and reticent as this. Yet there are times when we wish Mrs. Taylor might raise her voice a little and give way to a passion that the depth of her insight demands.
TRAVELERS EAST AND WEST
Despite the Soviet thaw, the gulf between Russian official attitudes and ours on many matters is still as wide as the ocean. When one of their better-known writers, VIKTOR NEKRASOV, published in 1962 an account of his travels in this country, a storm of official censure, touched off by Khrushchev himself, descended on his head. Nekrasov was accused of the sin of “bourgeois objectivism” — official jargon for the fact that he had been too impartial and friendly in his judgments of the United States. Now appearing in an English translation by Elias Kulukundis, BOTH SIDES OF TIIE OCEAN (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $4.50) is a fresh and lively travel book that will strike most Americans as expressing the author’s deep loyalty to his own country even as he tries to open himself to the experience of another people and land.
Viktor Nekrasov seems to be an altogether engaging person. He did not meet many Americans because he was here only a few weeks and was taken on one of those whirlwind tours in which the visitor is hustled around and not left to soak up any one spot. But he did walk about on his own a bit and at least got the feeling of the buildings and streets of New York City. Originally trained as an architect, Mr. Nekrasov admired some of our modern buildings and indicates quite pointedly that Russian efforts in this field have fallen far short of being revolutionary.
He even got to like some examples of modern art that he saw here, though he strikes us as a little naive on the subject. The art and literature of this century, after all, have been closed to the Russians for more than a generation, and it will be some time, if ever, before they can discriminate the good and the bad within modern art. But there is no doubt that Nekrasov’s effort to look sympathetically at some works of modern art was one of the things that got him in hot water with the officials back home.
Perhaps, however, what made most trouble for him was his plea for friendship between the two countries, in which he acknowledged the enormous contribution the United States made toward winning the Second World War. The official line under Stalin was that Russia won the war almost single-handedly, with very negligible help from the Allies. Although this may not be the emphasis today, the myth seems to persist among the Russian people, and the officials think it well not to disturb it.
The condemnation of this book reveals that Khrushchev has some very serious problems to contend with in the Russian thaw. Having; started it, he has now somehow to control it lest it develop into a widening crack between a younger and more liberal generation and the older group of Party functionaries. Beyond a certain point, the process of liberalization could even threaten the security of the Party itself. It is good to be friendly to the West, but not too friendly, as Nekrasov has learned to his own dismay.
Exactly the same question — where will destalinization end? — is, according to ISAAC DON LEVINE in I REDISCOVER RUSSIA (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, $4.95), the most momentous issue now confronting the Soviets; and he contends that the process, once started, cannot be halted.
Though he has been attacked as a Red-baiter and propagandist, Mr. Levine has been one of our more knowledgeable journalists on Russian affairs for more than forty years. Not only is he fluent in the language, but he has an intimate knowledge of Russian history and of Communist leaders since the Revolution. Many of his accusations of the Stalin regime that he made in the 1930s turned out later to be historical fact. He is, therefore, to be taken as a seasoned witness on Soviet affairs, and his verdict on the present drift of things there, which he holds to be favorable to the West, cannot be dismissed as merely wishful thinking.
In view of his past record of antiCommunism, Mr. Levine was surprised that he was able to obtain visas for a trip to Russia last year. He had no wish to make a tour, but only to obtain access to certain archives for a history of the Soviets, on which he is now at work. Most of the present book deals with his maneuvers to get around the archivists, and only incidentally reports on the conditions of the country and people as a whole.
Yet a good many of these small incidents are revealing. Mr. Levine found the image of Stalin still a troubling one. “Sure,” a cabman told him, “Stalin made big mistakes, but the people loved him just the same.” And Mr. Levine found Stalin to be a hero in his native Caucasus. Elsewhere, however, a more liberal attitude had emerged. On his last evening in Russia, Mr. Levine had dinner with a fairly highplaced Russian (unnamed) who told him that the process of destalinization had only started and that, in view of Chinese pressure, Russian ties with the West would grow stronger. The conversation left Mr. Levine with the heartening conclusion that the tide of history had now decisively shifted toward the West — a prophecy from which we may take heart, since Mr. Levine has not always been wrong in his judgments on Russian history.
The recent death of BRENDAN BEHAN, at the age of thirty-nine, was a great loss to Irish letters and to the cause of humanitarianism all over the world. For the last few years he had been ailing and his literary production had been slight. But he was a writer of such natural gifts — of humor, poetry, and pathos that one expected from him some larger and more imposing work toward which everything earlier, good as it was, seemed a preparation. Indeed, the very naturalness of his gifts made his writing seem effortless and therefore not always valued as highly as it deserved.
In THE SCARPEHER (Doubleday, $3.95) Brendan Behan’s voice from beyond the grave turns out to be as irrepressible and unpredictable as ever. That his last work was to be a murder mystery was hardly to be expected; though if it had to be a whodunit, one could foresee that he would also cut up with comic jigs and reels.
To “scarper,” in the criminal’s argot, is to escape from prison. The scarperer here is a mastermind who helps prisoners escape for devious purposes of his own, and his presence is first felt to be as invisible and potent as that of the devil himself. The story, very ingeniously plotted, begins in an atmosphere of baleful mystery; but once launched, Mr. Behan’s mirth runs away with it, and the climax is like a combination of the Keystone Cops and one of Bemelmans’ fantasies about left-bank eccentrics. It is quite like Brendan Behan to have offered as his last round for the house a light trifle, gorgeously entertaining, to carry on the road with us.