Lenin in Public, Lenin in Private


The Revolutionist, by Robert Littell, New York: Bantam Books, 464 pages, $18.95

Lenin: A Novel, by Alan Brien, New York: William Morrow, 735 pages, $22.95

Forty years from now the most enduring achievement of this decade will probably be the slow recession of the Soviet empire. For Marxism-Leninism is a faith whose true believers have been reduced to aging faculty members and (perhaps) Fidel Castro; Mikhail Gorbachev appears to be the first Soviet dictator to have no need for an ideologist.

It is thus fitting that, in the Soviet Union's sunset, two novels explore that nation's glory days—the days of 1917, when revolution was in the air and the Russian people had not yet been deadened by bureaucracy and hardened by totalitarianism. For the Westerner, looking at a nation where 70 years of socialism has resulted in a Third World economy in which vodka constitutes 15 percent of the gross national product, one question is paramount: How could anyone have believed that communism was the answer to Russia's problems?

The two novelists reconstruct the birth of the Soviet Union using substantially different approaches. Robert Littell, a former Newsweek writer well known for his spy novels, tells the story of Alexander (Zander) Til, who emerges from the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 with enough revolutionary fervor to propel him through the Soviet Union's first 35 years. Alan Brien, a British journalist, prefers a more audacious approach. He tells Lenin's story in the first person, through a supposedly repressed secret diary. (I wonder if Brien came up with the idea for the book after the "Hitler diary" hoax a few years back.)

Although Littell is a more practiced novelist, The Revolutionist is the lesser of these two books. We see the central figures of the Soviet Union in Littell's novel only obliquely. Lenin, for example, we glimpse mostly from the edge of the crowd. Much of the book describes Zander Til's adventures; through a series of fortunate coincidences popular in this type of fiction, he manages to be in two different cities at key historical moments: Petersburg during the October Revolution and Ekaterinburg when Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered.

Through Til's eyes, both events become, not decisive steps in the inevitable march toward socialism, but random pieces of chaos. The October Revolution is portrayed as an excuse for a drunken rout, while Nicholas's murder is committed by a harried provincial leader eager to prevent the tsar's capture by revolutionary forces.

We learn little from Littell about the events he portrays, and much of the "information" he does convey is inaccurate. For example, he believes Lenin suffered from an advanced case of syphilis. As a result, Littell portrays a Lenin who was frenzied when patience was required (October 1917) and slothful when a decisive act could have gained him power with little risk (as in July 1917, when an attempt at revolution proved abortive largely because of his inactivity). However, there is scanty evidence for such a theory, and it seems doubtful that a disease-wracked Lenin could have had the stamina to work 16-hour days for nearly 30 years.

One could forgive Littell for his lack of fresh insights if his characters were memorable. But they are not. The most interesting character in a novel brimming with sex and violence is a 90-year-old addicted to his ear trumpet. Littell's novel falls short for education and for pleasure.

Brien's work is more serious—and more innovative. For a novelist to begin his career telling a dictator's story in the first person is a dangerous move. Posing as a political true believer in an unideological age is bold enough, but trying to adopt the customs and habits of a culture and language not one's own takes even more daring. I fully expected Brien's effort to fail.

Lenin: A Novel does have its problems. The first hundred pages, portraying Lenin's life through age 21, are dull. Like most teenagers, Lenin has little to say and says what he does in a pompous, overbearing voice. The last 150 pages, after the October Revolution, are also lesser work. Like most politicians, Lenin is much more interesting (and tolerable) when out of power.

It takes some time to adjust to the rules and leisurely pace of this novel: we see Lenin's character unfold through a series of static tableaux, more like a series of snapshots rather than a smoothly running film. While this method restricts the effects Brien can produce, his rules do bring Lenin's image into sharp focus. Whereas Littell shows us a view of Lenin from the street or the auditorium's back row, Brien lets us enter Lenin's mind.

Brien's method, unconventional in form, conventional in pace, proves effective. His Lenin is a believable portrayal, conveying the man's strengths and weaknesses well.

What I found most pleasing about Brien's portrait is that it shows a sardonic Lenin. I had pictured a humorless hair-splitter, striving to separate himself from his colleagues over trivial points of political correctness. Much of that Lenin is here, endlessly involved with the picayune struggles among Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and socialist revolutionaries. Like the disputes between the socialists and the socialist labor parties in the movie Reds, these endless minor quarrels are only of interest to the participants.

It is the nonpolitical Lenin that I found most fascinating. I can see Lenin, in that happier alternate universe where he never strived to be a tyrant, as a perpetually contentious professor, perhaps, or an economics columnist, the tum-of-the-century counterpart of The New Republic's Robert Kuttner. Here, for example, is Lenin in exile in 1910 Paris: "Paris is a cruise liner. You meet the same people all the time. When it isn't French intellectuals making brilliant remarks that turn banal in translation, like seaweed out of the water, it is Russian exiles abusing each other in terms that sound as if they came from a special language designed for insults, Desperanto perhaps."

Lenin as press critic, Lenin as literary critic (loving such cerebral detectives as Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin), Lenin as travel writer—these are all strangely attractive facets of his personality. It is only Lenin the politician that appalls.

What can we conclude from these novels? The wrong conclusion is aspiring to be Lenin. Lenin's fatal flaw was an excess of self-confidence; no one should be so sure of his political views that he damns others as heretics and infidels. Politics is part of life, but it is far from being all of life.

Apart from what we might already know about Lenin the public figure, Brien also gives us a look at Lenin the private man. This portrayal of Lenin's life provides an instructive example of how not to live. For the Lenin of Brien's novel is never truly happy. Despite victory after victory, the Holy Grail of a perfect communist world always seems just out of reach. Lenin's life provides further evidence that a life purely devoted to politics is never satisfying.

The French novelist Stendahl once said that politics in a novel is like a pistol-shot in a concert. In most cases that is true. Novels, at their best, should capture something higher and grander than the mundane world of a congressional committee or the White House. But Lenin shows that politics, like any other profession, can provide the raw material for true art.

Lenin is a crabbed epic, but an epic nonetheless. Although the book has only one character, Brien carries the reader through 25 years of turbulent history in an entertaining and totally convincing manner in a work that shows that the traditional novel has not yet become extinct.

Martin Morse Wooster is an associate editor of The Wilson Quarterly.