5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Must be his best work,
This review is from: The Stalin Epigram (Paperback)
I had liked the previous book I had read by Mr Littell,- 'The Revolutionist'. I enjoyed the mini-series 'The Company'very much and the shelf is straining under the wieght of the breeze-block novel that I subsequently bought. I would have recommended him to friends as a good thriller writer, better than most. I was surprised to hear him being described as the 'American La Carre.' To my mind this was very hubristic, I esteem Alan Furst as the best of the new espionage writers now around, and the only one who can be compared to the master. Until I read this book.
In what appears to be a thematic departure for Littell, the novel describes the naive, petulant, priapic poet - Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezdha in the crucial period shortly before the inception of Stalins Great terror, and his disastrous, Quixotic and doomed response to it. Very few novelists can paint a realistic potrait of those times and there are now scores of second-rate books passing themselves off as evocative thrillers (eg the ghastly 'Child 44' series), but Littell has written a great book. Naturally, we know where it's going to end, and some may compare Littells book unfavourably to Nadezdha Mandelstams memoirs. But Littells strength is his empathy and ability to identify with people striving to survive and sustain their dignity and hope in circumstances we can barely guess at.
Using a sequence of first-person narratives, he paints chilling pictures of the psycopathic Josef Stalin and his accolytes, also a marvelous pen-potrait of the vacillating but seemingly decent Bukharin. But to me his great triumph is how he stepped into the anguished mind of Nadezdha Mandelstam. I have read her memoirs and can see how they would have influenced him but nothing I'd read before in his previous work suggests such eloquent powers of vicarious involvement.
I have read a great many memoirs and novels around this period. Like Grossman and Solzhenitsyn, Littell was able to re-open my eyes afresh to the horrors of that time. And he chose a vainglorious, flawed bohemian poet to illuminate the quiet,enduring deceny of countless thousands of people whose every waking hour involved the supression of their own terror.
I hope that, every now and then , Littell will lay aside his latest blockbuster and pen another work like this.
Even if he doesn't, I feel that the American commentators were right and that, like Le Carre, his talent is not circumbscribed by considerations of genre.He has proven that with this marvellous book.