Books

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen

My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.

The prologue opens on Tuesday, 24 October 1917, the eve of the Revolution (not quite the impeccably organised operation it was later portrayed to be), then follows the more conventional structure, starting with Lenin’s family background and childhood, and finishing with his death and the embalmed rest inside the Red Square mausoleum. What made this biography more easily digestible than some heavier biographies I’ve read is its arrangement into relatively short and tightly focused chapters (54 in total), each covering a different aspect of Lenin’s life and the greater social and political events of the time. It’s pretty blunt in regards to Lenin’s darker aspects, among which cynicism and ruthlessness stand out the most, though it’s not out to paint him as a total monster either:

Lenin thought himself an idealist. He was not a monster, a sadist or vicious. In personal relationships he was invariably kind and behaved in the way he was brought up, like an upper-middle-class gentleman. He was not vain. He could laugh – even, occasionally, at himself. He was not cruel: unlike Stalin, Mao Zedong or Hitler he never asked about the details of his victims’ deaths, savouring the moment. To him, in any case, the deaths were theoretical, mere numbers. But during his years of feuding with other revolutionaries, and then maintaining his grip on power, he never showed generosity to a defeated opponent or performed a humanitarian act unless it was politically expedient.

Most people who met Lenin seemed to find him thoroughly unimpressive, but he was an astute leader and good at image-making. One example is Lenin’s appreciation of the fact that a rival socialist political party, Mensheviks, stuck with a name derived from a Russian word for minority, in contrast to Bolsheviks whose name suggested the majority. Hmm which one makes for the smarter brand-building I wonder?

The first chapter, devoted to Lenin’s parents, remarks that the most important relationships in Lenin’s life were with women, while close male friends were very few and inevitably lost to politics. Other than Lenin’s many political allies and enemies, the book covers his personal relationships with his wife Nadya and Inessa Armand, his mistress for many years and the most glamorous of the female revolutionaries, who his wife accepted in an unusually civil menage a trois. There are other details and trivia that flesh him out as a person, such as his deep lifelong love of nature, and strong dislike of most modern art and literature (I was amused to read that Lenin considered Mayakovsky’s poetry garbage, though the latter was at pains to glorify him).

The biography also paints the picture of the broader Russian society at the time, and outlines the causes that ultimately led first to the abolition of monarchy and then to the Bolshevik October Revolution that paved the way for the Soviet Union. They include a weak and incompetent Tsar presiding over a country in desperate need of reforms, yet unwilling to change and maintaining the grip on the autocracy, under the delusion that repression and censorship would preserve the Romanov dynasty. Lenin’s older brother Alexander, whose execution at the age of twenty-one for plotting an attack on the Tsar is cited by the author as the main reason for seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov’s own immersion in politics, was one of the many radicals eager for change. The author’s view is that Russia’s involvement in World War I was Tsar Nicholas’ most catastrophic decision which in the end cost him his throne and his life (though he’s not entirely without sympathy for the Tsar’s terrible final fate). While the pre-revolutionary period is well-covered, the civil war that erupted soon after the Bolsheviks took power is unfortunately sketched in rather thinly.

Overall, I found this a very accessible and readable account of one of the most important figures of the 20th century. While not as massively detailed as some other biographies I’ve read, it gives enough of the historical background and insight into Lenin as a person.

Quote of the day

I’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey, and unfortunately, rather than bad and hilarious it was mostly bad and dull. The one guaranteed source of chuckles in the book was Anastasia’s inner goddess, i.e. her wanton part who ignores the red flags and just wants Christian Grey, now. For some reason, her more sensible counterpoint is Anastasia’s subconscious, who constantly tut-tuts and berates Anastasia; call it nitpicking but why on earth would it be the subconscious who plays this role? Isn’t it a part of the mind a person is not fully aware of?

Anyway here are my favourite cringeworthy extracts:

His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.

I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again. I must be the colour of the Communist Manifesto.

Quickly, he clambers out of the bath, giving me my first full glimpse of the Adonis, divinely formed, that is Christian Grey. My inner goddess has stopped dancing and is staring, too, open-mouthed and drooling slightly.

My inner goddess sits in the lotus position looking serene except for the sly, self-congratulatory smile on her face.

My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.

This beautiful man wants me. My inner goddess glows so bright she could light up Portland.

Jeez, he looks so freaking hot. My subconscious is frantically fanning herself, and my inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm.

I don’t remember reading about nipple clamps in the Bible.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

I was a true Agatha Christie obsessive in my teens, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every single novel and short story she’s ever written, in Russian translation. Even now that I can see the flaws in her writing more clearly, her knack for plotting and the ability to construct an elegant puzzle of a mystery – and doing it fifty times over – is pretty phenomenal. When I’m in between books and don’t feel like digging into something brand new, I’ll often reach for an Agatha Christie detective novel for a quick and easy detour. It’s hard to pin down exactly what, among all the other crime fiction I’ve read, makes them so uniquely re-readable despite knowing the identity of the murderer. It’s part nostalgia, part the very simplicity of Christie’s writing, uncluttered and efficient and not without its own charm and wry humour. Hers is a cosy, old-fashioned world that is just nice to visit from time to time.

The ABC Murders was an exception in that I’ve only ever read it once more than twenty years ago, and subsequently forgot all about the story, thus giving me a rare chance to read a Christie novel as if for the first time. It’s one of the later Hercule Poirot mysteries, in which Poirot is retired and Captain Hastings, his old loyal friend, is losing his hair, which leads to some amusing exchanges between the two friends.

The plot kicks off with an anonymous letter addressed to Poirot, which states that a murder will take place on a certain day in the town of Andover, and challenges Poirot to do something about it. At first no one around Poirot is convinced that the letter is something more than a sick joke, until, surprise, a murder does happen, with a couple of macabre details: the victim’s name also begins with letter A, and the ABC Railway Guide is left by the body as a calling card. When a second taunting letter arrives, it looks like a crazed serial killer is working his way through the alphabet. It also appears that the novel is handing the reader the murderer on a silver platter, with the narration switching from the usual Hastings first-person perspective to a third person view in the chapters about a certain Mr Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who might as well have been named Mr Red Herring.

Unfortunately for me, I figured out the culprit long before the end, because of a Jo Nesbo crime thriller involving a serial killer I read a while ago which had exactly the same (undeniably clever) twist. Even disregarding that, I didn’t think that The ABC Murders was a top-shelf Christie, and it’s not surprising that it hadn’t left much of a trace in my memory. Granted, it’s unusual in her oeuvre in that it deals with a serial killer, but, without spoiling things too much, I didn’t think that it delivered on that novelty, while also missing the strengths of her usual “small circle of suspects” setup. The supporting cast of characters isn’t one of Christie’s most memorable, and the experiment with the point of view feels largely pointless. A detective novel needs misdirection and red herrings like bread needs flour, but a red herring that lasts an entire novel while also being so bleeding obvious is just annoying. But I also wouldn’t call the book a failure, as it’s still fairly engaging and fast-paced, and the dynamic between Poirot and Hastings is endearing as always. Fact: I still can’t bear to re-read Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, where the duo is parted forever.

The Private Patient by P.D. James

I quite enjoyed the previous P.D. James murder mystery I’ve crossed paths with, but I didn’t have as much success with this last entry featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Though seeing that it’s the 14th novel in the series, it’s not enough for me to cool down on them altogether. After all, a series this long-running is bound to produce some duds.

The scene of the crime is the fictional grand country estate called Cheverell Manor, situated a few hours out of London, in Dorset. Once the property of a distinguished family, it has been converted to a private clinic belonging to George Chandler-Powell, renowned plastic surgeon. The victim is one his patients, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn who visits the clinic to remove a disfiguring facial scar. She comes to the manor twice, once on a preliminary visit to get acquainted with the place, and again later for her big day, which ends with her death. In between, the novel implies, she just can’t help her journalistic instincts and digs up some dirt on one of the manor employees. Or maybe it’s a red herring and the murder was about something else entirely. It’s up to Adam Dalgliesh and his team to find out.

This is a classic murder-in-isolated-setting setup, and it was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, but only just. The most disappointing aspect of the whodunnit itself is that it’s resolved not so much through the efforts of investigation, but with the culprit handing themselves in via a bizarrely melodramatic turn of events. The most disappointing feature of the novel is the dreadful amount of padding which grinds the pace to a screeching halt. I am not necessarily against the descriptive passages, and I appreciate the attempts to flesh out the characters and treat them all with empathy, no matter how minor. But good lord do I really need to know the exact configuration of a character’s living room, with a full list of furniture and where everything is placed? Then there are detailed descriptions of people’s appearances, meals and car trips from Dorset to London which could be edited out with no loss to the story whatsoever. The book also detours into the personal life of Dalgliesh, which I’d probably be more interested in if I had more attachment to his character. To be fair, it would perhaps be wiser to read some more of the earlier books before diving into the last one.

Along the way, there are some insightful thoughts on class and the changing British society, a few well-written characters and atmospheric settings (spiced up with a ghoulish story of a burnt witch). So it wasn’t a total waste of time, but there was no reason for this book to be almost 400 pages long and it could have done with some ruthless snipping.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The finale to Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels chronicling the lives and complicated friendship between Elena and Lila didn’t disappoint and it’s hard to think of a series equally as rewarding and consistently fantastic. It’s impossible to convey, in a review, what makes Ferrante’s writing so extraordinary. On the surface, if you tried to describe the story, it sounds just like any domestic drama – lives of two women as they mature from girlhood into adulthood, going through various highs and lows, grappling with motherhood, making ends meet, becoming successful, growing old. But their experiences and everyday lives are just so incredibly well-drawn, with such degree of richness, texture and psychological insight, in prose that’s so crystal and powerful.

Because I left a bigger gap between reading this book and the rest, I actually forgot the premise of the first novel, where, in the present day, Elena decides to write the story of her 60-year-old friendship with Lila after Lila herself disappears without a trace. And there’s a sense of the story coming full circle, in a few respects. After years of trying to escape her old neighbourhood in Naples, in this novel Elena comes back to the city with her two young daughters after the break-up of her marriage, and eventually moves into an apartment directly above Lila’s. Her writing career is thriving, while Lila and her partner Enzo have a successful business and Lila becomes entangled in the murky underworld politics of the neighbourhood. The two friends become pregnant at the same time, and Elena observes the traits and dynamics in the relationship between their daughters that strangely resemble her own and Lila’s (Lila’s daughter is bright and precocious, while Elena’s Imma is more ordinary and submissive). Other long-running story strands, like Elena’s obsession with Nino, her love since childhood, thankfully come to an end (Nino has become one of my least favourite fictional characters and it’s a relief when Elena finally gets over him).

While Elena is a character who breaks with the traditions that bind the women of her time, becoming an academic and a writer, getting involved in feminism, leaving behind Naples and her family in both geographical and emotional sense, the story of her rebellion is still a fairly conventional one. Lila however defies any easy categorisation and, in the end, remains one of the great literary enigmas. After reading the first novel, I felt that Lila’s opaqueness made her a somewhat unsatisfying character, but after finishing the series it’s clear that mystery is at the core of her character, and that Elena puts their story in writing partly in order to figure out her friend who has shadowed her life for decades and never really left despite the long stretches of separation.

In this book, Lila remains the same fascinating figure, the “terrible, dazzling girl”: cruel yet kind, manipulative yet honest, charismatic, capricious, submissive to no one, a constant source of feelings of inferiority in Elena despite the success she’s achieved. Her presence in Elena’s life is both toxic and indispensable. At the same time, Elena comes to realise that Lila lacks the solid centre she herself possesses, particularly when her friend, in a rare unguarded moment, talks about the terrifying episodes of dissociation she describes as “dissolving boundaries”. One of the things Ferrante captures really well is the way any strong emotion in her characters has an underbelly and nothing can be described as simply love, hate, happiness, envy etc. My own feelings about the two main characters are similarly divided: while Lila is a much more compelling character, Elena with her frank admissions and insecurities is easier to identify with.

Some of the descriptions can get old over the course of the series – how many times can Lila narrow her eyes, already? But in the end, I don’t think I’ve ever read an account of a complicated female friendship so intricately and intimately portrayed.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Another novel I’ve read for our book club at work, this time a follow-up to Hannah Kent’s best-selling debut, Burial Rites, which I didn’t love anywhere as much as others did and found rather over-praised. Maybe it was the lowered expectations, but I ended up enjoying this one much better. Kent seems to have a penchant for the grim northern settings and harsh landscapes; Burial Rites was set in an isolated Icelandic community and this book moves the action just a bit further south, to a remote valley in the 1820s Ireland. The subject matter however is entirely different: The Good People concerns itself with the Irish folklore and superstitions, particularly the fairies, or the Good People, who according to the traditional beliefs belong to neither God nor Devil but exist on their own, mischievous and unpredictable terms.

The novel opens with a sudden and inexplicable death of Martin Leahy, a husband to Nóra Leahy, who receives this blow soon after the death of her only daughter. The immediate aftermath then introduces the rest of the characters, Nóra’s family and neighbours, a chief standout among them being Nance, a local wise woman who arrives at the wake to offer her keening (lamenting) services. Nance occupies a shaky ground in the community where she’s both a social outcast and yet is sought out for her knowledge of herbs, midwifery and the ways of the fairies. A new local priest however is not willing to be as tolerant about these pagan matters as the old one and could spell out trouble for Nance.

Nóra is also burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál, once healthy boy who can no longer talk, walk or put on weight, and wails relentlessly through the night. Neither the priest nor the doctor can offer any help or remedies, and though Nóra hires a teenage girl, Mary, to help her with the child, taking care of Micheál is an ordeal and an emotional drain. So it’s with some sense of relief that Nóra accepts Nance’s diagnosis that Micheál is a changeling, a false fairy child swapped with the real healthy Micheál by the Good People.

To be honest, I thought that the main narrative of the novel – Nóra and Nance’s quest to recover the boy from the grasp of the fairies – felt too stretched out and maybe didn’t warrant an almost 400-page novel. Where this impeccably researched book really excels though is in immersing the reader into its claustrophobic setting, and vividly evoking the life in a poor 19-century Irish village. The freezing dirt floors, the diet of potatoes and poitín, the smells and textures, the tactile quality of life far removed from our modern world, the evocative language peppered with the Irish vernacular, all weave together to transport the reader. In Nóra’s world, there are no coincidences or meaningless incidents, if something bad happens to an individual or a village, someone is to blame – either for deliberate malice or failure to follow a ritual.

As for the fairies, I wasn’t sure until the end what sort of book I was reading – is this a strictly historical novel about the way desperate, powerless people cling to the superstition in order to deal with the misery of their lives? Or was there going to be a genuine supernatural element after all? I’ve been caught out too many times with gotcha! endings, so I wasn’t certain. Without going into specifics, the ending of the book did provide me with a certain jolt.