My Review of We the Living

“The year 1923, like any other, had a spring.”

“If they ask you, in America”, he said, “tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery, and that we are all dying slowly”. – “I’ll tell them”, she promised.

These lines may sound like a quotation from a work of fiction, but are in actuality a piece of real-life dialog which has been preserved for eternity. The dialog took place in Leningrad in the fall of 1925, at a farewell party for a young girl about to escape permanently – on a six-month visa – from Soviet Russia.

The girl kept her promise. She wrote a book about it.

The name of this girl was Ayn Rand.[1] Eleven years before, she had made a firm decision that she was going to be a writer. Eleven years later. in 1936, her first novel, We the Living, was published by the Macmillan Company.

The novel was unfavorably received by the book reviewers, who did not like to hear their workers’ paradise described as a cemetery. It did not really reach the broad public until many years later, after its author had achieved world fame.

Yet We the Living ranks among the great novels of world literature. And possibly, one day, when the Communist state has withered away (as it is bound to do, one way or the other) a small plaque will be put up on the house of Ayn Rand’s birth in Leningrad [now again St. Petersburg] to celebrate the memory of this book and this writer.

I have a special reason, apart for my admiration of Ayn Rand, to select this particular novel for reviewing: it has recently been translated into Swedish.[2] It is the first of Ayn Rand’s books to appear in Swedish, and this is an opportunity to make a literary acquaintance which I want only my worst enemies to miss. Therefore I hope that this review, at least in a small way, will prove itself worthy of the book.

$ $ $

We the Living is a novel set in Soviet Russia in the early twenties. The Civil war against the Whites has just ended; Russia is entering the period of the “New Economic Policy”, Lenin’s great compromise, which gave free enterprise a small, precarious leeway. Lenin’s strokes and eventual death form part of the background; closer to the foreground we see party purges, the activities of the GPU (the secret police) and the still unobtrusive beginnings of the Gulag Archipelago.

But it is not on the tangible horrors of labor camps, torture chambers or firing squads that Ayn Rand concentrates; it is on the incredible squalor and dreariness of everyday life under a dictatorship: the hours-long waiting lines to get a loaf of bread or a piece of soap, the leisure hours drained away in “voluntary” social activities, the incessant plotting and power struggle in the lower party ranks, the corruption flourishing under the “NEP” system.

The book has an explicitly stated theme:

The individual against the state; the supreme value of a human life and the evil of the totalitarian state that claims the right to sacrifice it.

The author wants to show in what way the various characters in the book are all destroyed by the system; how the totalitarian society destroys, not only its opponents, but the best of its own adherents (while, parenthetically, preserving the worst elements). In this book every virtuous character meets a tragic end: the young couple sent to Siberia, to camps thousands of miles apart, with the sight of the moon as their only bond; the old revolutionary who sees the revolution betrayed, and who blasts a corrupt business scheme as his last act before dying; the aristocrat who escapes the firing squad only to be killed spiritually; the idealistic young Communist whose world crumbles when he discovers the actual nature of the ideology he has fought for and bled for; the heroine of the book who fights in vain for the man she loves, and who never escapes the cemetery to tell the world about it.

This is not a joyous book, and in Ayn Rand’s production it stands out as the only novel which does not have a triumphant ending; it is as though the theme and the setting forbid triumph. But another hallmark of an Ayn Rand novel is very much present: the sense of drama, the ability to carry the reader away with sheer suspension, the ability to take an abstract philosophical theme and turn it into a cliff-hanger which would make any writer of popular thrillers green with envy. (I think it is apropos here to mention that her own favorite among fiction writers was Victor Hugo.)

Nor does this book lack poetry: a wistful poetry, born out of the characters’ refusal to submit and forbid themselves to live. There is one short and simple line at the end of one of the early chapters which, to me, sums this up eloquently:

The year 1923, like any other, had a spring.

This may sound trivial, even sentimental – but I hope that if you read this line in the context of the whole book, you will find, as I do, that this is one of the most beautiful – and one of the saddest – lines in world literature.


I wrote this as part of a university course in “Creative writing” that I took in the late 70s. – In the seminar, I was asked whether the book did not give a very black-and-white view of Communism. I answered: “I think one should take a black-and-white view of Communism.” The whole class burst out laughing.


 

[1]) Yes, I know. Her name at that time was still Alissa Rosenbaum.

[2]) Not by me, though.

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The Robbery

This is a piece I wrote for a course in English in the late 70s. Just for fun, but you may try to figure out the allusions I make.

Once upon a time there was a dragon whose social security number was 500313-6663. He was born on the 13th of March 1450 B.C., the very same day that the Lord smote all first-born in Egypt, and the “3” had recently been added to indicate he was a male dragon. As is dragons’ wont, he hoarded gold. The gold was intended as a dowry for his daughter, a witch who had lived for many a year in the Caucasus, but had now reputedly been deported to some far-off place in Siberia. Quite by accident, the witch was still unmarried. Following the great example of the Queen of Ithaca, she possessed a bow, and the promise was that any suitor who could hit the Czar in Moscow with an arrow would be entitled to share her bread and bed. But the only suitor who was capable of doing this, one Ulysses H. Grant-You-That, happened to arrive in March 1917, just after the last Czar was dethroned. They are still debating whether the Secretary General of the Communist Party will do as well. Anyway.

Since time immemorial, or at least since the introduction of the Income Tax Amendment, our dragon had been hiding out in the Rocky Mountains, depositing his hoard of gold in the deepest cave he could find, well shielded from the searching eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. But then, on the 31st of December 1974, gold was again declared free and legal to be owned by any American citizen. And so it came about that in the spring of 1975 our dragon moved out into the wide plains of Colorado to bask in the sun and enjoy the glittering reflections of his trinkets of gold, large and small, sometimes drowsing off to dream of his daughter and the terrible fate of her failed suitors, to be awakened in the late afternoon by two ravens, carrying news of today’s gold price from the markets in London and Zürich, respectively.

Now, let’s get somewhere. We haven’t yet come close to the actual robbery. First of all, we have to introduce the robbers.

There were only two of them, and at this moment they were gathered in a small abandoned shed in the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. It was late at night, and the shed was frugally illuminated by a kerosene lamp, standing on a table, which was littered with empty beer cans. The walls were decorated with pin-up girls, their sexiness tempered by full scale posters of Bruce Lee, Bobby Orr and Muhammed Ali and a funny drawing of a famous used-cars salesman.

The two men around the table, thoughtfully sipping their beer, were known by the names of Bright Eye and Bushy Tail, their given names long lost in the fog of a slum childhood, long since torn apart by the sun shining through the bars of reform schools and penitentiaries, the remainder washed down in the showers of Fort Leavenworth. Bright Eye had only one eye, the other one having been lost in a fist-fight with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas; but then the brightness of his one eye had doubled. Bushy Tail had acquired his nickname firstly from his eyebrows, enormous enough to hide anything his eyes might express, and secondly from his devoted following of Bright Eye. Before they met, he had been a personal bodyguard of Meyer Lansky, but was fired for growing a beard and taking to smoking cigars. Bushy Tail, however, was too dumb to understand why this aroused ill-temper I Lansky, and to this day hasn’t figured it out.

The upshot of their plotting will be shown in the next chapter.

Chapter Two

The sun poured incessantly and mercilessly down on the Colorado plain. Far in the background, one could discern the jagged line of the Rocky Mountains. Clouds of dust could be seen at the horizon, indicating cars making their way toward Denver or away from that illustrious burgh. The dragon was sleeping un untroubled sleep with one eye, keeping a vigilant watch with the other.

Suddenly one dust-cloud was coming in his direction. Soon the cloud was materializing into a jeep, and presently its wheels were screeching to a stop by the left ear of the dragon, who groaned and tried to think of tinkling cymbals. Two men, whose identities you will have guessed, stepped out.

“Hi, Smoggy,” called out Bright Eye. “We wanna have a word with ya.”

“Whaddya mean, have a word whimme,” retorted Smoggy. “In case it’s a four letter word, as I have reason to believe, lemme point out it can’t be shared between the three of us.”

“What’s that gibberish he’s talking?” said Bushy Tail, but Bright Eye hushed him down with a kick on his shin bone. “We’ve heard”, he continued, “that you’re a master at guessing riddles.”

“What of it?” said Smoggy. “In case you’re from the IRS, as I have reason to fear, I can give you one right away. Why isn’t the head of a dead cat tax-deductible?”

Bright Eye knew the answer to this, having once shared cell with a Zen Buddhist. And now the riddle game began in earnest. “What animal is busy convincing everyone he is really an ass, too?” (Answer: the elephant.) “What famous economist is only one ‘s’ removed from sanity?” (Answer: Paul A. Samuelson.) “What university is in the eye of God?” (Answer: Berkeley.) “What’s the crime for which there is no bail outside the Church?” (Answer: being born.) “How many answers can blow in the same wind without getting blurred?” (Answer: any number, as long as they don’t contradict one another.) “How did Cartesius actually die?” (Answer: he stopped thinking.) “Who’s got better esthetic judgment than Edmund Wilson?” (Answer: an illiterate high-school student.) “What’s the greatest conquest in the history of Soviet Russia?” (Answer: Robert.) “What’s the offspring of a Black Angel and a White Devil?” (Answer: gray labor.) “Do dragons possess free will?” (Answer: not if they don’t want to.)

How the actual robbery took place is so obvious that I will not tire the reader with any lengthy description thereof. Anyone who knows his Tolkien will have guessed what the last riddle was: “What is it that Bushy Tail has just carried away before he jumped into the back seat of our jeep?”, and that the jeep was far off before the dragon had figured it out and collected his fire into that all-consuming blast.

Suffice it to mention that the trinket stolen was a golden ring, set with a sparkling diamond, which had once belonged to the Queen of Sheba; that powerful curses were laid upon it, so that Bright Eye’s one eye grew dimmer and dimmer, and Bushy Tail grew moodier and moodier and took to reading Ecclesiastes; and that the ring was ultimately found in an ash-can by Grandma Grant-You-That and swiftly dispatched to Ulysses H., so that it has now taken its rightful place on the witch’s finger. Czardom is yet to be reintroduced in Russia, and the couple is still living in sin.

The dragon, after cooling off, tried to sue the IRS, but lost his case through contempt of court: he accused the counsel for the defense of being a blood brother of John Maynard Keynes and thus unable to estimate the true value of gold; of being a former boy scout and therefore prejudiced against dragons; of being a creature of the welfare state and thus incompetent of justice; of being a cross-breed between Charles Darwin and Madame Blavatsky and thus unfit for survival.

The author of this faithful chronicle, finally, was charged by his critics with the following: turning the mystery story into a vehicle for philosophical ideas; smuggling reactionary political concepts into the narrative; showing disregard for the established literary traditions of Naturalism; not giving due credit to the works of Samuel Becket; rejecting evolutionism and embracing catastrophism; and inventing his own robbers rather than being content with the robbers next door.

Perusing the stack of reviews on his table, he laughed heartily and said to himself: “If this be reactionary, make the most of it!”

Per-Olof Samuelsson
(note the spelling!)