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.

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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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