Littell's Novel Transcends Genre
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Robert Littell specializes in spy novels - novels about intrigue, the CIA and the Soviet Union. In his new book Littell turns his attention to the life, death and times of a poet. The poet is Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam's work often got him into trouble with the Kremlin especially his poem, "The Stalin Epigram." Robert Littell gives his new novel the same name and Alan Cheuse has this review.
ALAN CHEUSE (Book Critic): To tell the story of Mandelstam's blind courage in the creation of a poem critical with Stalin and the subsequent fury that descended upon him, Robert Littell makes a bold technical decision. He employs a number of narrators besides the great 43-year-old poet himself. There is Mandelstam's devoted wife Nadezhda and sympathetic fellow poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak and among others a mistress who betrays him and Stalin's bodyguard. This kaleidoscopic view makes for a lot of color and heat.
We witnessed the life and times of the Stalinist era with all its fears and bravery, its show trials and executions with Stalin himself as a character in the center of things. But even with all of the colorful characters, the story drives along toward the persecuted poet's best and worst days and those powerful moments when a number of the principal narrators gather for the best and worst reasons. Stendhal once wrote that politics in a novel was like a pistol shot in an opera house. Here the explosiveness and excitement comes from poetry, poetry that changes lives if not history. This novel stands head and shoulders above most others of its kind, a book that begins as a thriller and ends as a testimony to the courage and naked vision of its odd and eccentric real life hero.
NORRIS: The book is, "The Stalin Epigram" by Robert Littell. And our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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