Jovial guide to Stalinism
By Christopher Wilson Faber & Faber, £12.99
Political satire has been all the rage in bookshops ever since the unexpected events of last November. Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, which describes the election of a fearmongering demagogue to the US presidency, has become a bestseller while Howard Jacobson’s Pussy was apparently written in a flurry of outrage around the same time as Hillary Clinton was rocking back and forth in her hotel suite, arms wrapped around her knees, whispering “no… no…” to anyone who would listen.
Now Christopher Wilson has entered the fray, not with a satire on the Donald but on America’s traditional enemy, Russia, setting a novel during the closing months of Josef Stalin’s life, when he suffered a series of strokes that left both him and the 15 Soviet Republics over which he ruled in a traumatised state.
The Zoo is narrated by 12- year- old Yuri Zipit, the son of an elephantologist at the Kapital Zoo, who unexpectedly finds himself installed as Stalin’s official food taster. It’s not a job with a great future, his employer concedes. “I had a food taster before, and one before that, and one before that. But none of them stuck to the task. They were all allergic to toxins. Each in his different way. One was sensitive to strychnine. And another was allergic to cyanide.”
At first, Yuri – who was struck by a milk truck when he was six leaving him with some problems in the “thinking departments” – believes that the old man lying in the bed simply looks like the Great Leader but when he realises the truth he’s blasé about the whole thing. In fact, he’s more concerned about the well-being of his father who has gone missing and communicates with him solely through the occasional cheerful letter that, quite clearly, has not been written by him at all.
The success of a novel like this depends largely on the voice of its narrator and Yuri is a jovial guide through the dying days of Stalinism. By nature of his duties he becomes “a light smoker and a heavyish drinker”, and while his conversations with the general secretary are often amusing, a more menacing aspect lies beneath their surface.
Stalin is appalled by Yuri’s happy childhood. “Did your father and mother not beat you?” he asks. “Viciously? Without reason? Like proper parents? Does your mother not hit you hard, for nothing, mornings and evenings with a wooden spoon, or a broomstick?” No, replies Yuri, for his is a house of kindness in a country filled with dread. However, the realities of Soviet life are brought to the fore when Yuri points out his mother couldn’t have beaten him anyway, for she’s been exiled to a work camp.
The sinister elements to The Zoo sit comfortably alongside the comedy. Hovering around Stalin’s sick room waiting for him to die, the generals are filled with anxiety about who might succeed him while outside the walls the Russian people are terrified of expressing opinions on anything in case they’re reported as anti-party and dragged off to a Gulag prison camp. Despite Stalin’s own assertion that gaiety was the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union, the novel seems clouded in darkness and trepidation with only the simple-minded Yuri, our reliably unreliable narrator, bringing a sense of optimism to the story.
If there are flaws to The Zoo it’s that it quickly becomes repetitive. Very little happens and once the initial conceit has been played for most of its laughs it lingers in a state of paralysis, much like Stalin himself, uncertain how to draw drama from the relationship between a developmentally challenged child and a dying dictator. Perhaps Wilson realises this, for the novel is short and does not outstay its welcome. At times though, one longs for it to have begun a few years earlier, while Stalin was still in good health, so the action could have been broadened out from its claustrophobic setting to a portrait of a living revolutionary instead of a dying animal.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has cited Ernest Hemingway and Jack London as two of his favourite writers, manly novelists who embraced the outdoor life. This is very much an indoor life novel, full of small, dark rooms where voices are held just above a whisper for fear of incrimination, so Putin may not enjoy it but as a satire on the slipping away of all-encompassing power, it makes for an entertaining, if unremarkable, read.
John Boyne’s latest novel is The Heart’s Invisible Furies ( Doubleday)
In our boom and bust era, the personal trajectory of a writer like Scott Fitzgerald is readily understood. Fitzgerald’s great success, both financial and artistic, at a very early age, coincided with the major shift in American social history that occurred in the wake of the Great War. The 1920s was a decade when it seemed all of America partied, and then toppled in 1929 into the maw of the Great Depression.
Fitzgerald had published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23 and followed it only five years later with The Great Gatsby. He was a regular contributor to the popular Saturday Evening Post and becoming a household name. Soon he was to become the explicator of that massive generational shift, the new zeitgeist, to both the older generation and to many of the equally baffled young. All this would suggest that Fitzgerald was an embodiment of the characteristics of the new age, both societal and personal.
David S Brown’s biography of the author argues strongly that Fitzgerald was temperamentally far from the Jazz Age poster boy he was seen to be, but rather a nostalgic believer in a much earlier code of honour, diligence and moderation characteristic of the antebellum south that lingered into the first decade of the 20th century.
Brown, a historian, has produced a biography about a writer who, since his death in 1940, has occasioned multiple biographies and thousands of critical works which make much use of biographical information. And that list does not include the crowded terrain of works on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, nor on their set, their era and the world of expat artists in Paris in which the Fitzgeralds usually figure prominently.
Paradise Lost places considerable importance on Fitzgerald’s mixed heritage. There is the Maryland landed gentry family that was his father’s ( a photo shows the young Scott’s membership card in The Children of the American Revolution – as close as America gets to Debrett’s). His mother, Mollie McQuillan, of Co Fermanagh stock, brought the hard-earned cash of a grocery fortune to the marriage, and a rather outré personality which embarrassed her pampered son throughout his life. Fitzgerald’s genealogy has echoes that will be familiar to Irish readers. He shared with Joyce a degraded paternal lineage, resulting in the lost birthright of the author- sons with resultant chips on the shoulder and a tendency to dissolute living.
Fitzgerald was far more ambivalent about Catholicism than Joyce, and Brown’s exploration of the phenomenon of American crossover Catholicism gives insight into his fiction. Fitzgerald’s parents chose a Catholic east-coast prep school that specifically avoided grooming boys for elite Catholic universities like Boston College and Georgetown, in favour of local Ivy League colleges like Penn and Princeton, the latter being Scott’s eventual choice.
Brown has a tendency to repeat his underpinning theses – such as Fitzgerald’s identification with the old Confederacy, his insecurity about his size and lack of physical
This new biography manages to get past the trappings of Fitzgerald’s boozy Flapper Era persona and to credit his talent for taking the pulse of the America in which he lived
prowess, and his propensity for hero-worship well into adulthood. The author also manages his own narrative awkwardly at times, having to double-back to identify people or events on a second appearance within his pages. There are also strange omissions. There is no reference to Margaret Mitchell’s enviable Pulitzer success with her novel Gone with the Wind, although Fitzgerald was one of many script doctors on David O Selznick’s Oscar-winning film that followed. In Mitchell’s brave and gentlemanly Ashley Wilkes, Fitzgerald would likely have seen near-perfect male attributes. Brown is also given to constructing neologisms such as “civilizational” and “mixed mindedness”.
Paradise Lost accomplishes much in its aim to contextualise Fitzgerald within both American historical and literary historical parameters. This new biography manages to get past the trappings of Fitzgerald’s boozy Flapper Era persona and to credit his talent for taking the pulse of the America in which he lived.
In one of Fitzgerald’s finest stories, The Rich Boy, a wealthy ageing bachelor wanders Manhattan’s deserted summer streets recalling past social seasons and venues, and allegorical The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, with its sinister Braddock Washington, whose Trumpian domain is where American rule of law ends.
The IOU, from 1920, is a satire on commercial publishing just as relevant in its cynicism today as it would have been nearly a century ago, and all the more noteworthy as a trenchant example of a writer wilfully biting the hand that was feeding him. Written more than a decade later, Nightmare (Fantasy in Black), set in a mental hospital (of which by then the Fitzgeralds had had much first-hand experience) was withheld from publication in part because editors of various magazines believed the world in 1932 was bleak enough. Travel Together, from 1935, highlights several images and recurrent thematic preoccupations familiar to Fitzgerald readers – beckoning green lights indicative of hope, multiple watchful eyes and a fascination with modes of transport. A tale that holds together well, it too was never printed because the author wanted to polish it more before letting it go.
The title story of the volume dates from the same period. It is a suicide story, and is set in the resort town of Asheville, North Carolina, where Fitzgerald had been sent for a rest cure, and where he had tried to take his own life. The story is populated by Hollywood types he would have known well by then, although the language is often redolent of The Great Gatsby and its world.
Each of these short works is prefaced by a detailed headnote, placing it within the context of Fitzgerald’s life and career. Not all the selections included are fully realised stories; there are a couple of important fragments and three are film-script scenarios. Reproductions of typescript pages show the author’s handwritten notes. I’d Die for You is a specialist’s volume with a good deal of textual apparatus, but readers interested in the process by which writers evolve will pore over these pages. Fitzgerald fans will be glad there is something more for them to discover about a writer who may have died before he reached his full potential.
Christina Hunt Mahony is a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin who writes about contemporary Irish literature
F Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and daughter Frances in Paris. PHOTOGRAPH: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin with his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva. PHOTOGRAPH: AP/COURTESY ICARUS FILMS