The Commissar’s Wife

Reseña de libro
Commentary, (septiembre 1984) 
Anita Susan Grossman

The Exile: A Life of Ivy Litvinov.
by John Carswell. Faber & Faber, London 1984

Ivy Low Litvinov (1889-1977) has long deserved to be the subject of a book, as much for her life as for her writing. The first-born daughter of the scholar and educator Walter Low and the novelist Alice Herbert, she was the author of two novels—one mildly scandalous—and a friend of D.H. Lawrence when in 1916 she chose to marry an obscure Bolshevik conspirator in exile in London. Her life as the wife of the Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov occupied her for the next several decades, and during those years she produced few original publications: in Russian, a handful of stories; in English, a detective novel set in Moscow in the 1920’s, part of a political pamphlet, and occasional short pieces that found their way into publications like the Manchester Guardian and Harper’s Bazaar. (She also translated into English her husband’s speeches and party tracts and later such Russian classics as Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.) Only in old age and long after the death of her husband did she produce a volume of short stories on English and Russian life; its title, She Knew She Was Right (1971), echoes her favorite, Trollope. The following year she returned from the Soviet Union to England, to be joined in time by her daughter Tanya and grandson Pavel.

Her final years were spent adding to a disorderly pile of unpublished manuscripts, but never producing the volume of memoirs about high life in the Kremlin that was expected of her. In fact, she always remained something of an outsider, and her fifty-year sojourn in the Soviet Union owed more to personal loyalty to her husband, and later her children, than to sympathy with Communist ideology per se.

From the beginning her heritage had been out of the ordinary. Her paternal grandfather, a Hungarian Jew, had emigrated to England, made and lost a fortune, and sired a family of eleven children who were raised in the Anglican faith. Of the three who grew up to be journalists, two of them, Sidney and Maurice, were later knighted for their service to the empire; another daughter, Dr. Barbara Low, helped introduce Freud’s work to England.

Ivy’s father Walter, the fourth son, had to work his way through the university; he became a translator of Norwegian literature and a tireless writer on language, literature, and history, in addition to producing the Educational Times with his friend H.G. Wells. His death at thirty, when Ivy was five she always regarded as one of the greatest catastrophes of her life. (Her mother Alice soon remarried, this time to a British Museum authority on illuminated manuscripts, a man whom Ivy came to despise as a conventional mediocrity.) Yet another Low aunt, Edith, had married Dr. David Eder, a well-known Zionist and social reformer. It was through this contact that the grownup Ivy was to meet her future husband, Maxim Litvinov.

That the match was unlikely no one knew better than Ivy herself. Litvinov, born Meyer Genokh Wallakh to Orthodox Jewish parents, had long been a committed revolutionary, escaping from a czarist jail in 1902 to follow Lenin to England. By the time of their marriage he was a plump, businesslike forty-year-old, of regular habits, with all his energies directed toward his political activities, whereas Ivy had a passion for literature, a youthful enthusiasm for unconventional behavior, and, apart from a general sympathy with socialist causes, little direct experience with Bolshevism. Another difficulty apparent from the beginning was a certain sexual incompatibility between them which only deepened through the years, so that the physical part of their marriage was over by 1928 and both, to some extent, went their separate ways. Eleven years after her marriage we find Ivy writing to a confidante of an adventure with a doctor in Berlin which had left her “sort of happy. Had something I never had before. Beginning with an ‘o.’” Of Ivy’s numerous affairs (which in later life were exclusively with women), some appear to have led to more serious relationships, although her biographer is unclear on this point. What is certain is that during her frequent trips abroad she behaved with far less discretion than might have been expected from the wife of Stalin’s foreign commissar.

Maxim, too, sought solace elsewhere, including a romantic involvement with the stepdaughter the Litvinovs had adopted some years before, a girl the same age as their daughter Tanya. It was partly as a result of their estrangement that Ivy found work in Sverdlovsk, hundreds of miles from her family, teaching Basic English at a teacher-training college. The break was never complete, however, and she was reunited with her husband when he fell into disgrace in 1939 with the signing of the nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany and the discarding of the policy of “collective security” he had represented throughout the 30’s. Litvinov was replaced by Molotov and stripped of his membership in the Central Committee, and he seemed in imminent danger of arrest, a fate that had already befallen most of his colleagues and staff in the Foreign Ministry during the purge years. Fortune smiled instead, and Maxim was summoned into service again as ambassador to the United States in 1941 when Russia entered the war. His tenure was brief, though, for by 1943 Stalin was beginning to turn away from his policy of wartime cooperation with the U.S., and had him recalled.

Litvinov’s last years of enforced retirement were embittered, as he saw the policies he had striven for abandoned in favor of a grab for power in Eastern Europe. At a 1947 diplomatic reception he sourly remarked to a British journalist that the men in the Kremlin “refused to believe that good will could be the basis for any policy” and instead intended to get “all they could while the going was good.” All things considered, Litvinov was lucky to die in his bed at the end of 1951, just when Stalin’s last anti-Jewish purge was about to get under way.

He left behind a secret manuscript of political memoirs, which he had had Ivy place in a New York safe-deposit box before her return to Moscow in 1943. Somehow the authorities got hold of it, and after his death Ivy was summoned to the Lubyanka prison to explain about it. (She was lucky as always: they took no action against her.) About the same time a volume surfaced in Paris purporting to be the intimate journals of Litvinov. They were published in England and America as Notes for a Journal, with an introduction by the historian E.H. Carr, but were soon shown to be a forgery, probably by the former Soviet official Gregory Bessedovsky. The real memoirs are apparently locked in the archives of the Narkomindel (Soviet Foreign Office), where they are likely to remain forever.

Ivy’s own career as a writer revived during a year-long visit to England in 1961. Many of the stories she wrote in the 1960’s appeared in the New Yorker and later in the collection She Knew She Was Right. The stories set in England, particularly the autobiographical ones concerning her early life, are written in a breezy, ironic manner that also characterized her earlier memoir of a visit to D.H. Lawrence where she amusingly portrays the breathless naiveté and energy of the girl she was. In Ivy’s writings, whether fiction or memoir, her mother appears as a splendidly comic figure; a popular romantic novelist in middle age, she was always the professional siren, priding herself equally on her worldly wisdom and her physical appearance (artfully enhanced by padding and various other aids). In Ivy’s story, “She Knew She Was Right,” her mother appears as a widow with three little girls who keeps two of them out of sight so as to let her suitors believe that she has only one “encumbrance.”

The Russian pieces, although written with the same loving attention to domestic detail, seem to lack the tone of ironic mockery and thus owe more to Chekhov than to Jane Austen. There is a kind of tenderness in describing the cramped lives of fairly ordinary Soviet citizens—middle-aged and older women who go to state vacation homes and worry about the children they have left behind. Love is reserved for female friends or for children and grandchildren rather than for members of the opposite sex. In “Bright Shores” an attempted tryst between a middle-aged Soviet woman and a visiting English physicist is foiled by the sudden arrival of a woman friend recently released from a concentration camp. Deeper loyalties force the woman to relinquish her one chance for adventure; she reflects that “you couldn’t, not for a moment, repulse a friend who came to you from a camp.” In “The Boy Who Laughed” a mother and grandmother devote their lives to a retarded boy whose own father has abandoned them because he cannot stand living with the child in such close quarters.

By all accounts, John Carswell would seem to be uniquely qualified to be Ivy’s biographer. He is the son of one of her earliest friends, Catherine Carswell, and knew Ivy from his childhood and years later after her return to England. A British civil servant since 1946, Carswell has a long record of scholarship in political history; more recently he has ventured into literary scholarship with Lives and Letters (1978), a study of five writers. He was given access to Ivy’s unpublished writings and private papers by her daughter Tanya, the friend to whom he dedicates this book.

Given all this, the book’s deficiencies appear all the more puzzling. To begin with, there is a lack of necessary documentation. We are given no sources for many of the quotations and other pieces of specialized information that Carswell serves up; nor are we even given a bibliography of works by or about Ivy Litvinov, although many articles were written about her during her lifetime, and her own short pieces are scattered throughout British, American, and Russian magazines. As a result, the reader who seeks to look up other of her writings will receive only haphazard assistance from Carswell. Moreover, although her biographer acknowledges that the bulk of her career was spent as a translator, he tends to shrug off this aspect of her work, mentioning only a handful of the many Russian books she translated. (Similarly, he stresses her lack of interest in politics, apparently unaware of her contribution of several chapters to the 1920 edition of her husband’s pamphlet, The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning.) And as for Maxim Litvinov, although Carswell directs us to several sources, he neglects to mention the best brief biography in The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History (Academic International Press, 1981), or the only Russian book-length study of him, a laudatory account by N. Kornev (Moscow, 1936).

Such scholarly deficiencies betoken a larger carelessness and indifference. Carswell writes gracefully, and the inherent interest of his subject carries us along through his narrative for the most part. But then we are brought up short by some detail that does not fit, some statement inadequately prepared for that makes the account break down momentarily into incoherence. Consider, for instance, Cars-well’s matter-of-fact claim that Ivy’s mother had all of her daughter’s teeth removed when she was seventeen and replaced with plates. As a dental practice even in 1906 this sounds questionable, but we are given little explanation as to why this unlikely event occurred. Later in the book, when referring to Ivy’s love affairs, the author attempts to tread a wary path between total revelation and discreet silence, but the effect is only to confuse the reader. Thus we are informed in a casual aside of “the American Joe Freeman, with whom Ivy was at that time [1926] in love; perhaps with the deepest passion she ever felt for any man”—and he is never mentioned again, not even to explain who on earth he was (a once-popular Communist writer); so much for the greatest love of her life.

The book is filled with similar offhand references that remain un-annotated and therefore needlessly mystifying. Although Carswell found Ivy in her old age an eccentric, not to say dotty, figure, his book has plenty of eccentricities of its own. Even the selection of photographs seems peculiar: why is there no picture of the parents who meant so much to Ivy?

Still, it is better that the book has been written than not. Carswell does attempt to explain why Ivy did not produce more writing over the years, mentioning her interest in her English past over her Russian present, and the obsessive perfectionism that kept her working on successive drafts of the same piece. More inhibiting still was the habit of discretion acquired as a diplomat’s wife in a police state. Her biographer perceptively notes the irony of Ivy’s situation, which was at once uniquely privileged and stifling for her as a writer. Judging from what she did manage to publish, and from the sample of her other writings which the author provides, she was in fact a fine prose stylist who deserves to be more widely read. If The Exile causes this to occur, it will have amply justified its publication.

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