‘Reads like a novel,’ it says more and more often on the jackets of biographies, memoirs, travellers’ tales, historical studies, collections of essays, volumes of poetry – anything in print, except the novel. And the claim, unlike most of those on blurbs, is frequently true, since non-fiction nowadays contains so much fiction. Examples are everywhere.
Examine that fastest-growing publishers’ fancy, the first-hand account of the worst journey in the world. Every week, they take off – by boat, by train, by bicycle, by raft, by canoe, by balloon, on foot or in wheelchair. They are running out of forms of transport. But that hardly matters after the first chapter. Sooner rather than later, the expedition turns out to be into their own interior. There is usually even more about themselves, or their modish travelling companion, than about the wacky, wonderful, outsize characters they meet along the way. It is instructive to note how those inflated figures shrink to portable dimensions when the safari is replayed, as it usually is, before the cameras, for the next year’s Channel Four series. The secret ingredient which makes each incident, like Proust’s Japanese flowers in water, so glowing on the page and so drab off it, is known as imagination. This can also be called invention, make-believe, the poet’s eye, the novelist’s ear, possibly what was known when I was a boy as a pack of lies. Not only the cynical may find it remarkable how these writers, so dull at home, become so fascinating abroad, so easily embroiled in sexual intrigues, backwoods vendettas, dangerous adventures, so readily adopted by crazed millionaires, whimsical bandits, insatiable madams of brothels, affectionate but lethal animals. It may all be true, but I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief about bizarre experiences in Patagonian bathhouses, Siberian sleeping-cars or Mississippi river boats if retailed by those who provide unreliable accounts of Archway pubs or the train ride from Charing Cross to Folkestone.
Let us glance at a precise example of stretching the evidence, pushing the novelist’s licence to caricature beyond its legitimate limits, in non-fiction. In his Hilaire Belloc (‘One of those outstanding biographies which have the deeper and wider resonance of a novel’: Christopher Booker), A.N. Wilson tells a funny anecdote about Mussolini that was new to me, though I had just finished Denis Mack Smith’s Mussolini. It runs: ‘Mussolini had in fact modelled his style of dress on that of his favourite film stars, Laurel and Hardy, whose sartorial distinctiveness he regarded as the embodiment of trans-Atlantic chic. He only abandoned it when he was informed that Laurel and Hardy were generally appreciated, not as models of sophistication, but as clowns.’ In a footnote, Wilson refers us to Mack Smith. How could I have missed it? Easy. It is not there. What Mack Smith writes is somewhat different: Mussolini ‘discarded his bowler hat when he noticed that in American comedy films (for which he had a passion and installed a projector) they were no longer worn except by his favourite stars, Laurel and Hardy.’ Wilson, by a Lytton Stracheyish sleight-of-hand, has turned the story upside down for an easy laugh.
The overlap of fact and fiction is very near the front of my mind these days. Last year, long after many of my colleagues in journalism, I decided that anyone who had written an estimated four to five million words of (supposed) non-fiction ought to have limbered up enough to have a bash at a novel. Having sacked myself after 12 years on the Sunday Times, exiting without a single tainted penny, out of distaste for newspapers that was not entirely to do with the newly-tyrannical Murdoch, I wanted to produce, for myself alone, a work that was one hundred per cent fiction.
I could not think of any novel of which I could say that I had enjoyed every word. Not even The Three Musketeers. There always seem to be bits the authors have perversely included against their own instinct – bits they must know nobody wants. Scholars have too long neglected this phenomenon. These bits are mainly descriptions: long laundry-lists of clothes, particularly those of men; detailed inventories of the landscape or the lay-out of a house; the wind-up of a detective story. Conversation in print is less disposable, though I tend to fade at the fifth or sixth bout of stichomythia unless the speakers are regularly identified. Do authors realise how many readers resent having to go back, sometimes over a couple of pages, using finger and thumb just to find out who is talking? I made a vow then that I would not write any passage I would be tempted to skip if I were reading it.
When I left Gray’s Inn Road, I was able to write and sleep sweetly for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. Before that, I had tossed in the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed every night before the day I had to earn my living putting words on paper. As is well-known (Stalin’s favourite phrase), too many journalists distort, trivialise, suppress, sensationalise, betray. But even the worst of them on the worst papers retain a commitment to the notion of accuracy, to an approximation of the real world, to the job of reporting. Every day, they risk some kind of comeback.
I was well out of that. As a novelist, I can say what I like about my own creations. I can make them do whatever I choose. I can never be wrong because I am the sole judge of what is right. Unfortunately, I chose one of the few subjects that did not give me that freedom. I manacled myself to a stricter discipline than journalism. I made myself compete with the scholar, the historian, the academic expert. I decided to write, as a novel, the diary that Lenin ought to have kept, but didn’t.
For the first few weeks, the caged bird sang. Then, when I had finished Lenin’s childhood, I realised something I should have understood before I started. I could invent his comments, thoughts, feelings on any subject where these could only be guessed. But if I wanted to be taken seriously as a historical novelist, I was bound to keep as near to the truth as possible where his reactions, opinions, emotions were known. So it was with some nervousness I plunged into the vast sea of Leniniana, afraid that I would be the clumsy octopus, muddying the waters with my fictional ink, while all around me dedicated experts, like underwater archaeologists, would be reconstructing the coral foundations of his life and times.
I quickly learned that many of the scores of Lenin biographies, even those by the professional élite, were stuffed with large swatches of what can only be called fiction. On occasion after occasion, his remarks are wrenched out of context, moved about in time, paraphrased, rewritten, given an arbitrary interpretation. What purports to be sober analysis is often distorted by hatred – or at least dislike tinged with fear – of Lenin and Communism. I had to keep checking the most ordinary details. The people I had hoped to make the sources for my fictional documentary were themselves frequently writing documentary novels disguised as biography. You would – well, I would – think that George Steiner must be a model of scholarly rigour. When I read his essay ‘Trotsky and the Tragic Imagination’ in Language and Silence, I felt my pulse speed up at his remark about Lenin and Trotsky: ‘the relationship between these two elemental figures of the Russian revolution was intricate and vital, as only a great novelist might have conceived it.’ What a challenge! I read on: ‘It began in polemic. In 1904 Trotsky, who had not yet broken with the Mensheviks, wrote of Lenin as a man “hideous” and “dissolute”.’ This was a revelation, a new light on someone occasionally called unimpressive, often puritanical and fanatical, but never personally unattractive. Steiner gave no reference, but at a guess I turned to Isaac Deutscher’s Prophet Armed. Sure enough, on page 93 I found this: ‘“Hideous”, “dissolute”, “demagogical”, “malicious” and “morally repulsive”, these were the epithets which Trotsky threw at the man who had so recently held out to him the hand of friendship.’ Still, it didn’t ring true somehow. I did what I assumed Steiner must have done. I turned to the beginning of the chapter and read again up to page 93. Just a few pages earlier, I found the explanation. Deutscher refers to Trotsky’s attacks on ‘Lenin’s “hideous, dissolute and demagogical” style’. Who would have understood that from Steiner’s reference to Trotsky’s assault on Lenin ‘as a man’?
My newspaperman’s worry about howlers, instead of being reduced by a reliance on specialists, became more acute than if I had been relying on press cuttings. Very important for someone slotting real people into an imaginary diary was confirmation that each one had been alive and around at the time. I discovered that even this could be fudged in some standard works. Robert Payne is an acknowledged expert on Russian affairs, author of Dostoyevsky: A Human Portrait, The Image of Chekhov, The Three Worlds of Boris Pasternak. The Life and Death of Lenin (1964) runs to 672 pages. I returned to it to check the death toll in the Soviet famine of 1921, a catastrophe far worse than even the worst starvation in Africa today. Payne writes: ‘No accurate figures were ever made available; nor could they be made available, though Sverdlov computed that some twenty-seven million were affected.’ The ‘affected’ is a bit foggy – does he mean dead or not? But there remains a more serious weakness. Sverdlov died on 16 March 1919.
Louis Fischer has written, and revised, cutting across his own tracks, many important works in this field: The Life and Death of Stalin, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, A Week with Gandhi, Gandhi and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler. He was a reporter on the spot during the early years of the Soviet state and met Lenin. In his massive (703 pages) The Life of Lenin (1964) he complains that the Soviet authorities have shrouded Lenin’s racial origins in deliberate obscurity, especially the ethnic background of his maternal grandfather, Dr Alexander Dmitrievich Blank: ‘Some maintain he was a Jew.’ And he makes the flat assertion: ‘The name of his German wife, Lenin’s maternal grandmother, is never given.’ Never is a short time in biography. The same year, on page 43 of his Life and Death of Lenin, Payne says, with no air of revealing a state secret: ‘Alexander Blank accordingly married a German girl, Anna Ivanovna Groshopf.’ (Mind you, he fouls up the genealogy on the next page by describing Dr Blank as ‘half-German, half-Swedish’ when he has just established that it is the doctor’s wife who has the Swedish mother.) The amateur layman begins to wonder when a secret is not a secret and whether the Soviet authorities are alone in rearranging information to suit their preconceptions. Some of the difficulties involved in establishing a diary for Lenin can be gauged from the fact that 69 years after the event, Moscow has not been able to bring itself to agree on the date that he arrived in Petrograd from Finland to trigger off the Revolution.
A book recommended by many experts is David Shub’s Lenin: A Biography. It has much to recommend it, not least that Shub was a member of the Bolshevik Party in 1905 when Lenin was its leader and knew him and many other prominent actors in the Revolution very well. But few openings to a novel about Lenin could equal the banal first lines of Shub’s documentary biography:
Vladimir came running home from school, breathless and frightened.
‘What is it?’ his mother demanded.
‘Alexander! He’s been arrested.’
Maria Alexandrovna clutched the table. ‘Alexander arrested! What for?’
‘He’s charged with plotting to assassinate the Czar.’
Shub had the bright idea of including a nine-page appendix illustrating the essence of Leninism. He includes hefty chunks of Lenin on War and Peace, Civil Liberties, Dictatorship and Democracy, giving precise references to his Selected or Collected Works in English and Russian. But he provides no dates, and divorced from his setting in time, Lenin, as a good Marxist, loses almost all of his relevance. Out of context, he can be and often is quoted for or against almost any policy. What mattered to him was whether, at this moment, his tactic would advance the cause of the proletarian revolution and intensify the class struggle. There has never been a life in which the calendar was so crucial. A diary, then, was the ideal form.
Gorky once claimed that no one would ever be able to ‘chart the secret storms of Lenin’s soul’. In my hubris, I picked up the gage. But if I ever hoped to use him as a mask through which to speak my own truths, as critics dress Hamlet in their own clothes or theologians inflate Jesus with their own yearnings, I underrated my hero. There is little room for outsiders under that peaked cap, inside that wrinkled waistcoat and baggy pants. Lenin is as full of Lenin as a hard-boiled egg – indeed, one of the toughest eggs known to history. I pumped in my invention, but he kept pace with me at every step. Occassionally, I panicked – send for Maxwell Perkins, or rather Carter Patterson! Far from being yesterday’s man in need of an up-date, he has leapfrogged into tomorrow. It is all there – Nicaragua, the Miners’ Strike, Ethiopia, the Falklands, the Lebanon, Northern Ireland – above all, South Africa, where the Russian Revolution seems to be repeating itself as if following a blueprint. It is Lenin’s biographers who are determined to bottle him in the past like an escaped genie.
The quest for the historical Lenin, like Schweitzer’s quest for the historical Jesus, is beset with obstacles which sometimes seem to have been scattered by your particular enemy. One essential aid was Makers of the Russian Revolution, by Georges Haupt and Jean-Jacques Marie. This gives, first, the official biographies from the famous Granat Encyclopedia written in 1924 and 1925, then an update from the latest (1974) scholarship. I used it as my basic authority and was saved from many pitfalls. But this too has suffered some sabotage. At least one figure, listed in heavy type as a major entry in the index, has vanished altogether. Others have been amalgamated – a police spy with a philosopher, dull brothers with a wild young rebel girl – because of identical surnames or aliases. The translation is given to weird kinks. ‘Militate’ is used to mean ‘acting in a militant fashion’. Other comments turn cryptic: it is said that over the actions of Kamenev and Zinoviev in October ‘their authorised lives throw a cloak of allusion’. And, my favourite, ‘With his pince-nez and broken neck, Uritsky looked the perfect intellectual.’ Perhaps all research is like this and I have never dug deep enough, and stuck around long enough, to find out. At least I’ve discovered one useful tip-there is no such thing as an absolute expert.