Excerpt from The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Stalin Epigram

A Novel

by Robert Littell

The Stalin Epigram
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  • First Published:
    May 2009, 384 pages
    Jun 2010, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Derek Brown

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Print Excerpt

I can tell you I shivered, not from the gut-numbing cold but from a presentiment of terror. What in the world did he mean by Dead but not yet buried?

Zinaida asked the hour. Mandelstam never wore a wristwatch but always knew the time; he was never off by more than a minute or two. "It is twenty past eleven -- too late for you to return to your own flat. You must come home with us and spend the night."

I took Zinaida's elbow. "We simply will not accept no for an answer, darling girl."

"You owe it to me as a poet," Mandelstam said a bit frantically. "Nothing so depends on eroticism as poetry."

"That being the case," she said with a pout, "I shall have to say..."

I could see my husband was hanging on her reply; the prospect of an erotic encounter with this gorgeous creature had pushed from his mind everything that had happened to him that evening.

"I shall have to say yes."

The three of us fell into lockstep as we headed toward Herzen House and our flat. "I outfoxed that asinine Ugor-Zhitkin, didn't I?" Mandelstam said, his spirits soaring. "Two hundred rubles for a phony manuscript! Come along, Aida. Come along, Nadenka. If I am unable to publish poetry, I can at least produce counterfeit manuscripts until the inkwells run dry in Russia."

Nashchokin Street was caked with ice. Linking arms, we made as if to skate the last thirty meters to the writers' building. The hallway inside our wing reeked from the rancid insecticide used to kill bedbugs. We were convulsed with laughter as we threw open the door to our ground floor flat and, flinging the overcoats to the floor, sprawled short of breath on the bedraggled sofa in the living room. We could hear the Swiss clock, with the heavy weight hanging on the end of the chain, ticking away in the kitchen. The radiator under the window that I'd painted rose red hissed and belched as if it were human. Somewhere above us a toilet flushed and water rushed through pipes in the walls, but nothing could dampen our spirits. The telephone in the niche at the end of the corridor started ringing and kept at it until one of the tenants answered and then shouted, "Lifshitz, Piotr Semyonovich, your wife would like to have a word with your mistress," which set us to giggling like schoolchildren.

When I'd caught my breath, I said something about how sexual relationships were never uncomplicated in this socialist paradise of ours.

Mandelstam set three thick kitchen tumblers on our makeshift coffee table (actually an old suitcase plastered with stickers from Heidelberg, where he'd spent a semester in 1910) and poured out what was left in the bottle of Georgian Khvanchkara, then raised his glass. "I propose we drink to the health of those who are responsible for this happy life of ours."

"No, no, let's drink to the three of us," I suggested.

"To the three of us," Zinaida exclaimed.

"Well, then, to the three of us," my husband happily agreed and we clanked glasses and drank off the wine.

"Three is a lucky number," Mandelstam said, pulling his cravat free as he licked the last of the red wine from his lips. And he launched into a self-conscious soliloquy (one that I'd heard before) about how the Bolshevik Revolution had had sexual as well as social and political consequences. "In the twenties," he told our guest, "the ménage à trois began to be widely practiced in intellectual circles. Everyone remembers the relationship between Osip and Lily Brik and Mayakovsky. Shostakovich had an open marriage with Nina Varzar. Akhmatova once lived with the very beautiful Olga Sudeikina and the composer Artur Lurye."

I supplied the succulent details. "She used to say they could never decide which of them he was in love with, so they both loved him and each other."

Mandelstam said, "I speak for my wife -- don't I, Nadenka? -- when I say we consider a three-way marriage to be a fortress no outsider can conquer."

Copyright © 2009 by Robert Littell

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