A new look at 1959 novel about Trotsky


Bernard Wolfe, “The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky,” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959/2015), 416 pp., $18.

Credit the critical and popular success of two recent novels, “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver and “The Man Who Loved Dogs” by Leonardo Padura, for this year’s re-publication of this 1959 historical novel by Bernard Wolfe, with a new afterword by novelist William T. Vollmann. A slightly rewritten hardback version appeared in 1975 with the title “Trotsky Dead.”

For eight months in 1937, Wolfe was a secretary to Leon Trotsky at the beginning of his Mexican exile. This was the time of the Moscow Trials, orchestrated by Stalin, which resulted in the forced confessions and execution of many former leaders of the Bolshevik Party, who had been charged with sabotage, treason, and espionage, and for conspiring to restore capitalism in Russia. Throughout these trials, Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov were the main defendants, in absentia. Their execution required greater planning and effort from Stalin’s secret police.

Based on these experiences, and his impressions and speculations about them, Wolfe has written a novel of sorts, in which Victor Rostov is essentially a stand-in for Leon Trotsky. In Wolfe’s account, Trotsky in his final years “must have been” wracked with unacknowledged guilt for his role in the Bolshevik suppression of a sailors’ rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base in 1921. These unspoken self-recriminations, “a very particular agony” which Wolfe assumes tormented Trotsky, “interfered with his will to live.” In Rostov, Wolfe has created a character who craves his death; that Trotsky has earned his fate is the central idea of the novel.

Unfortunately, Wolfe is no novelist. At his best, his writing is simply dull. Characters are thinly drawn, and none are developed. Dialogue becomes speechifying, where not one but several characters serve as mouthpieces for the author, all making the same point, repeatedly. Description is minimal; plot development is nonexistent.

There are affectations to a poetic style; the influence of stream-of-consciousness narration occasionally and woefully intrudes. When Wolfe reaches for a literary flourish, his prose reads like an awkward translation into English. The heavy hand of the author is everywhere and is unavoidable.

Here, for instance, are Rostov and his chief bodyguard, Paul, leaving the compound to take a motor trip to the countryside: “Parade of small epics out there: unheroic simmer Paul, bodyguard, and he, body guarded, were now farthest spectators to; yet ideologically it was their one concern. What they built programs for, drafted theses for, this world of the lively picayune, these day maneuvers and flea circuses—past their touch: the sandbags only memorialized the gulf.” Deficiencies of style and theme are displayed in this passage and in so many more: There is no need to belabor the point.

In a favorable “Afterword” to the book, novelist William T. Vollmann describes Wolfe’s writing as “uninspired,” with “wearisome redundancies.” While Vollmann will allow that Wolfe’s style can sometimes be effective and that he can, on occasion, generate narrative interest, Vollmann does say, “Wolfe continually undermines his own verisimilitude, eschews subtlety, has a tin ear for dialogue, etcetera. — Enough.”

Well, not just yet. Add that Wolfe’s writing is infused with the sensibility of a peeping-Tom pornographer. The behind-the-counter “dirty books” style of cheap 1950s dime-store novels is presented here as insight into feminine psychology. Perhaps an element of the risqué was meant to be entertaining or avant-garde, but it makes a contemporary reader cringe. Wolfe’s concupiscence is just creepy.

Though Wolfe’s literary gifts are limited, he does make the most of what technique he does have. He is particularly fond of foreshadowing. From the very first chapter, Rostov is shown trying to dodge the fateful topic he cannot bear to consider. “When do we get to the Kronstadt chapter?” his secretary asks. Rostov’s gestures show the question disturbs him, since he “pursed his lips and fingered his pointed beard.” He answers the question by saying that other matters must take priority.

Perhaps the answer is legitimate and the fidgeting of no consequence? Should a reader think so, or not notice the exchange about Kronstadt, the second chapter develops the hint and puts the matter more squarely. Again, Rostov is made uncomfortable by a mention of Kronstadt (“the word for which there was no answer”). This time, though, one of his trusted guards plays the key role. In fact, the guard is shown to be more insightful of Rostov than he is of himself. Ultimately, the climactic scene of the novel is not the assassination but the verbal confrontation about Kronstadt between Rostov and this guard, Paul, formerly Rostov’s strongest supporter.

The parallel is hard to miss. Just as the fictional guard is supposedly more perceptive than the fictional Trotsky, more aware of the significance of Kronstadt and its political and psychological implications, the real secretary—Bernard Wolfe—is supposedly more perceptive and aware than the real Trotsky. Here, in short, is the essence of the novel. It’s as if Wolfe hauls Trotsky into a court where Wolfe is the prosecutor, judge, and jury.

So, both in matters of fact and fiction, the novel is thoroughly and irredeemably flawed. Curiously enough, it is the defects of “The Great Prince Died” that are its main source of interest. That the novel fails is not in question. Some readers will be compelled to ask why it fails. Leaving aside the author’s evident lack of literary craftsmanship, what makes the novel just plain bad?

At issue is more than just tendentious and simplistic political analysis, though Wolfe’s sophomoric understanding of history and politics is certainly no virtue. Ultimately, though, the novel fails as a work of fiction. What standards of aesthetic judgment, then, are violated in this work? To what extent does the author’s re-writing of history contribute to the literary failure?

Historical fiction admits to a large degree of latitude, after all. An author has ample room to create, and strict fidelity to truth is not necessary. Yet, facts matter. Wolfe’s argument is not predicated on the unknown or unknowable, the soil where historical fiction thrives. Instead, he develops his ideas by ignoring or brushing aside what is known and what is not convenient for his theme.

That is, Wolfe does not use fiction to fill in the gaps of history or to explain what history cannot access. There are no gaps: the issue of Kronstadt was raised towards the end of Trotsky’s life, and he put his opinions in writing, defending Bolshevik policy and his personal role in making and carrying out that policy.

The real issue, the contention that gave rise to the novel, is that Wolfe is dissatisfied with Trotsky’s (and Lenin’s) analysis of Kronstadt and the reasons why the revolt was repressed. “The Great Prince Died” isn’t “history as it might have been” but “history as it wasn’t.” The disregarding of fact and flouting of truth, which the essay would not condone, is not readily permitted in the novel either, even though, of all the literary genres, fiction may be the most forgiving.

So, Wolfe should not be faulted for telescoping events, shifting crucial dates, omitting some historical figures, simplifying others, all in the interest of a lively story. Let Wolfe also have his fictional Trotsky lead the armed assault against the Kronstadt guns, even though the real Trotsky was not actually present and was never expected to be. Many of these alterations, and others, are permissible if the essence of history, as it is generally known, is accurately depicted and if the changes add to the overall artistic effect of the novel.

Still, even granting a large degree of artistic license, false history produces a bad novel. If the central conflict in a work of fiction is historical, but the conflict is untrue, then the problems the characters encounter, and the characters themselves, cannot develop organically from the story’s events. They must instead be manufactured and imposed on the plot. Fiction is thus so constricted that it is unable to breathe.

For the traditional realist novel (contrasted with mystery or romance, where plot is most crucial), the literary element most essential for the reader’s interest is characterization. Whether virtuous or evil, conflicted or confused, typical or exotic, the central character must be credible. Without plausibility of character, a reader’s pleasure lessens with every turn of the page. Historical fiction does not escape this law.

Wolfe has Rostov writing a book about Stalin, but this fictional Trotsky is unable—because of a psychological block—to complete the chapter on Kronstadt. During his exile in Mexico, Trotsky did continue his work on such a biography, though by Stalin’s order the murderer struck before it could be completed. The actual manuscript, in fact, is stained with Trotsky’s blood.

Not surprisingly, the conflict about Kronstadt in 1921 is mentioned only briefly in the biography for the best of reasons: Stalin played no vital role in the events. Further, the short account that Trotsky writes gives no indication that he suffered from a troubled mind about the rebellion or its suppression. Instead, what does disturb Trotsky are the many falsehoods that had grown around the Kronstadt uprising.

In fact, Trotsky criticizes as untrue the point of view that Wolfe will later turn into a full-length novel: “The Stalinist school of falsification is not the only one that flourishes today in the field of Russian history. Indeed, it derives a measure of its sustenance from certain legends built on ignorance and sentimentalism; such as the lurid tales concerning Kronstadt. … Suffice it to say that what the Soviet government did reluctantly at Kronstadt was a tragic necessity; naturally the revolutionary government could not have ‘presented’ the fortress that protected Petrograd to the insurgent sailors only because a few dubious Anarchists and Essars [Social-Revolutionary Party] were sponsoring a handful of reactionary peasants and soldiers in rebellion” (“Stalin,” p. 337).

Do words like “reluctantly” and the statement of a “tragic necessity” point to an unacknowledged personal torment roiling within Trotsky’s heart? On this flimsy basis, Wolfe answers “yes” and proceeds to invent a character driven by remorse to a deserved self-suicide. It has little to do with the real Trotsky, who wrote unequivocally: “I was a member of the government, I considered the quelling of the rebellion necessary and therefore bear responsibility for the suppression.”

Is such a statement insufficiently clear? Might an admission of responsibility indicate an admission of guilt? To remove any such doubt, Trotsky concluded: “But I am ready to recognize that civil war is no school of humanism. Idealists and pacifists always accused the revolution of ‘excesses.’ But the main point is that ‘excesses’ flow from the very nature of revolution, which in itself is but an ‘excess’ of history. Whoever so desires may on this basis reject (in little articles) revolution in general. I do not reject it. In this sense I carry full and complete responsibility for the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion” (see “More on the Suppression of Kronstadt,” in V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, “Kronstadt,” p. 97).

How accurate to history does the historical novelist have to be? To the general question, only a general answer follows: The novelist must be accurate enough and the story must be true enough to be plausible. The reader must trust the story enough to believe in it. The historical novelist who cannot build or sustain the reader’s trust has made a cake that does not raise, a lump of dough. A work of fiction built on history must succeed as a work of fiction.

The author who strives to create a believable world cannot permit the reader to observe the author’s hand at work. Otherwise, the illusion of realism is shattered, plausibility disappears; the novel falters or fails. Of course, the writer will be present in tone, style, subject matter, etc., but this presence must be hidden and unacknowledged. The realist novel does not survive the evidence of the novelist.

In “The Art of Fiction,” a stately manifesto for artistic freedom, Henry James wrote: “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” James added that the ways in which a novel could be interesting were “innumerable.” He had not reckoned on “The Great Prince Died,” which has not produced even one point of interest.

Photo: Leon Trotsky in Mexico with his wife, Natalia Sedova.




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