The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin

Lourie, Richard

Published by Counter Point (1999), 1999
ISBN 10: 1582430047 / ISBN 13: 9781582430041
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261 pages. First edition (first printing). Near fine in a near fine dust jacket. Signed by the author. Bookseller Inventory #

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Synopsis: In these pages, Stalin's psychology is fully revealed, every atom of his madness explored, every twist of his homicidal logic followed to its ruthless conclusion. In a book with the suspense of a thriller and the accuracy of a work of history, the mind responsible for some of the twentieth century's most horrifying crimes is laid bare.

The novel opens with Stalin infuriated-and worried-that Trotsky is writing his biography from exile in Mexico City. He believes Trotsky's book is a double threat-a character assassination and a search for past crimes. But Trotsky's account also forces Stalin to reflect on his own life. We see him as a sly and domineering schoolboy, battling a sadistic father and struggling against a mother who dreams of him entering the priesthood. From these humble but troubled beginnings grows a young man who questions everything-morality, evil, the existence of God-and who finds answers to justify dictatorship and slaughter.

This is a story of two crimes-one, the assassination of Trotsky, which Stalin slowly choreographs, and the other an unspeakable murder that Stalin struggles to hide and which Trotsky is about to discover. Stalin's relentless interior monologue-skirting around these crimes, fleshing out the details of his life-draws us into his world of perversity until we are face-to-face with the presence of evil. The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin is an awe-inspiring feat of storytelling.

Review: In a brief poem written in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, W.H. Auden ridiculed the inexpressive nature of tyranny and tyrants: "One prize is beyond his reach, / The Ogre cannot master Speech." Now, it seems, the translator and novelist Richard Lourie has set out to prove Auden wrong. In The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, he lets that chuckling despot tell his own story, from his obscure origins in the Georgian sticks to his bureaucratic apotheosis as ruler of all Russia. In part Stalin simply wants to get his life down on paper. But as he informs the reader, he's also trying to launch a preemptive strike against his arch-nemesis, Leon Trotsky, who's currently compiling a scurrilous (i.e., fundamentally accurate) biography of Stalin in Mexico City.

Given this scenario, many a novelist would have turned Uncle Joe into an articulate monster, a kind of Bolshevik Iago. Lourie takes a different route. Oh, his narrator does have a gift for poetic doublespeak, which comes into play during his ruminations on the 1938 Moscow show trials: "In a certain highly literal sense of the word, most of these men are not guilty of most of these crimes. They may, however, be guilty of many other crimes, crimes for which the state has decided to spare itself the expenses of a trial but which would have cost them their head in any case." He also gets off some memorable character sketches, like this one of Lenin:

He was five feet three at most but so solidly planted on the floor that he made you feel the smaller man. As the Hungarians say, his forehead reached to his ass, but his baldness was dynamic, not pathetic--as if intense thought had sent the hairs flying from his scalp. He wore a three-piece suit and had the lawyer's habit of hooking his thumbs inside his vest.
Still, Lourie's Stalin is very much a meat-and-potatoes stylist--perhaps blood-and-guts would be the more appropriate epithet, considering the number of corpses he leaves in his wake. His raw efficiency as a narrator does have its black-comic charms, however, and his race to the biographical finish with Trotsky gives the book a powerful momentum. (Students of history will recall that the narrator's rival was brutally cut off in mid-sentence.) And what would be the moral of Stalin's story, at least in Lourie's version? There are two, which should surprise nobody: Always watch your back and It's lonely at the top. --James Marcus

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin
Publisher: Counter Point (1999)
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Near Fine
Edition: First Edition.

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