On its face, the long life of Ivy Litvinov (1889-1977), the little-known wife of a famous man, combined decided improbability with curious irrelevance. So unlikely was what happened to her, and so resolutely minor a figure did she remain, that one can only admire John Carswell, her new and loving English biographer, for attempting to make everything sensible and significant. Why he has essayed the task at all is perhaps a subject for Mr. Carswell’s own biographer; our concern here must be with the heroine herself.
She was born Ivy Low, the part-Jewish daughter of a second-rate intellectual jack-of-all-trades who had the good fortune (for his reputation in the eyes of the world and for the esteem of his daughter) to die young. She had, not surprisingly, an unhappy and confined Victorian childhood, which she nevertheless managed to ride into a youthful literary career as a novelist whose most folly imagined subject was herself. Her first novel, Growing Pains (1913), was a sentimental codification of the process that prepared her for adult childishness. It was followed by The Questing Beast (1914), a torrid (for its time) account of office life and the sexual pitfalls of loneliness. Neither book became a best-seller, but The Questing Beast, because of its depiction of scandal, did become a succès d’estime.
In 1916, the twenty-seven-year old Miss Low married Maxim Litvinov, a Bolshevik revolutionary detailed to London for semi-clandestine political and financial activity. After the October Revolution of 1917, Litvinov emerged as the official spokesman in England for the new regime in Russia, and soon was in a position to put his fresh diplomatic credentials to the tasks of winning international respectability for the Soviet Union and bringing on the collapse of capitalism.
Soon after, the Litvinovs (now the parents of two children) moved to the Soviet Union, he first and she a bit later. Maxim’s activities now centered on the creation of the Narkomindel, as the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs was known. At first his flair was for administration, with an occasional trip abroad for negotiation thrown in. In 1930, he became Commissar, or foreign minister, and in 1933 he negotiated the recognition of the USSR by the new American administration of Franklin Roosevelt; two years later he negotiated a pact on behalf of Stalin with Pierre Laval and the French government.
As the early 1930s—the locust years, in Churchill’s memorable phrase—wore on into the prelude to World War II, Litvinov became the chief international marketer of Stalin’s Popular Front against Hitler & Co. His evident sincerity, combined with his rumpled and unpretentious appearance, served to guarantee his master’s bona fides among those formerly hostile to the USSR as well as among those always eager to believe. But once Stalin had decided on a deal with Hitler, the all too Jewish Litvinov had to go, and in the spring of 1939 he went, relieved of his duties (so the official story went) at his own request. In February of 1941—just four months before Germany’s invasion of Russia—he was stripped of his membership in the Party Central Committee. But the wily Stalin had one last use for the discarded salesman: in late 1941, five months after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Litvinov was appointed Soviet ambassador to Washington, once more to cultivate his old friend and diplomatic partner FDR. By 1943 he was through, not just in Washington, but as a functioning personage; his death on the last day of 1951 was remarkable only in that it took place in Moscow in his own bed, rather than at the hands of a firing squad.
High-level Soviet wives are semi-pampered phenomena of whom little is known and from whom nothing, save on the rarest of confected occasions, is ever heard. Because Ivy was foreign by birth (and by citizenship), she remained a creature slightly apart from the usual run of childbearing dormice required by the standards of socialist morality. She was, after all, a writer, made so as much by design as by talent; she thought and she wrote in English, bringing to her work, even when she wrote on Soviet themes, a distinctly foreign mentality and literary style.
Her major completed literary project during her Soviet years was a detective novel written (with the aid of hypnotherapy to start the creative juices flowing) in the late 1920s. The story she wrote was set in the petty underworld of Moscow during the period of the New Economic Policy, that cynical Bolshevik use of capitalism and capitalists to provide just enough economic growth to ensure a base for the collectivization of agriculture and the extermination of millions. Ivy called it His Master’s Voice, after a phonograph record that constituted one of the most piquant elements at the scene of the crime. Favorable though the book was to the progressive direction of Soviet life, it was too realistic to be publishable in the USSR; Ivy had to be content with a modest edition in English, brought out by Heine-mann in 1930. Just how complaisant was the behavior required from even a foreign-born Soviet ambassadorial wife may be gathered from Ivy’s Utopian words at the front of the 1943 American edition of her book, now entitled Moscow Mystery:
[The book] opens on a “bitter night in February, 1926,” beneath the walk of the Kremlin; it ends before the ballet season closes for the summer. That was seventeen years ago. February nights are still bitter cold in Moscow, and the ballet season runs from September to June. But almost everything else has changed . . .
The buildings which have changed the streets of Moscow have changed the lives of the people in the streets. For these buildings were not merely the first modern architecture in Russia—their very functions were new. Their operation brought to the city a new population—office workers to staff the new government departments, bus drivers to drive the new motor-buses, teachers’ for the new schools, students from all over the Union for the new colleges.
Environment can affect the lives of adults, as well as children. Seventeen years ago it was normal for a night watchman and his entire family to inhabit one room in an old house, and for the night watchman’s wife to get up in the morning to make her lodger’s tea on a primus stove in the same room. Now it would be normal for them to have street-level apartments with a modern kitchen, in a tall apartment house . . . .
Her one venture in the style of a fellow-traveling Agatha Christie aside, most of Ivy’s energies during the period of her husband’s rise and subsequent downfall were employed in translating from the Russian, teaching Basic English in the face of the opposition of school administrators, raising her children in what she could manage of an English manner, and indulging a somewhat wayward sexuality. On this subject, Mr. Carswell, quoting Ivy, leaves little room for modesty or perhaps even for romance. In Berlin, she met a German doctor named Kurt, and felt
sort of happy. Had something I never had before. Beginning with an “o”. and now I feel serene, domestic and self-respecting . . . .
[For a later tryst] Kurt arrived at 3. He came straight up to me and we simply fell upon each other with delight. He thought he had never seen me looking so nice and loved my hair. And I thought him ever so much more attractive . . . . [T]here is something clean and compact about him that is almost irresistible. We went together to Friedel’s hotel at 6.30 and found her with her friend Beatus and to my dismay an “orgy” all fixed up for us 4 . . . .
I couldn’t say anything as they all seemed to want it, but of course what I really wanted was Kurt all to myself. They all agreed that my hair was an enormous improvement and of course Friedel found it “a little perverse” so that was all right. We had a nice dinner and coffee together and I liked Beatus very much. A fat man, distinctly Regency, with an eye-glass and soft white hands. Then we went up to Friedel’s really huge room and all undressed and I may say tho’ it was rather amusing at moments (especially the eyeglass of Beatus, to which he clung) I got no satisfaction out of the whole evening, tho’ Kurt had me at least 4 times and at incredible length. He only had Friedel once and that made me frankly unhappy . . . .
[And on another occasion she observes that] Beatus is infinitely more subtle and intelligent than Kurt. . . . He has not Kurt’s marvelous potency and it is obvious that this could not be expected. You can’t have everything. Besides he was not bad. . . . What I specially like about Beatus is that he made me feel I was wonderful for him and said he could never forget me, while dear Kurt always makes me feel that it is he who is so wonderful. Of course Kurt would hardly have understood a dozen words of mine, our minds are so different. . . .
Despite Maxim’s deathbed words to Ivy—“Englishwoman, go home!”—she stayed in the USSR, remaining close to her children (and to theirs: Pavel Litvinov, the celebrated dissident, is her grandson) and cultivating her personal life. Again, Mr. Carswell leaves little to the imagination:
Even as seventy approached she was not beyond the reach of passion, but now it was unhesitatingly homosexual. She made a note on “Thursday 5th or 6th or I know not what of Feb 1959,” from which it is clear that she was having an affair with a woman younger than herself. “Fantastic day ended. Wild, sweet love. My only desire—that any moment of it should go on for ever. Any—doesn’t matter which. With her, not so simple.”
In 1960, she made an extended visit to England. Many of her contemporaries, including the sometime Communist sympathizer, fine printer, and advertising whiz Francis Meynell and the stalwart Stalinist cum natural scientist J. D. Bernal, were still alive, as was a small but comforting English bank account her thoughtful husband had arranged during the early 1930s. Though she felt compelled to return to Russia in 1961, she began to be published as a short-story writer, at first in the as always leftist New Statesman, and then after 1966 in The New Yorker. In subject matter, her sentimentally cast stories alternated between memories of a turn-of-the-century childhood and personal accounts of the shabby world of shanty dachas and crude vacation rooming houses available to the superannuated widow of a half-disgraced and totally discarded diplomat. Many of these stories, with all their echoes of other—and better—women writers, were collected and published in 1971 under the title She Knew She Was Right.
In the 1970s Ivy went home to England to die. There, in a tiny apartment outside London, she was surrounded by various émigré members of her family, indulgent friends, and uncounted scraps of disorganized reminiscences. Some words of hers, written in New York in 1943, are used by Mr. Carswell as a motto at the front of his book; they give in themselves an adequate account of the quixotic side of Ivy’s life and the shallowness and indulgence of her self-image.
For many years I was obsessed with the idea that God had sent me to Russia for the purpose of being the only English subject in the Soviet Union who could write. By writing I mean doing it so that people wanted to read it all the time they were reading it; they wanted to go on reading it simply for pleasure.
Mr. Carswell ends his book with an ultimately unsatisfying verdict on Ivy: “She was dealt a high card in life, but it was in the wrong suit.”
It can hardly be said that Mr. Carswell’s work is a brilliant accomplishment in biography. Unfortunately, he often seems unsure in dealing with simple details of twentieth-century political and cultural history. Thus he gives the impression that George V was King of England (rather than Prince of Wales) in 1905, when in fact he did not ascend the throne until 1910. Similarly, Mr. Carswell writes of the “charm of Russia’s imperial ballet (which captivated London and Ivy in 1911)”; but this landmark in the evolution of English taste was occasioned not by “Russia’s imperial ballet” but by the privately financed and run Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev. Mr. Carswell also manages to be off by one year in dating Maxim Litvinov’s agreement with FDR about restoration of US-USSR relations in 1934 (not 1933); he is unclear, too, about the year the Litvinovs both came to Washington for his ambassadorial stint, getting it correctly in one place as 1941 and then suggesting six pages later that Ivy arrived in 1942.
More important by far than these mere details is Mr. Carswell’s inability to connect in any evidential way what was going on around Ivy in England before her marriage —with her life, her thought, and the actions she took. There are, for example, many pages in Mr. Carswell’s book on the English socialist-Zionist physician David Eder, who married Ivy’s aunt Edith. For Mr. Carswell, Eder was the great influence on Ivy: “It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that David Eder was Ivy’s second father, more real than Walter [her father], and the very converse of Sandy [her stepfather] . . . . The Eders, husband and wife, stood for all the lost Walter could have offered his bounding daughter.” All the more pity, then (given how strongly Mr. Carswell thinks this influence on Ivy), that not one fact based either on Ivy’s testimony or on the recollections of intimates is given to support Mr. Carswell’s claim.
Though there is much material in this book about the exile Russian revolutionary movement in London and about Maxim’s place in it, there is no material connecting Ivy in any real way either with the movement or with her future husband’s life. Instead we are given, time and again, suppositions:
One wonders if Ivy ever bargained for a husband whose chief resolve was now  to return to Russia in the certainty that he was destined to play an important part in its revolution. She believed in freedom and progress, she was glad the Tsar was overthrown, but she had no deeply rooted political convictions. Her ambitions were literary. Yet if she wanted to keep the stability Maxim represented for her, with his maps, his neatness, his caution about money, his devotion to their children, she would have to follow him into the fearful adventure of the Revolution.
It is clear that rather than provide an intellectually coherent and disciplined biography, Mr. Carswell has given us a personally written and influenced (his mother was one of Ivy’s closest friends over many years and he himself knew Ivy in her last years) life-and-times based on linkage by speculation rather than evidence. The result of all this suggestive writing is that we emerge from Mr. Carswell’s book no wiser about the real significance of this impulsive and often foolish woman who, though failing to be a major writer, has nonetheless much to reveal as a mirror to her times.
One aspect of her—and her husband’s—mirroring function derives from the simple fact of their physical survival during the Soviet nightmare. On this score Mr. Carswell gives fascinating material about Maxim’s disillusionment with Stalin’s regime, a disillusionment he put into action by setting up an English bank account and by talking against Soviet policies to State Department official Sumner Welles in 1943 and to the American journalist Richard C. Hottelet in 1945. Even more damningly, he arranged for Ivy to p!ace,some of his papers in a numbered New York safe-deposit box in 1943. As to why the Litvinovs survived, Mr. Carswell advances several explanations he himself calls “all equally speculative and unconvincing.” These range from Stalin’s affection, his reward for faithful service, and his desire to keep Litvinov, as it were, in cold storage for future use, to his desire not to destroy “a Bolshevik of the first generation who had a unique understanding of the West” and with whose policy, in any case, Stalin himself had been associated.
Toward the book’s end Mr. Carswell adds another and more compelling reason why Litvinov (and his wife) survived:
In the Bolshevik system, even in the bloody mind of Stalin, there lay a calculation that the possibility of Western approval must never wholly be discarded. Total isolation, absolute defiance, were positions to be avoided, and the destruction of Litvinov would have violated this instinct. . . . Almost alone among the Soviet leadership he had a constituency in the West which had come to associate him personally with disarmament, resistance to fascism, and collective security; and it was a constituency which extended to the highest levels among senior statesmen who felt he would keep his word. His opinion may not have counted for much in the high policy of the Kremlin, but his standing abroad was a factor in its calculations.
Since Mr. Carswell has gotten as far as identifying world opinion as a “factor in [Soviet] calculations,” it is a pity he does not go on to identify just what segments in the West were considered to be most important in the Kremlin scheme: the world of progressive opinion that shades gradually from fellow-traveling on the Left to the high-minded liberalism of what passes for the center of democratic societies. For this motley cast of political half-thinkers, Maxim Litvinov was, and, to judge from the evidence of William L. Shirer’s recently published volume of memoirs,remains, a personal symbol of a proper former revolutionary. Unmistakably Jewish but never a Zionist, dedicated to principle but cannily toughminded, personally nonviolent but a loyal representative of massive military power, an enemy of right-wing fascism who could put the best face on its Communist analogue, Litvinov sublimely represents the addled idea that one can run a bloody revolution and immediately thereupon love mankind forever after. That Stalin and his successors have understood how to appeal to this large political grouping outside the walls of their own prison has been clear from the palmy days of the Popular Front to the present nuclear freeze movement; the Litvinovs’ survival is but one more example of the old truth that the USSR is a devoted respecter and follower of public opinion—always abroad, never at home.
More complicated to assess is the way in which Ivy Litvinov as a woman and a writer reflected the worlds in which she grew up and in which she chose to live. Mr. Carswell quite properly devotes much space to an account of her family background, with its not unusual example of mid-nineteenth-century Jewish émigré seriousness channeled at one and the same time into capitalist business activity and philosophical rationalism. Ivy’s grandfather, Maximilian Lowe, was both a speculator in the City of London and a founder, along with Charles Darwin and two members of the Wedgewood family, of a heretical free-thinking congregation led by Charles Voysey, an important mid-Victorian dissenter. That such a movement away from what might have been thought traditional English religious beliefs was not incompatible with outspoken imperialism and patriotism needs no more demonstration than a quotation from the entry on Maximilian’s son (and Ivy’s uncle) Sidney contained in the Concise Dictionary of'National Biography:
LOW, Sir SIDNEY JAMES MARK (1857-1932), author and journalist; educated at King’s College School and Balliol College, Oxford; first class, modern history, 1879; brilliant editor of St. James’s Gazette, 1888-97; ardent imperialist and friend of Rhodes, Cromer, Curzon, Milner [qq.v.], &c; works include The Governance of England (1904) and A Vision of India (1906); knighted, 1918.
But late nineteenth-century England, and not just Tsarist Russia, was of course the scene of a great battle between fathers and sons—and daughters too. Ivy did not follow the path of her Uncle Sidney. Instead, like so many intellectually inclined young women of the day, she chose to follow the path of literary self-expression. Mr. Carswell notes at some length the possible roots of this self-expression, among which he lists her father’s forebears, her mother’s Anglo-Indian military background, the interest of the educated English public at the turn of the century in foreign and especially Russian literature, and the general presence of progressive ideas in the air. Unfortunately, Mr. Carswell does not really press on to document in Ivy’s own words the extent to which she became a purposeful carrier of what was enlightened progressive opinion just before World War I, and what remains so today as well.
Certainly evidence for Ivy’s opinions before her encounter with Maxim is hardly lacking.
Certainly evidence for Ivy’s opinions before her encounter with Maxim is hardly lacking. Just because her lifelong literary product was always so autobiographical, her two novels4 of 1913 and 1914 respectively provide much material as to how she viewed herself and her world; it is perhaps the major flaw of Mr. Carswell’s book that he gives little consideration to these basic documents.
Growing Pains, the first of these two novels, is a curious amalgam of complaint and self-satisfaction, of protest and sentimentality. The story of a girl at the beginning of the novel still a small child, the novel charts an orphan’s course through the ministrations of an aunt, a puritanical nanny, and an intellectually disreputable and blindly authoritarian boarding school, and the delicious tortures of first encounters with potential suitors and other men. Here, in the first large literary canvas of a woman in her mid-twenties, are set out all the discontents and fantasies that, without being cast in political form, are the necessary personal foundations for a politics of Utopian protest.
This, for example, is the six-year-old Gertrude’s experience of adult morality and the attempt to teach it:
“Well, you do as I tell you, and pop into that there drawer, and bring out that there small paper-bag!”
She broke out into triumphant laughter at the sight of Gertrude’s bewildered face.
Gertrude duly went through the process described by Ada as running into her drawer, and produced the small bag. She laid it on the table in front of Ada, and walked slowly towards the kitchen door, trying to look unconscious. At the door she was summoned by Ada’s voice, as she had expected to be.
“’Ere!” said Ada, “I arst you to bring me that bag, but I never arst you to ’elp yourself.”
“I didn’t!” said Gertrude indignantly. “I never touched one of them!”
“Never touched one of what, miss? You tell me that!”
“Never touched one of the sweets!”
Delighted at the success of her little ruse, Ada pointed a menacing finger at her charge.
“Well, then, you tell me this,” she said, “if you never took one of them, ’ow did you know as they were sweets in the bag?”
Gertrude hung her head miserably.
“I never touched one of them!”
“If you did,” said Ada, “kindly, remember that over my dressing-table is the words ‘Thou God seest me,’ and nex’ time I sees them words I shall know whether or not you’re telling the truth, young lady!”
Gertrude was alarmed. She really had not taken a sweet, but she had a nasty feeling that the text might play her false.
From this account of the deceit of those in power it is hardly far to a discovery of hypocrisy at work even in Gertrude’s contemporaries:
Someone struck up a tune, and the Veni Creator Spiritus was begun.
“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire” (“Oh, please, Holy Ghost!” whispered Gertrude, under cover of the music), “and lighten with celestial fire.”
Gertrude looked at her schoolfellows as they droned out the majestic words. The same expression of bored submission was apparent on every face.
“They don’t believe in it any more than I do,” she thought. “If the Holy Ghost really did come into the dining-room, I believe they’d be horribly shocked.”
The hymn was over, seats were resumed, and Bibles produced. The resemblance to the usual weekly Scripture lesson was marked. References were looked up, and the meaning of the original Hebrew for various words carefully explained. Gertrude, who had vaguely hoped for some soothing of the perpetual dull ache at her heart, was scarcely disappointed. She had only faintly hoped.
The result of all this was alienation, not just from her peers and the world, but also from herself:
When the girls were filing out of the room, Mademoiselle laid a detaining hand on Gertrude’s arm. In a miserable state of defiance, fear, and disgust, Gertrude remained rigid. Her throat became suddenly dry. She had an overpowering sense of inward failure [emphasis in the original]. She described it to herself as “feeling as if she had no inside.” The sensation was so strong that she wondered how it was she did not double up like a paper doll.
Growing Pains gives us too a picture of that drive to sisterhood which is a natural concomitant of feminine disquiet:
Her new passion, together with the slow awakening of adolescence, burned as a consuming fire in the breast of Gertrude. The very sight of Madge was enough to set her senses reeling, and when she came upon that sight unexpectedly, she would” feel giddy and faint and often be forced to sit down very quickly.
Not surprisingly, given the surpassing aestheticism of the years just before World War I, art comes to Gertrude’s rescue. But this is art not as craft, but as feeling:
“If you won’t work, Gertrude, it’s no use your ever hoping to draw,” [her art teacher] said decisively.
“It isn’t won’t—if s can’t,” protested Gertrude.
“Nonsense! You’ve far more talent than Amy Nelson, and yet she’s always ahead of you. Besides, when you choose you can do very well indeed.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not when I choose—it’s if I can feel like it. I can’t ever feel those silly old melons and loaves and things, so it’s useless my trying to draw them. [Emphasis in the original].
Despite her inability to see art as anything but self-expression, for Gertrude the power of the gospel of beauty was all-conquering:
It was a bright day in June, and the sun flooded her bedroom through the blind, and aroused her earlier than usual. Her eyes fell on the jug and basin on her washing-stand.
“Well, I never noticed that before!” said Gertrude rubbing her eyes. “That jug is beautiful! What a glorious color! How happy it makes me! But how silly! Why should a beautiful jug make me happy?”
Now the turning point of Gertrude’s life—and of the novel as well—is at hand. It comes—surprise!—through art. An older man to whom she is already attracted invites her to an art exhibition where some of his paintings are on view. Gertrude is drawn inexorably to his picture of a flower; here, through the experience of art, she reaches maturity:
“As Gertrude looked, memories rushed back upon her of a morning in spring when for the first time she fell in love with Beauty . . . . Gertrude sat down; she felt a little faint with happiness. She saw in a dream her darkened, sordid life lit up, ennobled, and made significant by the pure light of visible beauty. She felt purged, as by a coal from the Altar of Heaven, as she realized what stales had fallen from her eyes . . . . Gertrude knew that she was at last in touch with the Real in human relations, and the solemnity of that knowledge compelled sincerity with herself.
Growing Pains ends with an enthusiastic descent into conventional sentimentality. Gertrude marries her artist, finds married love in his arms “immeasurably dear.” On the next to last page of the book, the following treacly exchange between husband and wife takes place, ever so delicately hinting at pregnancy:
“Won’t you sit down?” said Don. “You’re looking very well. Been to many theatres lately?”
“No,” said Gertrude primly. “I hardly ever go out at night. My husband doesn’t care for it, and, besides, I have to take care of myself now.”
“Darling!” said Don, suddenly serious, “are you really well?
Do you really take care of yourself ?”
“Old silly! Of course! ‘Yes’ to both.”
Ivy’s next novel, The Questing Beast, published just one year later in 1914 by Martin Seeker, is modeled closely on the writer’s own experience as an employee at the Prudential Assurance Company. Despite the fact that the Prudential was one of the most humane and enlightened employers of its time, Ivy’s reaction to her work was one of revulsion, which she described in “Pru Girl,” a story printed in her 1971 collection:
Eileen was even unhappier at the Pru than she had anticipated. The girl clerks were utterly uninteresting to her, and as for niceness they were mostly the daughters of small tradesmen and bank clerks. They thought Eileen a mass of affectation with her unmanicured hands and her poetry books and high-brow novels. They themselves scarcely noticed the names of authors and eagerly followed the serial in the daily paper their fathers took in; they even discussed the heroines in Sweetheart Novelettes and other orange-covered booklets that until now Eileen had never seen anywhere but in the drawer of the kitchen dresser. For six months the only work entrusted to her was the copying of names, addresses, and policy numbers out of dirty ledgers into clean ones, omitting heavily erased canceled policies. If she made the slightest slip, the supervisor tore the whole page out of the ledger without a word. Later she was given letters to type, teaching herself as she worked from the company book of instructions. For one week a month everyone had to take a turn at the loathed addressograph.
Like the much later short story, The Questing Beast carries the private discontents of Growing Pains into the wider world of the work place. Now the heroine is Rachel Cohen, a desperately lonely girl who turns out from the beginning of the novel to be a true literary intellectual. Like Ivy, she doesn’t like her job. The first chapter of the book is called “Late!” and the second “Penal Servitude”; it seems that Rachel can’t manage to get up early enough to get to her jail-like work on time. The atmosphere in the novel is the same as in the much later “Pru Girl”:
At about twelve o’clock the menu for the day was passed round the desk, amid derogatory remarks.
After eating her lunch, Rachel kept apart from her colleagues. She found a small volume of poetry in her desk, and with this she retired to a warm and comfortable seat in the lounge. She did not read, however, but stared into the fire in sullen misery. She had been two years in the office now, and was not yet used to it, nor reconciled to her fate. She was, if anything, a shade more miserable than she had been at first, because she felt more dully hopeless. The first month had been one of such wild torture that she had not believed it could last. She had felt like a child who is being punished by being made to stand in the corner, and who turns round every minute, expectant of release—but now, having endured for many months, she began to see no reason why it should not go on for ever. It gradually sank into her, too, that many of her colleagues had been over thirty years in the office, and among them were some who must have minded as much as she did at first. . . .
A new element is added. For the causes of Rachel’s habitual tardiness at work (she is otherwise, by all accounts, a highly competent employee) are literary: she reads passionately—Anna Karenina and other serious things—and she writes. For her, the act of writing is indeed all-absorbing:
She wrote steadily for nearly an hour and a half. Somewhere in the house a door banged perpetually. Each report smote her senses. Rachel frowned nervously, but the reason of the annoyance did not penetrate her consciousness for a long time. When it did, she started to her feet to go out and shut the door. In the middle of the room she stood quite still and wondered why she had got up. She looked about the room for suggestions, but finding none, sat down again and took up her pen. The door banged again. “Of course!” said Rachel, and starting up again ran to close it. She came back and went on writing. A passing breeze shook the wind-bell, and at its sweet, faint music Rachel looked up and smiled.
It is an ill thing for your night’s rest to write until a late hour, and by the time Rachel had “written herself out” she knew that she could not hope to sleep for many hours. “I shall be lucky if I don’t hear it strike three,” she told herself.
Over her supper of bread and milk she read what she had written. It was a short story, about five thousand words in length . . . . The central idea was just what might have been expected from a young girl in Ray’s position-in fact it was inspired by her constant and enthusiastic reading of Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev. (She was just like all the other intellectual young people of to-day.) . . . .
The story . . . was neither ineffective nor ill-written. (It was noticeably free from clichés.) It left its author exhausted and exalted, but little prepared for the tiring morrow. Now, however, her aching limbs and inflamed eyes were no longer a grievance.
Is not the soul more than the body?
Suddenly, about a third of the way through the book, Rachel meets a man to whom she is attracted—the first (for there are in fact three in all) Questing Beast of the title. Beast number one is a quintessential cad named Giles Goodey, a married man who (under the cover of intellectual friendship) brings something new to Rachel’s life:
Rachel was giving herself surprises. She was discovering weaknesses in herself—one in particular. This particular weakness was a tendency to enjoy having her hand held by a man whose conversation bored her and whose mind she despised, and this and kindred but infinitestimal [sic] favours were sufficient to keep Giles in attendance on her. Subconsciously he knew what Rachel was to learn in conscious bitterness, that there was a bond between them and a plane on which they could meet with perfect sympathy, a plane on which nature was striving to place them. Rachel, after her first shock at the revelation of this weakness in herself, treated it rather as another woman would treat in herself a sudden desire for a cup of tea with her lunch: the approved treatment is to say: “I musn’t become dependent on it,” and to continue in the indulgence. And after all, was it an indulgence, or was it simply that it was rather less boring to submit to mild caresses than to have to respond to Giles’s conversation?
Giles and Rachel have an affair, complete with (as the affair seems to be coming to an end) his copying out a sonnet for her. But it is her decision to break matters off, and when she does so Ivy’s description of Rachel once again strikes the note of female ascendancy so characteristic of all her writing:
But because he [Giles] was an incurable poseur, it must not be imagined that he did not suffer. In the end he suffered more than Rachel, because he loved her, body and soul, and she, as she said, had never loved him.
Though the couple meet soon again—when in Ivy’s tremulous words, Rachel “only caught one terrified breath and submitted”—a new affair is now at hand. Noel Young, a brother of one co-worker and the fiance of another (and himself an employee in the insurance office), appears on the horizon, and once more Rachel is attracted. This time it is not only the man who, for Rachel, is the Questing Beast: this time it is also Rachel herself who engages on the great quest. She attempts to give Noel up, not viewing the renunciation as a total loss:
But Rachel was not altogether unhappy. What had once seemed a tragedy—the necessity of her daily attendance at the office—became an unnoticed part of her life, and she was upheld by the knowledge that Noel loved her and that she had acted unselfishly in leaving him. She had begun to write regularly now. It had once come to her to think: “I believe I could write a novel.” At first she had put away the idea, believing that greater leisure and quiet than she enjoyed must be necessary for such a stupendous achievement. She began the first chapter once, but destroyed it a week later. She was in no doubt as to her literary gift, but what she had written down seemed to her so unlike the novels she had read that she decided it would not do. She knew that she had some ideas to express. . . . It became a strong obsession, this longing to write in the first person, and to describe herself in detail. . . . She knew, now, that she was going to write about herself. . . .
Finally what had remained until that moment an affaire blanche is consummated—but not until Rachel reads Noei the early part of her manuscript. With a friend’s counsel, Noel finds a way to rationalize going back to his betrothed on the grounds that Rachel has had a lover before him. Ivy’s contempt for traditional male morality couldn’t be clearer:
Alas, for chivalry! Noel began to feel quite differently about Rachel, when he saw the attitude that a decent man like Humphreys adopted. He began to think that the fact of Rachel having had a lover before did make all the difference. What had happened would have been impossible with some girls. With Frances, for instance. Never had Frances seemed so faraway, so unapproachable. Oh, let us give it a name! So desirable!
Rachel is in despair. Once again, her literary vocation points the way:
“I will not go under,” she said defiantly; “No man on earth is worth going to pieces over.”
She took out her manuscript again. . . . Once she had got to work her pen flew over the paper for hours at a time, and she was able to forget the heaviest part of her grief, and to recover some of her self-respect in the spectacle of her industry and the quality of some of the work that she did in those dark hours.
Now too she is pregnant. Her new landlady befriends her, and with the help of the women in the office, who type her manuscript, the novel is made ready. It is accepted by a publisher, and soon Rachel is looking forward to twin blessed events: “My two babies,” she tells her landlady, “will be born in the same month.” Soon she has both a child and a literary success.
In the epilogue of The Questing Beast, Noel comes several years later to visit Rachel at the seaside. He is greeted by a small boy named Noel, and when he asks Rachel where her husband is, he is soon made to realize that the child is his. But far from asking for sympathy, Rachel makes clear her desire to raise the child herself without a father as she pursues her literary vocation. The novel ends with a strong demonstration of sisterhood by Rachel and her landlady, leaving Noel an unwanted intruder in a community of women. As Noel walks away, the book ends with these words:
Presently a motor-horn began to sOund incessantly, and he guessed that young Noel was investigating the car. He felt bitterly that it.was hard on a man to have no right to tell his own son to shut up making such an infernal row.
For all their defects of tone and literary construction, these novels remain, even seven decades later, implicit with life. The life which they contain was never matched by Ivy Litvinov in her later writing, which at its best seems a stale rehash of old memories of an England now foreign or a retelling of scenes from Russian life better done by native practitioners. Just because of the pulsing vitality which marks these two early novels, one cannot help asking one question: what happened to this spirit when Ivy Low married?
It is tempting indeed to answer this question as Mr. Carswell does: Ivy Low as Ivy Litvinov was a person in the wrong situation. To answer the question in this way, however, is to place all the burden of explanation for what happened to this writer on her experiences and fate in the Soviet Union after her marriage. But this answer, comforting as it may be for those who think that the demonic name of Stalin can explain all the evil in what would have otherwise been a noble experiment, fails to take account of the cul de sac inherent in the ideas from which Ivy first wrote and which she espoused with so much energy.
Ironically, what must have seemed before World War I as the freeing of the human spirit ended in a creative drought. The Victorian emphasis on moral uplift and the progress of science and through science was succeeded by a belief in what would now be called human potential. The particular contribution of the intellectual figures of the 1890s and after to the discussion of values was to place uplift, scientific thought, and the future of the individual in opposition, not just to the state, but to the very idea of a traditionally established order.
For Ivy Litvinov, life as a social process was defined as a struggle against obscurantist.
For Ivy Litvinov as for so many of the best and brightest of the day, life as a social process was defined as a struggle against obscurantist, even where not actually vicious and exploitative, repression. For her (despite some strong early positive inclinations), religion was a sham, bourgeois morality was a farce, marriage was a legal union in which the man did not love and the woman could not trust, work as it must be done by the millions was drudgery and boredom, and sexual passion was transitory and incomplete. Politics, as we know both from Mr. Carswell’s book and from the evidence of Ivy’s writing, was a matter of little importance.
What, then, remained? Only self-expression. But even for an artist the self cannot be taken for granted; self-expression, after all, must have something to express. That something, though mediated by the self, is nonetheless the world of people and things. To construe it as a whole generation of educated writers at the turn of the century did as the destructive encounter of the self with society is to deny the author the only subject matter he can communicate to others. To say this is not to ask for socialist realism or for the support of any particular established order; it is only to suggest that a writer who does not go toward the world cannot in the long run continue speaking to it.
Doubtless we shall never know just why Ivy Low married Maxim Litvinov. Surely she must have found the new world of her husband’s revolutionary activities and friends an attractive change from the English society from which she felt she had suffered so much. Unfortunately, the Soviet world which Ivy soon encountered was a world even less attractive to her than that which she had left. All the promises of human liberation which sounded from every Bolshevik organ soon metamorphosed not just into sham, but into murder. For Ivy the result was twofold: on the physical level a descent into aimless, tortured sexual promiscuity, and on the literary level a flight into hackwork and the endless reworking of old memories. All that was left to her in the Soviet Union was thus the cultivation of the weaknesses, both personal and literary, which marred even her pre-revolutionary work.
Mr. Carswell has chosen to begin the title of his book with the word “Exile.” Whether or not he intended it, in the case of Ivy Litvinov, exile has two meanings: flight from her land and alienation from her own social world and even from her own deepest self. In our time the profession of exile is an honored one, and its favorable associations should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Ivy Litvinov was an exile from a democratic England by her own choice; that this condition robbed her later writing of contact with her own world; that by an irony of fate she was to become an exile even in a social system she must, however fuzzily, have once admired in potential. Because the notion of survival is so closely linked with exile, we should be careful too to avoid seeing her long life as a simple validation of her existence. Vyacheslav Molotov, after all, has also survived, in his case into an honored and indubitably old age.
For those who, like Mr. Carswell, must look for a rationalization of the troubled life and ugly times of Ivy Litvinov, perhaps the simplest formulation is the best; she reflected the forces that made her what she was. A wiser choice, made early, might have averted the evil decree for her, as for so many of our century’s other lost souls.
- The Exile: A Life of Ivy Litirinov, by John Carswell; Faber &Faber, 216 pages $19.95. Go back to the text.
- The fate of these papers in itself makes up an illuminating chapter in the perils of resistance to Soviet policy: though Ivy, before leaving America in 1943, had entrusted the safe-deposit-box key to “an American friend,” some time after Maxim’s death she found herself summoned to the Lubyanka prison, where she was faced with, and interrogated about, the supposedly hidden documents. Unfortunately, Mr. Carswell gives neither the name of the “American friend” nor even the date of Ivy’s potentially fatal encounter with the Soviet authorities. Go back to the text.
- The Nightman Years: 1930-1940, by William L. Shirer (Little, Brown). In this, the second volume of his memoirs, the famous war correspondent paints Litvinov as directly tied to the Soviet measures he advocated: “Maxim Litvinov, the longtime Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, had staked his reputation and career on building up collective security against Nazi Germany. He thought a united front of the two Western powers and the Soviet Union . .. was the only means of deterring Hitler .... Undaunted by Chamberlain’s rejection ... Litvinov called in the British ambassador in Moscow on April 16  and made a formal proposal for a triple pact.... It was Litvinov’s last bid to the West to join Russia in stopping Hitler .... But Chamberlain stalled, and this was fatal to Litvinov.” Go back to the text.
- Both these books are now difficult to obtain, at least in this country. I am indebted to the research collections of the New York Public Library and Stanford University for making reproductions of them available to me. Go back to the text.
- It should be made clear that, for all Ivy’s apolitical stance, she was, for much of the period of her husband’s success, aware of the true state of affairs in Stalin’s Russia; this is made abundantly clear by Mr. Carswell’s inclusion of a horrifying extract from a tape made by Ivy in 1960-61 concerning the fate of Rose Cohen, an Englishwoman married to a Ukrainian Communist and murdered by Stalin despite Ivy’s attempt to secure the intercession of Harry Pollitt, the head of the English Communist Party. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 1, on page 15
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