In the vocational struggle to hold the reader’s attention, the writer of historical fiction has an advantage. Whereas non-historical novelists must coax us into caring about nobodies, those who portray famous characters can assume our automatic interest: we relish the chance to see up close and intimately the great men and women of the past. For his fifth novel and first foray into historical fiction, Stephen May, whose prior work includes the novels Stronger Than Skin and Wake Up Happy Every Day along with a number of plays, has selected a particularly glamorous cast and setting. It’s London, May 1907, and a gathering of Marxist revolutionists including Stalin (known here as Koba, his self-chosen name after a heroic figure from Georgian folklore), Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky and Maxim Gorky have convened at the 5th Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party.
It’s a decade before the revolution, and Stalin is a young buck of 29 with a dialectical-materialist dream in his heart and a twinkle in his eye. No sooner has he stepped off the boat in an England whose degradations are evoked with Hogarthian relish than we mark a flicker of the dark personality that will wreak unquantifiable terror on the future Soviet Union: perceiving a slight from one of his comrades, he logs the transgression while silently vowing revenge.
In electing Koba/Stalin as his lead character, May sets up a dynamic whereby on every page we compulsively compare the figure before us, domineering and vengeful, yet not without sensitivity and even kindness – indeed a sometime poet – with the dread tyrant he is to become. In party matters, Koba employs the same streetfighter’s attitude that as a boy allowed him to rule the schoolyard: “Go in hard. Use the element of surprise. Give no quarter. Don’t allow yourself the luxury of mercy.”
I wasn’t always sure if Sell Us the Rope adds up emotionally. Koba’s Rosebud-like attachment to an urchin named Arthur, who symbolises the abused child he once was, and his not infrequent displays of decency, seem oddly generous traits to imaginatively grant a man who would go on to coldly order the deaths of millions. Perhaps, though, this is a fallacy of retrospect on my part, and the psychopathic paranoia that motivated Stalin’s historic crimes was a degenerative condition, corroding his residual humanity year by year.
Besides, the story is not only Koba’s. During the London conference, party members concern themselves with resolving the conflict between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, schmoozing the establishment British left for donations at a mansion cocktail party, and keeping tabs on the tsarist secret police force – the Okhrana – who even in London are scheming against the revolutionists. A 19-year-old Finn named Elli Vuokko tries to seduce Koba (his wife and child are back in Georgia) and becomes friends with the older, formidable Luxemburg, whose husband is incensed by an affair she is conducting with a younger man. In focusing on the conference’s summer-camp romantic intrigues and blooming friendships, Sell Us the Rope does what such novels are good at and reveals the texture of history as an all too human bricolage of private resentments, sexual slights, flawed personalities and mixed motives. At times, May too obviously projects contemporary attitudes into the past, as when Lenin strategises about winning over philanthropists by appealing to their desire to be on that fabled plane, “the right side of history”.
I won’t spoil it, but halfway through the novel something happens that had me rapidly scanning my knowledge of 20th-century history for glaring blindspots. Referring to the author’s helpful afterword, I learned that the plot-quickening revelation in question – this intriguing novel’s most audacious ploy – is neither an outright fabulation nor a settled fact, but rather the fictive imagining of a controversial hypothesis whose opponents claim is based on a forgery. Which is only to say: all historical novels are speculative, but some are more speculative than others.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book is Autobibliography