It must have been strange working at Little, Brown and to edit, proof-read and publish pages 300-302 of this book where the company is reported as squashing the publishing of Howard Fast’s Spartacus, a dispute that forced out Angus Cameron, the firm’s editor-in-chief. Fast was a popular left wing novelist whose books – like Spartacus – were political as well as being racy. Eventually he self-published the book as no other publisher would take him. Fast was a target, and would end up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He would also discover that his babysitter was an FBI agent and his house was bugged. This was 1951 and writers like Fast had been taking sides in the Cold War. He took the side of Russia.
Fast was a catch. His Freedom Road, published in 1944, “had sold 30 million copies in ten years and had been translated into eighty-two languages”. (This was a novel about a group of former slaves in reconstruction America which could be popular currently, but the paperback is £30.99 from an academic publisher.)
Fast was one of the organisers of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, one of a bewildering number of organisations and conferences with harmless names that pulled in writers from this side or that. One of the names was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CCF operated internationally and was eventually found to be funded by the CIA and in turn organised the funding of literary magazines worldwide which advanced the cause of Western democratic freedom. Often they were good magazines. In Uganda, Transition published “important work by Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiongo” and in South America Mundo Nuevo “helped popularise the writers of the Latin American boom, including Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez”. In Britain it was Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender. Few, if any, of the authors knew that their pay came from the CIA – nor, in the case of Encounter, did its editor. Spender was horrified to discover his magazine was so funded. He resigned in 1966, donated money that he had earned and never read a word of the magazine again.
In the West writers might be used, abused, lose contracts, gain contracts but it was a lot tougher on the other side when stepping out of line could result in a bullet (Isaac Babel), exclusion (Anna Akhmatova) or what was almost a public imprisonment (Boris Pasternak). These last were just three of many writers abused under Stalin. After the Thaw – was this the only period in history named after a novel? – the USSR relaxed, a bit, but the threat was always there. In 1966 Dmitri Eremin gave the Soviet writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yulii Daniel what could only be described as a bad review in Izvestia, describing them as “werewolves” who “spatter on to paper all that is most vile and filthy”. One month later they were on what became a world famous trial. Daniel included in his defence a roll call of writers murdered by the Soviet state – Babel, Mandelstam, Bruno Jasienski, Ivan Katayev, Koltsov, Tretyakov, Kvitko, Markish.* For his trouble, Daniel was given five years in a hard labour camp, Sinyasvky got seven. At least they lived.
Some of the writers covered in the book were desperate not to take sides. The Black American novelist Richard Wright could not bear to live in racist America, decamping to Paris, yet could not bear the way the Communist Party tried to exploit his community and himself. He died a tragic figure, broken by the fray.
is a gripping read, though its structure is awkward. There is no linear narrative and chapters on one writer or group of writers often end on a cliffhanger leading you to either flick ahead to continue their story or move straight into the life of another writer or group of writers, often within another country. Duncan White (correctly) has a go at Howard Fast for overwriting for a popular audience, but White himself can get a bit carried away with the drama. The chapter “Koestler Berlin, 1950” starts “Arthur Koestler recognised this was his moment. As he approached the lectern, he looked out over the crowd, some fifteen thousand strong, knowing that they were eagerly anticipating what he had to say. He was the undoubted star of the Congress of Cultural Freedom and he knew it.”
Star he was, but White reminds us that Koestler
was out of his head half the time on Benzedrine and alchohol – and that he was a sexual abuser. A lot of the good guys, depending on which side you were on, were not exactly good guys. The Jewish Howard Fast showed no concern for the Jewish writers murdered by Stalin.
Those who came out of this period best were those in the middle, who did their best, Spender, Wright, Mary McCarthy – people we would now call public intellectuals – not always getting it right but who were for neither Washington nor Moscow, but for something far better.
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*The latter two were among those murdered by Stalin in 1952, whose work Five Leaves included in our From Revolution to Repression: Soviet Yiddish Writing from 1917-1952.