Monday, March 11, 2013

Guest Post: André Jute's "Vanguard Elite"

This is a guest post by Matt Posner. He reviews André Jute's Vanguard Elite, and has an interview with the author. Enjoy!

Vanguard Elite is the first in Andre Jute's eight-volume series of novels about both sides of the Cold War. As a regular reader and reviewer of Andre's work, a fan of the writer and the human being, it's my pleasure to recommend this colorful, character-driven short novel about the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian government in 1917.

The background:

In 1917, after many years of unsuccessful attempts, the Russian people finally unseated and executed their Romanov ruler Czar Nicholas II, and as usual after a revolution, went into a period of turmoil and struggle trying to form an effective new government. As a primarily agricultural nation, economically backward and still struggling to adapt to the high-intensity industrial growth found in Western Europe, Russia was not the nation Karl Marx would have anticipated, or recommended, for a communist revolution, but years of oppression and the Czar's disastrous entanglement in a war against Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II finally fueled Nicholas II's removal. A bureaucratic mess of a government, led by Alexander Kerensky, took vague shape in St. Petersburg, but when the Bolshevik leaders, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and others, perceived its weakness and incompetence, they moved to remove Kerensky and establish a Marxist-Leninist nation instead.

The question:

We always read about these men as tough historical figures who represent a specific set of ideas and foibles, who move around the political arena as inexorably as chess pieces. But weren't they human? What was it like to be around them in the midst of the revolutionary ferment? Do we really understand them as men rather than as figureheads in a perilous game of high-stakes brinksmanship?

The answer:

The answer is, of course, Vanguard Elite (with other books in the series to follow).
Andre's book shows Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and their cohorts as they might have been seen close up, through the eyes of their confederates and subordinates. The novel starts with Sergei, a young soldier who has deserted the front against Germany in order to come to the capital and be a Bolshevik. He proves a very effective vehicle for humanizing the leaders as he meets and serves them, since his impressions as a naïf correspond to what we ourselves might feel in the presence of such complex and commanding figures. The point of the view of the common man mixed among the mighty, exposing alternately their greatness and their humanity, has been around for a long time -- perhaps the gravedigger scene from Hamlet is a particularly potent example of this technique's capacity to provoke both humor and complexity of perspective. Andre uses it well here. To Sergei's earnestness and youthful energy are added a wry and brave couple, Anatoly and Anna; a self-sacrificing Zhivago-like upper-class doctor and his family; a number of shrewd and tough aides-de-camp; and a hot romance in the upper echelon.

The book was full of surprises for me. The first appearance of Stalin -- which I was not expecting -- made me fascinated but queasy. This man, who by the 1930s was second only to Hitler in his ferocious evil, is shown here as he was before he came to power, blunt and tough, but capable of laughter. Andre has left room for him to grow into the villain we now know him to be. The other leaders are equally fascinating in their brief appearances. Also, it is surprising to learn the extent to which yet more historical individuals, whose names did not go down in history, had pivotal roles to play in the communist takeover.

Andre has created here the authentic feel of a dialogue-driven, ideologically-motivated Russian novel, but he has also provided his customary racing-speed mix of action and danger. Almost every book I review is a struggle for me at one point or another, given my restless disposition and the ease with which I fall asleep when reading in bed. Not this book, though. I was never bored for a moment, and I didn't want to turn the light out.

I have no advance knowledge of the contents of the later books, but an eight-volume series should allow Andre to show detailed portraits of essential moments on both sides of the Cold War. He has got the Russians down perfectly so far as I can tell. I'm excited to see how he handles the American side of the story and which men will show up then. Just one request, though -- if it's not too late, will you give Sergei a girlfriend?


Matt Posner interviews Andre Jute
4 March 2013.

You have said that your new series about the Cold War is particularly important to you. What makes you so motivated to share it?
It’s important to understand the world we live in. The fears, events, attitudes, restraints, and, let’s face it, opportunities of the Cold War, shaped the world we live in, more than any other event or series of events. I like the idea of doing an important, necessary job of education in the form of an extended, entertaining thriller. Nobody else has told this story from both the Russian and the American viewpoints, from the inside out in each case. Everyone else told only part of the story, and took sides.
Also a personal reason: I worked on the 8-volume set COLD WAR, HOT PASSIONS for 25 years on and off. It is my magnum opus, and the story that connects me to the young dispenser of dreams I was once.

Vanguard Elite is about the human side of the leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917. These people have largely been demonized for those who grew up under the nominally democratic nations of the West. Why did you decide to show them on the personal level in these books?
Because it’s true. Every single event in the entire eight volumes and 2000 pages of COLD WAR, HOT PASSIONS happened. Every one of the events I describe is meticulously documented in huge depth. I did what any experienced writer does, select the most striking events and reassemble them in the form of a novel so that they make coherent sense. Behind the great men of Soviet historiography, acting with superhuman certainly and supernatural prescience, lies nothing but the historians’ desire not to be shot by Stalin. The truth is that the whole affair was opera buffa. I’ve been in revolutions in banana republics which had more panache. How ramshackle even Lenin’s great principles were becomes clearer in the second volume, in which there is a moment of relative peace to measure whether these men were indeed capable of administering a great nation.

The dialogue in this book is very reminiscent (for me) of Russian novels. Was that something you were actively seeking? If so, how did you go about it?
I’m fluent enough in Russian to grasp vernacular nuance, there was a time when I was keen on the Russian classics, and I liked Pasternak’s lyrical style in Dr Zhivago. But I learned Russian not for literary purposes but to appreciate Russian opera better. The novels in the set COLD WAR, HOT PASSIONS grew out of my interest in the dynamic of history: the Soviet experiment is a 75-year laboratory for studying the effect of Nietzsche’s will to power. I suppose having read the great Russians in a variety of languages including Russian gave me an ear for the way Russians speak, as you say, but I wasn’t deliberately striving to mimic anyone, I was just suiting the rhythms of the dialogue to the characters, earthing them in their native soil. I hope I’m as successful with the American characters on the other side of the story, when they arrive in the second volume, TERRORS, in a few weeks.

As a writer who has had an adventurous life, you are open to some biographical comparisons to Hemingway or Conrad. Do you find either of these men personally inspirational? If not, who?
Adventures just happen to me because I have expensive tastes and an outspoken morality that offends the powerful and, it must be said, friends who are magnets for trouble. Given a choice, I’d be a scholar in a quiet library.
Hemingway features in a true incident in front of the Ritz during the Liberation of Paris in the third volume of COLD WAR, HOT PASSIONS, and not in a flattering light.
As a young novelist, after a few years of being flattered for a Hemingwayesque economy with words, I became bored with it. It wasn’t so much that the style is arid, but that it lacks subtlety. Once a writer has learned to write a sentence without any unwanted subtexts, it is natural to wonder how powerful his sentence could be, and how much more he could put in a novel, if he could control the subtexts rather than just eliminate them, and instead write richly nuanced sentences.

What I remember Conrad for is the sense that a thrilling adventure can be a literary event.
A whole range of writers influenced me. Highlights are Ayn Rand, for serious and unpopular themes, Richard Condon for dishing out morality in novels of sublime comedy and for never repeating himself, Charles McCarry whose Paul Christopher novels together make a perfect example of a large structure beautifully rendered, Len Deighton for ferociously controlled viewpoints, Paul Johnson for handling serious history in a digestible and entertaining manner; the list goes on.

Thank you Matt and Kathleen for inviting me!

Follow Andre on Twitter @thrillsjute
Another good interview with details about the book:

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