Jerome Charyn is an audacious writer. Author of more than three dozen books, he moves from crime fiction to nonfiction to memoir with ease. From 1997 to 2002, he published a three-part memoir, imagining as much as recounting the misadventures of his family in the Bronx. His most recent cultural history, Gangsters and Gold Diggers: Old New York, the Jazz Age, and Birth of Broadway, came out earlier this year.
Now, Charyn takes an even greater risk. His latest novel, The Green Lantern, turns to Soviet history, evoking Moscow in the 1930s with both horror and humor. He populates his cast with monsters, heroes and unlikely combinations of both. He brings to Moscow a theater troupe from Georgia (the country, not the state) in a production of King Lear led by Boris Tuchkov, a disgraced and exiled film producer pining away for a cultural cosmopolis.
Tuchkov is as gutsy as the author who created him: “He was fifty years old. He had problems with his bladder, and sometimes, when he was on stage, he would have to pee in a bottle. . .[but] what manager other than Tuchkov would risk performing a play about a dotty old king when Stalin was close to sixty, had a young daughter and a dead wife, and was as reclusive as Lear?” Soon, though, the back-alley theater makes good. Tuchkov’s apprentice, Ivanushka (at 6 feet 6 inches tall, he is called “Little Ivan”), captivates the capitol—including Joseph Stalin and his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva—in the role of Lear.
Thrust into an atmosphere of power and intrigue, holy fool Ivanushka falls in love with dangerous women like Valentina Mikhailovna, an erstwhile Soviet movie star eternally compromised by her unsuccessful stint in Hollywood, and Yevgenia Yezhova, one-time friend of Stalin’s late wife Nadya and, according to the novel, a one-time mistress of Stalin himself. The Green Lantern, its title a reference to the lamp permanently burning in Stalin’s Kremlin office, proceeds to detail the encounters of a mixed cast of characters, both real—Stalin, writers Maxim Gorky and Isaac Babel, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein—and imaginary.
Ivanushka’s story runs parallel to that of the less innocent Volodya Rustaveli, a thief-turned-author who first became famous under Maxim Gorky’s patronage and now runs the Soviet Writer’s Union while also working for the secret police. The rewards for his cooperation—a spacious apartment, an abundance of everything in a universe of rationing and shortage—vie with the terrible frustration of writer’s block: Rustaveli hasn’t written a word in years. Nevertheless, he manages to shield his former patron from Stalin’s henchmen, sipping the arsenic-laced milk meant to hasten Gorky’s death. (Though rumors abound, evidence suggests that Gorky died what historian Bertrand Wolfe once called “that most unnatural of deaths for a Bolshevik, a natural death.”)
Rustaveli also uses his privileged position to help other writers, both great (Osip Mandelstam, Babel) and small (the fictional Pavel Khlebnikov). Like the simple giant Ivanushka, Rustaveli is a larger-than-life lover, once the paramour of Valentina Mikhailovna and now in thrall to Gorky’s widowed daughter-in-law, the demure Timosha. The chances he takes, especially when he writes a subversive “adventure” story called “The Green Lantern” and distributes it privately, land him in the gulag. Ivanushka, too, finds his way to the labor camps, though in his case in quixotic pursuit of his beloved Valentina Mikhailovna.
Charyn has fashioned an intricate and engaging plait of love and death. He knows a lot about the period and where he invents, he usually does so believably, with fiction growing plausibly out of fact. Eisenstein did indeed wear silk pajamas and eat éclairs. Stalin did dote on Svetlana, and Charyn cleverly exploits the ironic parallels between King Lear and Stalin, though Svetlana did not have quite the power over her father that Lear’s daughters have over theirs. The similarities between Shakespeare’s wise fool and the Russian folk-character Ivanushka, as well as the assorted casts of murderers, only deepen the meaning of the book. Similarly, Stalin and his cronies enjoy a satirical dance of coupling, of passion and politics. That Stalin’s inner circle did indulge in sexual shenanigans is hardly news: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, to cite just one recent account, offers plenty of evidence to that effect.
There is one moment, though, where Charyn’s audacity fails him. He portrays Stalin as a wolf, but a wolf so conscious of the power of art he feels the need to kill those who create it. Stalin secretly reads Mandelstam’s poetry and fears it precisely because he understands its greatness. The Stalin of The Green Lantern also allures as well as terrifies. This may be fair—certainly Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Bulgakov, Babel and other writers felt Stalin’s appeal—but as a plausible illustration of Stalin’s dual nature, it’s a bit thin. Though he repeatedly intervened in literary and cinematic matters, Stalin’s tastes ran, as Charyn acknowledges, to sentimental popular culture. And this acknowledgement is at odds with this portrayal of a literary Stalin.
Socialist realism glorified heroes of socialist labor, worshipped the Party and Stalin, vehemently attacked the West, and admired everything Soviet and some things Russian. Stalin’s order to “preserve but isolate” Osip Mandelstam, issued just weeks before the poet’s arrest, probably had less to do with appreciation for Mandelstam’s genius than with the seductive exercise of unlimited power.