Sunday, June 28, 2020

Uncle Stalin’s a Satanic Sorcerer! (Or: Tyler Stalin’s Projekt нанесение увечья!)

To choose one’s victims, to prepare one’s plan minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed… There is nothing sweeter in the world.

Oh, Uncle Joe… (swoon!)

A recommendation! The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin by Richard Lourie (1999) I’ve ranted about it to friends, colleagues, and relatives—now it’s YOUR turn!
Here’s my “rave” copy-blurb for the back of the mass-market paperback edition (that will never be printed):

—A nihilistic former seminary student rebelling against EVERYTHING becomes a bank robber—and later uses his gangster skills to get to the very top of the blood-drenched New Revolutionary Russia!

Colin Wilson + James Ellroy + Chuck Palahniuk ÷ Early-Twentieth Century History = THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF JOSEPH STALIN!

If anything is a plunge into the “heart of darkness,” this novel is it.
The copy of the hardcover
edition that I have
Published in 1999, and picked up by me at a long-gone bookstore for no remembered specific reason—
someone may have recommended it—
or did I, intrigued by the title, pick up the hardcover Counterpoint/Perseus Book Group edition of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin, and after reading a few pages, decided I liked it enough to buy it? In true Stalinistic style, I am decreeing that it is now our official story regarding the acquisition of this literature.

I have read quite a bit on the Red Tyrant—Montefiore’s bio was good, but deffo a bit of a snooze, too. I’d been spoiled by The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin’s lightning pace, barebones style—and especially its limited timeframe. The years of combat in WWII are not covered—nor do they need to be. We need to see the elements forming and solidifying that make up the character of the man who will lead the Soviets to victory over the Nazi-fascists, not necessarily the outcome we already know.
After all, the WWII years have been done to death; however, I highly recommend Joseph Sargent’s fine 1994 tele-film Then There Were Giants (a.k.a. When Lions Roared), with Michael Caine giving a mesmerizing perf as Comrade Stalin.
It’s wonderful seeing him parlay and verbally spar with John Lithgow’s FDR and Bob Hoskins’ Churchill (both of whom are stellar in their roles); Caine’s eyes all snake-like and cunning, or else chortling evilly over some witticism—like to Churchill at one point, “God is on your side? Is He a Conservative? The Devil's on my side, he's a good Communist.”

The trade paperback cover;
I'm not really a fan of either
this or the hardback cover
One of my rules about Cinematic Biographies is that they should only cover the most important five to ten years of the subject’s life. When the movie tries to go the “cradle to grave” route, 99 times out of 100, the flick is dullsville, with all events shown becoming equal in significance (or insignificance). (Some Bad Biopics HEREThe People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996; Milos Forman) would have been that much stronger had it only concentrated solely on the courtroom years—plenty there already, including an assassination attempt and a religious conversion! Growing up dirt poor? Those scenes were unnecessary.
When I read Stanley Kubrick's 1969 script to Napoleon, I was almost glad the Great Stanley K. didn't get a chance to make this "pet project" of his. The script is a "cradle 2 grave" plot by-the-numbers. Maybe SK would've been able to save the flick in the editing room, but I dunno. Sure, Kubrick's Napoleon script has some terrifically innovative moments (like how a sea battle is presented only in its underwater aftermath), but it also felt rushed and patchwork. When I compare the script of Napoleon to the final product that is Barry Lyndon (1975; considered to be the "period piece" that SK made instead of the epic on the French emperor), and I know that that sort of comparison probably isn't fair, but Barry Lyndon is the much better of the two. 

The best biopics are like Patton (1970; Franklin J. Schaffner), dealing specifically with the general’s WWII years, but defining his entire life (the use of the German military intelligence man as Greek chorus is brilliant); Tim Burton’s 1994 Ed Wood (covering Wood’s life-defining friendship with Bela Lugosi and the creation of his “masterpiece” Plan Nine From Outer Space (a flick that may be ineptly put together, but is never boring!)); and Capote (2005; Bennett Miller), only looking at the time of the creation of In Cold Blood, and how that experience changed the writer utterly, maybe even shattering him psychically.

Everyone loves David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia (covering only a sliver of T.E.’s whole wild life), but a few other biopics worth mentioning are:
A controversial trio of Ken Russell biopics on artists: The Music Lovers (1971; a very queer-centric look at Tchaikovsky), Savage Messiah, and Mahler (1974).
Chopper (2000), directed by Andrew Dominik; looking at the formative hoodlum/prison years of Australia’s most bestselling author.
Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988)—kinda “cradle 2 grave,” but saved by a fractured, opiated timeline, and some wild Charlie Parker music.

(And remember: biopics are different from Historical Events Flicks, like Then There Were Giants (mentioned above), 1970's Soviet-Italian co-production, the must-see Waterloo, The Hindenburg (1976), or Tora! Tora! Tora!)
The Mexican edition of
Lourie's book;
probably my fave of
the three cover arts
that I've seen

It’s rare for a “cradle 2 grave” flick to catch my love. The handful that have would include 
American Splendor (2003; Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini), Adam McKay’s underseen and underrated Vice (2018), or Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-psychedelic Bronson (2008), all excellent flicks, labors of love, full of passion and intelligence, and all highly experimental in form and/or content (when compared to the standard biopic which starts at A and trods to Z).

Always providing more insight (or understanding), and a continuous level of entertainment, this is my fifth reading of The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin. It is most certainly literary comfort food for me, educational and edifying—delicious and nutritious, like Baba Yaga’s poisonous chicken noodle soup.

With my most current reading, I was really taken in by the book’s “voice,” and the almost-telegraphic style through which detail, description, and dialogue are conveyed with brutal efficiency (or should that be “efficient brutality”?).

Then, you get lines right out of Fight Club Goes Soviet: “[Trotsky] is one of those people who do not really listen but are only waiting their chance to speak.” (p.135). It’s interesting to wonder if The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin author Richard Lourie had read Palahniuk’s 1996 debut novel? Lourie’s book did come out in 1999, the same year David Fincher’s film of Fight Club was released. There was a crazy intellectual frisson when I read those words after seeing the film….

One of my proposed paperback
edition covers for
The Autobiography
of Joseph Stalin
This “autobiography” (although “diary” might be more accurate—if a tad daintier…) takes place in the months leading up to the murder of Trotsky in 1940. Stalin’s conducting another set of purges, sometimes personally interrogating political prisoners. Meanwhile, war with Hitler is on the horizon, even with the Mutual Non-Aggression Pact. The dictator is also very distracted by his surveillance of Trotsky, who is in exile in Mexico, and writing a “true” biography of Stalin.

Holding power is the only thing that matters to Uncle Joe, and Trotsky’s litany of Stalin’s genuine crimes doesn’t concern the Kremlin’s master. Bravura scenes of robberies and assassinations leave the reader wanting more cold-blooded violence, but Lourie wisely backs off—it’s historical recreation, not a gore movie. (But the machismo, single-mindedness of character, and rabbit-punch scene work does feel very Ellroy, IMHO.)

But if Trotsky figures out “that” (no spoilers here; I’ll never tell)—then Stalin will lose his power, his everything.
With KGB agents and finks all over the place, Stalin is routinely given copies and hidden-camera photos of Trotsky’s notes, writings, and correspondences—all of which are examining the minutia of Stalin’s early life. The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin is often Comrade Stalin’s ongoing chapter-by-chapter commentary on Trotsky’s biography of him. Meta-, yes?

It’s so well-researched, and information packed, but the evidence is always slotted in in the most unobtrusive manner. It’s just part of the storytelling, not a stultifying info-dump.

One of my favorite scenes is Joe pretending to be his own double, having a chat with Trotsky’s double—
Describing “himself” to Trotsky Two when asked, Stalin says, “Tough, of course, but with a good sense of humor…. [He pays] Decent, though he’s a little on the cheap side.” (p.213). Such self-effacement.

Another potential cover
for the paperback edition
Meanwhile, Stalin scrutinizes his own past, seeking clues for “that”—if I can find it in all these scraps of paper, why can’t Trotsky?
Stalin almost always refers to himself by his name—which becomes a bit of a head-trip after a certain point—or like some Tolkien-esque fantasy saga where the wizards hardly ever use personal pronouns. But in one sense, it is magical: The impish little boy who got everything, by hook or by crook—a real-life Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—and frozen, superstitious Russia always has had a feel of the “fantastical” about it—the passions! The cruelties! SO INTENSE.

Of course, Stalin is insanely biased against Trotsky. But, Stalin might ask, why should Stalin have any sympathy for such a socially-inept loser who is nothing like Stalin?

This novel is an expansion of the quote at the very top, with former darling of the Soviets Leon Trotsky as the focus of vengeance. The novel is presented very realistically, but the actions of the characters and the situations they are in are almost surreal due to their paranoia and Stalin’s demands.

Still another potential
paperback cover;
this one is a bit
more "magical" I suppose
Stalin, meanwhile, is full of contempt for everyone because no one is smarter or stronger than he. (BTW, Uncle Joe once said, “Everyone has the right to be stupid, but some people abuse the privilege.”)
He’s almost surprised he’s gotten so far, but since he’s here, well, let’s roll up our sleeves and get some stuff done. He has superhuman willpower. He is the Man of Steel.

The only flaw in the book is that it (a work of fiction, no matter how meticulously researched) does not do what nearly all genuine autobiographies do—which is bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, and then feign innocence regarding all sins.
Or else be like, for example, Omar Bradley’s autobiography A General’s Life (1983), where the reader is BURIED under corroborative evidence and citations that may be of interest to a historian, but to a general reader it becomes the perfect cure for insomnia. The Battle of the Bulge was NOT this dull.

With a little cropping,
this would be an excellent
paperback cover for
The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin.

No, no, no, the “autobiographical” Stalin is brutally honest with himself (and brutal with everyone else), and it’s a delight.
The proverbial cat that’s eaten the canary, Uncle Joe S. is smug and satisfied, but ole Leon T.’s efforts to “expose” him are vexing. And then that damn Hitler has to go and start the war early…. (“Stalin needs peace for terror,” the dictator gripes early on (p.40).)

Basically, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin is Richard III set in late-1930s Moscow, but with an uncomfortably “happy” ending—no promises of exchanging a kingdom for a horse are necessary.

Although I name-dropped/hat-tipped to beloved authors Colin Wilson, James Ellroy, and Chuck Palahniuk in my “fantasy” of a back of the paperback blurb earlier (and do you like my proposed alternate covers for a mass-market paperback re-release?), Lourie’s character of Stalin is kissing-cousin to George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous scoundrel Harry Flashman. They are both reliable narrators precisely because they are such incorrigible monsters—yet presenting cruxes in history with verve, humor, and a liveliness rarely seen in texts covering such a somber topic.
More importantly, books like The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin or the Flashman Papers are willing to examine and hypothesize (and make judgments) on the human psychology (jealousies, fears, personal beliefs, et cetera) behind these historical events. I feel that the psychological aspect is an important part of looking at history, and one that far too many history texts are too timid to tackle.

So why have I read this book at least five times now?
It’s an utterly unique and lively way to recreate history—I trust that Lourie isn’t too much making things up.
It’s a brilliant, forever entertaining page-turner, and INSPIRATIONAL to anyone who’s ever been surrounded by idiots.
In presenting Stalin’s rise to power, Lourie is also giving us a primer in how to grease the wheels of success.

Tyler Stalin’s Projekt нанесение увечья (naneseniye uvech'ya) [mayhem] presents us some philosophizing that’s worthy of considering:
“Siberia was a great university of boredom…. It is only human to hate boredom. And for that reason I taught myself to love it [sic]…. [H]istorians will… [wonder] why Trotsky lost the power struggle to Stalin after Lenin’s death. They will find dozens, hundreds of reasons, but really there was only one—Trotsky hated boredom and Stalin loved it.
“In exile, people combat… the even greater boredom of solitude. I chose solitude… I wanted to scour myself of… the last vestiges of feeling for anything…. Stalin was my way of not being human.” (p.174-175).

Then, in an age where our current politicians are stumbling, idiotic morons at best, The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin makes one wish for a smart leader—even if they are a sociopath, and it’s a perfect companion piece to Orwell’s 1984 (learn Big Brother’s side!)—but if you ride the subway reading this book, you WILL get some odd looks.

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