From New International, Vol XII No. 4, April 1946, p. 119.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
For Thee the Best
by Mark Aldanov
Charles Scribner’s Sons
This novel, presenting us with a too obvious parallel with the present in the post-Napoleonic era, offers an excellent excuse for intellectual sloth. The events after Waterloo seem as contemporaneous as those in today’s newspaper, and they almost compel facile historical generalizations about the monotony and repetition of history. Aldanov is too clever to make the parallel explicit, but it is nonetheless present in the entire book.
The great question of the post-Napoleonic era was the domination of Europe, and the two great powers that confronted each other were Russia and England. Revolutionary organizations planned uprisings, alliances were formed to maintain the status quo, secret service agents were frantically collating information, and tension fixed the entire continent.
But the parallels, while suggestive, are more obvious than real. The loosely-organized, rhetoric-spouting Carbonari have little in common with the well-integrated, business-like world communist movement. Russia is not guided by a weak-minded Czar, and she is far more aggressive than she was then. No Russian leader is capable of withdrawing her, in the manner of Czar Alexander, from world politics. England is not the great power she was. The revolutionary upsurge today – and this is perhaps the chief difference – is not nationalistic but collectivistic (or, as far as the Stalinists are concerned, totalitarian) in inspiration, direction and purpose. The technological background, the social and economic context in which political events take place, are distinctively different. The rockets that Lord Byron, the outstanding character in the novel, intended to launch in Greece are remote in conception and consequence from the atom bombs of today. The contemporary stage has no role for a Byron, the quixotic dilettante, the amateur dabbler in conspiracy and revolution. Amateurs can no longer play at revolution. It has become a profession, demanding not intermittent devotion but professional training and complete absorption.
This is an unusually skillful historical novel, written by an excellent craftsman, recreating with economy of motion an entire age. It is, however, an outline, not an epic in the Tolstoyan sense. Its characterizations are meager and unrealized and, with the exception of Castlereagh, the historical personalities remain shadowy, unsubstantial figures. There are occasional flashes of macabre humor, indicating that the author possesses a satiric bent that he has unfortunately not indulged too often. When told that Castlereagh, the English Foreign Minister and actual ruler, had been insane, Czar Alexander comments: “A lunatic ruling a great country, and not a soul aware of it! I might add that England’s affairs were never conducted better than under the insane Lord Castlereagh. What a real lesson to other rulers!”
What a real lesson to us.
Last updated on 13 March 2017