“Conversations with Stalin”

Conversations with Stalin, by Eleanor Antin. Green Integer, 2013. 210 pp. $10. ISBN: 9781557134202

A review by George J. Leonard


Since a book review should, above all, quickly tell the reader if a book is worth buying or reading, and what kind of book it is, I’ll start by saying that in manner, style and subject Eleanor Antin’s novel Conversations with Stalin is best appreciated by comparing it to Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist; and if you liked the Roth book, you’ll like the Antin.

Like Roth, Antin uses a fictionalized version of her younger self as her protagonist. Be prepared for a different book than the title suggests, though. The “conversations” with Stalin take place in the head of a little girl whose parents’ marriage has come apart. “My parents were at war with each other,” the book’s first sentence declares. The child Elly escapes into her mind, seeking guidance from her childish version of her family’s god, “Comrade Stalin.” “I never told anybody, but Comrade Stalin and I were very close friends,” she confides in us. “For years we used to meet up in Central Park and talk about stuff. My mother would have been jealous, so I never told her.” Little Elly’s seductive, uninhibited and unscrupulous mother, a powerful character, is the villain of the piece. “She would have charmed him into being her friend, not mine anymore,” the little girl notes somberly. It’s quite a relationship.

Roth and Antin have written novels about people, not history books, but these people are living in history, during what Vivian Gornick memorably termed, back in 1978, The Romance of American Communism. I know what you’re thinking. “Again? The good intentions, the red diapers, the Paul Robeson concerts, the sincere, hairy-legged people wearing beards and babushkas practicing “folk dances” in the gym at Columbia Teachers’ College? Finally the crucifixion by McCarthy?” Roth and Antin have their work cut out for them if they’re going to do this stuff in a way we never read before. Jonathan Lethem is releasing yet another mammoth novel about it all, told from a new point of view: he knows nothing about it. Lethem, born 1964, only five years old at the time of Woodstock, has already written about Bob Dylan as a legendary artist from the heroic Sixties past. Imagine his idea of the Fifties. The Communists will become Brooklyn Hipsters tragically trapped sixty years Before Our Enlightened Time. Eventually James Franco will play the hero. Well, that’ll be new.

Better you should read Roth and Antin, sweetheart. They succeed with this often-told tale for good reasons. First, they didn’t have to interview anybody. Pushing eighty now, they are some of the last artistic eyewitnesses, and their books have the feeling of lived experience, an incomparable advantage over poor Lethem, gifted as he may be. After them nobody, however gifted, will ever write of that era this way again. David Antin, Eleanor Antin’s poet husband, watching the movie Pollock, remarked in amusement, “My old apartment, my cold-water flat, has become an historical setting.”

Second, Antin and Roth are humorists. Third, there is no self pity.

Fourth, and most unusual, there is no sentimentality about “the golden children called to Marxism,” as Vivian Gornick termed them and novelists have normally portrayed them. Joe McCarthy to the contrary, American Communism, as practiced in the “red diaper” Jewish circles of the late Forties, was far more romance than Communism. “Really,” the child Elly tells Comrade Stalin, her mother is not a Communist, just a “Bohemian. And all of her Communist friends are too. So maybe American Communists are not like Russians.” You bet.

The Romance of American Bohemianism then-that’s the stuff of comedy, not tragedy, and that’s how Antin and Roth write it. They step outside the familiar discourse in which, as Vivian Gornick typically put it, without a drop of irony, “the golden children called to Marxism,” had “loved, in effect, not wisely but too well. They feared, hungered, and cared more . . . they were like everybody else, only more so-more so, that is, in their greater capacity for passion, for engagement, for responding to injustice and to the call of History.”

Roth and Antin think that’s a load of crap. They break with that whole self-important, self-pitying discourse. All those books about the Rosenbergs have fundamentally misled us about romantic American bohemians whose blows against capitalism amounted to reading Pogo in PM, voting for Henry Wallace, listening to Paul Robeson records, watching Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, and-years after they’d moved to the suburbs-having their kids learn to play March Slav, Meadowlands and “The Marching Song of the Red Army” on the piano. The Rosenbergs were utterly atypical of the times. They actually tried to do something for Russian Communism. More typical was my gentle Uncle Mike, a Rockville Centre highschool shop teacher, who displayed his WW II Red Army sheet music on the piano in the playroom. “What’s that doing there?” my father asked. “They were our allies, weren’t they?” Uncle Mike said innocently. “Come off it,” my father sneered. That was the extent of Uncle Mike’s revolutionary efforts. Winters in shop class, summers as a counselor at Camp Sequoia.

I applaud the accuracy of Roth’s and Antin’s take on the whole subject. I still have the Lotte Lenya album of Kurt Weill, whose protest songs my mother played so often that, to her delight, though I didn’t know German, I memorized the songs phonetically, to sing for Uncle Mike and Cousin Janet at holiday get-togethers. “Ach, bedenken sie, Herr Jacob Schmidt,” I sang for my kvelling mother, “ach bedenken sie was man für die sick dollar kriegt.” A sixth grader making his mother proud in front of her brother by reciting a German prostitute’s plea to a wicked Capitalist John. The swine. (It disturbed me even then that my mother’s favorite Weill song was Pirate Jenny, and that when Jenny orders her pirates to cut off all the bourgeois heads (“Hop-la!”) my mother would burst out laughing and clap her hands. But that’s another story.)

Both Roth and Antin get it right. American Jewish “Communism” was an episode in romantic bohemianism, not an episode in Communism. That’s one of the reasons that it’s still remembered fondly in academic circles, despite everything we now know about Soviet horrors. It had nothing to do with Soviet horrors. It was harmless youthful nonsense and is remembered pleasantly as a time from one’s youth, like the summer you really believed that marijuana, tie-dye shirts and sex under blankets in public places would change the world. They were a bunch of Jules Fieffer characters. That’s why McCarthy is so bitterly resented to this day, and the penalties some people suffered for their youthful bohemianism seem grotesquely inappropriate. It was just nonsense. It didn’t achieve anything, disturb anything, nor affect the course of history in the slightest. Zero Mostel, in Woody Allen’s The Front, appeals his blacklisting, saying he had only joined the Party to get close to “this girl. See? She had a big ass! What a tochis!” That was all it was about. A big tochis. For that a person should lose his job?

Roth’s book was advertised as being about the “McCarthy era” but, like Antin’s book, it’s about something far more important than that ultimately trivial time. It is a bildungsroman in which a fictionalized self gets over its romantic illusions. We have terms for the artwork about the child maturing (bildungsroman), and for the young artist finding her vocation (kunstlerroman) so it is strange that there is no critical term (only “Romantic crisis poem”) for the important genre in which the child, maturing, loses her faith then regains it in art. Since the Enlightenment, from Wordsworth’s Prelude through Joyce’s Portrait and beyond, this has been an important Western genre. Roth’s and Antin’s books are primarily this third, nameless genre, in which the art typically becomes a substitute for the lost faith.

Yet in these two books there is an important change in the tradition. Wordsworth loses faith in Christianity. Joyce loses faith in the Catholic Church. This time the childhood faith lost is Communism. At the end of her book, Comrade Stalin, grown old and feeble, like her faith, dies. The book’s last sentence is “I was on my own.” Adults are. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” Kant wrote, describing in advance the plot of both Roth’s and Antin’s books. “Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another… The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” However, Kant went on, describing the orthodox milieu in which Roth’s and Antin’s heroes grow up, “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance, nevertheless gladly remain immature for life.” At the book’s climax, when Comrade Stalin “growls” at Elly, “If the collective determines that the truth is a lie, it is indeed a lie” she finally breaks with his alien guidance, and grows up:

“No,” I shouted back, shocked. “A lie can never be the truth.”

Then he slapped me. For the first time he slapped me.

Since The God That Failed there have been abundant studies of the loss of adult belief in Communism (we’re only talking about international Communism here, not socialism, in its countless forms. Antin and Roth are still left-liberal. If everyone who broke with Stalinist orthodoxy was a conservative, you’d have to say Khrushchev was.) Antin and Roth, however, parallel to Wordsworth and Joyce, write about the loss of a child’s faith in Communism. Antin, in a speech about her work at a Jewish Film Festival, said, wryly-and it got a laugh- “I was brought up Orthodox-an Orthodox Stalinist.” But, like so much of Antin’s novel, it’s a serious joke. (Like so much of Jewish humor, too.) These books could not have been written before Roth and Antin’s generation, and won’t be written again, now that international Communism is gone.


“Conversations with Stalin,” then, is not about some adult’s conversations with the genocidal dictator post-Soviet Russia has documented for us. It’s about a child’s mental conversations with a childhood deity, “Comrade Stalin,” who is more like De Lawd in Green Pastures than the tyrant we know from Soviet files reprinted in Robert Conquest’s books. The child Elly, watching her parents at “war,” cannot pray for help and understanding to a god she has been taught is not there. She turns to Comrade Stalin.

First comes the death of a similar godlike figure-a great set piece of which I will only quote part:

One morning [when Elly was ten] my mother rushed screaming into the living room where I was reading one of the Andrew Lang Book of Fairy Tales and for a second I thought she was a witch and had popped out of my book. Her hair was wound around her fingers and she was pulling at it hard and it was all tangled up around her head. She looked like Medusa in my Book of Greek Myths. God, then my father started to wail from the kitchen. A door banged out in the hallway and now the neighbors were screaming too…. “What will happen to us now?” my mother said in a broken voice and then she screamed again and rushed out of the room… Daddy was sitting at the table, davenning back and forth like a rocking chair…. “Roosevelt is dead,” he said softly, and closed his eyes….

“Is that bad for the Jews?” I asked. “We still have Stalin.”

Roosevelt dead, her parents at war, that is where Elly turns for help with life’s questions. The closest parallel would be the now-forgotten 1950s Italian comic novels about Don Camillo, a burly priest who works in a Red area of Italy and who turns for mental support to conversations with Jesus, who is, the author underlined, “no more than his conscience.” Little Elly begins talking to her Stalinist conscience about what she encounters in the life of her parents’ failing marriage-particularly her battles with her lusty, powerhouse mother, a kind of Jewish Communist Bohemian Wyf of Bath. Or, if you wish, Gypsy Rose Lee’s gargantuan mother, Rose, in the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents classic, Gypsy. Mother runs a decrepit little bungalow “hotel” in a low-rent part of the Catskills with the panache of a Russian landowner exploiting her serfs. Elly’s mother’s scenes, wonderfully funny, could be transposed into I Married a Communist without anybody knowing the difference. She can pass, without mental disturbance, from selling the Daily Worker, to, when elderly summer guests plotz, as they sometimes do, pulling the onyx rings off their fingers before their children can get up to the Catskills to collect the bodies.

Elly’s questions for Stalin expand beyond the personal to include all subjects. Rereading for this review, I was newly impressed by the book’s range. In four or five pages the novel can switch from Tom Sawyer to philosophic horror. Elly’s a normal girl, with normal enthusiasms:

Who needed dolls anyway. I had a friend… who had something better than dolls. Cats! We used to lie in wait for the cats in the little hallway between my friends’ front door and her inside door… and when they were hemmed in… I pounced on them. We tied baby bonnets on each one and little baby dresses and diapers that my friend’s mother kept in a drawer in her bedroom… mementos [of her friend’s infancy.] So when the cats were transformed into desperately unhappy babies, we held onto them tight so they couldn’t squirm away while we opened the front door where the strollers were lined up waiting for us. We shoved each into his stroller, wrapped them in baby blankets and walked around the neighborhood with our babies like grownups. Sometimes they meowed. “Oh my baby is crying,” I’d say and pat his bonneted head, but with a strong downward push to let him know who was boss….

Only four pages separate this scene from Elly’s childhood encounter with the reality of evil. Up in her mother’s Catskills cabins, she would “sit by the lake and listen to the classical music coming in over the loudspeaker” from a fancy Gentile camp on the other side that Jews were not allowed to join.

One day, when I was bathing my feet, a frog ran over my foot. He stopped and looked at me curiously. I grabbed him before he could jump away and looked into his eyes. If I kissed him would he turn into a prince and take me to a magic kingdom? I took him back to the hotel saying romantic things just in case he really was a prince though I didn’t think he was. But you never know. It’s good to cover your bases. He didn’t try to get away, he just listened to me talk. I called him “Your Highness.” I think he liked me.

The little girl shows her frog-prince to “Weird Seymour” who works as a handyman for her mother. “Weird Seymour grabbed my frog.” She says “be careful” and explains he may be a prince. “You don’t say,” Weird Seymour says, pulling out a knife he always carries.

Gently, with a very delicate touch he stripped off a thin layer of skin from the frog’s round belly.

I was so shocked, I couldn’t say anything.

Slowly and methodically he began to peel thin layers from the frog’s stomach, gently placing each layer on top of the other in a little pile on the table. At first, the creature tried to squirm out of Seymour’s hands but then he stopped. He just lay there. His eyes were closed. He gave up. I didn’t say anything. It never occurred to me to say anything. I was mesmerized. The frog’s belly was softly curved and without skin, it was pink. When all the skin was peeled away, we saw that his belly was packed with dead ants, and I got light-headed and nearly fell off the bench.

“Lunch,” Seymour said.

But I watched every dreadful cut, every peeling layer and never said a word. It took a long time, and then Seymour got hungry and said he was going to the kitchen for a glass of milk. He placed the frog on the hot ping-pong table with the afternoon sun beating down on its open belly. His eyes were closed but you could see him breathing.

“What if somebody finds him” I asked, suddenly scared.

“Nobody plays ping-pong but you and me,” he said.

“Maybe he’ll die,” I whispered.

“Who cares,” he said.

Later, when she sees “the tiny body” covered with ants, the little girl runs a fever of 103 degrees and has to be put to bed. The story glides into a conversation about evil with Comrade Stalin. Elly tells Stalin a long story of how her father, as a boy in the old country, had to watch a man dig his own grave in the woods before being executed by guards sent by Trotsky himself. The prisoner is arguing that the hole isn’t big enough yet to put him in “until one of the guards took out his gun and shot the prisoner in the head. Bam!” He doesn’t fit but they “kicked him in.”

Comrade Stalin approves.

“I’m surprised. Trotsky behaved well for a change. Military discipline must be maintained at all costs.”

“Will man never change, comrade?” My teeth were chattering.

He put his arm more securely around me to keep me warm. “In the classless society, the needs of the young will be cared for,” [and he explains the new Socialist man the collective will create.]

“So you believe nurture can alter nature?” I asked.

Two pages later, Elly is dressing up the cats. Such is the range of the book, and the complex texture of the book. It never bores. The episodes do not appear in chronological order. Rather they appear in a montage, moving back and forth in time, juxtaposed for maximum effect, like the evil of the frog disembowelment side by side with the innocence of the little girls making babies of their cats.


“American lives have no second acts,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously complained.

But they have third acts. Fitzgerald didn’t live long enough to find that out. Philip Roth, in the Sixties, went from Goodbye, Columbus to Portnoy’s Complaint, which made him, at the time, not only critically admired but for a while as famous as Harry Potter’s author J. K. Rowling is now. Antin, a visual artist, had a big Sixties and Seventies too. She and her husband, David Antin, were central younger members of the John Cage and Allan Kaprow wing of the Avant Garde, which helped launch Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein among countless others.

Antin’s second act, like Roth’s, was less celebrated. Since Eleanor Antin is one of the founding figures of the conceptual and performance arts, I, of course, made her acquaintance around 1985. With a hundred other art world people, I spent a few pleasant days acting in one of her films, twenty-three years ago; but I probably haven’t seen Antin in twenty years. The film, feature-length, was an art world festival success, a success which, I think, distracted her from her strengths. She became so interested in films she made a second one, and before the digital era, when films were celluloid, they were money pits. The saying was, “Films aren’t made out of celluloid, they’re made out of money.” Give John Milton a pen and a stack of paper and he can write a better poem than some hack can. But in film, low budget means less editing, less set-ups, inexperienced non-union actors. During her detour into film, Eleanor Antin’s early fame began to recede into the past.

Since 2000, Antin, like Roth, has been having a strong third act. Antin’s photographic tributes to 19th century popular narrative art, beautiful and slyly comic, are the photographic cousins to Lichtenstein’s sly yet beautiful tributes to American comic strips. They are very successful. And now, Antin, Roth’s contemporary, nearing eighty years old, has leaped across genres to produce a strong novel, too.

A trained actress and a gifted raconteur, plainly Antin has been polishing some of these episodes for a lifetime. For the novel, she worked hard on Elly’s voice: YouTube reveals her honing sections of it before intimate audiences for at least five years. Such work paid off.

Antin’s husband, David Antin, is a famous critic and poet, known for his own “talk poems.” They have been a power couple in the concept art world since the 1960s-she a famous beauty, he one of those muscular intellectuals like Picasso, somehow powerfully bald. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any beautiful woman artist must be, secretly, the product of some male Svengali. But in this case, forget it. Anyone who actually knows David Antin’s slashing, erudite voice will find no resemblance to Eleanor Antin’s “Elly,” and her wide-eyed manner, her constant Flaubertian use of exactly the right naïve cliché. “It’s good to cover your bases.”

It is a great surprise, to say the least, that a novel by a visual artist can hold its own, read together with one of the best novels by one of America’s best novelists. Philip Roth, of course, has written two dozen good novels, and Eleanor Antin-since this is a fictionalized autobiography-will probably only write this one. But it’s a fine one.

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