THE EXILE: A Life of Ivy Litvinov by John Carswell

THE EXILE: A Life of Ivy Litvinov

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With appropriate modesty and gentle irony, Carswell tells the curious life-story of Ivy Low Litvinov--an Englishwoman with fierce literary aspirations. . . who spent most of her life as the loving/unfaithful wife of an important Soviet commissar-diplomat. Both Hungarian-Jewish and Anglo-Indian by ancestry, young Ivy grew up an exile in her own turn-of-the-century home, detesting her stepfather--and preferring the company of her dead father's family and friends: Jews, Fabians, literati, Freudians, hosts to revolutionary exiles from the Continent and Russia. (Carswell notes ""the aberration by which Russian communism was nurtured by the West and left the nurse's affection behind it. . . ."") So, at her aunt's house, Ivy--""an undisciplined English girl stagestruck with literature, eager to marry, and brimming with vitality""--met Russian-Jewish Maxim Litvinov, a committed Leninist revolutionary. And though Maxim was older, un-dashing, un-literary, and her opposite in almost every way, Ivy was soon a wife and mother--though, circa 1917, ""one wonders if Ivy had ever bargained for a husband whose chief resolve was now to return to Russia in the certainty that he was destined to play an important part in its Revolution."" Maxim did return, of course, leaving Ivy and children in England for two years. She then followed him to Moscow, where his Foreign Office career soared through the 1920s--while ivy soon ""perceived that her passionate desire to write and be published was frustrated by the great adventure"" of her marriage, by Maxim's success. She felt isolated in Moscow, argued over the children's upbringing, ""incapable of sinking herself into any system, whether it was her boarding-school at Tynemouth or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."" She stayed out of politics, indulged freely in adultery when traveling with diplomat Maxim. (""1 sleep with anyone who wants me to,"" she wrote to author Carswell's mother, her English confidante.) Later, when Maxim was demoted--though not purged--by Stalin, she took up the cause of ""Basic English"" for a while. And after Maxim's death, she eventually heeded his deathbed gasp (""Englishwoman, go home!"")--finally reaching print, in The New Yorker, during her 70s. Carswell doesn't furnish the probing psychological profile which might explain this odd, conflicted life-history. But he's affectionately shrewd about Ivy's egotism, her ""delinquent"" nature; and, delivered in crisp, wry British style, this is an engaging short biography--with glimpses of intriguing political/literary worlds, from 1910 London to 1957 Moscow.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Faber & Faber (39 Thompson St., Winchester, MA 01890)