Story writer Holland's impressive debut novel tracks the plight of disgraced literature teacher and reluctant archivist Pavel Dubrov, whose job, mainly, in 1939 Moscow, is to destroy books at Lubyanka prison, a dank, morbid depository for political prisoners where the boilers rarely work. When an unsigned story is discovered in a prison file, Pavel is ordered to authenticate its author, believed to be Isaac Babel, who is locked up at the prison. Haunted by his conversations with Babel and his love of Babel's work, Pavel steals the manuscript and hides it behind the crumbling bricks of his apartment's basement. (Later, he smuggles out a second manuscript.) He has little to lose: his young wife was killed in a train accident, his mentor is waiting to be carted off to prison for his unwillingness to walk the Party line, and his mother is succumbing to a brain tumor. All around him, literature is being destroyed, from the boxes of manuscripts he prepares for destruction to the page scraps his neighbor and lover Natalya uses to roll her cigarettes. Nearly everything and everyone in the novel is sad and broken, but Holland finds a kernel of hope in Pavel's mission. It's a melancholic and moving tribute to the written word. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
From the Publisher
“Travis Holland writes exquisitely. The Archivist’s Story is that very rare book, a historical novel that makes us forget ‘historical’ and remember only ‘novel’, even as we take in hard historical fact— the archivist Pavel living in the midst of Stalin’s purges, could be any of us, and Holland conveys his world in indelible images. The beauty and reality of this novel linger long after one has read—reluctantly—the last page.”—Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
“A quietly miraculous book—uncannily persuasive in its rendering of a distant time and place, and deeply moving in its evocation of lives caught in the jaws of history. It's common to welcome a debut novel as "promising.” This book is a promise perfectly and profoundly kept,; its author one to read now and into the future.”—Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl
“A historical novel of subtle power and tremendous grace.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“There is a quiet authenticity about Holland’s writing that draws you in, and soon you will find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat, silently cheering for his characters. Readers will want to hear more from the author of this heartbreaking and haunting work.”—Library Journal, starred review
Read an Excerpt
"I was about to make tea," Pavel offers. On the bureau beside the window sit an electric samovar, a serving tray, tea glasses and spoons, a darkly tarnished tin, all left behind by the office's previous occupant, absent now. Behind the desk, where a row of pictures once hung, the plaster is noticeably lighter; only nails remain. "Would you like to sit down?"
After a moment, as if Pavel's voice has only now reached him, Babel nods, then sits. He is unshaven. A bruise is fading under his right eye, and a faint film, like dried salt, coats his lips. The wilted wings of his shirt collar lie crookedly across the lapels of his wrinkled coat. And this finally, which Pavel finds most disturbing: The writer's glasses are gone. Somehow he had expected Babel to appear as he once did in his dust-jacket pictures.
Pavel lifts the empty teapot from the samovar. "I'll just get this filled."
At first the young guard standing watch outside merely stares dully at the teapot, as if he has never laid eyes on one before. He is at most twenty, with the sleepy eyes of a peasant. Some displaced farmer's son, perhaps, come to Moscow to better himself. Whatever he is, the expression on his face is familiar enough. "Water," Pavel sighs, handing the teapot over. He might as well be back at Kirov Academy, standing in front of a classroom of boys hardly younger than this guard, reading aloud lines from Tolstoy. Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. Sons of want and privilege alike, born in revolution's shadow: It is his former students' generation now joining the numberless ranks already marching under the banner of collective progress, while their former teachers reconcile themselves to silence. In the two and a half years since his appointment to the special archives, where until Kutyrev's arrival this past May he was alone, Pavel has become painfully aware of just how fortunate he once was, how blessed. He would give anything to be standing before his students again, book in hand.
With the rain has come a kind of false twilight. All week the weather has been like this. Sitting, Pavel pulls the brass chain of the desk lamp, which clatters softly against the green glass shade. "I keep hoping we'll get a little sun soon," he says, trying to hide his nervousness. It is not every day one meets a writer of Babel's eminence. He asks, "Are you hungry? I'm sure I could have something sent up, if you'd like."
"Thank you. No."
A high, almost breathy voice: Babel will not even meet his eye. Pavel stares openly at the bruise on Babel's cheek, then looks away. The guard returns with the teapot.
At the window again Pavel fills the samovar. Next door a telephone rings once, is answered. A watery, pale light cups the rounded side of the warming samovar, spilling over Pavel's hands as he pries open the tin. Only a little tea remains, the blackish, powdery leavings like a kind of sand he tips into the waiting teapot. Tilting the tin toward the light, Pavel catches a glimpse of his own blurred reflection in it. Then he returns to the desk.
"Might I ask a question, Comrade Inspector?"
"I'm not an inspector," Pavel says quickly. "I work down in the archives." Leaning forward, he wipes the green cardboard of Babel's file folder with his fingers. A pink ribbon, neatly tied, holds the folder shut. "Actually," he adds, "I used to be a teacher, believe it or not. I taught your stories."
"From Red Cavalry." When one could teach them, Pavel thinks. When it was acceptable. Safe. "Some of your later work as well. 'Guy de Maupassant' is a personal favorite of mine." The opening lines of Babel's story, which he has never tired of reading, return to Pavel:
In the winter of 1916 I found myself in St. Petersburg with a forged passport and not a cent to my name. Alexey Kazantsev, a teacher of Russian literature, took me into his house.
A teacher of Russian literature -- the irony stings now.
Babel squints at the green folder with an expression of dull, somewhat dazed perplexity, as if Pavel has conjured it up out of nothingness by some sleight of hand. Then his dark eyes empty again.
"May I ask," Babel says finally, "what day it is?"
"Is it still June?"
"Already--" At least that is what Pavel thinks he hears Babel murmur. Already. It has been barely two months since Babel's arrest, two months since the customary unmarked car carried him at dawn through the enormous black gate of the courtyard below. Has he lost his grip on time? Or perhaps, Pavel imagines, Babel is simply, quietly stunned: that he could be brought down so fast, so completely. That in only two months he could become the battered, cowed shell of a man now sitting in this all but abandoned office. Pavel remembers his own first months at the Lubyanka, themselves a stark revelation, though it is obscene to compare his experience with Babel's. He has not suffered one-tenth the torment Babel has likely had inflicted on him: days without sleep or food or water, threats, beatings.
Pavel says, "I've been asked -- ordered -- to clear up a discrepancy in your file. It's just a formality."
"What sort of discrepancy?"
"A manuscript my supervisor happened upon while reviewing your file. A story. Quite a remarkable story. There's no record of it in the evidence manifest, which means it can't be officially attributed to anyone, yourself included. Which means, officially speaking" -- Pavel shrugs uncomfortably -- "it doesn't exist. As I said, it's just a formality. If you could perhaps take a look, tell me if you recognize it. Can you read without your glasses?"
"Barely. I was told they would be returned to me," Babel says. "If I cooperated."
Cooperated. Confessed, he means -- and in doing so, likely implicated others. Nowadays one cannot simply confess, one must also denounce. Acquaintances, colleagues, friends, even one's own family. Whom, if anyone, has Babel drawn into the net that has now fallen over his life? Eisenstein perhaps, Ehrenburg? Pasternak? A man of Babel's prominence would be expected to name others at least as well-known as himself.
I spent my mornings hanging around the morgues and police stations.
The line, another from "Guy de Maupassant," echoes through Pavel's brain as he walks once more to the window, where the samovar has begun to boil. Steam shimmers on the glass. "I'm afraid we'll have to make do without sugar," he apologizes, filling the teapot. A sedan is just then pulling into a parking space in the courtyard below, wipers briskly slapping away rain. The wipers cease, the driver's door swings open. An umbrella emerges, blooms: a black peony. Morgues and police stations, Pavel things-that is what this age will be remembered for, that is our legacy. "Sugar?" Babel asks. As if the word were new to him.
"For the tea."
Babel is silent.
"I could send for some," Pavel offers, though the prospect of facing the young guard again leaves him tired. No doubt it is also Kutyrev's dreadful, pointless errand that has left him disheartened. For months now the junior officer has seized upon practically every opportunity to drive home his authority over Pavel, like a dog lifting its leg on even the most neglected patch of garden, marking its territory. More than once Pavel has come close to telling Kutyrev that he needn't bother. He is welcome to the archives, right down to the last folder. Pavel hands Babel his tea glass. "Mind, it's hot."
Babel holds the steaming glass of watery tea near his chest. "You were a teacher," he says after a time.
"Of literature, yes."
"Literature." Spoken without irony, without bitterness. He straightens slightly in his chair. Perhaps, Pavel thinks, the tea has revived him. "Did you enjoy teaching?" Babel asks.
"Very much," says Pavel.
Rain taps at the window. Absently Pavel brushes back his hair, feels something hard. The partial husk of a seed comes away in his fingers: It must have fallen from one of the lindens near his building as he walked to the bus stop this morning. He lays it on the desktop.
"Your Red Cavalry stories," he tells Babel, "they were always quite popular with my students. Boys, you know. They tend to be drawn to war. Your stories fascinated them."
Twenty-nine volumes of Maupassant stood on the shelf above the desk. The sun with its fingers of melting dissolution touched the morocco backs of the books -- the magnificent grave of the human heart.
He cannot get Babel's story out of his head. He notices that the fingers of Babel's right hand, spread on his thigh, are twitching ever so slightly, as if a faint current of electricity were coursing through them. Suddenly Pavel is struck by the realization that the very lines from the story floating in his brain once flowed from that hand, those fingers. He imagines the lucky few train passengers who managed to catch a glimpse of Tolstoy, dying in that railroad stationhouse in Astapovo, must have felt a similar sense of mingled awe and disbelief.
From the corridor outside comes the faint rhythmic jingling of keys. Regulation at the Lubyanka requires that guards with prisoners announce themselves -- either in just this manner or by clicking their tongues -- so that no two prisoners ever accidentally meet. An institution built brick by brick upon secrecy, a world unto itself. Still, try as he might to avoid them, the stories have nevertheless trickled down to Pavel, like water leaking from a poisoned well. Mandelstam, weakened by months of abuse, muttering fragments from his own poems to the guards who stormed his cell after he slashed his wrists with a razor. Pilnyak, sobbing like a child, slumping against the cold cellar wall when the executioner touched the pistol barrel to the back of his neck. Wait, wait.
Pavel asks, "Would you like more tea?" The writer's fingers, he notices, have stopped twitching.
As Pavel is filling the writer's glass, Babel says tentatively, "I was wondering if I might be permitted to write a letter. To my wife."
A little tea accidentally sloshes over the rim of the glass. "Sorry," Pavel says.
"Please. It would ease her mind."
"I don't think that's possible," Pavel says after a moment. The weariness that has dogged him all morning suddenly presses on his heart. "If it were permitted--" He sets the teapot down on the samovar with a clatter, nearly spilling more tea. "I'm sorry, comrade." The word-unforgivable, given the circumstances -- is out of his mouth before Pavel can stop himself. Comrade. He adds nervously, "Understand, it's not a matter of whether or not I'd like to help you. I would. I'm married myself."
He breaks off, looking down at the skin of oil floating on the surface of his tea, which reminds him, quite inexplicably, of ice. The river in spring, the dirty ice beneath Krymsky Bridge shearing off in chunks, carried away. He remembers that afternoon in January before his wife, Elena, left for Yalta, when they walked along the winter-black river beneath Lenin Hills. How she had told him she could not wait until April, when the ice would finally melt. "I'm so sick of winter. Sometimes I think how wonderful it would be to never have to come back here." At the station later, embracing, Elena had touched his ear with her lips and whispered, "Come with me, Pasha. Please." The rabbit collar of her coat brushed Pavel's neck, light as breath. Impossible, of course: They both understood that Pavel could not leave Moscow just then, not without permission from his supervisors. Still, she had asked, she had tried in her way.
Pavel feels Babel regarding him, waiting. "What I mean is, I was married," he tells Babel now. "My wife passed away last January."
Babel meets this with silence.
Pavel takes a deep breath, then unties the pink ribbon and opens Babel's folder. In it, faceup, lies a loose sheaf of unlined paper covered in tight, neat script: Babel's unfinished manuscript-if indeed he is its author, as Pavel has every reason to believe. Even incomplete, the writing here is as beautiful and vivid as anything Pavel ever read. A treasure, perhaps among Babel's finest work. Pavel clears his throat. "I suppose we should get started," he says. When he looks up he sees that Babel has turned toward the window.
"Is it raining still?"
"A little, yes," Pavel says.
A silence settles over them, which Pavel finds himself unexpectedly reluctant to disturb. Then, almost tenderly, he asks Babel, "What is your wife's name?"
Absently Babel lifts a finger to his mouth, thoughtfully rubs his lower lip. The light from the window lies like a dusting of snow on the shoulders of his coat, which doubtless he has slept in since his arrest. The full-lipped, almost sensuous mouth, those dark eyes, the high wide dome of a forehead with its single pronounced worry line: All at once Pavel is struck by the simple miracle of this moment, which nothing in his life could have prepared him for. The cooling samovar ticks like a metronome, roughly in time to the pulse Pavel can see beating faintly in Babel's throat.
"I promised her we would see each other again," Babel says. "Will they let her visit me, do you think?"
"I don't know."
"I wouldn't want my last words to her to be a lie."
"Of course not." Come with me, Pasha. Please. To which Pavel had replied: I will see you soon. His last words to Elena. The memory is enough to drive Pavel from his chair-he cannot face Babel. At the bureau he sets down his tea glass, then thinks, I wish I had gotten on that train.
As if picking up on this, Babel asks, "How did your wife die?"
"She was on her way to Yalta. The train derailed."
"The police suspect it may have been sabotage. Something laid across the tracks." Pavel must gather himself before continuing. "From what I was told, she was thrown from the carriage when it broke apart." A pumpkin, Pavel thinks: The image has stayed with him all these long terrible months, the line of wrecked carriages split innocently open like pumpkins on the snow. It is easier to envision this than to confront the images Pavel has repeatedly driven from his mind. Elena spilled out in that field; Elena in the back of a truck, wrapped in a sheet; Elena at the mouth of the crematorium, the tray beneath her trembling on its casters as the morgue attendant pushed her into the fire.
"I can't imagine people intentionally doing that," he says. "Can you?"
It is a small matter that brings them together. A story, untitled, unsigned, and by all appearances incomplete, which the arresting officers in their haste have neglected to record in the evidence manifest. A year ago, when the Lubyanka thrummed with activity, when all of Moscow seemed to hold its breath at night and every morning brought a new consignment of confiscated manuscripts to Pavel's desk, such a discovery would have hardly warranted a second look, let alone this face-to-face meeting the archivist frankly dreads. Babel has confessed: One story will not change that, nor will it save him. Still, Kutyrev has insisted the matter be formally resolved, and since Pavel must now answer to the ambitious young lieutenant, the question of authorship is to be settled, if only for the record. Already an empty office upstairs has been reserved for the purpose. In due course the appointed morning comes. Just as the first heavy drops of rain are beginning to fall onto the dreary courtyard below, a guard raps once on the door. Babel enters.