Ayn Rand is best known for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, titanic volumes that respectively depict, in totalistic detail, her ideal man of action and her all-encompassing Objectivist philosophy. They were her last fictional works published, though to say this is somewhat misleading; Rand died in 1982, Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, and The Fountainhead was published 14 years earlier in 1943. To refer to them as ‘late’ works is to speak of their place in her literary output, not her broader life and career, which consisted after Atlas of mostly non-fiction articles and public speeches. They were written late enough, however, that her ideas, such as they were, had solidified (and in the case of Atlas, perhaps calcified).
We the Living, by contrast, was Rand’s first published book (1936), and as such serves as an overture of sorts for everything to come. Themes that she would later elaborate are here in embryonic form, as are the stylistic hallmarks and tics that would attract readers and repulse critics. Though Rand had been writing stories since she was a child, this was her first published novel and her first in English. She was still young, in thrall to writers she had grown up on, and haunted by the country she had left behind. Without the intellectual and artistic insularity that came with Rand’s later success, there is a freshness to the book that makes it, all told, a decent read, even as it anticipates some of its author’s later, darker developments.
By far the best aspect of the book is its story. Kira Argounova, an ambitious, middle-class Russian, returns to post-revolutionary Petrograd in 1922 with her family from the Crimea, where they had hoped to wait out the Bolsheviks. Kira’s father had owned a business before the Revolution, which the Soviets have confiscated, reducing family to destitution and, as class enemies, official suspicion and contempt. Kira is opposed to the Soviet regime, and enrolls in Petrograd's Technological Institute for an engineering degree she intends to use solely for her own gratification. She meets Leo Kovalensky, the son of a counter-revolutionary fighter, and they become lovers. At the same time she becomes friendly with Andrei Tagenov, an officer in the GPU, the Soviets’ secret police. When Leo falls ill with incipient tuberculosis Kira’s pleas for government aid are spurned, and so she begins an affair with Andrei, using his cash gifts to pay for Leo’s stay in a sanitarium to recover. Leo returns healthy, but with his will to live utterly sapped; he recklessly embarks on a food speculation business scheme that gets him arrested, leading Andre to discover Kira had loved Leo all along. Despondent and disillusioned with the Communist Party, Andrei commits suicide after freeing Leo, who becomes a gigolo for a middle-aged woman. With nothing left for her in Russia Kira attempts to flee, but is shot at the border and dies.
It’s a little melodramatic, sure, but considering Rand’s later works involve a world which has banished the word "I;" an architect blowing up a public housing project; and all the world's creative individuals going on strike because they're not appreciated, this is all told quite grounded. What works especially in the book’s favor is Andrei, Rand’s ideal of a Communist party member, who is a genuinely compelling character. Considering Rand’s antipathy towards anything that smelled of communism (and many things that didn’t), the sympathy with which she paints a portrait of an idealist soured on the system he serves is remarkable.
The writing is straightforward in describing the degrading life in Russia, though the twenty years alone that have passed since the Soviet system collapsed often makes for unintentionally funny reading, especially the propaganda posters. The best is early on, when "COMRADES! WE ARE THE BUILDERS OF A NEW LIFE!" is juxtaposed with "LICE SPREAD DISEASE! CITIZENS, UNITE ON THE ANTI-TYPHUS FRONT!"
The dialogue is generally wooden, while the prose is straightforward and unadorned, nonetheless containing some occasionally excellent passages. An episode describing one of Andre’s battles in the Crimea works as a neat short story, with a twist ending in which the wounded White Russian soldier he’s been carrying ends up being an infamous and wanted captain.
"If you have pity," said Captain Karsavin, "you'll shoot me."Another outstanding section is a long riff on Petrograd that opens the second part of the novel:
"No," said Andrei, "I can't."
Then they were silent.
"Are you a man?" asked Captain Karsavin.
"What do you want?" asked Andrei.
The captain said: "Your gun."
Andrei looked straight into the dark, calm eyes and extended his hand. The captain shook it. When he took his hand out of the captain's Andrei left his gun in it.
Then he straightened his shoulders and walked toward the village. When he heard the shot, he did not turn. He walked steadily, his head high, his eyes on the red flag beating against the sunrise. Little red drops followed the steps in the soft, damp earth--on one side of the road only.
Petrograd was not born; it was created. The will of a man raised it where men did not choose to settle. An implacable emperor commanded into being the city and the ground under the city. Men brought earth to fill as swamp where no living thing existed but mosquitoes. And like mosquitoes, men died and fell into the grunting mire. No willing hands came to build the new capitol. It rose by the labor of soldiers, thousands of soldiers, regiments who took orders and could not refuse to face a deadly foe, a gun or a swamp. They fell, and they earth they brought and their bones made the ground for the city. “Petrograd,” it’s residents say, “stands on skeletons.”
This is impressive work for a writer still learning to grasp a new language (Rand did, it must be said, receive help from her husband Frank O'Connor and his brother Nick), and its readability goes along way toward explaining how her later works became such runaway popular successes.
Beyond the plotting, however, one must deal with Rand's philosophizing. It is easier to deal with here than in the later books, in part because it's working in opposition to an odious system that has the benefit of being real and keenly observed. The problem with Rand's worship of the individual is that it makes as its argument something most people take as a given, expending most of its energy tilting at collectivist windmills. Soviet Russia was a place where individual freedom was given no consideration, and so here, at least, Rand is in the right.
Yet even then her egoism is frequently galling. We the Living was written while Rand was still drunk on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, so much that she removed certain Nietzschean passages in a subsequent 1959 edition of the book:
"I know what you're going to say. You're going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods."
"I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one's right, one shouldn't wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except that I don't know, however, whether I'd include blood in my methods."
"Why not? Anyone can sacrifice his own life for an idea. How many know the devotion that makes you capable of sacrificing other lives? Horrible, isn't it? Admirable. If you're right. But--are you right?"
"Why do you loathe our ideals?"
Elsewhere Kira describes the masses as "mud to be ground underfoot." Rand was wise to delete these passages, but incredibly disingenuous in saying that she "changed only the most awkward or confusing lapses...reworded the sentences and clarified the meaning, without changing their content."
Not that what remains is much better. Kira's individualism, ostensibly a manifestation of a sublime ideal, is anti-social at best:
When Galina Petrovna took her children to see a sad play depicting the sorrow of the serfs whom Czar Alexander II had magnanimously freed, Lydia sobbed over the plight of the humble, kindly peasants cringeing under a whip, while Kira sat tense, erect, eyes dark in ecstsay, watching the whip cracking expertly in the hand of a tall, young overseer.
"How beautiful!" said Lydia, looking at a stage setting. "It's almost real."
"How beautiful!" said Kira, looking at a landscape. "It's almost artificial."
Rand's off-putting fixation with strength and violence figures also into the book's treatment of love. Leo is regularly described as "arrogant" with a positive connotation. A sex scene in which Kira imagines Leo whipping her was excised, while the others were revised so that the man is always the initiator. For chrissakes, Kira and Leo first meet in Petrograd's red light district, where he thinks she is a prostitute!
This last fact is not incidental; Leo later denigrates Kira as a whore for making and faking love with Andrei for cash, a term she repeats when confronting Andrei, and Leo of course ends up the consort of a painted Communist wench. Love here is taken to be an act of rebellion against a state that does not value the individual, but I doubt if even Rand herself, the queen of capitalism, would insist on so literally putting a price on it.
The persistence with which Rand pursues her individualistic obsession all but overwhelms the novel in Kira's climactic confrontation with Andrei, in which she screams, literally screams, at him for four pages about how she never loved him and the Soviet system is dehumanizing . Money quote:
If you taught us that our life is nothing before that of the State--well then, are you really suffering? If I brought you to the last hell of despair--well then, why don't you say that one's own life doesn't really matter?" Her voice was rising, like a whip, lashing him ferociously on both cheeks. "You loved a woman and she threw your love in your face? But the proletarian mines in the Don Basin have produced a hundred tons of coal last month! You had two altars and you saw suddenly that a harlot stood on one of them, and Citizen Morozov on the other? But the Proletarian State has exported ten thousand bushels of wheat last month! You've had every beam knocked from under your life? But the Proletarian Republic is building a new electric plant on the Volga! Why don't you smile and sing hymns to the toil of the Collective? It's still there, your Collective. Go and join it. Did anything really happen to you? It's nothing but a personal problem of a private life, the kind that only the dead old world could worry about, isn't it? Don't you have something greater--greater is the word your comrades use--left to live for? Or do you, Comrade Tagenov?"
The affair and betrayal actually are an excellent demonstration of the point being made, but--perhaps because of Rand's Nietzschean contempt for the common man--Rand doesn't trust the reader to figure this out for himself and resorts to hammering (and sickleing?) him with pages of shrill exegesis. This four-page climactic harangue is nothing compared to the sixty--sixty!--page John Galt speech that awaits me in Atlas Shrugged, but it's bad enough. Worse, Andrei regurgitates chunks of Kira's logarrhea in the very next scene in a speech to the Party, just to make sure we get the point.
More than any other scene in the book, the speech presages the didacticism Rand would come to be known for. Rather thankfully, though, it is largely the exception. The rest of the book, in spite of its troubling power-worship, remains a solid read more than seventy years on, and a notable document of the early Soviet era, supposedly the first of its kind written by someone who escaped the system.
This wasn't enough to save We the Living in its first iteration. Though it was endorsed by H.L. Mencken and garnered some impressive press coverage, reviews were often mixed or negative due to prevailing leftist opinion that Rand did not properly understand the noble experiment of the Soviet workers paradise. The book was also ill-served by its publisher, Macmillan, who printed only a few thousand copies before destroying the type, and so most readers would not encounter it until after publication of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It did find an audience overseas, however, large enough that it was adapted without Rand's knowledge into two impeccably shot films in Italy, whose fascist authorities eventually banned it, proof that she had been on to something, for once and once alone.