Ivy Litvinov was the English wife of Maxim Litvinov, Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the Thirties and Stalin's Ambassador to Washington after the war. John Carswell is the son of Catherine Carswell, who was Ivy's best friend until she followed her husband to Russia in 1920. In 1959, after Catherine and Litvinov were dead, Ivy got permission to visit her native land and turned up on John Carswell's doorstep. He sounds irritated with this cumbersome human legacy, but it is nothing to his irritation with Ivy for not having made more of her opportunities in the way he would have wished - for turning her back on them, in fact. 'She was not identified with the adventure of her life,' he says crossly. 'History was in an ironical mood when it provided Ivy with an itching pen and a keen eye and sent her to observe from a vantage-point some of the most extraordinary phases through which the human race has passed, and then muffled her with a passion for English literature and the primacy of her own feelings.' All the more credit to him, then, for producing, with elegant economy, a vivid impression of this bizarre and remarkable lady. Perhaps it is his running quarrel with her that gives his book its momentum.
LRB 1 March 1984 | PDF Download