One of the great attractions of historical fiction is its ability to approach the past from unexpected angles, allowing us to consider famous figures in surprising ways. It’s a tactic that pays off brilliantly in Stephen May’s elegantly acerbic SELL US THE ROPE (Bloomsbury, 240 pp., paperback, $18),which features a thuggish former poet who calls himself Koba. The world will later know him as Stalin.
The novel’s action takes place in London in the spring of 1907. Playing host to the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, the city is awash in combative dissidents and the spies, both czarist and British, intent on monitoring them. Lev Davidovich Bronstein and Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov (a.k.a. Trotsky and Lenin) are engaged in maneuvers with “the safety-first Mensheviks” while Rosa Luxemburg (a flamboyant freethinker who requires no alias) coolly observes their machinations. “Our fragile leaders get upset when the women get noticed,” she remarks. “It’s a scientific law. Attention for women causes dyspepsia in men.”
The recipient of this pronouncement is Elli Vuokko, a fiery 19-year-old delegate representing Finnish lathe operators whom Rosa befriends during morning self-defense lessons and soaking sessions at the public baths. And it is Elli whose hesitant relationship with Koba helps unearth the few shades of humanity within his already ruthless character. Koba and his cohort aren’t yet immensely public figures, so May (and Elli) can view them as almost comically fallible — until a plot by the Okhrana, the czar’s secret agents, provides a stark warning of the dark days ahead. Fittingly, May takes his novel’s title from an old saying quoted by Comrade Ulyanov: “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.”
Elli Vuokko was a real person who fought for the Red Army in Finland’s civil war. Just as May has invented a back story for her, so has Sophie Haydock imagined histories for a quartet of little-known women whose lives intersected with that of the controversial Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who died in 1918 at the age of 28. THE FLAMES (Overlook, 464 pp., $28) is primarily divided into sections devoted to his younger sister, Gertrude; his longtime model and mistress, Vally; and Adele and Edith, the upper-middle-class sisters who become rivals for his attention.
Denounced as “the pornographer of Vienna” for his sexually explicit nude portraits, Schiele is an object of fascination, “tall, mesmerizing, almost demanding to be touched.” All four women will model for him, and all will eventually consider him a toxic influence. To his sister, he’s a betrayer of their childhood intimacy. To Vally, he’s a manipulator who will never publicly legitimize their bond. To melodramatic, hyper-romantic Adele, he’s a misguided soul mate. And to Edith, he’s a far too worldly-wise husband, a man who will demolish her sheltered existence.
Egon Schiele’s life is revealed through the eyes of the women around him. His single-minded pursuit of his art and his callous self-indulgence lead one of them to madness, another to self-mutilation and an early demise. Yet all pay tribute to his talent. Facing him at his easel, they saw “there was something powerful in letting your guard down. He captured what was left.” Outside his studio, though, the scandal Schiele engenders clings to them as well. “Only men can navigate disgrace,” Vally concludes, “and spin it into success.”
The screenwriter and director John Sayles takes a different tack when it comes to those who inhabit the official record of the past. In his sprawling new novel, JAMIE MACGILLIVRAY (Melville House, 704 pp., $32), he gives historical heavyweights like Washington, Montcalm and Wolfe secondary roles, appearing in the background as he unfolds the adventures of two fictional 18th-century Scots — the title character, a landless and luckless follower of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Jenny Ferguson, an impoverished crofter’s daughter swept up in the British reprisals for the Jacobite rebellion.
Bracketed by the momentous battles at Culloden in Scotland and the Plains of Abraham in Quebec, Sayles’s narrative plunges his main characters into fetid prisons and indentured servitude in the colonies. From this point, their fates diverge, at least temporarily. Using a minutely detailed split-screen strategy, Sayles moves from a French military outpost in Martinique to a besieged fort in maritime Canada, from the deck of a slave ship in Maryland to fledgling plantations in backwoods Georgia and central Pennsylvania, then off to the shifting encampments of Native peoples pushed farther and farther west by their own tribal skirmishes and the encroachment of white settlers.
The expatriate Scots take on new identities as their needs for survival dictate: for Jamie a hard-won adoption into the Lenape nation, and for Jenny stints as a military mistress, a farmer’s wife and a not-very-convincing nun. Given Sayles’s credentials, it’s no surprise that his storytelling is inflected with Highland-accented dialogue and untranslated but easily deciphered French, along with bits of Erse and Lenape. The result is an immersive reading experience that swirls with complex personalities, illuminating the many sides of what would come to be called the French and Indian War. Some of the best lines are given to Shingas, leader of Jamie’s Lenape band, who will evolve from a reluctant warrior to a fearsome scourge of the frontier. “Great wars,” he concludes, “are like the firing of a wood on a windy day — they can change direction in a moment.”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.