Start with some quick history: Josef Stalin’s campaign in the late 1930s to consolidate his control of the Communist Party spun into a terror that counted both old Bolsheviks and a new generation of party faithful among its victims. The leadership of the Red Army was decimated. Intellectuals were seized and interrogated and, like so many others under torture, falsely denounced others.
Inevitably, the masses caught on to the madness; pointing the finger at a neighbor could suddenly open up that three-room apartment next door. By the time the rampage was reined in, some 1.5 million people had been arrested and imprisoned; half again as many were executed or perished in the gulag.
Fast forward to the present: You’re a 29-year-old with an MFA, in Moscow to do research for your first novel. Lev Mendelevich Gurvich, himself caught up in the purges, has welcomed you into his apartment and has agreed to tell you his story. Gurvich, in his 90s but still with a sharp mind, had in the 1930s been editor of the literary magazine of the Komsomol, the Communist youth movement of the U.S.S.R. He was arrested, interrogated, sent to a labor camp.
You tell him about your novel, the story of a disgraced teacher of literature who now works as an “archivist” at Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison. Pavel Dubrov’s guilt and sorrow threaten to deaden him into numbness until a brief, official encounter with the prisoner Isaac Babel stirs him to rescue the condemned writer’s last manuscript from the prison’s furnace. Pavel smuggles it out of Lubyanka under his coat.
I met Babel, this survivor of the gulag tells you. I was at Stalin’s rallies; yes, I heard Stalin speak. But at one point the old man stops to ask, pointedly if not unkindly: Who are you to write this book?
“I wasn’t insulted,” Travis Holland says. “It was a question I asked myself.”
A more than fair question. But Holland’s answer, “The Archivist’s Story,” proved that his audacity was matched by his gifts.
Published by Dial Press in 2007 and issued in paperback the following year, the novel has been translated into at least a dozen languages and its author has collected as many honors. “The Archivist’s Story” was nominated for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (its company on the shortlist for 2009 included Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”). Holland won the 2007 Cabell First Novelist Award from Virginia Commonwealth University; his novel won a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and Publisher’s Weekly named it a Best Book of 2007. London-based Financial Times named it a Best Book of 2007; it was a Guardian Readers’ Pick as well.
The acclaim has been “immensely gratifying,” says the University of Michigan graduate, who lives with his wife and children in Dexter. “Nothing in my background had ever prepared me.”
Holland grew up in a working-class Georgia family; his parents, who separated when he was small, had “a high regard” for writers. His father, the son of a sharecropper, earned a living as an electrician but “was always writing – working in his little yellow notebooks,” Holland says.
“He’d always talk about writers as working men,” Holland said of their conversations about books and authors: “‘What about this Steinbeck guy, Dad?’ ‘Oh yeah, he’s a working man. He’s a good guy.’ ‘What about Mailer?’ I’d say. ‘Aw, screw him.’”
The ethic took root. “Writing is about sitting down and doing your work,” he says. “It’s not about talking about it.” And he describes spending his 20s writing “almost in virtual silence.”
“I was fortunate enough to have some teachers and some people encourage me quite a bit, but for the most part I would work years on stories and maybe they got published or maybe they didn’t. And if they got published, I didn’t really meet anyone who’d read them.”
Now, Holland says, “that connection has been made – that connection I write about in “The Archivist’s Story,” with Pavel and the things he reads. I really feel that way when I read something. … It’s one voice speaking and, in this case, it’s my voice. So that wonderful connection with the reader – it’s amazing.”
Pavel’s job title is ironic: This archivist’s task, essentially, is to destroy books – to silence memory, to erase the past. He comes to Lubyanka after being dismissed from an academy for taking part in falsely denouncing a colleague who has later committed suicide. At the prison, Pavel’s sudden, reckless act must certainly arise from an impulse to atone, to keep alive a voice that connects past, present and future. He sees the essential value of preserving one man’s experience.
Rescuing Babel’s last story is “the ultimate act of self-disregard, for principle,” Holland says. “I mean, giving your life for a story? For an idea?”
“The Archivist’s Story” is “my homage to all writers,” he says, “everything I’ve ever read and loved and that has stayed with me.”
Holland is deep at work on his second novel, as yet untitled – or, at least, he isn’t giving it away yet. He read from it Oct. 22 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, as part of the UM Zell Visiting Writers Series. “With luck, maybe in the spring,” he says, it will be ready for his publisher.
Set 40 years in the future with flashbacks to the present, the story is told from the perspective of a woman who as a teenager survived an apocalyptic plague. She flees to a grand house on a lake with the privileged family that employs her father as a handyman; they’re retreating to an idyll presumably to wait for the end.
“She’s now looking back at that time,” Holland says. “And it’s a lot about the strange contrast between that beautiful lake and her experiences at the lake and what was going on outside.”
Holland says his inspiration came in part from his reading of Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” in which a group of nobles who have fled the Black Death decide to tell themselves magnificent tales as a diversion from the horror.
Holland says he was captivated by Boccaccio’s introduction to “The Decameron,” where the scene is set in a Florence gripped by mass death.
In some cases the wealthy, taking along servants to fetch back the necessities of life, “left the city and went to the countryside, surrounded themselves by beauty and – I thought this was interesting,” Holland says, “told their servants that no matter where you go, what you see, bring back none of this to us. We do not want to hear about it. That stuck with me, that you could live in this splendor while you thought the world might be ending outside.”
In his new novel, Holland says, the central character must confront a future whose very existence she hadn’t anticipated. “‘We lived through this thing that we thought was going to take all the choices out of our hands,’” she realizes, “‘and now we have to live the rest of our lives.’”
“It’s a lot about the stories we tell ourselves about the end,” Holland says of his work in progress. “Why are we human beings fixated on stories of the apocalypse? Why are we always thinking that our generation is at the very edge of time? Because if you go back in history, you look back to the Middle Ages … they thought that this was the end of time. If you go back to the year 1000, they thought that was the end of time. And if you look nowadays, we have this upsurge in apocalyptic stories” – from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” to Laura Kasischke’s just published “In A Perfect World.”
“Human beings are aware of the fact that one day things will end,” Holland observes. “In a strange way, I think, we tell ourselves these stories as a kind of comfort …, almost like going through a haunted house, and at the end you get to walk out.”
The earlier versions of what would become “The Archivist’s Story” were well received by Holland’s teachers and fellow students in the MFA program at UM. And with grant money from a Fred J. Meijer Fellowship in Creative Writing, he was able to spend the year after he finished the program revising the novel and doing research. This included two trips to Moscow, during which he was aided by a translator and his own study of the Russian language at UM.
With assistance from the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, Holland “was able to meet some men and women who had been through the purges, who had actually been sentenced to the camps, to the gulag,” he says. “They opened up their homes to me. … They were unfailingly courteous and helpful and welcoming. They would answer all my questions.”
And how did Holland answer the question posed to him, from the purge survivor Gurvich?
“I told him what got me into the story and how strongly I felt about it but, I said, ‘in the end, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.’
“I think that every time you sit down to write a story or a poem or paint a picture – or whatever you’re doing as an artist – you’re bound to fail at some point. The idea that you have in your head, this dream you’ve been carrying around,” he says, “getting it out is always an act in some ways of failure because it never quite meets that ideal that you had. But I said, ‘with everything that I am I’m going to try. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this, but I will try to do this. I’ll try.’
“I think that’s one reason why I did so much research and one reason why I spent so much time on the book: It was that I didn’t want to fail, or I wanted to fail well if I failed.”
We should all hope he fails so exquisitely again.
More from an interview with Travis Holland:
On what he’s been reading: Alistair MacLeod’s “No Great Mischief,” Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply.” He mentions Alice McDermott’s “After This” as an “important book that I go back to.” And, “I want to go out and buy Lorrie Moore’s new book (“A Gate At The Stairs”).”
On friendships with writers he met at UM: “Elizabeth Kostova is still my go-to reader. I just read her new novel (“The Swan Thieves,” out in January from Little, Brown). … A big door-stoppper! With a lot of research and many narrative threads.”
What he learned working on his first novel: “There are a lot of people who love Isaac Babel.” (Look for “The Complete Works of Isaac Babel,” published in paperback in 2001 by W.W. Norton, at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.)
His day job? For the past two years, Holland has led a creative writing course in conjunction with the Knight-Wallace Fellows Program for journalists at UM. (Babel is on the reading list.)
His next title? After tackling Stalin’s purges and an apocalyptic plague, Holland says he sees something along the lines of “Puppies, Flowers and More Puppies.”
About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.