Robert Conquest: Still going strong


Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

His advice to young poets: “Write under a pseudonym, and pretend it’s a translation from the Portuguese.”

Many people were intrigued when I said I was writing an article about Robert Conquest — well here is my piece on Robert Conquest, the poet who doubles as a groundbreaking historian of the Soviet era.  His close friend Christopher Hitchens said his was “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.”

He’s just completed a powerful poem, “Getting On.”  The 200-line reflection, forthcoming this fall in the British magazine Standpoint, opens:

Into one’s ninetieth year.
Memory? Yes, but the sheer
Seethe as the half-woken brain’s
Great gray search-engine gains
Traction on all one’s dreamt, seen, felt read,
Loathed, loved …
.                              And on one’s dead.
– Which makes one’s World, one’s Age, appear
Faint wrinkles on the biosphere
Itself the merest speck in some
Corner of the continuum.

As the years spin by, the more I appreciate those who, as life is ebbing (and it is ebbing for all of us), in the face of inevitable mortality and uncertainty, won’t let go of the rock.  There is a certain grace to persistence, when it passes beyond foolishness and becomes a principled position — a way to resolve the mismatch between the unimpeded intellect and the diminished will.  (In which case, I suppose, it becomes will.)  And to accomplish all this with panache … kudos, Mr. Conquest, for not sitting on your considerable laurels.

And yes, Elena, you are right (she commented on an earlier post, “I think he qualifies as one of the underrated writers. He was labeled as anti-Soviet and was lumped with political hacks.”)  Perhaps the training he got in telling the truth when everyone else was lying helped hone his poetic skills — or maybe it was the other way around.

Not that there weren’t a few factoids floating around the Conquest story as well — I use the term “factoid” as Norman Mailer, who invented it, meant it to be used: a lie that is repeated so often it becomes the unchallenged truth.

A couple bits that didn’t make it into the final piece:

1)  From Hitchens:  “A few years ago he said to me that the old distinctions between left and right had become irrelevant to him, adding very mildly that fools and knaves of all kinds needed to be opposed and that was really needed was a ‘United Front Against Bullshit.'”  Expletives were deleted.

2)  When his American publisher asked for the new title for the republication of The Great Terror, he came up with, “I told you so, you fucking f0ols.” The story, Bob Conquest told me, was entirely made up by Kingsley Amis — hence its omission.  I have to quote Ken Kesey on that — “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

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3 Responses to “Robert Conquest: Still going strong”

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    Delightful interview with a charming and resolutely counter-intuitive public intellectual, one of the very few left. I especially love the Bob’s quotes…definitely something to copy for future use. Thanks, Cynthia.

  2. Dave Lull Says:

    April 2010

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks Dave and Elena!