Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: We the Living

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 23, 2015

“It’s like this, Citizen Kovalensky,” he said, shifting from foot to foot, crumpling his cap in both hands and avoiding Leo’s eyes. “It’s on account of the Domicile Norm. There’s a law about as how it’s illegal for two citizens to have three rooms, on account of overcrowding conditions seeing as there are too many people in the city, and there are overcrowding conditions and no place to live. The Gilotdel sent me a tenant with an order for a room, and he’s a good proletarian, and I got to give him one of your rooms. He can take the dining room and you can keep the other two. Also, this ain’t the time when people could live in seven rooms as some people used to.”

Ayn Rand’s semi-autobiographical We the Living gives us a good look at how people survived in Soviet Russia following the revolution.

RecommendationRead now
AuthorAyn Rand
Length515 pages
Book Rating8

I have now read two Ayn Rand books. Despite her reputation for tedium and flat characters, I found both The Fountainhead, which I read several years ago, and We the Living, which I just finished, to be very engaging works with very compelling characters.

The Fountainhead certainly had an ideological bent, but We the Living does not. Yes, it paints a poor picture of Soviet Communism, but that’s because the truth paints a poor picture of communism. From the eastern to western hemispheres communist governments have meant deprivation, tyranny, and fear.

The Fountainhead is an exaggerated view of people who really exist and whose motives seem unfathomable to those of us who have to live with them in power. We the Living makes little attempt to fathom motives. It shows the communists as they actually existed—some idealistic, some opportunistic, all harming the people they claim to be working to save.

We the Living is about three extraordinarily human people living through the soul-crushing chains of socialism: one person who helped create it to help the world, one who simply wishes to live well through it, and one who wants to survive it either by outliving it or escaping to freedom. Because the outside world, despite protestations to the contrary, mostly believed in the power of planned economies, all of the characters fail and succeed in their own way. No one outside Russia will help them.

We the Living is Rand’s first novel, after working for several years in Hollywood, and it is very different from The Fountainhead, which is either her second or third novel depending on how you count it. Where The Fountainhead echoed its main character’s spare and soaring lines, We the Living is filled with lush images of the pain and degradation that followed the socialist revolution in Russia.1

This was in fact one of Rand’s goals: to successfully describe the reality of life under the communists. Unfortunately, socialists in the United States did not like the message. According to the afterword, “A typical rejection said that the author did not understand socialism.” Having read A.M. Sperber’s biography of Edward R. Murrow I can understand this. There really was a sense among the literary elite in the United States at the time that Soviet socialism was a superior form of government destined to outlive and outproduce the American free market democracy. Even people in the American government believed this!

When her book was finally published at Macmillan, it was over the objection of editor Granville Hicks who, it turned out, was a member of the American Communist Party.2

There are times when scenes in We the Living are somewhat over-described. Rand herself says that, for the current edition, she cut several repetitive lines. Some still remain, although I’d hate to be the one to decide which had to go.

Petrograd smelt of carbolic acid.

That’s the first line of the book, and the first paragraph. The rest of the book isn’t that succinct, however.

They walked hand in hand in the stripes of sun and pine shadows. Like columns of dark brick, like sinewy bodies sunburnt to bronze and peeling in strips of light bark, the pines guarded the road and dropped, jealously, through a heavy tangle of malachite, a few rays, a few strips of soft blue. On the green slopes of ditches, little purple dots of violets bent to a patch of yellow sand; and only the crystal luster of the sand showed water over it.

It’s beautiful, and it is just as beautiful later when she uses the same style to describe the grim life in Petrograd/Leningrad.

Over-description was never a problem in The Fountainhead. There are similarities, however. In both books, her “bad guys” are given sympathetic treatment. Andrei Taganov is a good person—a good person who has condemned millions of people to starvation of both mind and body. Rand has a knack for constructing good motives for her “villains” to the point where they are not villains at all. They are, like the scorpion of the parable, merely following their nature, to the tragic fall of either themselves or those around them, or both.

These were both engaging, even gripping (the latter, especially, describes We the Living). While they are long books by today’s standards—she was Russian, after all—they are each in their own way hard to put down, and I’d heartily recommend either, especially to fans of other anti-tyranny books such as 1984 or Animal Farm, or other stories of Soviet Russia, such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Love-Girl and the Innocent.

  1. It is important to remember that the Soviet revolution was a second revolution; it was the first revolution that toppled the Czar. Rand herself supported the first revolution, which had the potential to form a democratic government.

  2. In a turn echoing the presumably more progressive The Nation, the New York Times assigned Hicks to review Atlas Shrugged years later.

We the Living

Ayn Rand

Recommendation: Read now

If you enjoyed We the Living…

For more about Ayn Rand, you might also be interested in Atlas Shrugged.

For more about communism, you might also be interested in The Case for Democracy.