Robert Conquest’s first book makes only glancing references to Communism and the Soviet Union, and was not written in prose. It is simply titled Poems (1955), and here is the dedication:
“In Memory of
died in the hands of the
secret police of the occupying power.”
I’ve learned little about Langlois, though I found a photo of his memorial in Champagne-Ardenne. The site reports he died on Aug. 30, 1944, five days after the Nazis surrendered Paris, though they still occupied parts of northern and western France, including Champagne-Ardenne. In his final work in prose, The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History (2005), Conquest again refers briefly to “my dear friend Maurice Langlois,” and adds that the Frenchman dedicated a poem to him in his collection Les Passagars Clandestins (roughly, “stowaways”).
Two things strike me, apart from Conquest’s loyalty as a friend. The bland anonymity of “the secret police of the occupying power” in the dedication is worthy of Kafka. Rather than the Gestapo, it might have been the NKVD (the subject of Conquest’s Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936–1939, published in 1985). Conquest was not the first to note the moral parity of Hitler and Stalin, but he, even before Solzhenitsyn, documented it and published the results. Also, the reference to Langlois in Dragons appears in a passage devoted to Conquest’s debts to France and French thinking. The chapter is titled “Choose Your Enlightenment,” and Conquest qualifies his gratitude:
“No, it was the French political and bureaucratic intelligentsia, against whom some of the best French work of our time was written, that prevailed and, as [French historian and former Communist Alain] Besançon pointed out, infected the Anglosphere: the Sartres of this world, followed by the Derridas, helping to undermine our academe, our thought.”
Conquest reminds us that Communism also thrived in non-Communist nations, and still does. Marxism Lite remains gospel among our bien pensants. The death on Aug. 3 of Robert Conquest at age ninety-eight is a loss to many constituencies – readers of poetry and history, historians, anyone subjected to Communism, anyone offended by the casual refutation of Truth. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) are essential texts for understanding the last century. So are some of Conquest's poems. Consider “George Orwell” from Arias from a Love Opera (1969), especially these lines: “We die of words. For touchstones he restored / The real person, real event or thing.” That was Conquest’s task, too.
If his histories were serious, his poems were funny – and serious. Here is “This Be the Worse” (Demons Don’t, 1999), a poem that begins as a parody of, or homage to “This Be the Verse,” the best-known poem by his friend Philip Larkin:
“They fuck you up, the chaps you choose
To do your Letters and your Life.
They wait till all that’s left of you’s
A corpse in which to shove a knife.
“How ghoulishly they grub among
Your years for stuff to shame and shock:
The times you didn't hold your tongue,
The times you failed to curb your cock.
“To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I'd lose to you? Don't kid yourself.”
Kingsley Amis devotes a chapter in his Memoirs (1991) to Conquest, whom he met in 1951. Judging by the stories recounted, each found the other reliably funny, intentionally and otherwise -- perhaps the essential component in any durable friendship. Here is a choice Amis-told anecdote:
“Years ago there was a public lavatory (gents) immediately outside the Marlborough, needless to say much used by its patrons, others too. One day Bob and I were descending the lavatory steps when without warning he bawled,
“`All right, Sergeant, get your notebook at the ready.’
“I had only just stopped myself from crying out in terror when four or five little men appeared below and dashed past us up the steps. There was never a time when you could be quite sure Bob would not do something like that.”