- Reviewed by
(New York: Grove, 2013), 306 pp.
It is exciting when the author of acclaimed studies of Nabokov and Tolstoy recreates a forgotten American-Russian life in a biography as good as a novel. The life is that of Frederick Bruce Thomas (1872–1928), ambitious son of former Mississippi slaves, who moved through Memphis, Chicago, and New York to make a fabulous career beyond the color line in Paris, Moscow, and Istanbul. Picking up languages and wives in Russia’s gilded, cosmopolitan fin de siècle, aware that the ability to serve impeccably and please infallibly was not bondage but power, Thomas worked his way up to owning Moscow real estate, restaurants, and entertainment parks, recruiting performers from all over Europe. Political ideology did not interest him. A place was free if he could encourage clients to have a good time there and if it was free of racism, which like an ugly thread juts into the story whenever a traveler turns up from the United States. By 1915, without ceasing to be an American citizen Thomas had become a Russian subject, “Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas.” By 1918, the Bolsheviks, party of “bloodlust and prudery,” found unacceptable both his profession and his private wealth. He escaped (with his German- born wife and three of his children) to Constantinople in 1919. Starting from nothing, his pleasure gardens flourished in that city too, until he ended up in debtor’s prison, where he died of pneumonia.
The Black Russian is a page-turner, but it is not a biographical novel. After researching archives and interviewing descendants across three continents, Alexandrov nevertheless cannot fill in every gap. But he dreams up no inner speech, no fictive binder, and fits all surviving traces into a starkly informative historical frame. Such discipline of the imagination brings this astonishing saga all the more to real life. [End Page 344]
Caryl Emerson is A. Watson Armour III University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. Her books include The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, The Life of Musorgsky, and Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme, as well as the Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature and (with Gary Saul Morson) Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics.