That same graduate, now a journalist, has answered all those who scorned his youthful blunder into literature by producing a comic tour de force. My Affair with Stalin is a breathtakingly intelligent, funny, and wholly "accurate" translation of Stalin's life into the picaresque career of William Conroy, an 11-year-old pupil at Coverdale Preparatory School.
Conroy is the school squit. Puny, blind without his glasses, rotten at games, his only protection is his ability to tell a good story. Every night he entertains the dorm with a reading from his magazine of famous murderers: Cripps, Jack The Ripper and then, one day, Stalin.
So begins his obsession with the Soviet monster. Renaming himself Koba, Stalin's nom de guerre, Conroy-Stalin inspires a revolution against the ruling cadre of older boys. With the help of his fanatical politburo (fortified with bribes from the grub-cupboard) and NKVD boss Petty minor (son of Lord and Lady Petty), he embarks on a ruthless extermination of his rivals.
A reign of terror ensues. Running dogs and cowardly wreckers are executed by conker and frozen ice-cream bombardment. Time speeds up: by half-term, the fathers of the Revolution have been expunged from the Party and Conroy- Stalin is confident that his Five Year Plan, started at tea, will be over by supper.
Yet he is caught out when he returns from half-term to find that Petty- Yezhov has become Petty-Hitler. German Panzer divisions have surrounded the Lubyanka boiler room. For a moment, the Supreme Commander in Chief is a tearful schoolboy running from his tormentors before the lower school saves him by rejecting fascism in favour of communism. Outnumbered and out-witted, Petty-Hitler sees his forces crushed during a wintry afternoon's onslaught of snowballs and hockey sticks.
When defeat does come for Stalin-Conroy, it arrives as the US imports which (so Sebag Montefiore alleges) destroyed the communist empire: sex and rock 'n' roll. Conroy's ideological commitment is no match for his hormones. It's a nice ending, but not one that matches the brilliantly sophisticated interweaving of juvenilia and Russian history that precedes it.
My Affair with Stalin is a masterful evocation of the world of smelly socks and grey shorts. The fact that prep-school boys and Stalin should have so much in common says much about the twisted development of the former - and the arrested development of the latter.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pounds 9.99Reuse content