Education: University of Michigan, M.F.A.
Writer, novelist, and short-story writer.
The Archivist's Story(novel), Dial Press (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor of fiction to periodicals, including Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, The Quarterly, and Five Points.
Novelist and short-story writer Travis Holland employs the tragic life of Soviet-era writer Isaac Babel as the starting point of his debut work,The Archivist's Story. Babel, a Russian Jew, was a noted playwright and short-story author who published a pair of well-received collections in the 1920s. These stories were "brilliantly observed and filled with irony about the human condition, often funny, yet also very bleak," noted ArborWeb reviewer Keith Taylor.
Babel's literary gifts led to his almost immediate acknowledgement as a master of the short story, but his talents would lead to his unavoidable doom as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin expanded his merciless and bloody reign over the country. Babel stopped publishing in the 1930s, becoming a self-described "master of silence," but his silence did not save him. Seized by the secret police and incarcerated in the brutal Lubyanka Prison, Babel languished there for years before he died, "along with countless other intellectuals who paid for the potency of words with their blood," observed Alexander Nazaryan in the Village Voice.
In The Archivist's Story, Babel remains in Moscow, still interned in the frightful Lubyanka Prison. His manuscripts have been confiscated, and to the outside world, both Babel and his work have disappeared. The novel's protagonist, Pavel Dubrov, is an official of the prison with the title of archivist. Ironically, Dubrov's archive duties involve only listing the manuscripts of the writers locked in the prison; after this, the archivist becomes destroyer when the subversive, state-abhorred manuscripts are burned. A fan of literature, and of Babel's work, Dubrov has taken this position only as a means of survival in a harsh and uncertain world. An encounter with Babel soon convinces Dubrov that his job is an atrocity, and spurs him to take risks that he might have once thought foolish but now considers essential. When new manuscripts are discovered inside the prison, it is thought that they are by Babel, who has continued to write even while incarcerated. It becomes Dubrov's duty to authenticate the found works, and after that to destroy them. However, his conversations with Babel, and reverence for the author's works, inspire him to potentially deadly rebellion. Instead of destroying the manuscript, Dubrov smuggles it out of the prison and hides it in his apartment. Later, he smuggles out a second manuscript, intent on preventing these works from being obliterated. He knows that his actions could result in his denunciation or worse, his death. However, surrounded by tragedy—his wife dead in a suspicious train wreck, his mentor about to be hauled away to prison, his mother slowly dying from a brain tumor—he finds new resolve and a higher meaning to his life through his act of defiance in preserving these manuscripts.
"It's one of the great strengths of this novel that Holland does not romanticize the value of literature," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who noted there is no moralizing on topics such as whether it would be better to save Babel's work or Babel himself. In a Publishers Weekly review, a critic called Holland's story "a melancholic and moving tribute to the written word." The author's depiction of the conflict between a "merciless Soviet state and one of its eminent but doomed citizens could take your breath away," commented Edward Cone, writing in Library Journal. The Kirkus Reviews critic called the book a "quietly magnificent debut" and "a historical novel of subtle power and tremendous grace."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2007, review of The Archivist's Story.
Library Journal, April 1, 2007, Edward Cone, review of The Archivist's Story, p. 81.
Michigan Quarterly Review, winter, 2007, review of The Archivist's Story, p. 57.
New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2007, Elena Lappin, "The Purloined Manuscript," review of The Archivist's Story, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, February 12, 2007, review of The Archivist's Story, p. 61.
Village Voice, June 20, 2007, Alexander Nazaryan, "Master of Silence," review of The Archivist's Story.
ArborWeb,http://www.arborweb.com/ (November 5, 2007), Keith Taylor, review of The Archivist's Story.
Goodreads,http://www.goodreads.com/ (November 5, 2007), biography of Travis Holland.