The Survivor, by Carl Marzani

I have to admit that I rarely pick up a book without at least Googling its title, confirming that it’s out of print, and checking if it has at some time had something favorable written about it. Finding Carl Marzani’s The Survivor in a $1 book box outside a bookstore while getting my son settled at Drexel University last month, however, I bought it and then stuck it in my backpack for the flight back to Brussels without the usual due diligence.Cover of first edition of "The Survivor" by Carl Marzani

One could argue that it’s best to approach a book with as little prior knowledge as possible, to prevent one’s perceptions from being contaminated by others’. After almost 50 years of reading, however, that’s almost impossible for me. Turning the first pages of The Survivor while sitting in the passenger lounge of the Philadelphia airport–and then through much of the seven hour flight home–was the closest I’ve come to an unadulterated encounter with a book in many years.

The Survivor starts strongly and I read the first hundred pages almost without a break. Marc Ferranti, a senior State Department official, has been asked to appear before a departmental hearing on his fitness for maintaining his security clearance. Although a veteran of the Official of Special Services (OSS)–the wartime pre-cursor to the Central Intelligence Agency–Ferranti had been an activist as a student in the 1930s. He left a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and after his return to the U.S., he dabbled with membership in the Communist Party. Having sniffed out his radical connections, the department’s security officers want to make a showcase of Ferranti, anticipating President Truman’s decision to require Federal government employees to sign a loyalty oath.

The hearing is chaired by former Senator Richard Aldrich Bassett, a liberal Virginia Republican in his eighties. Much of the novel focuses on the meeting of minds between Bassett and Ferranti. Although a symbol of the American Establishment, Bassett had been strongly influenced by the Populist views of Tom Watson, a Populist politician from Georgia he ranks with Jefferson and Eugene V. Debs as the most important radicals in American history. An ally of FDR and recently-appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Bassett is repulsed by the tactics of the Red-baiters now rising within the Truman administration and Congress. Through the efforts of his superior, an assistant secretary, Ferranti has learned that Bassett is, at least in principle, sympathetic to his case.

By far the strongest elements of The Survivor are the conversations and reflections of Bassett and Ferranti on the realities of politics and power in Washington:

“… You do not know much about the art of compromise, perhaps, but I do. Indeed I do. The Senate is the finest training ground for the art. You thunder no, and you murmur yes. Everyone saves face, always, everyone obtains a little of what he wants, alway. Compromise is the very soul of statemanship. The one time it failed in America we had a civil war, and the fault, in my judgment, lay squarely in the lack of a compromiser in the South, for the North had one of the greatest compromisers in our history: Mr. Lincoln.”

The Survivor takes place over the course of the three days of Ferranti’s hearing. The novel was Marzani’s first and only attempt at fiction, and one of the many ways in which this shows is the amount of activity he manages to shoe-horn into less than seventy-two hours.

Another is the awkward use of an manuscript Ferranti has written–a novel about his early years in America as an immigrant child. Ferranti believes he’s been singled out for persecution in an attempt by the Catholic Church to ally itself with reactionary forces within the Federal government, aided by his brother, a conservative Congressman. Ferranti manages to pass along the manuscript to Bassett, who then reads it in what appears to be one marathon evening. The passion and truth of Ferranti’s novel tugs at long-dormant radical allegiances within Bassett, and also evokes an empathy for the plight of foreigners learning to survive in America.

By this point, two hundred or so pages into The Survivor, my initial interest began to shift toward irritation. Through much of the middle of the book, Marzani tries to weave the narrative of Ferranti’s encounters between sessions of the hearing, the text of the manuscript, and Bassett’s reflections on Ferranti’s novel and life. It all becomes a rat’s nest I doubt anyone should ever bother to unravel.

In the end, Ferranti passes muster, keeping his job and opening up his chance to move on up the State Department ladder. Bassett is driven home to his Virginia estate, wondering if he hasn’t failed to live up to the radical ideals of his early mentor, Tom Watson: “The men and women his era has shunned and ridiculed might well turn out to be the precursors of a new life, a new country, perhaps a new civilization.” And this last line should give you a strong hint that The Survivor has a lot more in common with the works of Tom Clancy than those of Camus or even Koestler. It’s certainly not well-written or constructed, although I would say that it’s full of fine observations of bureaucratic manners.

Only after finishing The Survivor did I have a chance to research the book, and that’s when things became really interesting.

Carl Marzani, around 1958
Carl Marzani, it turns out, bore more than a little resemble to his fictional counterpart, Marc Ferranti. Like Ferranti, he was born in Italy and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in his early teens. He excelled academically, earned a scholarship to Oxford, and left to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the Lincoln Brigade. He did not just dabble with Communism: he joined it outright and worked as an organizer in the late 1930s. After the U.S. entered the Second World War, he was recruited into the OSS and then moved over to the State Department.

As early as 1942, he was questioned by the FBI about his Communist Party membership. Feeling secure in the support of his OSS superiors and reluctant to give up his position, he lied. There were no immediate consequences.

In 1946, however, he was questioned again and determined to have perjured himself. In instructing Marzani’s jury, his judge said: “This court is not concerned with Communist vices. The issue is whether the defendant knowingly, willfully and feloniously made false statements to Government loyalty examiners.” Although he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, his conviction was upheld and he served three years in prison. While in Federal prison, he wrote We Can Be Friends, a call to reserve the policies of the Truman Administration–influenced by George Kennan and others–to contain the Soviet Union’s expansions and maintain a relatively hostile diplomatic stance.

After being released from jail, Marzani worked as a professor of economics, a film producer, and co-owner of an independent publishing house, Marzani and Munsell. According to KGB archives, as detailed in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Marzani was also a Soviet agent, operating under the code name of NORD. His firm owed at least some of its financial backing to the KGB, in return for publishing such sympathetic titles as Cuba vs. the C.I.A., which Marzani co-authored with Robert Light.

Marzani published The Survivor–before he began taking money from the KGB, it appears, but not long enough after the McCarthy era to have much chance of getting any recognition in the mainstream press. About the only magazine in the U.S. to take note of its publication was New World Review, the journal of the Friends of the Soviet Union. Although David Caute calls The Survivor “the best and one of the most important novels” of the Cold War in his recent book, Politics and the Novel during the Cold War, there appear to be few considerations of the book not colored by sympathy or distaste for Marzani’s own history.

Which leads one to wonder what Marzani intended to accomplish in writing it. Marzani may have been a victim of Red-baiting, but he doesn’t appear to have been an entirely innocent one, and The Survivor isn’t really an attempt to exonerate or justify himself. Although Marc Ferranti is portrayed as an exceptionally bright and shrewd operative, his actions are often more self-serving than heroic. If the book has any heroic figure, it’s Marc’s sister, Tessie, who shows herself ready to fight for both Party and family.

It could be that the novel was an experimental foray into autobiography. In the late 1980s, Marzani began writing a memoir titled The Education of a Reluctant Radical. It eventually spanned five volumes: Book 1: Roman Childhood; Book 2: Growing Up American; Book 3: Spain, Munich and Dying Empires; Book 4: From Pentagon to Penitentiary; Book 5: Reconstruction. The first volume, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, was published by the Topical Press in 1993, shortly before Marzani’s death in 1994. The last volume was not published until 2001, but is still available from Amazon.

The Survivor: A Novel, by Carl Marzani
New York City: Cameron Associates, 1958

8 thoughts on “The Survivor, by Carl Marzani

  1. On the positive side it’s nice to see my father’s only novel receive some attention. I read it in the early sixties and liked it enough; but it certainly is a neglected book.

    Always having grandiose ideas Carl intended THE SURVIVOR as the first volume in a trilogy but all the rest of his work is non-fiction. Carl also said that everyone assumed that Marc is the hero of the novel but he held that the Senator (who was based on Colonel William Donovan, wartime head of the OSS) is really the hero.

    My Dad’s case, which he described as the first cold-war prosecution, is a good deal more complicated than the writer describes. I recommend Book 4 of The Education of a Reluctant Radical: From Pentagon to Penitentiary for a detailed description.

    I have no quarrel with the literary critique, but I do take issue, on sveral grounds, with the citation of THE SWORD AND THE SHIELD. My understanding is that the KGB files cited are raw intelligence, in other words, hearsay, rumor and unproven allegations. I worked at Marzani & Munsell beginning in 1961 and I can testify it was a shoestring operation. For many years Carl took a salary of $75. a week (and had to supplement his income as a carpenter). The office (at 23rd Street and 6th Avenue) rented for @$200. a month. If the KGB was subsidizing this hand-to-mouth operation they were not throwing money around.

    In fairness, although I have absolutely no knowledge that this is so, I believe it is possible that some Soviet front (possibly, or probably, financed by the KGB) made small grants to Marzani & Munsell for the publication of CUBA VS THE CIA, or INSIDE THE KHRUHCHEV ERA, or some other title. Even if these grants actually happened it’s an open question whether it’s fair to say that my dad “began taking money from the KGB”?

  2. Thanks for taking the time to provide these useful comments. I can certainly see Senator Bassett as a heroic figure, if a somewhat tragic one. He’s far and away the most fully developed and believable character in the book. From what I know of “Wild Bill” Donovan’s life, however, it seems a stretch to draw parallels between him and Bassett–unless it’s purely at the level of certain character traits. Which is obviously possible, given that your father worked closely with Donovan.

    As for the allegation about taking money from the KGB, “The Sword and the Shield” is not the only source linking your father to Soviet activities in the U.S.. I have no doubt you’re right in saying that Marzani and Munsell was a shoestring operation. The sad thing about many of the cases of Soviet money being channeled into US organzations is that it was usually absurdly little–not enough to provide an advantage, but just enough to fuel suspicions. More than a few people have suggested that America would have been better off ignoring Soviet activities in the US during the 1950s and 1960s than investigating and prosecuting them. Your father probably had less money for publicizing “Cuba vs. The CIA” than the John Birch Society had to run a single ad in the Saturday Evening Post.

    OK, I may have been harsh in writing “began taking money from the KGB.” Perhaps it should simply say, “There does not appear to be any evidence that Soviet activities were providing any funds to Marzani at the time he wrote ‘The Survivor.'”

    I’ve ordered Book 4 of “Education of Reluctant Radical: From Pentagon to Penitentiary,” and hope it proves worth discussing on this site.

  3. I`ve only just discovered but I`m glad I have !

    I assume from the little I know about Carl Marzani that he was for many years a Stalinist or similar. I wouldn`t want to defend that, but it`s also true that there were other aspects to his life and work – in 1972 he wrote a groundbreaking environmental book The Wounded Earth, which is still widely respected today. In 1980 he wrote The Promise of Eurocommunism, about a movement within European Communist Parties away from orthodox Marxist-Leninist politics and towards greater independence from the Soviet Union.

    In both of these matters he was in many ways ahead of his time, particularly in terms of America where the old left remained in control of the CPUSA for many years.

    Whether he was a good novelist I`m not so sure !

  4. The name Carl Marzani means a great deal to me and I was delighted to come across your wonderful essay regarding “The Survivor”.

    More than half a century ago, when just a lad of 17, I entered The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. I soon became friends with Carl Marzani’s totally brilliant and extraordinary Daughter who was one year ahead of me.

    Her name was Judith Erika Marzani but I seem to recall I always called her Erika.

    One year she needed some assistance moving several cartons from the school to her Father’s house on the upper West Side. I was totally in awe of that beautiful, brilliant young lady and also touched at the extremely deep respect she seemed to have for her equally brilliant and multi-talented and amazingly courageous Father who had been through so much in his tumultuous life.

    As I climbed the steps with Erika and entered that 19th Century West Side Town House I felt as though I were entering a Sacred place. I still feel that way after 50 years.

    If Anthony (Tony) Marzani would be kind enough to get in touch with me and advise me of Erika Marzani’s contact address (email address), it would mean the world to me and be deeply appreciated. It is fifty years since Erika and I have had any contact or spoken but I would like to let her know of the effect both she and her celebrated Father had on my life.

    One does not forget such unique human beings as he travels the long journey of Life.

    The Carl Marzani Family possessed, (and I know still does), a certain nobility of thinking and acting. It remains for me a cherished memory to have crossed paths with such people.

    I very much hope these words will reach their eyes- wherever they may be and that I will know that they learned that even after all these many years, they were remembered with feelings of deepest fondness and greatest respect. [email protected]


  5. It is a little strange to leave a comment three years after the previous one, but I just happened to run across this website and it brought back memories.

    It was with some surprise that I saw David Pakter’s comment above. I too attended Cooper Union, and I was in the same class with Ricky Marzani (none of us called her Ericka).

    When she mentioned to me, in a rather low-keyed way, that her father was a publisher, I looked up his books and eventually read a number of them, as part of my education as a young left radical.

    I only ran into her a couple of times after leaving school and I’m also wondering what became of her. We were all artists, but few of us achieved any recognition as such.

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