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Alumnus Robert Littell ’56 pens 20th novel

Alfred University | 7/17/19

Robert Littell '56
Robert Littell '56

The 20th novel by Alfred University alumnus Robert Littell ’56 — “Koba” — is now in bookstores across France following its release by Baker Street, a French-language publisher based in Paris.


The 20th novel by Alfred University alumnus Robert Littell ’56 — “Koba” — is now in bookstores across France following its release by Baker Street, a French-language publisher based in Paris.

U.S. publication has not yet been announced.

Translated from the original English by Martine Leroy-Battistelli, Littell’s book is the story of a fictional encounter in Moscow between Joseph Stalin — the “Koba” of the title — and a 10-year-old chess wizard. Written largely in dialogue, the tale develops into a growing dependence by the Soviet dictator on his meetings with the boy, whose candor and precocious intellectualism secretly delight him.

Stalin in real life used a number of aliases as a communist revolutionary. Koba, picked up from an 1883 novel about his native Georgia, was one of them.

Praise for Littell’s new novel by the French press was immediate and unstinting. Le Monde, The New York Times of Paris, called the book “superb.” Littell, the paper said, “has become both painter and story teller — one sees; one hears…. He tells the story of a dictator that has always obsessed him.”

The monthly magazine Literaire acclaimed the book as “a splendid success.” Littell, it said, “is an American author who writes a cruel fable—which keeps us glued to his work.”

Another literary publication, Livres (Books), headlining “Koba” as “The child and the tyrant from the head of one of the masters of espionage fiction,” called the book “a theatrical and lyrical fable that at the same time stands as a great novel that cuts like a diamond to the heart of its story.”

Littell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Alfred University, has been awarded both the English Gold Dagger and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his fiction. His spy novel “The Company” was a New York Times bestseller later made into a television miniseries.

In a 2016 interview for an American newspaper, Littell said critics at the New York Times and other papers had for years branded him as a writer of espionage fiction. His own appraisal took a different tack. “What I thought I was writing about,” he said, “was the one subject that has fascinated me—the Cold War — ever since I worked as an editor on the foreign affairs desk of Newsweek magazine.”

Although he had no objection to the New York Times referring to him as the American incarnation of John Le Carré, the British master of the international spy thriller, he said his work went well beyond the mechanics of cloak-and-dagger storytelling.

His subject, he said, was “as much about ideological conflict as it was about U.S. and Soviet spy-agency tradecraft.”

Also in that interview, Littell cited his student years at Alfred University as pivotal to his vocation as a professional novelist. His English professors, he said, “taught me to read and to think — and eventually to write.”

Littell is now 84. He served in the late 1950s as a junior officer in the Navy’s Mediterranean fleet. Later, in civilian life, he had stints as a wire-service and newspaper reporter in New Jersey and New York before joining Newsweek as a staff writer and editor. He left the magazine in 1970, moving to France to become a full-time novelist and permanent resident. 

With his wife, Victoria, a Moroccan-born artist, Robert Littell migrates annually between a Paris apartment, a country home in the western province of Normandy, and a winter retreat in Morocco.