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Ella Kennedy’s refrain is “I’m not a Marxist.” Never mind that Ella, the heroine of Susan Coll’s debut novel, karlmarx.com, spent her college years “unfurl[ing] giant banners of Karl Marx at college rock concerts…assuming instinctively that Marx would approve of loud music and hallucinatory drugs.” Or that she’s writing her dissertation on Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor.
Coll, who now resides in Bethesda, Md., first became aware of Eleanor Marx while living in London several years ago. “I was doing a feature story for the International Herald Tribune on the libraries of London. The librarian at the Marx Memorial Library kept talking about Eleanor Marx.” Eleanor served as her father’s secretary when she was only 16, fought for workers’ rights and women’s equality, supported the theater, and was a talented writer and speaker.
“Eleanor was the one who was able to take her father’s ideas and put them into human terms, terms that workers could understand,” notes Coll. Marx’s daughter also served as something of a model for Ella, who, like Eleanor, becomes entangled with older, clueless men in both love and work.
Coll, married to Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, spent three years, on and off, writing karlmarx.com, which was published earlier this year by Simon & Schuster. “I thought I was going to write a historical novel,” she noted. “But I showed it to people, and they liked the Ella story and didn’t like the Eleanor stuff, so I kept trimming.” What remains is a sprightly romantic comedy with a protagonist one critic has called “[the] love child of Bridget Jones and Woody Allen.”
Like Ella, Coll, who’s working on another novel, refuses the Marxist label, though she believes Marx was misunderstood: “I don’t think he ever envisioned what happened in the Soviet Union or in China. Even when he was living, he looked at one group of people in England who were calling themselves Marxists and said, ‘If they’re Marxists, I’m not a Marxist.’” Pamela Murray Winters