It was back in the mid 1990s that I first became aware of the novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. I remember seeing it in a bookshop, and thinking with a smile that only a Russian could write a 900-page novel and call it Life and Fate. There was a quote on the cover from George Steiner saying that “novels [such as this] eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the West today”. Being an aficionado of the Russian literature (both pre- and post-Revolution) I made a mental note to read this when my To-Be-Read shelf was not quite so crowded. But after a time, realising how pointless it was to wait for my To-Be-Read shelf ever to reduce to manageable proportions, I decided to forget whatever else it was I had on my reading list, and to plunge straight into this.
The novel is a vast epic covering Stalingrad, Stalinist oppression, Nazi death camps – i.e. some of the most unspeakably horrendous events in a century that has possibly had more than its fair share of unspeakably horrendous events. Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing about such things – indeed, such things should be written about: but we have been so inundated with so many frankly mediocre books dealing with big historical events, that a certain cynicism does, I’m afraid, set in. Such is the nature of these events, that the very mention of them, or a mere recital of a few ascertained facts, can make a huge emotional impact on the reader, thus saving the writer the very great trouble of having to work for it. The very cynical term for this sort of thing is “hitching a ride on the Holocaust”. There were many examples of this I could think of off the top of my head. Is it not possible, or even for that matter probable, that Life and Fate was yet another such work?
But I thought it worthwhile to take a chance on this. There did exist, after all, works of genuine merit that had dealt with horrendous historic events – from Primo Levi’s writings to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, to Satyajit Ray’s sadly little-known cinematic masterpiece Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), set against the background of the Bengal Famine of 1942-43. Life and Fate was worth a try, at the very least.
I needn’t have worried. It didn’t take me long to realise that I was reading something very special. Just how special it was struck me with full force on my commuter bus to work one morning (then, as now, I did most of my reading while commuting). An elderly Jewish lady living in Ukraine knows that the invading Nazis will murder her, and all Jewish people in the region: there is no escape. And on her last night alive, she writes a letter to her son, hoping that, somehow, the letter will reach him. I am not by nature a lachrymose person, but I suddenly felt that I could not read on, and I had to put the book down. When had I last been quite so moved by fiction, I wondered?
I did not at the time know of the autobiographical element of this. Grossman’s own mother had been amongst those many murdered by the advancing Nazis. Grossman himself was not sure of his mother’s fate (though he presumably suspected the worst) until the Red Army re-conquered Ukraine, and the full scale of the horror became apparent. This letter in the novel that had moved me so is the letter Grossman imagined his mother writing to him. There is no sentimentality in any of this, no false emotion: when the emotion itself is so powerful, it does not need to be faked. And the expression is direct and simple, as it has to be, for anything that is not direct or simple in this context would have about it a sense of artifice. And that would be very out of place here. Grossman would no doubt have agreed with Tolstoy that there can be no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.
From then on, there was no doubt whatever of the quality of what I was reading. The scope is vast, and, given that we are talking of an epic Russian novel dealing with people caught up in historical events of seismic proportions, the label “Tolstoyan” becomes inevitable. But it is a mark of Grossman’s artistry that the work isn’t overwhelmed by this label. We see the fighting atStalingrad (which Grossman, as a war reporter, had witnessed at first hand); we witness the Soviet Gulags, and the Nazi death camps; at one point, we even follow a group of people into the gas chamber itself. We witness the Stalinist crackdowns, the betrayal of the hopes of freedom that had arisen during the heroic resistance atStalingrad. We witness, indeed, some of the most grotesque and nerve-shattering events of the century. And at no point is there the slightest hint of “hitching a ride on the holocaust”. For, no matter how wide the focus, Grossman’s interest lay in individuals: if his background as a journalist gave him a good grasp of wider events, his genius as a novelist allowed him to penetrate into individual minds, and imagine how individuals would feel, how they would react, under the most unimaginable of circumstances. And it is here that his greatness lies: one may learn of great historic events from historians, but to understand how individual human beings felt and behaved in the midst of such events, it is to a novelist such as Vasily Grossman that we must turn.
That we can read this novel at all is something of a miracle. One does wonder, given how aware Grossman must have been of what may or may not be published, how he could possibly have imagined – even during Kruschev’s thaw – that a work such as Life and Fate could ever see light of day. For in this novel, Grossman quite clearly draws a parallel between Nazi tyranny and Soviet tyranny. In the event, when the novel was all but finished, Grossman’s flat was raided, and all manuscripts – and even the typewriter ribbons – were confiscated. Grossman died of cancer a few years later, believing that his masterpiece would never be read. In the early 70s, a manuscript that had somehow survived the raids was put on to microfilm and smuggled out (it is believed that Andrei Sakharov himself put the manuscript on to microfilm). It was translated into English by Robert Chandler in the mid 80s, thus making it available in the West before it had become available in the Soviet Union. The novel did, it seems, take some time to get noticed, but its reputation seems very secure now: it is up there with the likes of The Master and Margarita and Doctor Zhivago as among the finest novels (some would say the finest novel) to emerge from post-Revolutionary Russia. And this is not merely because of the importance of what it depicts, but also for the humane and unassuming artistry with which it is depicted. It is, amongst other things, a triumph of the imagination, which may seem a strange thing to say about a work that sticks almost doggedly to the conventions of realism: but while, I suppose, it takes a certain type of imagination to depict a fantasy world, or to infuse the real world with fantastic events, it seems to me to require an imagination of a far higher order to depict reality, to enter into the minds of other human beings in the real world. As George Eliot writes in Adam Bede:
Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult. The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin – the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, the better; but that marvellous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion.
However difficult the truth was, Grossman did not shirk it. He exercised his imagination to the highest pitch – not by imagining a griffin, but by depicting with truth and with understanding the real, unexaggerated lion.
A few years ago, Anthony Beevor (author of the highly acclaimed Stalingrad and Berlin) and Luba Vinogradova edited and translated a volume of Grossman’s wartime reporting entitled A Writer at War. And, more recently, there has appeared a translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Anna Aslanyan, of Grossman’s unfinished novel Everything Flows; and also translations, again by the Chandlers, but this time with Olga Mukovnikova, of various essays and short stories of Grossman under the collective title The Road. I have spent the last few weeks immersing myself in these three volumes. I won’t pretend that this was a pleasant experience, but if anything qualifies as “required reading”, then these volumes are, I’d guess, strong contenders.
A Writer at War intersperses Grossman’s writings with linking commentary by the editors, placing the writings in context. We are presented both with finished articles, and also with a great many of Grossman’s surviving notes, some of which deal with matters that could not obviously be published at the time – e.g. Stalin’s misreading of the situation to begin with; or the treatment meted out to deserters, or to those who try to injure themselves in futile attempts to avoid combat. And, of course, the collaborators: any mention of collaborators in published reports was strictly taboo.
Grossman was involved in the campaign from the very beginning. He witnessed the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Nazis, the gross mismanagement of the Russian war efforts at the start, and then, most importantly for Grossman, the extraordinary heroism of the ordinary soldiers. For Grossman was never in any doubt that this was a war against an evil enemy, and a war that had to be won. There seems also to be a sense at times that this was a war not merely against Nazism, but for freedom itself: of course, Stalin dashed any such hope as quickly as he could, but this hope did exist all the same, and is apparent also in sections of Life and Fate.
Grossman himself was tremendously lucky to survive – insofar as the word “lucky” is at all appropriate for someone who had to live through and witness such terrors. Once, a hand grenade landed between his feet, but miraculously failed to go off. He would be lucky again not to fall victim to Stalin’s purges: had Stalin not died when he did, Grossman would most likely have ended up yet one more of Stalin’s victims. But Grossman’s physical courage was immense: he was, more often than not, on the west bank of the Volga to report at first hand, rather than in the comparative safety of the east bank. He seemed to have got on well with the soldiers, whom he clearly admired; and his reports, quite clearly accounts of first hand experience, must surely be amongst the finest of all wartime reporting.
It was when the land occupied by the Nazis was reconquered that the true extent of the atrocities inflicted became clear. Grossman could now be in no doubt as to the fate of his beloved mother: entire populations of Jewish people were taken out into ravines and shot en masse. We all know, or should know, of these and other atrocities, but reading about them still fills one with an unnameable dread and horror. And of course, amongst the dead was his mother. On anniversaries of his mother’s death, in 1950 and in 1961, Grossman wrote letters to her, letters that obviously could not be delivered. These letters are reproduced both in A Writer at War, and in The Road, and they are so tender and so personal, that, reading them, I felt as if I were intruding. They were found after his death in an envelope, with two pictures: the first was a picture of himself as a child with his mother; the second, “taken from the pocket of a dead SS officer”, as the Chandlers tell us, is of a pit full of naked dead women and girls. In The Road, this first picture is reproduced, but not the second. The Chandlers explain the reasoning behind their decision:
In both his fictional and his journalistic treatments of the Shoah Grossman does all he can to restore their dignity to the dead and to enable the reader to see them as individuals. He does not appear to have shown this photograph to his friends and family, and it is unlikely that he would have wanted to show it to readers. Very likely he would have agreed with Claude Lanzmann, who dismissed such photographs as “images without imagination […] inexact visual renderings that allow viewers to indulge in an unsavoury and misleading spectacle at the expense of a past that could only be tapped by a strenuous effort of listening, learning, and imagining”.
[The quote by Claude Lanzmann is taken from the booklet accompanying the Eureka DVD of the film Shoah.]
Grossman himself made the “strenuous effort of listening, learning, and imagining”: he was careful never to reduce the horrors merely to numbers. The numbers themselves, mere statistics, seem meaningless after a while: the human mind cannot grasp the enormity of numbers so large. Grossman’s interest was always with people, with individuals. Even in the hell that he witnessed, he kept faith in humanity. Even amidst the mass carnage, he could see the overwhelming significance of a dead soldier lying next to a childish scrawl, of that man thinking of his child back home as he departs from his life. And no, this is not sentimentality.
And hells don’t come more hellish than Treblinka. I don’t think I have read anything quite as devastating as Grossman’s report from Treblinka, written just days after the Red Army took possession of its remains. It is perhaps best of me not to try to summarise the contents of that report; and it is perhaps not right, given the nature of those contents, to draw attention to the quality of writing. But for all that, to communicate the enormity of it all without reducing the victims merely to statistics does require writing of the very highest quality; and this is what we have here.
This report, which formed part of the evidence presented at the Nuremberg trials, appears in A Writer at War, and in a somewhat fuller version in The Road. I am not sure why Beevor and Vinogradova chose to edit down this report in their volume, because it should really be mandatory reading in its entirety. Mandatory reading for everyone.
We hear of those who witnessed the remains of the death camps after liberation, and who felt unable to talk about what they had witnessed; but Grossman knew that not only was it his job to bear witness, it was also his duty. He breaks off his narration at one point to acknowledge that what he is writing must be hard to read; however, he tells us, it is equally hard to write. But it has to be written. And it isn’t merely a recital of statistics – indeed, Grossman actually overestimates the number of victims, although adjusting the figures down to correct levels does nothing to diminish the intensity of the horror. But Grossman does not want to communicate the tragedy in terms merely of numbers, but, rather, in terms of individual human lives that were wiped out, for no reason that can make sense to a rational mind.
The earth is casting up fragments of bone, teeth, sheets of paper, clothes, things of all kinds. The earth does not want to keep secrets.
And from the earth’s unhealing wounds, from the earth that is splitting apart, thing are escaping of their own accord. Here they are: the half-rotted shirts of those who were murdered, their trousers and shoes, their cigarette cases that have turned green, along with little cog-wheels from watches, pen-knives, shaving brushes, candlesticks, a child’s shoes with red pompoms embroidered towels from the Ukraine, red underwear, scissors, thimbles, corsets and bandages. Out of another fissure in the earth have escaped heaps of utensils: frying pans, aluminium mugs, cups, pots and pans of all sizes, jars little dishes, children’s plastic mugs. In yet another place – as if all that the Germans had buried was being pushed up out of the swollen, bottomless earth, as if someone’s hand were pushing it all out into the light of day: half-rotted Soviet passports, notebooks with Bulgarian writing, photographs of children from Warsaw and Vienna, letters pencilled in a childish scrawl, a small volume of poetry, a yellowed sheet of paper on which someone had copies a prayer, ration cards from Germany …
– From “The Hell of Treblinka” translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler, with Olga Mukovnikova
After writing this report, Grossman, who had witnessed the hideous evils even of Stalingrad, had something of a nervous breakdown. It must have required tremendous courage, both mental and physical, to return to the front so shortly afterwards to cover the advance into Berlin.
It is possibly here that Grossman, for perhaps the one and only time, went into denial for a while. As a journalist, he was well aware of the atrocities now being committed by advancing Russian troops, especially of the horrendous mass rapes. He clearly found it hard to come to terms with the fact that those whose heroism he had so admired in Stalingrad were the very people now committing these latestatrocities, and he blamed these acts on rear units. But, as Beevor and Vinogradova remind us, it was the front-line tank troops who were the worst looters and rapists. Of course, there were certain things that could not be printed, but in his notes, Grossman was too honest not to record these events.
But victory, however hard won and however terrible the price, was sweet. What followed was, as we now know, renewed Stalinist oppression. Grossman had believed that antisemitism was specifically a fascist phenomenon: when for instance, an antisemitic comment made by writer Mikhail Solokhov was reported, Grossman had thought it an exception rather than the rule. He was soon disabused. After the defeat of the Germans, Stalin needed a new enemy, and his attention turned to the Jews. Antisemitism became, in effect, state policy. It may not have been genocidal as its German counterpart had been, but it was bad enough.
Grossman had joined the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1942, at the urging of fellow writer and war correspondent Ilya Ehrenberg. Later that year, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had been contacted by Einstein and other members of the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists, who requested them to compile an exhaustive record of crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis in the Soviet Union. Ehrenberg took the lead in this, and he recruited Grossman in early 1943 to work on what later came to be known as the Black Book. However, as early as 1944, Ehrenberg sensed, rightly as it turned out, that the book will not see light of day under Stalinist rule. Grossman, more optimistic, continued to work on it, but Ehrenberg’s fears proved well-grounded: in October 1947, the Committee was told that the book contained “grave political errors”, and the book was suppressed. Soon afterwards, the Committee itself was suppressed: in 1948, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded; fifteen of its members were arrested, tortured, and put on trial; and thirteen of them were shot. In January 1953, a group of doctors, mostly Jewish, were accused of attempting to murder Stalin. The official Soviet newspapers screamed antisemitic propaganda, and many Jews were summarily dismissed, arrested, sentenced, or shot. (Grossman had depicted this Soviet campaign of antisemitism in Life and Fate, but had brought these events forward a few years, closer to the War, to underline the betrayal of the hopes that victory had, for a while, nurtured.) It is likely that Grossman only managed to avoid being shot himself thanks to Stalin’s death in 1953. It was, indeed, miraculous that Grossman had survived at all, given Stalin’s personal dislike for him. As with the grenade landing between his feet but failing to explode, Grossman had been “lucky”.
It is at this point that A Writer at War stops, but The Road covers the years both before and after. During the dark years of the Great Terror of the1930s, Grossman had clearly been in danger himself, and, from what we know, had acted with integrity and courage. But, as the Chandlers point out in their introduction, it is impossible to know with any accuracy what Grossman’s own politics were in those days:
The true nature of Grossman’s – or anyone else’s – political beliefs in the 1930s is almost impossible to ascertain; no evidence – no letter, diary or even report by an N.K.V.D. informer – can ever be considered entirely reliable.
However, something of Grossman’s outlook may be discerned, I think, in his reaction to Isaak Babel, whom he admired as a writer, and whom he refrained from criticising in public. But in private, he made his feelings known. Grossman’s friend, the poet Semyon Lipkin, reports Grossman saying that he had once heard Babel say: “I have learnt to watch calmly as people are shot.” “How I pity him,” Grossman had said, “not because he died so young, not because they killed him, but because he – an intelligent, talented man, a lofty soul, pronounced these insane words. What had happened to his soul? Why did he celebrate New Year’s Day with the Yezhovs? Why do such unusual people – him, Mayakovsky, your friend Bagritsky – feel so drawn to the O.G.P.U.? What is it – the lure of strength, of power?” [The translation is taken from the Introduction to the Late Stories by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler, in The Road]
Babel makes a guest appearance in “Mama”, one of the finest and most intriguing of the stories in the collection The Road. Here, Grossman re-creates, with a remarkable imaginative insight, scenes from the life of the girl who had been adopted by the Yezhovs, and who subsequently grew up in various orphanages after Yezhov himself was executed in 1940. (Apparently, she was still alive when The Road was published last year: we are given her story in a fascinating appendix to that volume. It seems that she continues to be in denial about the mass-murdering activities of her beloved adopted father, and works tirelessly to rehabilitate his reputation.)
The other stories and essays in The Road – with each section of the book prefaced by excellent and informative introductory essays by the translators – are scarcely less memorable. As the Chandlers point out in one of their introduction, Grossman’s later stories seem increasingly close to the imaginative world of his friend Andrey Platonov, who had died in 1951. (Robert and Elizabeth Chandler had previously translated, with Angela Livingstone, a collection of Platonov’s stories, published by Harvill under the title The Return and Other Stories: these are some of the most remarkable short stories of the 20th century that I have come across.) There seems to be a shift in these later stories from the journalistic solidity of Grossman’s other writings towards a more poetic sensibility. Quite often, the human world with all its many vicissitudes is viewed from the perspective of animals. The title story, for instance, “The Road”, is an account of Stalingrad from the perspective of a mule. One imagines that it could only be coincidental that, some five or so years after Grossman had written this story, the French film-maker Robert Bresson should make one of his finest films, Au Hasard Balthasar, depicting the turmoil of human affairs from the perspective of a donkey.
One theme that seems to emerge throughout the writings in The Road is that of maternal love. This is apparent in, amongst other pieces, a remarkable meditation on Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, in which a sorrowful mother holds up her child as if for sacrifice. And in a story entitled “The Elk”, the protagonist is ill and dying, and his wife, who looks after him in his illness, has failed to come back home. We are not told why she has failed to come back home, but we may surmise. And as he lies there helplessly, he looks at a hunting trophy hung up high on the wall – the head of an elk that he had shot when she was trying to protect her calf. The story ends:
He looked at his wife’s bed, at his own withered fingers […] He gave a wheeze and fell silent.
Still gazing down from above, still turned towards him, were the kind and compassionate maternal eyes.
Perhaps the most striking pieces of writing in The Road are Grossman’s report from Treblinka, and the two letters written to his dead mother. The other stories and essays in the volume are also remarkable works, bespeaking a writer who seems almost to embody those qualities that Tolstoy had insisted were the prerequisites of greatness – “simplicity, goodness and truth”. That such a man could even have existed through such times seems incredible. But Grossman himself was aware of the moral compromises that even the best had to make simply to survive: like Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Grossman knew that the only ones who weren’t in any way morally compromised were precisely those who could not tell the tale of what happened, because they were dead. All who were still living, himself included, were compromised in some way or other.
The concept of moral compromise is very much to the forefront in Everything Flows, the extremely uncompromising novel Grossman left unfinished at the time of his death. Indeed, it can barely be called a novel at all. It is part fiction, part journalism, and part furious polemic. Grossman must have known that this work could never be published; but he knew as well towards the end that he was dying, and I imagine that he wrote this not for publication, but for himself: there were certain things that he had to say, that he had to get down on paper. There is a fury in the writing, a fury that could no longer be restrained.
The plot, such as it is, ostensibly concerns Ivan, a political prisoner freed after the death of Stalin. He meets with his careerist cousin, a well-meaning enough chap, but who, whether he likes it or not, is, like so many others, morally compromised. The awkward dialogue between the two displays a sly humour I had not expected from Grossman, and reminded me that Grossman’s favourite writer was, after all, Chekhov. Soon, Ivan moves away from his cousin. After a while, he takes up with his landlady, Anna Sergeyevna, who had been a minor official in Ukraine during the Terror Famine of 1932-3. Grossman had not personally witnessed this famine, but, as in his depictions of Nazi death camps, he used his journalistic skills to re-create the events, and his novelistic skills to imagine what it must have been like to have lived – and died – in such times.
In the introductory essay to the novel, the Chandlers cite as comparison Dante’s depiction of Ugolino and his sons starving to death. But generally, famine has not featured too prominently in the arts*. And it is doubtful that it could be presented with greater power than it is here. The writing is as compassionate as ever, but, at the same time, angry and accusatory. There is no room here for obfuscation: the terrible human catastrophe was a result of deliberate policy, and Grossman knew all too well who was to blame. And it was not just Stalin: Stalin couldn’t have done all this on his own. There was an entire army of henchmen, of arselickers, of idealist fools driven by ideology, or by amoral opportunists driven by mere selfishness. Grossman angrily quotes Maksim Gorky who, at the height of the famine, was burbling away from the comfort of his dacha about the importance of giving educational toys to children. Educational toys? Did Gorky know of what was happening to children as a consequence of deliberate policy of the government he so supported? Perhaps he did. Perhaps he was past caring.
And even people otherwise decent are drawn into this nightmare, and made morally complicit. The entire chapter describing the famine is narrated by Ivan’s landlady and lover, Anna Sergeyevna, who, having been at the time a minor official in Ukraine, is aware of her own complicity in the horror.
The novel moves on to the Gulags. When Grossman was writing this, information about the Gulags was not readily available: he had to use all his journalistic skills to piece together what had happened. And, to judge by the copious notes at the end of the volume, he had done a remarkable job. And, as ever, Grossman the Novelist was every bit as remarkable as Grossman the Journalist: Grossman the Journalist could piece together what had happened, but it needed Grossman the Novelist to depict humans in the midst of all this. How does a mother feel when she is found guilty of having failed to inform on her own husband, and is sentenced to ten years of hard labour in Siberia? What goes through the mind when, without being given any time to take in what is happening to her, she is bundled away into a Black Maria, away from her beloved little daughter, and then put into a convict train bound for Siberia? How does her mind react when it finally dawns on her that she never will see her daughter again?
The latter part of the book is a polemic on the nature of the Terror. Grossman has no time for the school of thought that sees Stalin’s Terror as a departure from Leninism: while acknowledging the very salient differences between Lenin and Stalin, Grossman insists that the terror that reached its peak under Stalin had been set in motion by his predecessor. And yes, the cultured Vladimir Ulyanov, that kind man who loved reading Tolstoy and who was moved to tears by Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, nonetheless committed crimes that rendered irrelevant whatever private virtues he had.
Grossman also attempts to relate the Soviet tyranny withRussia’s history of oppression and of serfdom. I am not sufficiently well versed in Russian history to comment on Grossman’s analysis: given the intensity of his anger that seems virtually to leap off the page, I do wonder how much of this was written in fits of passion, and how much Grossman may himself may have revised had he been able to prepare the book for publication.
Everything Flows is an unfinished work. It is an imperfect, unbalanced work. But more than just about anything else I can think of, it reads like a work written because its author had to write it. As with Life and Fate and The Road, we are lucky to have such works available to us in such wonderful translations. Most likely, Grossman himself, as he lay dying of lung cancer, in utter obscurity, left alone by the authorities because they no longer thought him to be of any real consequence, couldn’t have imagined that his writings would be read by posterity. Now that the Mighty has fallen, what has survived is that which the Mighty had attempted with all its Might to suppress. The times Grossman wrote about were times of insanity on the largest possible scale, and the stench of its unspeakable evil lingers still; but for all that, the very fact that these writings survive, despite everything, seems to me a sort of victory.
* I myself have not yet read Dante – although I do have Robin Kirkpatrick’s translations lined up for this summer. The only other depiction of famine I can think of in the arts is Satyajit Ray’s film Ashani Sanket, depicting the early stages of the catastrophic Bengal Famine. (Quite incredibly, this masterpiece is not and never has been available on DVD release in the UK; however, a good print of it is available in a French release, and demands to be seen by anyone interested in cinematic art, and who has no problem either with Bengali dialogue or with French subtitles.) And Ray’s film is itself based on a story by Bibhuthibhushan Banerjee, which has not been translated into English as far as I know.