August 24, 2006


Vasily Grossman: The Russian writer's novel "Life and Fate"—often compared with "War and Peace"—was first published in English in the mid-1980s. But only now is interest taking off among a wider public (Robert Chandler, September 2006, Prospect)

Grossman is in many respects an old-fashioned writer, and perhaps for that reason literary critics have shown little interest in him. For many years it was historians—above all, Antony Beevor and Catherine Merridale—who affirmed his importance. Beevor's recent translation of Grossman's war diaries (A Writer at War, from which several quotations in this article are taken) has done more than anything to bring the writer to a wider public. Since publication of the diaries last year, sales of Life and Fate in Britain have grown from around 500 copies a year to 500 a month. And in March, a Guardian article by Martin Kettle praising Life and Fate led to it briefly becoming the second most popular book at Amazon UK.

Grossman is a steady writer; he never sets out to dazzle the reader. So it is perhaps appropriate that his recognition has come about only gradually. Nevertheless, it has been clear for some time that Life and Fate is finding its place in the world. Since 2005, the centenary of Grossman's birth, there have been two new editions of his classic in English. And in the 1990s two biographies in English were published: Frank Ellis's Vasiliy Grossman: The Genesis and Evolution of a Russian Heretic and John and Carol Garrard's The Bones of Berdichev. The latter emphasises Grossman's importance as a witness to the Shoah. There is perhaps no more powerful lament for east European Jewry than the letter that Anna Semyonovna, a fictional portrait in Life and Fate of Grossman's mother, writes to her son and smuggles out of a town occupied by the Nazis. The Last Letter, a one-woman play based on this letter, has been staged by Frederick Wiseman both in Paris and in New York. A Russian version was staged in Moscow in December 2005.

Grossman will be remembered not only for his evocation of wartime Stalingrad and his accounts, both journalistic and fictional, of the Shoah. He has also left us one of the most vivid accounts of famine in world literature; his last major work, the unfinished novel, Everything Flows, includes an account of the 1932-33 terror famine in Ukraine. It is typical of Grossman that Anna, the sympathetic narrator of this chapter, is herself implicated, as a minor party official, in the implementation of measures that exacerbate the famine. We cannot help but identify with Anna and so we too feel guilty; Grossman does not allow the reader the luxury of indignation. Everything Flows also includes an extraordinary mock trial: the reader is asked to pronounce judgement on four informers. The arguments Grossman gives to both prosecution and defence are lively and startling; as a reader, one is constantly changing one's mind.

Grossman is still not widely read in contemporary Russia. Nationalists cannot forgive him for a long meditation in Everything Flows on "the slave soul" of Russia. Many Russians have simply not yet had time to digest the vast amount of previously forbidden literature that was first published in the late 1980s. The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov, for example, has told me that he read so much during those years that he can no longer remember who wrote what. And then, after the collapse of communism, Russians were thrown into a world so unfamiliar and frightening that they had little time or energy to think about their Soviet past.

But many other groups of readers are now being drawn to Grossman: Ukrainian émigrés, who value him for his writing about the terror famine; Jews, who value him for what he has written about the Shoah; people with an interest in the history of the second world war and the relationship between communism and fascism; journalists, who see him as an exemplary war correspondent. It is interesting that a recent European conference celebrating the centenary of Grossman's birth was held at a Catholic centre in Turin and that several of the writers, critics and journalists who most admire Grossman—Gillian Slovo, Martin Kettle and John Lloyd among others—are ex-Marxists. Both Catholics and Marxists tend to expect art not only to be a source of joy, but also to provide moral guidance and a greater understanding of reality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 24, 2006 11:49 PM
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