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Vasily Grossman, (Ukrainian-Soviet, 1905–1964,) may be the world’s least known colossal writer.  His short fiction, his stupendous novels, his moral view, his historical and psychological knowledge are all in high writerly ranks.  A war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star,) at the Stalingrad front during the height of that battle, among other places, he subsequently had to battle with Stalin’s censors for almost every piece of writing he produced.  His magnum opus, Life and Fate, was “arrested” by the censors – though Grossman was allowed to stay free.  A smuggled-out copy was published in Paris in 1980,  sixteen years after his death, and was not seen by the Russian reading public until 1988.

Life and Fate, and its predecessor Stalingrad (1950), later renamed For a Just Cause, are formidable challenges for modern-day readers, not because of their abstruseness or experimental prose but because of their sheer magnitude.  Life and Fate is some 870 pages in the New York Review of Books edition in a very fine translation by Robert Chandler.  Stalingrad, also translated by Chandler, and his wife Elizabeth, is 1088 pages. The sweep of the novels, in Life and Fate from battlefield details to prison camps to complicated and wide flung families is vast; and the protagonists are for the most part, with the exception of some German and American POWs– Russian, each with two to three to four names to keep track of: patronymics, gendered variation, diminutives.

A simpler way to be introduced to Grossman is in the collection titled The Road. It too is a Chandler translation, who also serves as the editor.  At 373 pages it is divided into five sections, with 13 stories, a couple as powerful as I’ve ever read. Each section begins with notes relating the stories to Grossman’s life.  Substantial end notes give context for story references, correctives of historical data  and suggestions for further readings.

The first section is made up of three stories from the 1930s, before the onslaught of war, but not before the Great Terror of Stalinist purges.  Chandler’s choice, and perhaps Grossman’s, was stories not of the purges but of rural village life —in particular “The Town of Berdichev,” the village where he had been born and had spent some childhood years. His mother lived there, until she and all the Jews of the region were exterminated by the invading Germans in 1941.

The story, likely taking place in the 1920s, and which has been made into an almost verbatim film (The Commissar, 1967) is of a high Soviet commissar coming to the village, secretly, to give birth. She is quartered in the poorest house in the village, with a large Jewish family.  The commissar wants the whole thing over and done with so she can back to the front lines.  After the child’s birth, and encouraged by the very experienced mother of the house, she shows some signs of tender affection.  But when a company of soldiers comes marching through town, she can not hold herself back, and runs to catch up with them, leaving the family with another, welcome, child.  

“A Small Life” is a sweet story of a man who can not bear for his wife to be away a minute longer than expected.  When she returns he covers her with caresses “as if she had just returned from Australia.” 

The second section of the collection is titled “The War, the Shoah.”

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