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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.”

“The Old Man,” is a story of the kind we don’t often see in war fiction.  As the Germans take over the village, some of the younger men flee to the woods to set up guerilla operations. The old man says “Shooting and killing, I don’t have it in me,” and stays, determined to keep his head low and his life in hand. The Germans steal his honey.  He is forced to chop wood under the commandant’s window who likes to hear the sound of wood being chopped.  The Red Army pushes back. The Germans flee, taking with them almost everything moveable.  A small boy and an old woman trying to protect him are shot, gratuitously, by a fleeing German.  The old man “could never remember how he came to be holding a heavy cudgel.”

“The Old Teacher,” one of the vital stories also is about the German occupation of a village.  Some of the people try to survive by getting along with the occupiers yielding, some easily, some stubbornly, to their orders.   A young deserter from the Red Army is hiding in his mother’s house.  Another Red soldier who has lost his leg lives with his beautiful wife, noticed by everyone.  

“The Nazis drew everything dark up to the surface, just as a black spell in an old tale calls up the sprits of evil .”

The teacher, old and retired, looks on. 

“There’s one thing I fear more than anything … that the people among whom I have lived my whole life, the people I love and trust–that this people will be taken in by a vile, cheap lie.”

The Ukrainian village police force collaborates with the Germans, turning in suspicious individuals.  A Nazi Major calls in Dr. Weintraub who, though a Jew, is the only doctor available, and so, a comfort.  Life seems to go on, until,

“The old teacher went back to his room in silence.  “In a day or two,” he said to Voronenko,”there’s probably to be a mass execution of Jews…The Fascists have created an all-European system of forced labor and, to keep the prisoners obedient, they have constructed a huge ladder of oppression.  The Dutch are worse off than the Danes; the French are worse off than the Dutch; the Czechs are worse off than the French. … the farther down you go, the more blood, the more sweat, the more slavery.  And then, at the very bottom of this huge, many-storied prison is the abyss to which the Germans have condemned the Jews.  Their fate has to terrify all the forced laborers of Europe, so that even the most terrible fate will seem happiness in comparison with that of the Jews. “

And the executions in the village happen, told quietly, but with chilling observation.

“The Hell of Treblinka” the third story in this section takes the form of unadorned reportage mixed with haunting, evocative images, of what he had learned. It written and published in the fall of 1944 as Soviet Forces pushed the Germans back across the Ukraine and Poland. Grossman was one of the first reporters to visit the remains of the enormous prison camp, Treblinka, which has been plowed over by the retreating Germans in an effort to bury the truth.  He interviewed villagers and a handful of former prisoners who had escaped during an uprising in the camp in August, 1943, and likely had read at least one book by and escapee from that rising.  He does not spare us. 

“It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader’s civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one’s eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished.”

Among the camp personnel there was calm indifference to suffering, there was methodical business-as-usual behavior, as of workers in a stockyard, there were acts of  personal, unimaginable cruelty – including of one guard, Ivan Demjanjuk, who delighted in hacking at prisoners with his saber, and who was deported from the United States twice, in 1986 and 2009, to stand trial for his crimes.

In lieu of summarizing that which can not be summarized, I’ll just offer  a bit of each of his writerly gifts.

“Every day for thirteen months the trains brought people to the camp.  In each train there were sixty wagons, and a number chalked on the side of each wagon–150,180,200 –indicated the number of people inside.. [one worker] told me that there were days when as many as six trains went by … up to twenty thousand people passed through Treblinka everyday.  Days when only six or seven thousand people passed through the station were considered quiet. 

“And all these thousands, all these tens and hundreds of thousands of people, of frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, all these dark- and fair-haired beauties, these bald and hunchbacked old men, these timid adolescents– all were caught up in a single flood, a flood that swallowed up reason, and splendid human science, and maidenly love, and childish wonder, and the coughing of the old, and the human hear.”

“And today, before the eyes of humanity, before the conscience of the world, we can walk step by step around each circle of the Hell of Treblinka, in comparison with which Dante’s Hell seems no more than an innocent game on the part of Satan.” 

In “The Sistine Madonna” Grossman finds in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna the perfect image of the soul made flesh, the enduring  “joy of being alive on this earth.  .. The power of life, the power of what is human in every man, is very great, and even the mightiest and most perfect violence cannot enslave this power; it can only kill it.   This is why the faces of the mother and child are so calm: they are invincible.  Life’s destruction, even in our iron age, is not its defeat.” 

 
Ω
 

The third section are stories written in the 1950s and up to his death in 1964.  “The Elk” is a moving and real evocation off lingering death. “Mama” tells of an orphan girl adopted into the household of the NKVD officer in charge of the Great Terror.  “The Dog” marvelously tells the story of the first dog, a street mongrel, shot into space.

“The psyche of a living creature would be penetrated by another kingdom–a kingdom not covered by the warmth of the earth, by soft cumulus clouds, by the damp power of phlogiston.  Living eyes would see for the first time the airless abyss, the space of Kant, the space of Einstein, the space of philosophers, astronomers, and  mathematicians; they would see this space not through speculation, not in the guise of a formula, but as it truly is–without mountains or trees, without skyscrapers or village huts.”

“The Road,” the title story, is his massive Life and Fate in miniature, told through the character of Giu, an Italian mule.

“Giu, a young mule, who worked in the munitions train of an artillery regiment, sensed many changes on June 22, 1941, even though he did not, of course, know that the Führer had persuaded Il Duce to declare war on the Soviet Union.

People would have been astonished how many things the mule noticed that day: music everywhere, the radio blaring away without a break, the stable doors left wide open, crowds of women and children by the barracks, flags fluttering above the barracks, the smell of wine coming from people who did not usually smell of wine…”

It’s hard to imagine how Grossman could contain these worlds within him, of tenderness and horror, of hope and utter despair; how he could express the inner life of a domesticated animal, a savage camp guard, a mother and child terrified at the unknown, and offer it in prose sometimes steady and factual, sometimes incantatory.  (All praise to the translator!)  He was praised by the Soviet authorities, and he was hounded by them.  He was a much loved writer who could not get his most important books published.  He suffered lifelong guilt from not doing more to help his mother escape from the killing grounds.  He wrote and he wrote and he wrote. 

Read The Road.  You won’t forget it.  

 
 At NYRB