Archive for October 15th, 2018

Vassily Grossman: “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested?”

Monday, October 15th, 2018
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Grossman as a reporter for the Red Star. In Germany, 1945.

 

It is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of a magnificent and too little-known masterpiece, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, who, as a reporter for the Soviet Red Star, witnessed the apocalyptic Battle of Stalingrad. A Russian Jew, he also witnessed the opening of the Nazi extermination camp, Treblinka and wrote about it.

Elizabeth Conquest once again alerted us to a very interesting piece in The New Criterion this month, “Totalitarian Physics & Moral Threshing.”  Here’s what Jacob Howland has to say about the book:

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first publication in the Soviet Union of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a nine-hundred-page novel of life under Stalin. This was a small posthumous triumph for the author. The KGB had confiscated the manuscript in 1961, and Grossman—who wrote to Khrushchev asking, “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested?”—was told that it could not be published in the USSR for another two hundred years. Depressed and suffering from stomach cancer, he died in 1964.

We’ve written about Life and Fate, translated by the wonderful Robert Chandler, here and here and here and here, among other places.

Howland continues:

Life and Fate is a massive literary fusion of poetry and mathematics, narrative and scientific observation. Multiple stories of struggle and suffering—a rich accumulation of significant data about the human condition in the age of ideology—are punctuated by Tolstoyan passages of philosophical reflection on the inner meaning of these imaginatively generated phenomena. The book centers on Hitler’s invasion of the USSR and the smashing of “two hammers . . . each composed of millions of tons of metal and flesh” at the Battle of Stalingrad, events whose shock waves the narrative registers with seismographic sensitivity as they disrupt and volatilize hundreds of interconnected lives across an entire continent.

In one of the book’s first chapters, Grossman describes a firestorm unleashed by the Luftwaffe bombing of fuel tanks: “The life that had reigned hundreds of millions of years before, the terrible life of the primeval monsters, had broken out of its deep tombs; howling and roaring, stamping its huge feet, it was devouring everything round about. The fire rose thousands of feet, carrying with it clouds of vaporized oil that exploded into flame only high in the sky. The mass of flame was so vast that the surrounding whirlwind was unable to bring enough oxygen to the burning molecules of hydrocarbon; a black, swaying vault separated the starry sky of autumn from the burning earth. It was terrible to look up and see a black firmament streaming with oil.

“The columns of flame and smoke looked at one moment like living beings seized by horror and fury, at another moment like quivering poplars and aspens. Like women with long, streaming hair, the black clouds and red flames joined together in a wild dance.”

Only an eyewitness—Grossman reported from Stalingrad for the newspaper Red Star—could provide such particular details. Only a great writer could compose such an intensely lyrical apocalypsis: Life, chemically transformed inside the earth into combustible matter, rages and consumes itself in a vast, murderous vortex. Tens of millions of souls haunt these flames, including Grossman’s mother, shot over a pit with the other Jews of Berdichev, Ukraine. Here is the deep mystery at the heart of Life and Fate, and of our time: how the industrial lethality of totalitarianism gestated within, and broke free from, the soil and sediment of human life.

Read the whole thing here.  (And an excerpt from the book here.)