Posts Tagged ‘Vasily Grossman’

Zbigniew Herbert, Vasily Grossman, and “a small kernel of human kindness”

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016
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Grossman saw it all firsthand in the Red Army.

Many of you may remember my post some weeks ago on Vasily GrossmanLife and Fate (here). If you read the whole excerpt, you may wonder what becomes of Ikonnikov, the Tolstoyan Russian prisoner in a German concentration camp, who refuses to pour cement for a gas chamber.

He dies, of course. But in his last scribblings, he maintains that “Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.” He explains:

“My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning.

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Shouldering a lot.

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

As I was reading those words, I remembered something very similar from Warsaw poet Zbigniew Herbert – a writer who, as Seamus Heaney said, “shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility.” In his essay, “The Mercy of the Executioner,” Herbert describes the execution of the statesman Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, who had “defended his honor rather than his life” at trial:

When they brought in the condemned man, the crowd fell silent. Van Oldenbarnevelt was hurrying toward death: ‘What you must do, do it fast,’ he urged the executors of the verdict.

Van Oldenbarnevelt

A crumb of helpless goodness for him.

The something happened that went far beyond the ritual of execution, beyond the procedure of any known execution. The executioner led the condemned man to a spot where the sunlight was falling and said, ‘Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face.’ …

Van Oldenbarnevelt’s executioner broke the rules of the game, left his role, and, what is more, violated the principles of professional ethics. Why did he do it? Certainly it was an impulse of the heart. But didn’t the condemned man, who was stripped of all earthly glory, perceive derision in it? After all, it is indifferent to those who are leaving for ever whether they die in the sun, in shadow, or the darkness of night. The executioner, artisan of death, became an ambiguous figure filled with potential meaning when to the condemned man – in his last moment – he threw a crumb of helpless goodness.

Life and Fate: “There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction.”

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016
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War correspondent Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Germany.

Vasily Grossman‘s Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics) was deemed so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only was the manuscript confiscated – the typewriter ribbons used to type it were taken as well. As Book Haven readers know, I’ve been ploughing through the 880-page epic tale of World War II, which eloquently, powerfully, unforgettably describes the dark forces that shaped the 20th century (more here and here). It made a five-hour delay at the Denver Airport bearable, certainly by comparison with the circumstances writer and journalist Grossman describes. The author had witnessed the Battle of Stalingrad as a war correspondent, and provided the first eyewitness accounts of an extermination camp, from Treblinka.

Here’s an moving excerpt, from a conversation in a German concentration camp. The characters: Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy is an Old Bolshevik, often in fierce argument with Chernetsov, a former Menshevik. Ikonnikov is a former Tolstoyan; Gardi is an Italian priest (and a “Vernichtungslager” is a German extermination camp):

treblinka

Russian soldiers and inmates at Treblinka. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

Ikonnikov’s hands and face were smeared with clay. He held out some dirty sheets of paper covered in writing and said: ‘Have a look through this. Tomorrow I might be dead.’

‘All right. But why’ve you decided to leave us so suddenly?’

‘Do you know what I’ve just heard? The foundations we’ve been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.’

‘Yes,’ said Chernetsov, ‘there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.’

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

‘But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’

Chernetsov shrugged his shoulders. ‘Do you think we’re in England or something? Even if eight thousand people refused to work, it wouldn’t change anything. They’d be dead in less than an hour.’

grossman‘No,’ said Ikonnikov. ‘I can’t. I just can’t do it.’

‘Then that’s the end of you,’ said Mostovskoy.

‘He’s right,’ said Chernetsov. ‘This comrade knows very well what it means to attempt to instigate a strike in a country where there’s no democracy.’ …

Chernetsov’s blind, bloody pit stared at Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy.

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards. ‘Que dois-je faire, mio padre?’ he asked. ‘Nous travaillons dans una Vernichtungslager.’

Gardi’s coal-black eyes looked round at the three men. ‘Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,’ he said slowly. ‘Dieu nous pardonnera.’

C’est son métier,” added Mostovskoy.

‘Mais ce n’est pas votre métier,’ said Gardi reproachfully.

‘But that’s just it, Mikhail Sidorovich, you too think you’re going to be forgiven,’ said Ikonnikov, hurrying to get the words out and ignoring Gardi. ‘But me – I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free! I’m building a Vernichtungslager; I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed here. I can say “No.” There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say “No!” Je dirai non, mio padre, je dirai non.’

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov’s grey head.

‘Donnez-moi votre main,’ he said.

‘Now the shepherd’s going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,’ said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.

 

A powerful antidote to the current election cycle

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016
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grossmanLike so many Americans, I am disheartened by the current election cycle and its dispiriting daily news. Here’s one antidote: instead of the political blogs, try reading Vasily Grossman‘s Love and FateIt has been sitting on my bookshelves for about a year, awaiting the right moment. Try the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet gulags, and the Nazi death camps, to give you a sense of scale.

Here’s Grossman take on the times being out of joint, a bracing reminder that we all can’t roll with it, all the time. Who, after all, would want to be the man of the hour in the U.S.S.R. of Joseph Stalin?

“There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in an age that is not your own. Stepsons of the time are easily recognized: in personnel departments, Party district committees, army political sections, editorial offices, on the street … Time loves only those it has given birth to itself: its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman.

“Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come – and you don’t even know it.”

Anyway, I’ve already voted by mail in the primaries. Wake me up in November. Meanwhile… back to my book.

Vasily Grossman recalls a bleak Christmas in wartime Russia

Saturday, December 13th, 2014
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nyrbSara Kramer of the NYRB Classics dropped me a line yesterday to let me know that my submission for “A Different Stripe” had worked its way to the top of the “Coffee and Classics” stack (that must be some backlog; it’s been five months); see it online here. (And send your own submissions to this address.) The book I featured is Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate. Helen Pinkerton sent us a mini-review here, calling it “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read”. The wartime book was judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the the state. Many readers are coming to share Helen’s opinion about its greatness. Author Martin Amis, for example, said that “Vasily Grossman is the Tolstoy of the U.S.S.R.”

Meanwhile, the submission gave Sara a chance to reread the bleak Christmas scenes from the book:

The soldiers … dragged another crate up to the stove, prised open the lid with their bayonets and began taking out tiny Christmas trees wrapped in cellophane. Each tree, only a few inches long, was decorated with gold tinsel, beads and tiny fruit-drops.

The general watched as the soldiers unwrapped the cellophane, then beckoned the lieutenant towards him and mumbled a few words in his ear. The lieutenant announced in a loud voice:

“The lieutenant-general would like you to know that this Christmas present from Germany was flown in by a pilot who was mortally wounded over Stalingrad itself. The plane landed in Pitomnik and he was found dead in the cabin.”

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler