Archive for May 29th, 2019

In English at last: Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad,” and how nations can be both victims and perps

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019
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Grossman as a reporter for the Red Star. In Germany, 1945.

 

A few days ago, Vasily Grossman‘s 1952 Stalingrad arrived at my Stanford mailbox – a surprise for me, and an absolute miracle for Russian literature. It’s the first-ever translation of the “prequel” to Life and Fate (we’ve written about that book here and here and here). Both books have been considered a twentieth century update of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But there’s a significant difference: while Count Tolstoy tended to focus on the stories of aristocrats, Grossman, a Ukrainian Jewish journalist and soldier who had written about the opening of Treblinka (he was there), “accords a proper humanity to his subsidiary cast of steelworkers, factory chemists and Red Army soldiers, who battle against the odds from their ice-bound dugouts and foxholes,” according to Ian Thomson, writing in the London’s Weekly Standard. But there was another big difference: the Soviet Union didn’t want Grossman’s stories told, and did its best to suppress and destroy the manuscript. Evans tells that story, too, in London’s The Telegraph. 

Chandler and his wife and co-translator for Stalingrad, Elizabeth Chandler, are already getting the reviews most writers dream of. According to Robert Chandler, “Vasily Grossman was a man of unusual courage, both physically and morally. He spent longer than any other Soviet journalist in the thick of the fighting on the right bank of the Volga, in the ruins being fought over building by building and even room by room. And then, within months of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, he was writing some of the first articles and stories published in any language about the Shoah.”

From Evans in The Telegraph:

“I read Life and Fate on a trip to Moscow during the post-Soviet badland years, at the very end of the last century. Its vividness and power were so extraordinary that I felt my understanding both of that century, and of human love and fragility, shift on their foundations.

“The appearance of Stalingrad, Grossman’s prequel to Life and Fate written a decade earlier, is then a cause for excitement. Why do we so admire him? If you haven’t read him, you may be surprised that he does not feel ‘new’. His prose is plain, rugged, nearly old-fashioned. He has none of the bravura of Bulgakov, Olesha or Platonov, not much of the refinement of Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn. He is Hemingway without the modernism (and exalted masculinity).” [Solzhenitsyn … refined? – B.H.]

“But a choice of detail, a descriptive lovingness in his sentences (he revels in lists as much as a panning movie camera), and a tireless curiosity about people under stress from tectonic events, enable him to articulate with an arresting empathy how it feels to be alive and human under such pressure. His minute and compulsive interest in his characters might feel intrusive, if his understanding were not so true. When, at Stalingrad’s start, Pyotr Vavilov, a middle-aged kolkhoz [collective farm] worker, receives his call-up papers in the summer of 1942, his first worry is that he cannot leave his family enough wheat and firewood to see them through the winter:

That night Vavilov stood in the moonlight, chopping up the tree stumps stacked under an awning behind the shed… Marya – tall, broad-shouldered and dark-skinned like her husband – was standing nearby. Now and again she bent down to pick up stray pieces of wood and occasionally she gave her husband a sideways look… Neither was speaking, which was their way of saying farewell. All around was silence. Like soft linseed oil, the moonlight covered the ground, the grass, the broad fields of young rye and the roofs of the huts, dissolving in the puddles and little windows…

“That’ll do,” said his wife. “You’re not going to lay in enough firewood for the whole of the war.”

According to Thomson in The Evening Standard, “For good or ill, no definitive version of Stalingrad exists. The ‘official’ version published in Moscow in 1954, one year after Stalin died, was heavily cut by the Central Committee and contained drearily propagandist overtures to collective farm output. Thanks to the editorial endeavours of Grossman’s superb translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Stalingrad has now been restored to the version that Grossman himself might have wanted.”

According to Evans in The Telegraph:  “Stalingrad (flawlessly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler), beyond its breathtaking fictional panorama, is, I think, even more moving because it also tells the story of a liminal moment, a moment that is briefly innocent both of the full hell of the Holocaust that Grossman would go on to document in Life and Fate, and of the knowledge we now have, that nations can be both victims and perpetrators.”

Read The Telegraph review here. Read The Evening Standard review here.