August 2006

Arts & Letters

The optimism of people standing on the edge of the grave

By Gideon Haigh
Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’ & ‘A Writer at War’

When the KGB called on Vasily Grossman in February 1961, it was on a mission like no other. Life and Fate, his unpublished novel of World War II drawn from experiences as a battlefield correspondent, was to be confiscated; Grossman himself was not to be arrested. It is unclear which of these is more remarkable. The secret police were extraordinarily thorough, taking into custody not only the typescript but also the carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. Yet the writer remained at large, to protest that he had merely written “absolute truth” – a futile protest, for truth-telling was the essence of his transgression. At a pinch, Grossman was informed, the novel might be publishable in two to three hundred years.

Perhaps the KGB was right that in confining the book, they captured the man. Exhausted, destroyed, Grossman died three years later. Their triumph, nonetheless, was temporary. Two other copies of the manuscript that friends had exhorted Grossman to secrete were spirited to France a decade after his death. Now, a quarter of a century after its first publication in the West, Life and Fate has appeared in a splendid new edition, translated by Robert Chandler (NYRB Classics, 896pp; $49.95), and is coupled on the shelves with A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941–1945, extracts from Grossman’s diaries and frontline reports, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (Harvill Secker, 416pp; $65.00). Like the country in the period they describe, Grossman’s works have fought back from the brink of oblivion.

Grossman’s oeuvre was itself an act of rescue. Much of A Writer at War was written in foxholes, tents, trenches and peasant huts. The eyewitness reports, the fearful descriptions, the interviews with soldiers and civilians of often unexpected depth and eloquence: these are the authentic sights and sounds of what Russians still call the Great Patriotic War that state propaganda, which Grossman mocked as recounting how “Ivan Pupkin has killed five Germans with a spoon”, strained to drown out.

As a journalist for Red Star, the Red Army’s newspaper, Grossman’s actions were more independent than his thoughts. Incomparably brave under fire, he was perhaps even more courageous in recording war’s aftermath. Perhaps no writer in history has encountered devastation and suffering on such a scale. How, he wondered often, could he bear witness to these unendurable ordeals? “Sometimes you are so shaken by what you’ve seen, blood rushes from your heart,” he reflected. “And you know that the terrible sight that your eyes have just taken in will haunt you and lie heavy on your soul for the rest of your life. It is strange that when you sit down to write about it, you don’t find enough room for it on paper.” His response was a martial sense of responsibility: “It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it.” The prose is dense with detail, accreted to overpowering effect.

Grossman was the first war correspondent to document the horrors of the Shoah, yet his essay ‘A Hell Called Treblinka’ has hardly been improved on: a painstaking reconstruction that draws the reader through the camp’s mechanics, leading them finally to the teeming mass graves:

The earth is throwing out crushed bones, teeth, clothes, papers. It does not want to keep secrets. And the objects are climbing out from the earth, from its unhealing wounds. Here they are, half-ruined by decay, shirts of the murdered people, their trousers, shoes, cigarette cases which have grown green, little wheels from watches, penknives, shaving brushes, candleholders, a child’s shoes with red pompons, towels with Ukrainian embroidery, lace underwear, scissors, thimbles, corsets, bandages. And a little further on, heaps of plates and dishes have made their way to the surface. And further on – it is as if someone’s hand is pushing them up to the light, from the bottomless bulging earth – emerge the things the Germans had tried to bury, Soviet passports, notebooks with Bulgarian writing in them, photographs of children from Warsaw and Vienna, letters scribbled by children, a book of poetry, a prayer copied on a yellowed piece of paper, food ration cards from Germany … A terrible smell of putrefaction hangs over everything, the smell that neither fire, nor sun, rains, snow and winds could dispel … We walk on across the bottomless unsteady land of Treblinka and suddenly we stop. Some yellow hair, wavy, fine and light, glowing like brass, is trampled into the earth, and blonde curls next to it, and then heavy black plaits on the light coloured sand, and then more and more. Apparently these are the contents of one – just one - sack of hair which hadn’t been taken away. Everything is true. The last lunatic hope that everything was a dream is ruined … And one feels as if one’s heart could stop right now, seized with such sorrow that a human being cannot possibly stand it.

Grossman’s reportage is the more extraordinary for the fact that the Shoah was an early casualty of the Soviet victory. The war’s official version contained no scope for a competing suffering; Stalin, in any case, was an anti-Semite scarcely less vicious than Hitler. The Black Book, a documentary account of the Shoah in Russia and Poland on which Grossman worked for three years, was suppressed, then destroyed; Grossman was himself a signature or two from arrest when Stalin died. It was this, and the state’s steady reversion to its pre-war brutality, that disillusioned and then radicalised him. He began to understand Stalingrad as a heroic resistance not merely of fascism, but also of the mind-forged manacles of communism.

Life and Fate is often catalogued as a war novel. More accurately, its chief protagonist, Viktor Shtrum, and all one hundred of its dramatis personae are responding to tyranny: as its resistors, its servants, its dupes, its victims. In the quarter-century between revolution and war, of course, Russia had been criss-crossed by waves of repression and murder, climaxing in the Great Terror, waged from 1937 against whomever stumbled into its path, taking hundreds of thousands of loyal, innocent and uncomprehending victims, many of whom as their last sentient action signed a confession or pleaded guilty under torture. The Terror’s legacy pervades Life and Fate, not just in horror and trauma, but also in moral disorientation. “Innocent people don’t get arrested,” states Shtrum’s wife, Lyudmila. “People don’t get arrested for nothing,” avers the general, Nyeudobnov. “Why did they all confess?” wonders the veteran revolutionary, Krymov.

War, then, for all its terrors, is also clarifying, redemptive. Something is worth fighting: fascism. Something is worth dying for: Russia. Even the hero of 1917, Krymov, feels it: “Sometimes it was as though he were in a kingdom where the party no longer existed; sometimes he felt he was breathing the air of the first days of the revolution.” Shtrum, Grossman’s fictional alter ego, cannot believe what he is hearing: “What power and clarity lies in the word! In the unfettered, carefree word! The word that is still spoken in spite of all one’s fears.” Shtrum begins to doubt his friend Sokolov, fictional embodiment of the novelist-turned–Stalinist-hack Ilya Ehrenburg: “He seemed to accept the anger of the State as other people accept the anger of Nature or the anger of God.”

The state remains a brooding presence, an invisible third party in every conversation, tinging the moments when people reveal their thoughts with danger. Yet the state is also, however momentarily, off balance, more spasmodic in its diligence: there is room to breathe, to think. The ludicrous excesses of Stalin’s personality cult are almost occasion for laughter: “It was as though Stalin himself ploughed fields, forged metal, fed babies in their cradles and handled a machine-gun – while the workers, students and scientists did nothing but pray to him.”

Victory then reveals a deeper horror: that one tyranny has been routed to perpetuate another. Shtrum’s work as a physicist is denounced – idiotically, chillingly – for deviating from Lenin’s theory of matter. The “invisible force” of the state reasserts itself:

He could feel quite tangibly the difference in weight between the fragile human body and the colossus of the state. He could feel the State’s bright eyes gazing into his face; any moment now the State would crash down on him; there would be a crack, a squeal – and he would be gone.

Stalin himself intervenes dramatically, rehabilitating Shtrum by a brief phone call, similar to the one in April 1941 that suborned Ehrenburg. But this entails another sentence; Shtrum’s flirtation with freedom of thought ends when he consents, in an agony of self-disgust, to endorse a document condemning innocent colleagues, paralleling the letter Grossman signed in December 1952 supporting harsh punishment of suspects in the fabricated Doctor’s Plot.

Krymov, meanwhile, provides the perspective of the falsely denounced. Arrested on trumped-up charges, he nonetheless suffers a “chilling sense of irreparable guilt”, which his cellmate Katsenelenbogen explains: “The concept of personal innocence is a hangover from the Middle Ages. Pure superstition! ... No one in the world is innocent!” So it proves. Krymov’s file – “a word or two about a book he had read, a comic toast he had made on someone’s birthday, a three-minute telephone conversation, an angry note he had addressed to the platform at a conference” – sets at nought a lifetime’s loyalty.

Again, it is not merely the huge tale that is Grossman’s triumph in Life and Fate. It is the incidental detail that isn’t so incidental, reducing stupendous horrors to human scale without minimising them. The insanities of bureaucracy are glimpsed in Yevgenia Nikolaevna’s attempts to obtain a residence permit in Kuibyshev; the inconceivability of the Shoah’s toll is understood through the accountant-turned-gravedigger Naum Rozenberg, who copes with his plight by counting the bodies.

Grossman’s characters, however brief their appearance or slight their apparent influence, never simply act out concepts, or mouth views; they are thrillingly, pulsatingly realised. As their multiple independent narratives subtly cross one another over, questioning and answering, echoing and challenging, the effect is like a whole nation in unconscious conversation. Sokolov’s brother-in-law Madyarov thrills and terrifies his circle with a vision of a free press: “Information! Can you imagine a newspaper like that? A newspaper that provides information!” But the unfree press, personified by the propagandist Sagaydak, isn’t budging: “He himself felt that his power, his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational benefit.”

Life can be barely distinguishable from death, as in the household of Shtrum’s mother-in-law: “All they ever spoke of was food and material things; the world they lived in had room only for objects. There were no human feelings in this world – nothing but boards, paint, millet, buckwheat, thirty-rouble notes.” Yet the brink of death lends life a phosphorescence. As Sofya Levinton, a doctor whose journey to a gas chamber is traced in painstaking detail, reflects: “It was as though people now understood death, as though it had at last revealed how humdrum it was, how childishly simple.” Grossman himself observes: “A man cannot believe that he is about to be destroyed. The optimism of people standing on the edge of the grave is astounding.”

Likewise, perhaps, the optimism of a reader on finishing Life and Fate – but it is palpable. For all its terrors and torments, its perishable hopes and endless sorrows, Life and Fate is a triumph of humanism; to delve so deeply into freedom, tyranny and moral corruption in these relentlessly trivial times is to be reminded of the transformative power of literature. Grossman held fast to hope: “Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily.” He barely sampled that freedom; we should bless the day his novel did.

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