mon 23/09/2019

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad review - a Soviet national epic | reviews, news & interviews

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad review - a Soviet national epic

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad review - a Soviet national epic

The prequel to 'Life and Fate' is a monumental panorama of a people at war

The battle of Stalingrad: fighting through the streets

Stalingrad is the companion piece to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which on its (re)publication in English a decade ago was acclaimed as one of the greatest Russian (and not only Russian) novels of the 20th century. For its sense of the sheer sweep of history, of a society passing through a period of momentous conflict, comparison was often made with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate, and its appearance now allows readers to assess Grossman’s magnum opus – he considered the two novels to be effectively a single work – in its entirety.  

Tolstoy was certainly on Grossman’s mind: he would recall how War and Peace had been the only book he could read during the Great Patriotic War, when the writer worked as a frontline reporter for a military newspaper. The 19th century writer is mentioned frequently in Stalingrad, not least when of its characters, a political officer in the Red Army, visits his Yasnaya Polyana country estate and muses, “It was all very well for Tolstoy, he wrote… decades after 1812, when the pain felt in every heart had faded and only what was wise and bright was remembered.”

It’s a remark that highlights the resolute immediacy of Grossman’s writing, the sharp eye with which he captures the details of military life in a story that loosely follows the retreat of the Soviet army through to the first determined moments of resistance at Stalingrad that would change the direction of the war, with which the novel ends. We may hear more about one particular extended family, the Shaposhnikovs, a well-connected three-generation dynasty whose relatives and associates dominate the novel’s cast, we may even visit the corridors of power of Moscow and Berlin – but Grossman’s absorption with the working and warring lives of the conflict’s everyday participants is what touches and impresses most.

Thus Stalingrad opens by surveying the heights of history, its first two chapters presenting a conference between Hitler and Mussolini, but the third takes us right back to the Russian land, to a peasant’s experiences as he prepares to leave his village for the army. The scale and breadth of Grossman’s story means that a couple of hundred pages may pass before we encounter a particular character again, but it’s in the ranks of those who for another writer might be supporting players that Grossman finds some of his most memorable protagonists.

Even if there are moments when they are pronouncing the slogans of Socialist Realism in all the expected ways, whether about working on the kolkhoz or in one particularly exhortative mining scene extolling how, “Everyone knew that his or her strength derived from the ties that gathered the strength and skills of individuals into a single collective skill.” Grossman can certainly deliver purple prose when he’s inspired, either when drawn to the parallels of history – Stalingrad becomes “a battle more grinding, more relentless than Thermopylae or even the siege of Troy” – or in his recurring emphasis on the unity of the people.

Of course, Grossman was writing in the very final years of the Stalin era. Unlike Life and Fate, whose open equation of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes meant that it would only appear in the USSR during perestroika, Stalingrad was published in 1952, under the title For a Just Cause. A fascinating afterword by translator Robert Chandler charts how this text was drawn together from early draft manuscripts and editions published both before and after Stalin’s death in 1953, which allowed restoration of previously excluded passages. The almost polyphonic breadth and rich nuance of Grossman’s prose is perfectly captured by Chandler’s translation, accomplished with his wife Elizabeth. At close on 1,000 pages, it’s a monumental achievement.

Grossman’s absorption with the working and warring lives of the conflict’s everyday participants is what touches and impresses most

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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