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The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

For the last few years I’ve been reading twentieth century Russian authors, my favourite being Mikhail Bulgakov, so it was only natural that I’d make it to Vasily Grossman and his epic Life and Fate eventually. Grossman published stories and a few novels under the Soviet regime, but became increasingly upset by the atrocities he saw during WWII. Present at the Battle of Stalingrad, Grossman was one of the first outsiders to see the hell the Nazis had created in their extermination camps, doubly or triply confronting for him as he was Jewish himself and his mother had been murdered by the Nazis. He wrote about this in “The Hell of Treblinka”, which was used in the Nuremberg Trials to prosecute the perpetrators of those foul acts.

The first of Grossman’s books I read also happened to be his last, written shortly before he died of cancer in 1964. This is a wry, meditative piece suffused with acute observations of ordinary people and ruminations on life and death. It’s a great introduction to Grossman, a taster before you tackle the main courses in the same way that A Country Doctor’s Notebook is an excellent place to start with Bulgakov before you attempt The Master and Margarita. One chapter is an amazing piece on Grossman’s sense that he was about to die that night – he was only out by a few months.

The Road is a collection of short stories and essays, including “The Hell of Treblinka”. Perhaps not as endearing as An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s nevertheless a good introduction to Grossman and his thoughts.

Life and Fate is Grossman’s opus, supposedly the Soviet War and Peace. At 850+ pages, it’s a daunting but rewarding read. Disjointed and unruly in places owing to the fact that Grossman was never permitted to publish it during his lifetime (his book having been “arrested”), Life and Fate follows a large cast of characters, many of whom are related to each other by birth or marriage, in and around Stalingrad at the time of the German invasion and subsequent eviction. What stands out here is Grossman’s simple, decent humanism, profoundly in opposition to the heartless barbarities of the Soviet state. It’s a document on the history of a time and place, and also a reluctant critique and denunciation of Socialism. Grossman was a Soviet man in a way that Bulgakov never was, but his faith in the regime couldn’t survive the many atrocities he witnessed. The purges of 1937, the callous disregard for human life in defence of the homeland and the increasing Antisemitism of the Soviet state put paid to that. The chapters on the Nazi extermination camps are the best I’ve read aside from Elie Wiesel’s Night.

A book I haven’t got to yet is Everything Flows, written after Life and Fate but also denied publication. Other than An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s Grossman’s last book.

Another book I’m yet to read but eager to get my teeth into is A Writer at War, a collection of Grossman’s writings during the war. I’m curious as to what degree of overlap there is between this and The Road. I’ve also heard that a number of the events in Life and Fate are based on real events described here.

And finally there’s The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, a biography by John and Carol Garrand. Ordinarily, when approaching a writer of this stature, I like to read a biography early on, but it looks like in Grossman’s case I may come to the biography last.

So, in summary, Vasily Grossman is simply one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and crucial to any understanding of the Soviet State. Go read him.

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